“What should I eat to be healthy?” This is a question I often hear as a dietitian. The answer, though, isn’t always simple. This is because our nutritional needs depend on our stage of life, health conditions, and preferences – preferences often influenced by our culture and upbringing. So, when I’m asked this question, I tell the person that although there are many ways to eat to improve your health, a good place to start is MyPlate – a visual guide to balanced eating from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Now, you may already be familiar with MyPlate, but have you heard of My Native Plate? My Native Plate is similar to MyPlate but is specifically designed for American Indians and Alaska Natives, containing sample meals with ancestral Native American foods. Before we dive any further into My Native Plate, let’s learn about how the Native American diet changed over time and how this affected the health status of Indigenous Peoples. Before European settlers arrived in North America, the indigenous diet consisted of nuts, seeds, wild fruits and greens, beans, corn, squash and meats, among other things. The types of foods eaten varied greatly by region and climate.
This diet started to change when European settlers arrived in the early 15th century, bringing with them new foods. However, differences in their diet happened when Native Americans were relocated from their lands in the 1800s and their ways of obtaining food changed. During this time, the US government started distributing food rations to Tribes, including foods such as flour, lard, sugar and canned meat or spam. These foods then became incorporated into the Indigenous Peoples’ diet, in dishes such as Indian tacos and frybread. Today, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a lower life expectancy when compared to the rest of the US population. Many of the health inequalities faced by Native Americans are in part a result of changes to their diet, especially the incorporation of processed foods. American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rates of diabetes compared to all other racial groups in the US, and heart disease is the leading cause of death for Indigenous Peoples. That said, My Native Plate is a nutrition education tool, used to teach about balanced meals and food groups, cooking methods, and portion sizes. In addition, it can be used as a visual aid for discussion with Tribal Elders to learn about ancestral food harvesting and preparation techniques. While My Native Plate is just one resource, and much work needs to be done to improve health outcomes for all Native Americans, my hope is that it can be used as a guide for Indigenous Peoples to eat in such a way that honors their traditions, while also improving health inequalities.