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Wednesday, 4 December 2013

What is a Maori Ancestral Diet?

Grant Schofield, Professor of Public Health at AUT, has done brilliant work bringing LCHF science to the mainstream media in New Zealand. To someone like myself, who enjoys science best when the most cautious and rigorous approach delivers the most revolutionary findings, Prof Schofield's approach to publicity has been exemplary. I missed the interview where he said the LCHF approach would be best for Maori, but caught the response of Maori health provider Toi Tangata:
A public health specialist says Maori should go back to a pre-European diet to stop chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer - advice disputed by a Maori health organisation.
Auckland University of Technology Professor of Public Health Grant Schofield believes Maori should revert to a diet that debunks a founding pillar of modern nutrition: that a healthy diet is low in fat.
"What Maori ate before Pakeha turned up was most likely a diet that was highish in fat, moderate in protein and relatively low in carbohydrate, and that's true across the whole Pacific region. And you can go and study people who are still eating that way, who are more or less disease free."
His diet plan has been met with a warning from Toi Tangata, a national Maori health provider, which says there's insufficient research to support it and goes on to call the suggestion "faddish and strange".
The health provider's nutritionist, Mason Ngawhika, says Maori could get dangerous mixed messages and think it's okay to eat large quantities of fatty foods without the required balance of fruit and vegetables.
He says the diet plan is too expensive for low-income Maori and such a large diet overhaul would result in too much willpower being required, ending with what nutritionists call the "what-the-hell-effect".
Despite its concerns, Toi Tangata says the diet could have benefits for people who have, or could develop, diabetes.

This response is not the ringing put-down it might seem at first. The last paragraph makes it obvious that Mason Ngawhika knows enough about LCHF diets for diabetes to accept the evidence for their effectiveness, and diabetic and pre-diabetic are descriptions that include a larger proportion of Maori than of Pakeha. For example, here Maori have many times the rate of diabetes complications compared to non-Maori.

Population rates of renal failure with concurrent diabetes (aged 15+) were over eight-and-a-half times higher in 
Māori compared with non-Māori (RR 8.78, CI 7.88–9.79). Because the self-reported prevalence of diabetes is similar for Māori and non-Māori, the significantly higher rate of renal failure with concurrent diabetes would suggest that, among people with diabetes, Māori may be up to 8.8 times more likely than non-Māori to go on to develop renal failure (one of the complications of diabetes).
Similarly, population rates of lower limb amputation with concurrent diabetes were over four-and-a-half times higher for Māori compared with non-Māori (RR 4.70, CI 4.01–5.52). Therefore, among people with diabetes, lower limb amputations for Māori can be estimated as being up to 4.7 times more likely than for non-Māori.

Research into, and evidence for LCHF is accruing all the time; more importantly, its acceptance is no longer automatically blocked or ignored, the public increasingly expects it to be addressed properly, like the results of any valid science about the important subject of health.

The objections made by Mason Ngawika to Ancestral-type LCHF diets for Maori can also be seen as reasoned, and deserving of response.

The cost of any new diet is an issue for low-income earners, and adherence to dietary changes - especially those made by people acting for themselves - as well as perceptions of "strangeness" may be significant barriers in the context of Maori family life, where the generous sharing of kai (food) is tikanga (custom).

The concern about mixed messages around what are perceived fatty foods is also valid; we don't want to be giving deep-fried food the OK, and some people will always hear what they would like to hear from any message. Then, you just try changing their minds - you'll be accused of changing yours.

So there are significant obstacles against getting the right message across.

Here is a presentation which NZ Paleo nutritionist Julianne Taylor made to a Maori organisation last year on the benefits of ancestral diets.

We can run into a problem prescribing LCHF to Maori as ancestral; New Zealand had no native land mammals, so Maori, as Maori, cannot have eaten relatives of pig, sheep, cows, goats or deer. Coconuts, olives, avocadoes and other fatty fruits did not grow here.
Seal are protected and Moa are extinct; so should a modern equivalent of an ancestral Maori diet be based on chicken, fish and shellfish?
Well, no. The most current reliable evidence strongly indicates that initial settlement of New Zealand occurred around 1280CE at the end of the medieval warm period.
File:Polynesian Migration.svg
(That's a long way to go to some place that hasn't been discovered yet and be successful in it. Vikings and Conquistadors could learn a thing or two.)

The ancestors of New Zealand Maori probably left coastal Asia around 4,000 years ago, well within the Neolithic period. Therefore, in terms of evolutionary adaptation the foods of coastal Asia and the Asian and Melanesian archipelagos are fully ancestral for Maori, and this includes pigs, deer, and buffalo (i.e. land mammals, including ruminant species). Coconut too.

When Europeans arrived in New Zealand, six introduced cultigens (cultivated plants that have no known wild ancestor) were being grown by Māori. They were:
  • kūmara (sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas)
  • hue (bottle gourd, Lagenaria siceraria)
  • aute (paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera)
  • taro (Colocasia esulenta)
  • uwhi (yam, Dioscorea species)
  • tī pore (Pacific cabbage tree, Cordyline fruticosa).
The history book I read a while ago stated that Kumara, the main starch staple of Maori, was brought by later waka (large outrigger canoes used in oceanic migrations), giving the new arrivals ascendancy over the earlier settlers (Archaic or Moa Hunter), whose main food sources were becoming rare or extinct. I imagine all such claims are up for rebuttal, but it seems to me that only a people desperately short of food would consume bracken roots (aruhe - PDF). Most of the cultigens only grew well in Northland and the Bay of Plenty, yet Maori inhabited, or explored and exploited for its resources of food and craft materials, the whole length of New Zealand, including some offshore island groups. The use of bracken root, by both early Maori and my own Hibernean ancestors, illustrates to me that the need for starchy or sweet food is innate to most peoples, and that sources of carbohydrate in prehistory were often so poor that their caloric contribution to the diet cannot have been great, yet they were still prepared and eaten at considerable effort and some risk. Eating a high-fat diet from giant Moa would have been an easier proposition than eating a high-carb diet from bracken root. ("The British Royal Horticultural Society recommends against consumption of bracken either by humans or livestock, since it contains carcinogens linked with oesophageal and stomach cancer": probably not "safe starches" then.)

I'm not an expert in Maoritanga or in the foods of South-East Asia, but it seems to me that expanding our concept of Maori ancestral diet in this way will make it a lot easier to construct an affordable ancestral diet for modern urban Maori. I mean, that's something that's already being done, no need for my input there, but this expanded ancestral concept may make it easier to explain what's being done and is working already to uninformed skeptics of the Paleo method.

Starches in the form of kumara, and some sugars from berries and cabbage tree (a slightly nauseating, earthy-tasting, but satisfyingly sweet concoction) were definitely important to Maori, and one would restrict them, not because they are not ancestral, they plainly are, but because carbohydrate restriction is a medical solution for problems that ail Maori. Where these problems do not exist, or have been successfully resolved by carbohydrate restriction, traditional types of starches should not be a problem.
What ancestral Maori couldn't have eaten - grains. Interestingly in The Native Diet TV series on Maori TV, which experimented with Paleo diet and Crossfit training for urban Maori families (Julianne Taylor was a consultant for this enjoyable show), paraora (bread) was the food that participants found the hardest to go without - not alcohol, not sugar. This should give food for thought to dietary reformers of all stripes. 

Usually I write these blog posts, even the long ones, in one session. So far this post has occupied three days, and I could spend longer at it, but really it's just a bookmark for some ideas. 
Here is a traditional Maori recipe I often make myself, made with a minimum of ingredients, but a satisfying and nutritious meal nonetheless:


Take enough meat, bone in (a pork hock is good, beware of bacon hock which is too salty; pork chops work, a bit of lamb or beef would work but I haven't tried these). Cover with water, salt and boil it till tender (i.e. the meat begins to come away easily). Then add kumara (peeled, whole or big chucks), add whole small potatoes if you have kids to feed (you can separate these easily when serving), and half a cabbage in big pieces. Boil till the kumara is done and add chopped watercress. Serve when the potato and watercress is cooked.

(alternately, use this proper recipe!)


Galina L. said...

decided to check what Weston Price wrote about Maori " The Maori men have great physical endurance and good minds. Many fine lawyers and government executives are Maori. The breakdown of these people comes when they depart from their native foods to the foods of modern civilization, foods consisting largely of white flour, sweetened goods, syrup and canned goods. The effect is similar to that experienced by other races after using foods of modern civilization." and under a picture " Native Maori demonstrating some of the accessory essentials obtained from the sea. These include certain sea weeds and an assortment of shell fish. It is much easier for the moderns to exchange their labor for the palate tickling devitalized foods of commerce than to obtain the native foods of land and sea."

It is sad, however not surprising, how much people from traditionally healthy eating communities happened to be even more vulnerable than Westerners to the effect of modern foods.

Puddleg said...

Weston A. Price actually made an appearance in The Native Diet TV series, first mention of him I've seen on TV, together with some old movie footage of Maori he might even have made himself.
This program was made by Maori TV, an all-Maori run TV channel which is New Zealand's best (maybe our only) public broadcaster.

Galina L. said...

George, it looks for me that having traditionally-eating close relatives and recent ancestors is a health-risk-factor. It predisposes you to get metabolically sick faster than an average person would while living a standard civilized life-style.

Puddleg said...

This is true, but there are some small benefits - people who have no evolutionary exposure to gluten grains are less likely to develop coeliac disease, and perhaps less prone to some other food allergies, even though generally less able to cope metabolically.

Lowcarb team member said...

"Usually I write these blog posts, even the long ones, in one session. So far this post has occupied three days, and I could spend longer at it, but really it's just a bookmark for some ideas."

This was quite a long read, and I thank you for taking the time to do this.

I visited New Zealand back in the 70's and had the opportunity of going to a Maori village. Of course it was especially there for the 'tourists' however the insight into how the Maori's used to live and eat was interesting.

I really think the so called 'modern diet' is doing no-one any favours. Where it will all end is with more ill health, obesity etc.

For me I discovered somewhat later in life the best way for me is real food not processed and lower carb, high fat, medium protein.

The arguments, debate continue .... but we owe it to ourselves to do what we feel is best for us.

All the best Jan

Puddleg said...

The elephant in the room here is that cannibalism was a common practice during the Classical period, yet I have never found a discussion of its nutritional or economic aspects; it is always discussed in other terms.
Central American civilizations adopted cannibalism after outstripping other food resources, Archaic Maori did not practice it so far as I know.
For example:

Paul Moon wrote a controversial account of it in 2008

The first and only academic account; I have not read the whole thing (I really should) but he does not give much space, if any, to nutritional aspects of the practice.

Michael Frederik said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JayWontdart said...

Hi George!

I saw your comments on

and decided to say hi when you mentioned NZ's "dairy" farming industry

As members of the Invercargill Vegan Society, we are quite aware of the animal cruelty and environmental destruction inherent in Non Vegan farming. We've also met Weston A Price etc people before, at the Eco Show in 2012 and 2013:

I look forward to hearing the IQ2 debate audio soon :-)

Best wishes


George G said...

The average life expectancy of the Maori, before European arrival was around 31-32 years.
"Work on the Wairau Bar skeletons in 2010 showed that life expectancy was very short. The oldest skeleton being 39 and most people dying in their 20s. Most of the adults showed signs of dietary or infection stress. Anaemia and arthritis were common. "

I am not saying this negates your argument about their ancestral diet, but I think a lot of people would like to ignore how brutal, hard and short their lives were.

Puddleg said...

Hi Jay,

My great-aunt Florence K. Henderson was an early vegan who wrote the first vegan recipe book and whose essays can be found on the Vegan Society website. I have practiced vegetarianism and veganism myself and know a fair bit of the theory and history of these movements. Alas, they didn't do me many favours, indeed introduced me to foods I would be better off never having known.

Dairy as we all know is destructive to NZ at the current escalating rate of destruction, but who buys most dairy? People who think eating meat is unhealthy or cruel. Who eats most fish? Ditto. On a meat based diet I could live without these two environmentally destructive foods, and my intake is fairly low as it is.
Bottom line, if someone can thrive on a vegan diet more power to them. Everyone should find a way of eating that gives them pain-free energy and clarity.
On the other hand, to promote veganism to children is irresponsible. There is a certain degree of maturity and knowledge that someone needs to make a vegetarian or vegan diet a better one, rather than merely a more deprived version of the modern diet. And a degree of authority, of resistance to peer pressure and indifference to criticism, is needed to quit any way of eating that becomes counter-productive and harmful.
The cult-like, us-against-them dynamic of modern veganism makes it unsafe in this regard.

Puddleg said...

Hi George, this is the entry about the dig

"Most of the adults showed signs of dietary or infection stress. Anaemia and arthritis were common. Infections such as TB may have been present as the symptoms were present in several skeletons. On average the adults were taller than other South Pacific people at 175 cm for males and 161 cm for females."

If it was 1280 the possibility is that these were very early settlers and were in the process of learning how to survive in a new country. One that was much colder than anywhere their ancestors had ever come from (TB indicates both starvation and insufficient sunlight). And perhaps the fittest died away from the village, on long moa hunts or exploring to find better food resources. Maori life in the Classical period was probably shortened by warfare more than starvation. Warfare having become an answer to the threat of starvation, but one that increased risk, because the preparations disrupted agriculture.
The carcinogenic effects or bracken root are believed to have played a significant role in shortening Maori life expectancy, according to an old nutrition text I've read, though there's no data online.
By the Classical period food supply was secure enough that war parties could be generously fed by allied iwi as they moved through their territories.

Puddleg said...

It's an interesting question why we'd see arthritis in this group - arthritis is something associated with fibre and carbohydrate these days. It could be due to over-reliance on very fibrous vege foods. The alien nature of the food environment would mean increased exposure to toxins, and a risk of missing out on some safe, nutritious plants. Perhaps some pathogenic bacteria taking advantage of this environmental dislocation, combined with cold, physical stress, and not enough meat and fat.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

George I thought you might be interested in this.

Puddleg said...

Aha, it's estrogen related -

This gene encodes a coregulator for the alpha and beta estrogen receptors and the orphan nuclear receptor Rev-ErbA beta.

Puddleg said...

Interesting about heme and circadian GNG regulaton

Rev-erbβ has been implicated in the control of lipid and energy homoeostasis in skeletal muscle.[8]
Rev-erbβ is also a circadian regulated gene; its mRNA displays rhythmic expression in vivo and in serum-synchronized cell cultures. However, it is currently unknown to what extent Rev-erbβ contributes to oscillations of the core circadian clock. However it has been shown heme suppresses hepatic gluconeogenic gene expression and glucose output through the related Rev-erbα receptor which mediates gene repression. Hence, the Rev-erbα receptor detects heme and thereby coordinates the cellular clock, glucose homeostasis, and energy metabolism.

Unknown said...

That Cell study shows you the direct link between transition metals and circadian biology George. You might have a look at circadian GNG and ubquitin controls via the cell cycle. I think you will lie what you find. Ties much of your blogs and Peter's current work.

Puddleg said...

All calories in the diet originated as photons, elementary quantum particles. Some essential nutrients and endogenous compounds are capable of capturing photon energy. This is mainly used for vit D conversion, vision, and circadian training. Not photosynthesis of course, but could heme be the carrier for blue light photons just as chlorophyll is a photon carrier?
We have Peter's "proton series" - we need a "photon series". For example, discussion of carotenoids has been a missing chapter in Paleoworld.
Carotenoids have protective association with cancer in viral hepatitis that is independent of retinol.

Photons can also be absorbed by nuclei, atoms or molecules, provoking transitions between their energy levels. A classic example is the molecular transition of retinal C20H28O, which is responsible for vision, as discovered in 1958 by Nobel laureate biochemist George Wald and co-workers. The absorption provokes a cis-trans isomerization that, in combination with other such transitions, is transduced into nerve impulses. The absorption of photons can even break chemical bonds, as in the photodissociation of chlorine; this is the subject of photochemistry.[99][100] Analogously, gamma rays can in some circumstances dissociate atomic nuclei in a process called photodisintegration.

Puddleg said...

Riboflavin is notoriously degradable by light.
This can be used in medical 3D printing:

this process also uses triethanolamine:
Reports indicated that TEA causes an increased incidence of tumor growth in the liver in female B6C3F1 mice, but not in male mice or in Fischer 344 rats.[11] A 2004 study concluded "TEA may cause liver tumors in mice via a choline-depletion mode of action and that this effect is likely caused by the inhibition of choline uptake by cells."

Eat your eggs.

Unknown said...

George my current series is all about energy and epigenetics and it features the electron. The photoelectric effect is the domain of the the electron and the photon. Duality of light. Moreover protons are the positive charge particle and the electron is the negatively charge particle. The electromagnetic force controls charge particles with infinite range and very strong power. You might begin to see why I have been clapping for Peter for sometime now. He is on the same path I am and has been for quite sometime.

Puddleg said...

I thought I'd look up the Hue gourd cultivar. It's the calabash.

Calabash is the oldest cultivated plant - it's an international Paleolithic crop that predates herding and cultivation of other foods. Why? Probably because it provides a container for water, mainly.
3.69% carbohydrate, 1.2% fibre, traces of protein and fat, good source of vitamin C.
However today the main gourd that survives from Maori cultivation is the Kamo kamo, a variant of curcubita pepo. It's a summer and winter squash, I've only had it as summer squash - soft like a zucchini - a winter squash is hard like a pumpkin and has a higher carb content, 8.59%.
Gourds and squashes grow quickly in the wild and are easy to harvest. They're an ideal Paleo starchy vegetable to add to a low-carb diet.

Puddleg said...

A very entertaining article on pre-European Maori vegetable foods by William Colenso, 1880.

Just ME in T said...

How sad to see that 'modern' nutritionist (many of them)seem to believe this ..... " there's insufficient research to support it and goes on to call the suggestion "faddish and strange".

There is nothing new modern of faddish about recommending a low carbohydrate eating plan for weight loss.... William Banting wrote about this and it was prescribed for him back in the 1800's......

Puddleg said...

Yes, and I read that LCHF goes back even further for diabetes.
"In 1797, John Rollo reported on the results of treating two diabetic Army officers with a low-carbohydrate diet"

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Puddleg said...

Yes, phentermine is different from other diet pills, because it is an isomer of methamphetamine, but I wouldn't say that the energy it provides is necessary to perform your daily work around the house and office. In fact, I didn't even like its effect back when I was into speed.