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Native Americans Have Superfoods Right Under Their Feet

Wild superfood: Lamb's-quarters is rich in thiamin, vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Nesson Marshall
Wild superfood: Lamb's-quarters is rich in thiamin, vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium and potassium.

On American Indian reservations, the traditional diet of wild plants and game for food is increasingly being replaced with a far less healthful diet of predominantly high-carb, high-sugar foods.

Along the way, obesity and type 2 diabetes rates have soared. At nearly 16 percent, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest prevalence of diabetes among all U.S. racial and ethnic groups, according to the American Diabetes Association.

While researchers have long suspected that the traditional plant foods consumed by Native American tribes in the Northern Plains were super nutritious, no one had ever really studied it.

That's what inspired a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis by a group of researchers at Virginia Tech and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They analyzed the nutrients in 10 traditional wild food plants from three Native American reservations in North Dakota.

They found that reintroducing these plants — which include cattail broad leaf shoots, chokecherries, beaked hazelnuts, lamb's-quarters, plains prickly
pear, prairie turnips, stinging nettles, wild plums, raspberries and rose hips — into the diet of the tribes of the region could improve nutrition and potentially prevent disease.

The superstar of the study was lamb's-quarters, a wild green that's been consumed by hunter-gatherers from northern California all the way to Africa for food as well as medicine. The study found that one serving of steamed lamb's-quarters contained more than 60 percent of the thiamin, 40 percent of the vitamin B6, 60 percent of the calcium and 70 percent of the magnesium of the daily recommended intake.

Prickly pears, prairie turnips and hazelnuts also performed well in the tests — with high levels of calcium and magnesium.

Will these foods make a comeback on reservations? That's unclear, but the researchers say they shared their findings with tribal leaders on the reservations where they collected samples.

And Native Americans aren't the only ones who may be feeling a twinge of nutritional nostalgia. An appreciation for the health benefits of wild greens is part of what's driving the foraging trend in cities and beyond.

As Jo Robinson argued in her 2013 book Eating On The Wild Side, many wild plants are in many ways far more healthful than the stuff we buy today at farmers' markets. Take dandelions, for example.

"Compared to spinach, one of our present-day 'superfoods,' dandelion leaves have eight times more antioxidants, two times more calcium, three times more vitamin A and five times more vitamin K and vitamin E," Robinson writes. "Our modern superfoods would have been substandard fare for hunter-gatherers."

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