WORDS BY ANDREA POLANCO
For Indigenous communities, connecting to ancestral foodways could be a life saver. The Frontline digs into the mental health benefits of eating well.
Shereena Baker was just getting out of college and struggling to process a heartbreak. For the first time in her life, she started drinking. These life events took a toll on her mental health, so she turned to the Native foodways of her Karuk and Southern Ute tribes for healing.
Baker looked to build food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is a set of rights, principles, and social movements that empower households and communities to grow and eat culturally appropriate and healthy foods. It’s an essential food production and distribution approach that tackles the health and hunger inequalities of the current globalized food system by giving local communities the power to decide what they consume and how and who produces their food and water—putting the needs of communities before profits. Food sovereignty also benefits the planet and supports local livelihoods by restoring soil health, promoting chemical-free farming, and cutting down transportation emissions by prioritizing local farmers and fresh foods.
But an understated benefit of food sovereignty is its ability to help humans reclaim their well-being. For Native Americans, reconnecting with ancestral foodways—from preparation to consumption—may provide them with social, emotional, and psychological healing.
In 2012, Baker’s mental state was the worst it had ever been. She was eating poorly—pasta, breads, rice, fast food—and her drinking led her down a dark path. It wasn’t until she reconnected with her Native foods that she began to learn about the power they held.
“It was for my mental health, and I just felt that I needed to reboot,” Baker said. “So I decided to go on an Indigenous foods diet.”
Baker recalls how her family and tribes in California and Colorado were instrumental in teaching her about their customary food practices. She learned to help her dad butcher a buck, an experience she called “therapeutic” because of the love and understanding necessary. “For us, food is like medicine,” Baker said. She also learned about tribal food protocols. “I can’t have certain meats when I am on my moon because, traditionally, we are not allowed to prepare certain meats, for example, deer and elk meats.”
Returning to her Native foods was a process. Baker did lots of research that included reading, searching online, and talking with family to learn about the foods her ancestors ate. She also started to take advantage of the Native meats and seeds distributed on her tribe’s Southern Ute reservation in Colorado. This new journey also meant cutting out processed and refined foods—as well as alcohol. Baker’s Indigenous diet now includes pumpkin seeds, walnuts, dried cherries, sunflower seeds, squash, zucchini, and corn—with elk, bison, fish, turkey, and deer meat as primary sources of protein.
These days, Baker is doing much better, so she reconnects with her traditional foods periodically when she needs a reset. Still, the healing power of her Native foods now shapes every decision she makes about her diet—from the kind to the amount of food she eats. Ten years later, Baker (now a mom and a Ph.D. student at the University of New Mexico) is thriving.
“It does something to your mental health,” Baker said. “You are happy and healthy. I used to get really, really bad anxiety. I was going through a break up, and I had a breakdown. I was saying, I just don’t want to ever feel like this again. I sought natural ways of healing my anxiety, and it really worked.”
A growing body of research is exploring the correlation between nutrition and mental wellness. What we eat doesn’t just affect our physical health. It seems to affect our mind, too. For example, several studies show that people whose diet included more fruits, vegetables, and fish have lower likelihood of depression.
An interventional study published in 2017 called the SMILES trial tested whether dietary changes could reduce depression among a group of 67 clinically depressed people on poor diets. The group was divided in two—33 individuals had the support of a dietitian who provided Mediterranean dietary guidance while the other 34 served as the control with access to only social support. After 12 weeks, both groups saw average depression scores improve, but those who received dietary advice did markedly better.
“These studies show diets have the potential to help improve mental health, especially when combined with other lifestyle modifications,” said Calliope Holingue, an assistant professor of mental health at Johns Hopkins University.
A 2020 review of research suggests that the gut-brain axis, a two-way communication system that allows gut microbes to exchange information with the brain, may be one of the mechanisms by which nutrition influences mental health. While it is a complex field of study that still needs lots more investigation, the literature suggests these microbes are linked to mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, autism, and schizophrenia, Holingue said.
These studies may help connect the dots for U.S. Indigenous communities to heal from the generational trauma they’ve endured over the last several hundred years. Nearly 20% of adult Native people experienced a mental illness from 2019 to 2020, according to the National Alliance on Mental illness. In 2019, suicide became the second-leading cause of death for Natives between the ages of 10 and 34. The American Addiction Centers reports that Native Americans also experience higher rates of substance abuse than other ethnic groups in the United States.
These problems didn’t exist when Indigenous people practiced their foodways before colonization, said land and Indigenous rights activist Marina Thomas. European settlers forcefully displaced them and their traditional way of life, including Thomas’s tribe, the Akimel O’odham of the Salt River Pima.
“Once we lost our connection to our food was when alcoholism came in—when the depression came in,” Thomas said. “Alcoholism and suicidal tendencies weren’t seen in our communities until we had our food sovereignty taken away.”
In 1565, Spanish colonizers came to North America and brought diseases that wiped out an estimated 90% of the Native American population. They didn’t stop there: they enslaved and sold millions of Indigenous people, primarily to the Spanish, to be used for sexual exploitation and free labor in mines, plantations, and homes. They also brutally killed Indigenous people.
Settler-colonizers also sought to conquer and control Indigenous people by displacing them. A 2021 study in Science showed that Native people lost nearly 99% of their lands. The consequences were grave: the identity and way of life of many tribal communities were shaped by their relationship with the land. Their attackers then forced new foods upon them, burned their crops, and hunted the animals they relied on for food (and with which many held sacred relationships) to near extinction.
“Alcoholism and suicidal tendencies weren’t seen in our communities until we had our food sovereignty taken away.”
Indigenous foodways were replaced with the Western diet, which is centered around refined grains, sugars, and processed foods. Once the U.S. government cut access to their customary food sources, the government started to issue food rations, which included flour, lard, sugar, and processed meats. Research has linked Spam, a government-distributed canned meat widely consumed on reservations, to increased risk of diabetes among Native Americans. Heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are now among the leading causes of death for Native Americans.
Thomas centers her activism around this reality: “I wanted to learn how to eat healthy and how to change the statistics of our people. Our people, the Salt River Pima, were the most obese population in the globe, so it really motivated me to focus on Indigenous rights—to protect our foodways and promote food sovereignty within tribal nations.”
That rude awakening led Thomas to decolonize her diet.
Inside her kitchen, she now cooks with the food she grows on the rez. It’s a practice she teaches her two children so that they can grow up with this tradition. Her diet is now made up of whole, nutritious foods that are sustainably grown and harvested. The tepary bean—which is high in protein and a good source of calcium, zinc, iron, and other nutrients—is a staple in her diet. Thomas also enjoys corn pinole—which is ground roasted corn used to make tortillas, baked goods, and drinks filled with fiber, complex carbs, and antioxidants. Over the last few years, Thomas’s efforts to reconnect with superfood amaranth and the prickly pear cactus transformed her eating habits.
“Before, I was clogged up—mentally spiritually, emotionally,” Thomas said. “I would feel bad. I felt unhappy because I was putting bad things in my body. I carried that guilt, and that guilt was also another part of my day. I was a grumpy person—like having a bad day all the time.”
Pushing herself out of that nightmare wasn’t easy. Thomas struggled to find information about her ancestral foods—and she struggled to find them at all. “Our food is not as present today as they were prior to European contact,” she pointed out.
Many Indigenous tribes are making a massive effort to change that. Seeds preservationist Electa Hare-RedCorn works with the Pawnee Seed Preservation Society in Oklahoma to keep Native food—primarily ancient corn varieties—alive among her Pawnee people.
“We are really working against the clock to return some of the traditional, ecological knowledge practices, such as growing alongside the streams, the creeks, the waterways,” Hare-RedCorn said.
The lack of access to land, seeds, clean water sources, and healthy foods persist among Indigenous communities. The climate crisis threatens to exacerbate this by disrupting access to traditional fish, crops, and animals to hunt. This continued disconnection from Native foods is troubling, Hare-RedCorn said.
“Seeds are more than just food,” she went on. “Seeds are a sense of spiritual nourishment. Seeds in combination with other animal relationships—it is part of our creation story. Seeds are our origin point, and if we don’t have that, we lose track of a sense of our regulation.”
This is a story about a human right. It’s about egregious injustices. It’s about survival. It’s also about a deep healing connection between food and our mind. Baker, Thomas, and Hare-RedCorn know that this story is just beginning to unfold, but they also know that its future lies in the past—in the ancestral foodways they’re working to recover. And there is hope: from the heirloom seeds planted in the soil to the powerful testimony shared with the clouds and the sky.
“I’ve come full-circle. When I was younger, we lived in poverty. I ate a lot of ramen noodles, lots of processed foods—the commodities given to Native people,” Baker said. “Once I reconnected with my roots, I lost weight. I started to exercise. I found my confidence, and my mental health was so much better—that’s what my Indigenous foods did.”