Souza R Zoom
Rebecca Souza

As part of Native American Heritage month, Novant Health celebrates the contributions native people have made to our diets. Some 60% of the food consumed globally today has ties to foods that Europeans encountered in what became North America. According to the Journal of Ethnic Foods: “It was not long until the new foods from the Americas were introduced around the world and corn, potatoes, new varieties of beans and squashes, peppers and tomatoes, and many other foods were rapidly accepted into the cuisines of the entire world.” (Note: 3 recipes follow this story at the bottom.)

Native people cultivated a wide variety of healthy crops. And the main crops were the Three Sisters: maize (corn), squash and beans. The combination of these three ingredients were the foundation of a healthy diet. Adding any of the other native foods offered amazing flavors and increased health benefits. Other Native American foods include avocado, bison (very health red meat), cashew, chia, manoomin (wild rice), papaya, peanuts, pecans, pineapple, pumpkins, quinoa, sweet potatoes and vanilla.

While the traditional Native American diet was extremely healthy, today Native Americans have some of the highest rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions in the U.S. Why? In many cases, when indigenous peoples were pushed off their lands by settlers or governments, they lost access to their traditional foods. Many on reservations were forced to rely on government-provided supplies such as white flour, canned meats and lard.

“Conflict with the U.S. government and racial discrimination have compromised the culture, traditional lifeways, and wellness of American Indians and Alaska Natives,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ”These challenges have contributed to poverty, unemployment, and poor housing — factors often associated with poor health behaviors and disease management.”

Traditional Native American foods are nutritional powerhouses and it’s easy to add them to current recipes. Bison and turkey are lean meats packed with protein and low in fat. turkey are lean meats packed with protein and low in fat. In addition, bison is rich in iron, zinc, vitamin B-12 and healthy omega 3 fats.

Wild rice is considered a nutrient-dense food. A cup of cooked wild rice contains 7 g protein and 3g fiber. It also contains thiamin, niacin, folate, vitamin E, vitamin K, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. Similarly, quinoa packs a lot of protein and fiber into one cup of cooked quinoa, in addition to being vitamin and mineral dense.

Wild rice and quinoa can be substituted in nearly any dish that uses rice. Chia seeds are even more nutrient-dense. Two tablespoons of chia seeds contains 11 grams fiber, 4 grams protein and 9 grams fat - 5 grams are omega-3 fatty acids which are extremely good for a number of health conditions, including heart disease. Chia seeds can easily be added to baked goods like breads and muffins, smoothies and oatmeal.

All of these foods are easy to cook and can be combined into some very tasty and healthy dishes. To begin, try just substituting one native ingredient into your own recipes or search the web for other health recipes. Here is a cookbook of heart healthy native recipes offered by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, In addition, here are some health Native American-inspired recipes.

Rebecca Souza is a facilitator for diversity, inclusion, and equity in Novant Health corporate pharmacy and is chair of the Native American Business Resource Group. She is not Native American, but has studied their cultures, traditional diets, and their health issues as part of her degrees in public health and medical anthropology.

Algonquian-inspired Three Sisters Rice

Native American 3 sisters rice
Three sisters rice

This is inspired by a traditional recipe.

3 cups chicken stock or water

1 cups long-grain brown or wild rice

1 pinch coarse salt to taste

1 medium yellow squash, cubed

1 medium zucchini squash, cubed

2 cups baby lima beans or firm bean of choice

2 cups whole-kernel corn

1 red bell pepper and 1 green bell pepper, roasted and cut into bite-sized strips

1/4 cups sunflower seed or corn oil

3 cloves garlic, finely diced

1 cups diced onion

1/2 cups chopped fresh parsley

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 teaspoon paprika

  1. In a large, deep pot over medium heat, bring the chicken stock or water to a rolling boil. Sprinkle in the rice and a pinch of salt, then lower the heat. Cover and steam for 20 minutes. Gradually add the squash*, lima beans, peppers and corn; stir well. Cover and steam for an additional 20 minutes.
  2. While this mixture cooks, warm the oil in a medium cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and onions, stirring briskly and cooking for about five minutes until garlic and onions are just glistening and translucent, but not brown. Add the remaining seasonings; stir thoroughly and remove from the heat.
  3. Stirring thoroughly, add these ingredients to the steaming rice and balance the seasonings and liquids. Steam for a final five minutes, covered. Fluff and serve.

*Note: if you prefer a firmer squash, do not add squash here. Sauté the squash for five minutes, turning at least once and add with onions.

Honey-drizzled popcorn

The American Indians popped corn over fires. The Northeastern tribes, such as Iroquois, added maple syrup for a sweet treat. The Cherokee and many other tribes added honey.

Note: this recipe is a great one for kids to help make.

Freshly popped, still-hot popcorn – you may air pop it or pop it in a pan with oil (make certain to use the lid). Microwave popcorn may not work as well.

Honey or maple syrup

  1. Drizzle the honey or maple syrup on the hot popcorn while stirring continuously.
  2. Do not put in too much honey or maple syrup. You don’t want to add to much sugar, plus it makes the popcorn at the bottom soggy.

Stuffed sugar pumpkin

The Hidatsa are a Plains Indian tribe. This recipe is very similar to one they would have used. It is a fantastic autumn recipe.

1, sugar pumpkin (often called pie pumpkins and available at many grocers), weighing four to five pounds
2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or rendered fat
1 pound ground venison, buffalo or beef
1 medium onion or 4 scallions, chopped
1 cup wild rice, cooked
3 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon crushed dried sage
¼ tsp pepper

Heat oven to 350 degrees F.

  1. Cut the top from pumpkin and remove seeds and strings. Prick cavity with a fork and rub with 1 teaspoon of salt and the mustard.
  2. Heat oil in a large skillet. Add meat and onion and sauté over medium-high heat until browned.
  3. Remove from the heat and stir in wild rice, eggs, remaining salt, sage and pepper. Stuff pumpkin with this mixture.
  4. Place 1/2 inch of water in the bottom of a shallow baking pan. Put the pumpkin in the pan and bake for 90 minutes, or until tender. Add more water to the pan as necessary to avoid sticking.
  5. Cut pumpkin into wedges, giving each person both pumpkin and stuffing. (Or you can scoop out the stuffing with a bit of pumpkin.) Serves 6.