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Recovering and Reviving Our Original Diet

Recovering and Reviving Our Original Diet

| Betsy Armstrong

By Elizabeth Pantoja, NS/S Conservation Intern. Published September 25, 2014.

Recently I came across some great information put together by Aztec Stories that talked about the importance of including our original foods in our present diet. By this I mean eating foods that have originally grown here in this western hemisphere prior to European contact, prior to 1492. Both a group of Indigenous educators and myself were having a discussion with students about why these foods were important and many of the young students were not aware of some of these foods and had never tasted what was once a common staple of their Ancestors. The answer to why is clear.

The invasion of the Americas forced a different diet and way of life to those that we descend from. Generations later we are still seeing the after effects of colonization. Especially when we look at our health, many of us are battling diabetes, heart issues, high cholesterol, obesity, cancers, addictions, many of which could be prevented by having access to both healthy fresh food and clean water.

Our people were once really healthy, but when we started loosing access to our waters, land, food, language, our relationships and way of life, negative and unbalancing situations started effecting communities. Not only did the colonization of Turtle Island- Abya Yala - Tawantinsuyu - Boriken - Anahuak - lead to a name change of our lands to “the Americas,” but it changed our original systems of organization for men-women-community, it annihilated people, language, land, culture. Colonization terrorized, oppressed, exploited, relocated, subjugated, enslaved, and denied our existence, our identity. Not to mention forced assimilation and all the contamination and mining both land and People have been victim to. When it came to our food-our natural flow of migrations and trading came to a pause, no longer was it made it safe to share our seeds, food and other precious items amongst each other. While many of our original foods were exported to feed the European and eastern continents, we were not allowed to eat them, to grow them, to honor them in the way that we did.

A new diet was forced upon our People. A diet that was unknown to us before 1492. These physical and psychological, dietary effects took a toll upon our People. Wheat, cattle, dairy, pork, chicken, to name a few, became the new introduced diet and a diet that after 500 years is highly consumed today. Before this new diet many of our People and communities who farmed, fished, gathered, dried or saved seeds ate a diverse and high nutrient rich diet that was rich in colors and flavors. Wheat, cattle, dairy, chickens were post 1492, while corn, squash, beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, berries, amaranth, quinoa, chilies and peppers, pumpkin, avocado, cocoa, wild rice, nuts, peanuts, acorns, persimmons, papaya, passion fruit, pineapples, cassava, cherimoyas, jicama, prickly pear, nopales, tunas, mesquite, saguaro fruit, sunflowers, yucca, wild greens, wild medicinal herbs, vanilla, salt, algae, deer, fish, buffalo, turkey, guinea pig, rabbit, lizards, birds, maple, and agave are part of the original diet and stories of the Original People of this western hemisphere way before 1492.

When we eat foods that are healthy we feel great, when we don’t eat food that is healthy we don’t feel so great. That is why food is MEDICINE. It nourishes us and replenishes us mentally, physically and spiritually. As Indigenous Peoples, food is part of our identity, our stories, our culture, teachings, ceremonies, our way of life. Eating like the old ones once did might sound tough in this present day but it is possible. There has been tremendous work happening all over this continent revolving around food sovereignty and justice. All to bring wellness back into our communities once again. For example, out in Pueblo territory of New Mexico there is amazing work happening there. The Pueblo Food Experience Project speaks to that. The community is changing their diet by eating their ancestral foods and the results of how they felt after were amazing; they felt great. There is also great work taking place in O’odham communities as well. A book was written for their communities, From I’itoi’s Garden, shares the importance and story of their original desert foods, all the nutrients it provides, how to plant them, harvest them and wonderful healthy recipes they can cook if they are not already doing so. And there is also a San Xavier Food Coop where you will find their delicious original local foods and workshops on how to cook them. There is also the fight to get GMO corn out of Mexico by lots of Indigenous communities and the protection of potatoes and quinoa by Runa farmers in the Andes of Tawantinsuyu.

There is also beautiful work taking place in the northwest, Indigenous communities are reviving back their ancestrall foods and making it aware for their community. Not to mention all the urban gardens in intertribal barrios sprouting from left to right, north to south and the decolonizing the diet projects happening all over this land. All over Turtle Island, “the Americas”, people are growing their ancestral foods and making healthy recipes for their people. They are including healthy vital food familiar to them and to their identity to better the health of their community, our minds, our hearts and our overall being.

how to save watermelon seeds

Presented here are 7 of the ancestral original foods that are high in nutrients and vitamins. In my (Nahua-Anahuaca Peoples) history, these foods were some of the ones that the conquest tried to annihilate, prohibit from eating, growing and sharing. But, these foods have endured like us. Include them in your diet and plant them in your gardens.

Nutritional Values Of The Seven Warrior Foods: (English-Espanol-Nahuatl)

 Amaranth – Amaranto - Huauhtli    Corn – Maiz - Tlaolli      Beans – Frijol – Etl     Squash – Calabaza -Tzilacayohtli   Nopal – Nopal- Nopalli    Chile – Chile – Chilli    Chia – Chia - Chian

Corn is the most important food source on this continent because it is tied to many First Nations Creation stories. For many it is a Mother and a child. It is low in sodium and fat, high in carbohydrates and cholesterol free. One medium ear of corn yields 75 calories, 1 g fat, 2 g dietary fiber, and 19 g total carbohydrates. It also contains 191 mg potassium, 79 mg phosphorus, 4.7 mg vitamin C, 35.7 mcg folate, 167 IU vitamin A, and 1.5 mg calcium. Plant Teocinte (Teocentli), the wild ancestor to corn, around your other corn to increase the health and vitality of your corn plants.

Beans are high in starch and are an excellent source of iron, potassium, selenium, molybdenum, thiamine, vitamin B6, and folic acid. Beans are high in fiber and protein. They are a partial protein and when eaten with another partial protein (like rice) make a complete protein (similar to meat). You can add epazote (epazatotl) to your pot of beans to lower the “gas effect” but also to add some flavor. Tepary beans are really high in nutrients and can be grown in low desert climate with very little water.

Squash is a source of fiber, vitamin C, manganese, magnesium, and potassium. It is also an excellent source of vitamin A.Squash is very low in sodium and when combined with beans, corn and chile it makes a healthy high nutrient dish.

Amaranth (greens and seeds) has very nutritious properties, especially in its high content of protein, calcium, folic acid and Vitamin C. Popped amaranth seeds provide a good source of protein, which can satisfy a large portion of the recommended protein requirements for children and can also provide approximately 70% of necessary calories. Amaranth also has abundant lysine, an essential amino acid that is low in other grains. It contains double the lysine of wheat, triple that of corn and equal to the amount found in milk. The leaves can be used as a leafy green vegetable, similar to spinach. The leaves are high in a vitamin called folic acid. Folic acid is an essential vitamin for the whole family and most importantly for women in their reproductive years. Amaranth leaves contain more iron than spinach, which is beneficial especially to those who suffer from a certain degree of anemia. In addition, it protects against ovarian cancer, as well as depression and heart disease. Amaranth contains high levels of proteins and fats and is a good source of energy.

There was a time in history, around 1519, where the Original People of Mexico, were prohibited to grow and eat this very important, honored seed. The Spanish colonizers burned our fields and gardens. What a lot of people don’t know is that we would be killed and punished for consuming Amaranth. In an underground effort to preserve these seeds (and many others), our people took good care of them and hid them, despite the ongoing wars with the Spanish, French and other Europeans. The wild (pigweed) and domesticated varieties of amaranth, never disappeared, but continue to grow and thrive with so many nutrients and seeds to benefit a people.

Nopalli develops bright yellow flowers and red fruit with a juicy, white, sweet flesh and numerous black seeds. The fruit is high in fiber vitamin A and C and other beneficial nutrients and roles like lowering blood sugar levels- don’t eat seeds they could be constipating. The juice of the nopal is also full of beneficial nutrients. In the southwest it more common to see prickly pear cactus as compared to the Mexican Nopal but the fruit of the saguaro, barrel cactus and prickly pear are common to eat. They too are high in nutrients and benefits. You can also make a, ‘Agua de Nopal’ using the pulp of the cactus pads.

Chili (red chili) contains some amounts of vitamin C and vitamin A. Yellow, and especially green chili (which are essentially unripe fruit), contain a considerably lower amount of both substances. Peppers are a good source of most B vitamins, and vitamin B6 in particular. They are very high in potassium and high in magnesium and iron. Their high vitamin C content can also substantially increase the uptake of nonheme iron from other ingredients in a meal, such as beans and grains. 

Chia is a complete protein source having all of the essential amino acids in an appropriate balance. Chia seed is between 19% and 23% protein by weight, which is higher than that of other seeds and grains. They are also a rich source of essential fatty acids, containing three-to-four times the oil concentrations of most grains and are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. They also feature high antioxidant levels.


Eating our ancestral foods is a form of cultural preservation; not only does it connect us to our past, but it connects us to who we are. Our stories, teachings, language, culture and way of life are all intertwined. And though the health of our people has dramatically changed in the midst of 500 years or less eating our original foods will be able to shift us back towards a healthier self and a healthier community. It is time we try to recover and restore our ancestral food temples and revive those healthy recipes if we are not already doing so and eat and exercise like the old ones once did. Within communities we can share our recipes, seeds that are similarly adapted to our regions/territories, and for those that garden and farm, suggest helpful planting techniques that can better our health and that of our families.

Inspired and summarized from The 7 Warrior Foods of the Mexica People’.

Click to download a printable handout of this blog post here.