Desert foods such as chia, nopales, tepary beans, and mesquite offer many health benefits, particularly for those diagnosed or susceptible to diabetes. Many of these foods are considered “slow release foods” because they are high in soluble fiber that are digested and absorbed slowly. These traits help to control blood sugar levels and provide increased endurance. Desert foods also contain natural sugars, healthier than processed sugars, that can satisfy a sweet tooth. Regardless of your diabetes risk, individuals wishing to adopt a healthy diet will find many benefits of desert foods. The slow-release characteristics, high vitamin and mineral content, and cholesterol lowering effects of many desert foods are beneficial for all people.
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Prevalence of Diabetes
Over the last four decades, diabetes has been a major public health issue in the United States with around 9% of the population in Arizona being diagnosed with the disease. Diabetes affects some populations more than others, particularly Native American and Latino communities. According to a recent report by the Society for Public Health Education, Native American populations in Arizona were found to have a 245% greater than average risk of diabetes with 33% of the native population in the state having received treatment for the disease. This is the highest Native American rate in the country. The prevalence among Hispanic populations is less than Native Americans, but is still higher than the general population, 12% of the population (Society for Public Health Education 2012). Rates for other ethnic groups are also on the rise.
This disease takes a devastating toll not only on physical well being, but also on the emotional, spiritual, and cultural health of people affected as well as their families and communities. Diabetes can lead to death and has many debilitating side effects, such as obesity, kidney and pancreas failure, circulation problems and loss of limbs, heart disease and eye problems, which can result in blindness.
The good news is that diabetes is a disease that can be managed, prevented, and in some cases reversed with changes to diet and exercise. One of the major ways to treat or prevent diabetes is incorporation of desert foods such as nopales, tepary beans, and mesquite. Being from a population with a high susceptibility to diabetes is not a guarantee of diagnosis. It can be prevented.
How Does Diabetes Happen?
Genes or heredity, weight, the amount of movement or exercise, and possibly environmental toxins all make individuals more susceptible to diabetes. The main factor leading to a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes is the result of eating or drinking too much sugar (Basu et al. 2013). Ultimately, diabetes is a dietary disease but the good news is that it can also be prevented and treated with diet.
Native Americans in particular are susceptible to the effects of sugar in the diet for several reasons, particularly because of genetics or inherited traits. These populations have lived for centuries with cycles of abundance and scarcity throughout the seasons, allowing their bodies to adapt and store more fat in order to prepare for scarce times, the so called “thrifty-gene” (Neel 2009). Through processes of colonization, separation from the land, and introduction of western foods like wheat and sugar, the once beneficial adaptive traits are no longer serving their evolutionary purpose. These populations are no longer eating seasonally and no longer have the need to store fat, but the body retains thousands of years of adaptations to different food and activity memories. Latino populations are also susceptible because of their indigenous heritage from peoples from Mesoamerica. People of European descent have had a longer history with industrial food production and adapted to conditions of more sustained abundance. But even though Native American and Latino populations may be genetically more susceptible to develop diabetes, it is still individual diet and activity levels that contribute to a diagnosis.
Sugars digest quickly, along with the processed grains, starches, and fruit juices that our bodies break down into sugars. Within minutes the levels of sugar in the blood begin to rise. The pancreas responds by pumping out insulin. Insulin is a hormone, and the word hormone comes from an ancient Greek word that means 'messenger.' Insulin messages cells to open up and take in the sugar for energy. What our cells can’t take in, insulin tells our bodies to store as fat. So, as it turns out, it is sugar, not fat, that usually makes us gain weight.
If an occasional soda or sweet bread was consumed every once in a while, the body could recover from this sugar upsurge and be fine. But when sugary processed foods are consumed every day for years, eventually, the cells stop listening to the insulin's message. It’s as if someone were to send you constant text messages day in and day out for years. At first it would be annoying, and then eventually you would just ignore them. When the body starts to ignore insulin this is called insulin resistance. When we have insulin resistance, the cells no longer take in the sugar for energy, and the sugar continues to circulate in the blood stream. The abundance of sugar in the bloodstream has nowhere to go. In some cases, the pancreas becomes so exhausted from trying to get the cell's attention that it stops producing insulin altogether.
Type 1 diabetes is very rare and typically is diagnosed in children and young adults. Similar to type 2 diabetes, insulin is not produced, but for different reasons that are not related to diet. Therefore Type 1 diabetes is not preventable like type 2, but can be treated in a similar way.
What can be done?
The good news is that lifestyle changes particularly in adopting a healthy diet and increasing exercise can work towards preventing, managing, and in some cases reversing diabetes. A doctor may also prescribe the use of insulin. These activities either reduce weight and risk factors, or directly decrease the amount of sugar in the blood.
Many native desert foods can be used as part of a healthy diet and have been shown to directly impact the way metabolism and blood sugar levels are controlled. Research has shown what many native people have always known: traditional foods are healthy foods. In one study, O’odham people consuming a mostly traditional diet living in Mexico were 2.5 times less likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than O’odham people living north of the border that were eating a more standard American diet of processed wheats and sugars (Schultz et al. 2006).
Incorporation of desert foods, particularly for Native American and Latino peoples, can also connect to long-standing cultural traditions. Reestablishing strong cultural traditions can also heal the emotional wounds that this epidemic is causing.
Desert Foods are Healthy Foods
Unlike modern processed foods which raise blood sugar quickly, most traditional desert foods digest slowly, releasing their energy into the bloodstream over hours, rather than minutes, giving the body steady energy. The pectins and complex carbohydrates that desert plants use to capture and store life-giving water are the same agents which make beans, mesquite, chia, nopalitos and prickly pear fruit effective regulators of blood sugar. These foods have been coined “slow release foods.” The slow release process protects diabetics from erratic blood sugar levels which stresses the pancreas and its insulin production. Eating these “slow-release” foods helps genetically susceptible populations control their metabolism, reducing the risk of developing diabetes and its negative side effects. Slow release foods can also increase endurance and prolong the feeling of fullness, preventing overeating.
These types of foods are rated low on the glycemic index, a measure of the effect of ingredients on blood sugar chemistry. It is recommended that diabetics and those at risk of diabetes eat foods low on the glycemic index. Raw sugar, for example, has a glycemic index value of 100, whereas mesquite flour has a value of 25 and tepary beans a value of 30.
The following are examples of desert foods that are beneficial for diabetics and those at risk for diabetes. They are considered “slow release” foods and are low on the glycemic index. This document is not intended to serve as a diagnosis or a treatment plan. It is recommended that you speak to a health professional if you are concerned about diabetes and discuss any changes to your diet with your doctor.
The naturally occurring tannin in acorns help flatten blood sugar peaks after a meal and are one of the most effective traditional foods in controlling diabetes. The Emory Oak (Quercus emoryi), produces acorns that are far less bitter than those produced by other oaks. Acorns from Emory Oaks require no special processing to eat. Other species produce acorns with a high tannin content that must be leached via boiling or soaking in order to make them edible and less bitter. In the Southwest region acorns are known as bellotas. The best tasting Emory acorns will have a yellow or cream colored meat when shelled.
Bellotas can be gathered in mid-elevations in the Southwest in July and August. After harvesting, thoroughly dry the Bellotas in the sun or on low in the oven for 1 hour. Snap open the shell by rubbing on a metate, a mealing stone used to process grains, or roll over another hard surface. Separate the nutmeat from the broken shells. Most traditional preparations use ground nutmeat, but they can also be consumed as a healthy nut alternative between meals. Store in the refrigerator or freezer, but make sure they are dry—moisture will spoil the nut. They have a natural sweet taste and are delicious in baked goods to satisfy a sweet tooth. Ground acorns can also be added to soups and stews as an alternative thickener to wheat flour. They can be found in Mexican markets or trading posts when in season.
Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) has many health benefits. The grain is very high in protein as well as lysine, an amino acid absent from many other grains. It has high levels of vitamins A and C. When ground, it can be used as a supplemental four for tortillas, breads, or pasta. Amaranth flour mixed with what flour has been found to have relatively high glycemic index, 65-75, but still considered moderate on the index. Studies have also shown that consumption of amaranth grain (whole) leads to increased insulin levels and decreases in blood sugar. While further study is needed, it appears that when consumed in moderation amaranth may have positive health benefits for diabetics. Amaranth greens also offer nutritional benefits as they are high in calcium and iron.
Amaranth can be wild harvested during the summer monsoon season. Young, tender leaves can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach. Some varieties (Amaranthus cruentus) produce golden blond seeds which are the best type to use as an edible grain. The varieties that produce black, red, or orange seeds can also be consumed as a grain. Amaranth can also be grown in the garden or found commercially in many health food stores. Ground flour is increasingly available.
A popular preparation of amaranth grain is to mix the popped grains with sugar, honey, or agave nectar to make Algeria, a popular street food in Mexico. Preparations with processed sugars should be limited for those wanting to follow a healthy diet.
Recipe guide for amaranth (pdf)
Beans, including teparies, kidneys, pintos, limas, garbanzos, black-eyed peas and lentils, are the quintessential “slow release” food. Because they digest slowly, the converted sugars from the starches travel into the bloodstream over a period of 4-6 hours, as opposed to many processed foods, which move sugar into the bloodstream during a quick half hour energy fix. Beans are also a good source of low-fat protein and iron, and a good alternative to red meat. Tepary beans are especially helpful for controlling blood sugar, as they contain fewer carbohydrates than other beans.
Dried beans are easy to include in the diet because they are available at low cost and the diversity of recipes and flavors makes it easy to find new ideas for preparation. Many varieties of beans have been grown in the desert for centuries and are adapted to the heat and drought conditions of the Southwest. They are easy to grow in your own garden.
Prickly pear cactus pad, or nopalitos, and fruit, or tunas, can help lower blood sugar and cholesterol. When you cut open the inside of a cactus pad you can see the sticky, almost soapy, gooey pectin. The gooey inner substance of the pad helps the cactus hold onto the water it needs for survival in the dry desert. Within the body, this process is mimicked and the gooey inner substance of cacti acts to slow down digestion and absorption of sugars, thereby lowering blood sugar levels. The high amounts of fiber also lower cholesterol, perhaps binding with fats and passing them undigested out of the intestinal tract.
Prickly pear is easy to grow (just stick a paddle from an established plant in the ground), and can be wild harvested. It is also available fresh in Mexican supermarkets or jarred in most supermarkets in the Southwest. The young tender pads can be snapped off the plants, singed or peeled to remove the spines. Numerous varieties produce edible pads but Opuntia ficus indica is the most commonly consumed species. They can be eaten raw in salads or smoothies, or more traditionally boiled and drained or sautéed. Other cactus foods with similar blood sugar lowering effect like prickly pear pads include cholla buds, which are the unopened flowers of the cholla cactus. The staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) has fewer spines and larger buds, and is the preferred variety for wild harvesting. After gathering in the spring, the spines must be removed. They can either be cooked like other vegetables (they have a flavor somewhat similar to asparagus), added to soups, or dried to be reconstituted for later cooking.
Raw fruits from prickly pear, saguaro, barrel, and organ pipe cacti contain the same special starches as prickly pear pads. Cactus fruits are high in antioxidants, vitamins A and C. Prickly pear fruits in particular contain high amounts of juice which can be extracted using a blender, and then strained. However, once the juices are boiled down into syrup, or made into juice or jam, the natural sugars in the fruit become more concentrated and “processed,” and affect the body much like refined sugar. Limit processed preparations. Many commercially available prickly pear fruit products also contain high amounts of added sugar. Fruits of prickly pear are harvested in late July thru August, and Saguaro fruits in June.
Chiles are rich sources of chromium, a mineral needed by the body in small amounts because it helps process sugar. Diets high in processed foods and excess sugar deplete chromium stores, contributing to insulin resistance and diabetes. A diet that includes chiles and bell peppers, as well as tomatoes, and greens, can increase chromium levels, improving the body’s ability to handle sugar.
It is hard not to incorporate chile into the diet in the Southwest. Dozens of varieties of fresh and dried chiles are readily available. They love to grow in the hot, dry conditions of the Southwest and are a good addition to any garden.
Recipe guide for chiles (pdf)
Chia (Salvia hispanica) seeds are rich in a nutrient most of us are deficient in: Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for keeping down inflammation and therefore, pain in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been demonstrated to reduce cholesterol and triglycerides. While the most easily digested and utilized sources of omega-3 oils are from fish, here in the desert, chia may be a more available ingredient. The seeds contain high amounts of protein, B vitamins, calcium, minerals, and are very low in carbohydrates. They contain high levels of dietary fiber making them an excellent snack for healthy blood sugar levels.
You can chew them whole as a snack, put them in baked goods, fruit salads, grind them into a spread, or add them to water with lime or lemon juice for a traditional “chia fresca” beverage. When chia seeds get wet they produce a little sack of mucilage, a jelly type substance which slowly releases sugar into the blood. This texture works well for weight loss as it gives a full feeling so you eat less.
Several species of native chia produce edible seeds but it is Salvia hispanica that is most commonly found in grocery stores. In the low elevation desert regions, the native Salvia columbariae can be harvested in late spring. Shake the drying seeds into a paper sack or bowl. Winnow and store in a glass jar once dry.
Many different types of beans can be gathered from native desert trees are also helpful at maintaining healthy blood sugar including palo verde, ironwood and mesquite. Mesquite in particular contains large amounts of slow-release starches, giving it a naturally sweet taste. This natural sweetness can help curb cravings for processed sugar.
Native Southwestern mesquite varieties including velvet, screwbean, and honey mesquites tend to have a sweet, nutty flavor. They are preferred over the introduced South American varieties. It is recommended to taste a pod from each tree before harvesting, looking for a sweet flavor and non-chalky texture. During the early summer, mesquite pods ripen and can be gathered by hand. Avoid pods that have fallen on the ground or have been soaked by monsoon rains. Mesquite pods are consumed as ground flour. Grinding can be done in a stone metate or you can take them to community milling events. Then they are ready to be used in baking or to make traditional 'oatmeal-like' porridges or dried cakes.
Mesquite flour is increasingly available at supermarkets, particularly local shops and health food stores. Wild harvesting is possible.
Recipe guide for mesquite (pdf).
Plantago (Plantago ovata) produces edible seeds covered in a small husk that is high in soluble fiber and have been demonstrated to decrease blood sugar levels and cholesterol. Plantago is also called Psyllium, Indian Wheat, or Plantain. Plantago grows wild in the Southwest and can easily be harvested in the spring. It can also be found in some health food stores and is an ingredient in some over the counter laxatives. It is often consumed by placing a tablespoon of seeds in water or tea. Similar to chia, the seeds swell and produce mucilage that contributes to a feeling of fullness, preventing overeating.
Increasingly desert foods can be found in mainstream grocery stores and regional shops. Many can be wild harvested. When wild harvesting always make sure you have permission from the individual or entity who owns the land. Do not harvest from areas that are polluted or contaminated by highway or high traffic road corridors or areas known or suspected to be sprayed by pesticides or herbicides.
Native Seeds/SEARCH: www.nativeseeds.org or 3061 N. Campbell Avenue, Tucson Arizona
San Xavier Co-op Farm: 8100 Oidak Wog, Tucson, AZ and local farmer’s markets
Desert Rain Café and Gallery: www.toca.org and Tohono Plaza on Main Street in Sells, Arizona
Ramona Farms: www.ramonafarms.com and local retailers
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Funding for the Desert Foods for Healthy Living Project is provided by a grant from the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals Foundation – Tucson Chapter.