The ancestral secret that helped islanders lose weight

If you’ve ever visited Hawaii, you can’t help but be enamored of its beauty — not only of the islands but its people.

In the more touristy spots you can always find celebrations of traditional island dance that feature svelte, strong Hawaiian men and fit and curvy Hawaiian women, reminiscent of their ancestors.

But when you get away from the resorts and take a walk where the regular folk live and work, you realize that the modern native Hawaiian has a very real health problem “weighing” them down. You could actually say it’s a hunger problem, but not from lack of something to eat – and I’ve experienced it too.

Since I changed my diet, I’ve noticed a change in the way my hunger behaves. When I used to snack on chips and junk food, the food itself seemed to increase my need for more food. But eating paleo food moves my hunger back where it belongs – in my brain and stomach instead of in my taste buds.

In an interesting twist to most people’s conception of the paleo diet, researchers in Hawaii have used the traditional Hawaiian paleo diet to help obese native Hawaiians lose weight and regain the health and stamina their ancestors were once famous for.

The Hawaiian paleo diet

The Hawaiian traditional diet mostly consists of fruits and vegetables with a heavy emphasis on root vegetables. That means that it contains a large amount of taro (a starchy root similar to a potato), yams, sweet potatoes and breadfruit (a flowering tree found in the South Pacific). The diet also includes fern shoots and taro leaves along with seaweed. It allows limited amounts of fish and chicken. All the foods are eaten raw or steamed. Nothing is fried.

Omitted, of course, are processed foods. So although this diet, known as the Waianae diet, is high in carbohydrates, they aren’t sugary carbohydrates. They are the kinds of stomach-filling starches found in sweet potatoes that are bound up with heavy doses of fiber.

When researchers recently put a group of native Hawaiians on this diet for three weeks, the average weight loss was close to 20 pounds. Blood pressure dropped in all the dieters and their cholesterol improved, too.

Why is this diet working so well for native Hawaiians? They are eating the food of their ancestors — and it is food that actually satisfies them, unlike what they were eating before. And most of us that live stateside could benefit just like they have. I know I have.

How you can increase your satisfaction

A test at Leatherhead Food Research in Surrey, England shows that merely switching to high fiber snacks like fruits, vegetables and nuts, and staying away from low-fiber processed chips and other similar foods can take off pounds.

The researchers point out that a healthy, fiber-filled snack, like a handful of nuts and dried fruit, can be just as tasty (without the artificially induced hunger) as a processed food-like substance that comes out of a box.

“You can make something just as delicious with a greater mixture of ingredients,” says researcher Kantha Shelke. “You also can increase quantity while limiting energy density (your calories don’t go up by very much). The satiety lasts longer, and there’s no penalty for enjoyment.”

So whether we’re talking about decreasing snacking or eating more satisfying meals, fiber seems to be a huge part of the puzzle. According to my friend, Dr. Mark Wiley, fiber provides bulk that suppresses the appetite; binds with cholesterol; lowers blood sugar; speeds removal of toxic wastes from the bowels, thereby reducing the risk of constipation; helps reduce risk of high blood sugar, diabetes, cholesterol, heart disease and some cancers.

Brain rewards

If you also stay away from processed food that includes high-fructose corn syrup, you will find yourself more satisfied.

A study involving brain scans at the University of Basel in Switzerland demonstrates that when you consume fructose, the sweetener that’s used in just about every soft drink as well as in sweet treats, it doesn’t produce the same stimulation in the brain’s reward circuits that regular sugar does.

As regular sugar enters your stomach and intestines, nerve signals travel to the neurons in the brain that communicate feelings of satisfaction in the hippocampus and the amygdala. These brain locales control your emotions and impulsivity. When you make them happy, you reduce your hunger and shrink the chances that you will overeat.

But the Swiss brain scans show that fructose doesn’t have the same neuronal effect. The resulting dissatisfaction that results from fructose makes binging more likely as your body still wants to be satiated. And that makes weight gain more likely and losing weight more difficult.

So for me, and many others — like the native Hawaiians having so much success with their version — the main attractions of the paleo diet is that it often allows you to lose weight even though you are consuming large amounts of food.

And it’s relatively easy to follow. Just stick to the types of foods that your great grandpa and grandma ate — that leaves out all the processed food that fill most supermarket shelves — and you’ve created a diet that can be both slimming and health boosting.

Margaret Cantwell

By Margaret Cantwell

Margaret Cantwell began her paleo diet in 2010 in an effort to lose weight. Since then, the diet has been instrumental in helping her overcome a number of other health problems. Thanks to the benefits she has enjoyed from her paleo diet and lifestyle, she dedicates her time as Editor of Easy Health Digest™, researching and writing about a broad range of health and wellness topics, including diet, exercise, nutrition and supplementation, so that readers can also be empowered to experience their best health possible.