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Eat Healthier By Looking to Our Indigenous Ancestors, Say Latina Authors

A recipe for Nopales de Colores from Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing by Luz Calvo & Catriona Rueda Esquibel. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015. Tracey Kusiewicz / Foodie Photography / Tracey Kusiewicz / Foodie Photography

Many people will do a hard reset on their diets this winter. The combination of holiday excess and New Year's anxiety will send some all the way back to the stone age - some may finally try the Paleo Diet that has been crowding their friends' social media feeds in between Crossfit status updates.

Yet according to Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel, authors of Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Living, it might not be necessary to go so far back. Partners and colleagues who teach ethnic studies with an emphasis on Latino populations at different Bay Area universities, Luz and Catriona set out to find what was wrong with their otherwise healthy diets when Luz was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006.

A recipe for Soldadera Beans from the book "Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing" by Luz Calvo & Catriona Rueda Esquibel. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015. Tracey Kusiewicz / Foodie Photography

"For me and for us as a couple, it produced a crisis around food," explains Luz. "After I got through the treatment, I was trying to figure out how to recover and prevent the cancer from coming back."

They soon discovered that many traditional, Meso-American ingredients that had fallen out of their diets over successive generations in the United States had the very nutrients they were looking for to aid Luz's healing. The result is Decolonize Your Diet, which questions everything that has shaped the standard American diet since Columbus. The couple finds solutions in the nutrient-rich plants, fruits and vegetable that have been growing in the Americas all along. We spoke to Luz and Catriona about what "decolonizing your diet" can mean for your health and the troubling paradox at the heart of it - here's our edited interview.

What was the initial impulse behind writing this book?

Luz: We started doing a lot of research on Latinas and breast cancer and discovered the critical fact that foreign-born Latinas have a 50 percent lower risk of breast cancer than US-born Latinas. As we delved further in the literature, we found that the longer you live in the United States, the higher risk you have of breast cancer for those who are immigrants. The higher education level you have or if you're English speaking versus Spanish speaking, the higher your risk of breast cancer. That was really curious to us. We hadn't heard that before, and we were trying to figure out what they meant at a personal level, as a highly educated, PhD, US born person, who is of Mexican descent.

We started thinking about food and comparing the way immigrants eat versus the way U.S.-born Latinas eat and researching foods that we remembered our grandparents talking about that we no longer ate like quelites, verdolagas, and nopales. We found out there were really healthy and traditional plants that have strong anti-cancer properties. That's where we started.

Image: Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel
Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel, authors of the book "Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing." Tracey Kusiewicz / Foodie Photography

Are there any negative trends in the traditional Mexican diet as it adapts to life in the United States that explains the Latino/a immigrant paradox you describe in the book?

Catriona: Working-class people tend to eat beans more often and as people become more financially successful they eat beans less. Because beans are very high in fiber and minerals and stabilize blood sugar, taking this important component of the diet out makes for a big change in health outcomes.

Luz: When it comes to Latinos, it's our recent immigrants, who are living for the most part under difficult circumstances, that have really good health. We think that we can switch the table and say that this knowledge that they have and this way of life that they bring with them is critical cultural knowledge that we need to listen to, gather, respect, disseminate and value.

What does it mean to decolonize your diet?

Luz: We're calling not just for people to change the way they eat personally but for a change in the food system. Part of decolonization is recognizing our indigenous ancestry and the knowledge that persists in the recipes that were passed down from generation to generation. The recipes for tamales date back from way before the conquest.

There is other indigenous knowledge that a lot of us have lost contact with and that's about having a relationship to the land. That respect needs to be extended to other human beings as well, to the people who farm the land, prepare our food, serve our food. We have to rethink our relationship to each other so it's based on respect. We are calling all of that into a question.

You often highlight the color of foods you're choosing. What is the logic behind eating in color?

Catriona: Dark, leafy greens are really high in iron. Foods that are orange like carrots, sweet potatoes and pumpkins are high in beta carotene. Every color has nutrient properties that are associated with it. It's not about including vegetables but including a variety of vegetables and different flavors in each dish.

Luz: Beyond the vitamins, there are phytonutrients in each plant - I know if I'm eating a wide variety of different colored fruits and vegetables in season, I'm getting as many as possible. As messed up as it was to go through the whole cancer experience, it made me so much more in touch with my body. I eat what is in season, savor it, and I feel how good it feels in my body. If I do cheat, there's a big incentive not to do it because it actually feels like poison.

Diet is a loaded word for most people. What do you hope people gain by "decolonizing" their diet?

Catriona: One thing is to rethink their relationship to Mexican food. The original foods were inherently healthy and delicious but they've been stretched and changed for no reason. There's a way in which particular immigrants have been shamed for their foods and told it wasn't healthy.

In the US, that has gone on for centuries. In the 1920s, they told Mexicans they shouldn't serve their children corn tortillas but white bread instead. The idea was that they needed to become Americanized and eat American food and that somehow that was better and it was progress.

To recognize that traditional foods were extremely healthy and continue to be so and bring that back into your diet, even just a little bit, will make a tremendous difference.

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