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Cactus, it’s what your body needs

17 April 2008

The Houston Chronicle bravely comes out in favor of tortillas and beans… and cactus:

In [a] five-year program, community workers taught El Paso residents how to improve nutrition while enjoying their familiar Mexican-American border diet. El Paso’s 72 percent Latino population embraced the program and got strikingly more healthy.

By 2006, partly because of Que Sabrosa Vida, El Paso tied Austin for the Texas city with fewest obese adults. The number was 23 percent, down from 30 percent in 1996. Fifteen percent of the city’s eighth-graders were obese, compared with 19 percent in 2003.

…In El Paso, Que Sabrosa Vida applied the FDA food pyramid to Mexican and Tex-Mex food. [The program] should go further, explaining the medicinal traits of traditional Mexican foods.

In a recent book called The Jungle Effect, physician Daphne Miller studied the Tarahumara Indians of Copper Canyon, Mexico, and found that their diet — tortillas, beans, salsa — contributed to some of the region’s lowest rates of diabetes. The secret, in addition to the Taruhamaras’ athletic lifestyle, was the way those foods were served.

First, the Tarahumara drink very few sodas or other sweet drinks that raise blood sugar and put on pounds.

Beans, though demonized as a high-carb food, actually can be diabetic-friendly because they release sugar into the body very slowly, especially if they are simmered simply in water.

Served alongside them, corn tortillas’ sugar release also slows down. Because the corn is traditionally soaked in an alkali lime solution, corn tortillas are highly nutritious, full of extra calcium and niacin.

The dishes historically served alongside tortillas and beans have medicinal traits, too. Nopales — tasty cactus leaves still a staple food in much of Mexico — control blood sugar, possibly by mimicking insulin.

Even the Tarahumaras’ spices and greens such as cilantro, cumin and cinnamon — flavor and texture agents now overshadowed by lots of processed flour, high fructose corn syrup, oil and meat — are anti-diabetic.

“When we talk about soaring rates of diabetes among Mexican-Americans,” Miller said, “it’s not just because they’re eating a highly processed Western diet. They’ve lost their traditional medicinal foods.”

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