Using Traditional Foods to Heal from Within

When most people talk about eating disorder recovery, they often talk about isolated treatments – getting an individual’s weight up or down to a pre-determined “healthy” standard (often by any means necessary), using psychotherapy to pinpoint and “fix” whatever triggered the disorder in the first place, often prescribing medications to regulate hormones, moods and other functions. But “traditional” treatments are famously unsuccessful in the long run, usually between 40 and 50 percent at best.
While there are no readily available statistics for long-term success rates among Indigenous populations, it’s not a stretch to say that the percentages are probably significantly lower in Indian country due to the combination of a lack of resources and being the second-highest risk group.

I am not a medical professional and certainly not an expert on eating disorders, but I do have 17 years of struggling with my own eating disorder under my belt. This has involved countless diets and workout plans, multiple attempts with therapy and various medications and even a few hospital visits. And while I won’t say that I am suddenly “fixed,” I will tell you that the only method that has had a lasting positive affect for me has been to return to my culture and the traditional well being practices that that involves.

For me, the first thing this involves is diet. Spirituality is just as important, but it’s hard to focus on connecting with the Creator and all of Creation when your brain isn’t functioning properly due to lack of proper nutrition. And, for most Indigenous cultures, connecting with the land goes hand-in-hand with feeding your body.

We’ve recently seen a lot of “ancestral diets” become popular – Paleo, for example. These so-called fads are how Native people have been surviving for millennia. Our bodies were not subjected to the gluten, processed sugars and alcohols of European and other Eastern diets. We are simply not supposed to eat these ingredients – and really, why would we want to after seeing what they have done to our communities?

The problem, of course, is that they taste good. These foods literally act like addictive drugs in our systems – they trigger the part of our brains that ask for more, more, more. And, as those of us with eating disorders know all to well, it is often an all-or-nothing situation. We can’t have just one slice or just one drink – we either have none or we have it all.

Again, I’ve found that cleaning up the foods I eat on a regular basis helps me make better decisions. Every day gets a little bit easier. It is incredibly difficult not to become obsessed with following the “rules” and letting numbers and percentages rule my days. But this is where thinking in terms of life-long changes as opposed to finite diets can really help.

Fill your kitchens with fresh, clean meats, vegetables and fruits that are Indigenous to this land. Traditional foods such as bison, venison, elk, and salmon are invaluable when making these changes for your body and for your life, and are especially good if you can hunt yourself or get natural foods from your home communities. Ask your mothers, aunties, grandmothers and sisters for traditional recipes and cook for your loved ones as well as yourself.

Finally, learn to forgive yourself. If you screw up one day then just start again the next day. Start again and again and again, as many times as you need. It also helps to surround yourself with inspiring or like-minded people. Follow Native Paleo on Facebook and join the Healthy Active Natives Facebook group, and follow Thosh Collins, Chelsey Luger and Martin Sensmeier on Instagram for inspiration, recipes and other helpful tips.