As an agriculture extensionist, the majority of my work revolves around the production of food, promoting practices related to soil conservation, food security, and income generation. Thanks to the generosity of my neighbors, I have additionally spent a lot of time working on food consumption. In general, the Paraguayan diet is a simple one consisting primarily of corn, yucca, and animal products like meat, milk, and eggs. Paraguay's sub-tropical climate, while punishingly hot for us humans, also provides enough warmth year-round to provide for a nearly constant calendar of ripe fruits dripping bountifully from the trees. As a result, the traditional Paraguayan diet is a simple one, but made up of whole foods that are produced within sight of the tables where they are consumed.
The beautiful campo
However, in recent years the tide of globablization has arrived at the exclusively figurative shores of this land-locked country. Change has been rapid, with the ubiquity of cell phones and motorcycles, even in the poorest and most isolated parts of the country, standing in stark contrast with the Paraguay with which the older generation grew up. My sixty-five year old host father, for example, recounts to me such memories as getting his first pair of shoes at twelve and riding to school on a donkey (leaving it to hee-haw disruptively and hilariously in the school yard throughout class). The introduction of new crops, particularly wheat, and modern ways of food processing, have also brought drastic change to the every day Paraguayan meal. Processed white flour in various preparations has taken the place of more nutritious traditional alternatives and processed sugar is commonly consumed multiple times a day. I have seen the toll that this change has taken on the health of Paraguayans. Type-2 diabetes is almost expected, adult obesity has quickly become the norm, and people are dying at an earlier age than did their parents and grandparents.
While I am not a nutritionist, I have found myself in various conversations with Paraguayans about healthy eating. Unlike in the United States, talking about someone's weight is not a topic to be shied away from. Each time I come back to my community after being away for any length of time, my neighbors take turns commenting on how much skinnier or fatter I have become during the weeks, days, or hours since my last visit to their home. Despite the fact that these observations are usually based on perceptions of how happy/sad/in or out of love I am, rather than on my diet or reality, it nevertheless took some getting used to as a privacy-coveting American. Still, I was able to use these intrusions as segueways into substantive conversations about food and its effects on health and weight.
I generally practice and promote something reminiscent of Michel Pollan's mantra of "eat food, mostly plants, not too much." The "food" is refering to whole food as it comes out of the ground, rather than an industrially processed variation that values increased shelf life over nutrition. In an American context it can require a certain culinary creativity to eliminate processed foods from the diet, a reality made evident by the proliferation of diet-related literature and cookbooks. We do not have a traditional diet to which we can return at this point. But for Paraguayans, imagining a world where processed food and sugar have no place on the dinner table requires looking back less than a generation. I know a number of 80 and 90 year-old Paraguayans who have refused to change their ways and as a result are in remarkably better health than their children.
With this idea in mind, I proposed an experiment to my host family, that for one month they eat a completely traditional diet, absent of any processed foods or sugars. At the beginning and end of the month we would get an idea of their overall health by measuring their weight and blood pressure as well as doing a blood test to check blood sugar and cholesterol. This diet would mean changing their eating habits at nearly every meal. The family agreed after learning that each person to succesffuly complete the experiment would receive 100,000 Paraguayan Guaranies (about $25.00) donated to the cause by a "grant," although the money was actually scraped from my monthly Peace Corps living allowance. I felt the financial incentive was necessary to ensure their faithful completion of the whole month and I also knew, good natured people that they are, they would never knowingly accept taking money from me personally.
Initially, the women of the house who do the cooking, Ña Celia and Luci, were worried that it would be hard to think of meals with the new limitations and that no one would want to eat them. They found that the opposite was true. None of the dietary limitations prohibited any traditional foods, even if they are not exactly healthy. The family found that not only were there plenty of options, but that the list included all of their favorite foods. When asked if he missed any of the prohibited foods, like noodles and bread, my host father, Don Daniel, said, "No, I actually don't even really like that stuff." It seems that at least in this household, the simpler, nutrient-lacking modern day staples are desired more for being cheap and easy to prepare, than for taste.
Throughout the month I visited at nearly every meal to check in and see what was on the day's menu. As far as I know no one cheated, and if they did it was in insignificant amounts. The results were quite interesting and are displayed in the tabe below. While the weight of the particpants essentially stayed the same, the other indicators, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, decreased significantly for three of the four particpants. I worked with a local nurse to take the measurments. She was impressed enough by the results to start recommending this sort of reversion to tradional eating to the many patients who visit her to check on their high blood sugar and cholesterol. The only one in the family to not decrease was my host mother. Across the board she was the only one to not decrease, which I think is caused by the fact that, due to a variety of health issues caused by years of unhealthy eating habits, she actually already eats a diet that is pretty similar to the one perscribed by this experiment.
|Name||Age||Weight (original) kg||Weight (end) kg||Blood pressure (original)||Blood pressure (end)||Blood sugar (original) mg/dl||Blood sugar (end) mg/dl||Cholesterol (original) mg/dl||Cholesterol (end) mg/dl|
Of course, a truly scientific experiment would require more particpants and measuring more than just two times, but there is still much to be seen from this anecdote. I am reminded of Bill Mollison, the founder of the permaculture movement, who once said, "Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the answers remain embarassingly simple." In order to solve the health problems of the modern day we need not look for complicated diets or expensive medical procedures. At least here in Paraguay, the health of the next generation could rest on something as simple as the will to remember what food is meant to look like, the way it did just a generation ago.