Diet: modern western eating habits and a traditional rural diet

Almost twenty years ago the late Winin Pereira, co-founder of CHS and Sachetan, described the diet of the Warli tribal people whose culture he studied in detail. Rice was the staple food, pulses and fish their source of essential protein, with fruit and vegetables providing other nutrients required for good health and a strong immune system. 

He pointed out the malignant effects of promoting junk food to people accustomed to a traditional rural diet, citing the extreme example of an Adivasi (indigenous) child who had been fed a diet of nothing but biscuits. The mother was under the impression that this, being a Western ‘miracle food’, would answer all her nutritional needs. The child died. [Asking the Earth, The Other India Press, 1992.] 

The damaging effects of encroaching on tribal lands and forests, of exporting food to earn foreign exchange to pay for imported luxury goods and of permitting industrial development like the Enron power plant on fertile land – was constantly highlighted in the CHS journal Indranet.

He would have read with care a study recently published, led by Dr Paolo Lionetti [Department of Pediatrics, University of Florence] which compared the eating habits of children living in Florence, Italy, who were eating a modern western diet with those of youngsters raised in a rural village in Burkina Faso, West Africa, eating food similar to the diet of the earliest farmers thousands of years ago: cereals, black-eyed peas and vegetables. 

The Italians ate higher quantities of red meat, fat and sugar whereas the diet of Burkina Faso children is low in fat and animal protein and rich in starch, fibre and plant polysaccharides, and predominantly vegetarian. 

The study noted that all food resources are completely produced locally, cultivated and harvested nearby the village by women. Although the intake of animal protein is very low, sometimes they eat a small amount of chicken and termites.

The African children had a far lower proportion of microbes associated with obesity in adults and far more fatty acids known to protect against inflammation. The healthy bacteria in their diet helped to digest food and protect against pathogens by generating the short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) which kill harmful intestinal bacteria such as salmonella and help protect against inflammation.

Without these microbes to prime the immune system, children are more likely to grow up suffering from asthma, eczema and other allergies, they say. The number of people in the EU with allergies has trebled in the past 20 years. One in three people now suffer at some point in their lives. 

The Tehran Times report added ”Only those who were still breast-feeding harbored bacteria resembling the African children’s – indicating diet may dominate other factors such as ethnicity, sanitation, geography or climate, say the researchers.” 

The study concludes with the reflection that its findings indicate “the importance of preserving this treasure of microbial diversity from ancient rural communities worldwide”. CHS-Sachetan’s research is doing just that: finding and recording the properties of Indian plants for non-commercial use.

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