Ka Wai Ola

Pumpkin Stomach – Said in ridicule of one with a large protruding abdomen. –‘Ōlelo No‘eau #2537

Keeping fit and strong was very important in old Hawai‘i. All work was physically-demanding, without farm machinery, mules, or carts to help. All travel was by foot or canoe. In addition, there was little chance of over-eating, even among ali‘i (chiefs). Further, an assistant of the ali‘i, the kanaka kalaimoku, had kuleana (responsibility) to keep the people and ali‘i fit. According to Davida Malo, “If the kalaimoku should see “that the kings’ people were becoming so stout as be clumsy, he would urge the king to have the men run races, roll the maika, practice the pahe‘e game…or, to go where food was scarce, in order to reduce (their) flesh”. And if, “the king was eating too much soft poi, the kalaimoku advised against it, because hard poi is better and taro best of all to keep one, fleet-of-foot…”. The chiefs and men needed to maintain “fighting fitness” to protect their homes, lands and rulers. The ‘Ōlelo Noeau”, “‘Opū pala ‘ai”, ridicules or teases, a person with fat stomach.

A visiting anthropologist, Dr. Charles Snow, and other anthropologists and scientists from the Bishop Museum, Universities of Hawai‘i, Chicago, Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky and the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, studied Hawaiian skeletal remains from the Mōkapu excavations for Bishop Museum between 1951 and 1974.

He summarized, “Comparisons of the different bones give accurate concepts of body proportions and build. Muscular bodies with very harrow hips were characteristic of these island people. The limb and hip bones showed an extraordinary muscular development in women as well as men. Indeed, all of their bones bespeak the vigorous and strenuous outdoor existence of these people and confirm what we have already learned thru other sources.” Today, Native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike, find it hard to believe that our ancestors were not fat. Our title’s ‘Ōlelo Noeau”, “‘Opū pala ‘ai”, ridicules a person with fat stomach.

Today, few Hawaiians exhibit the height or stature of our ancestors; fewer still have the fine muscular limbs and, even fewer, have hips as narrow as our kupuna. Today, little attention is given to nutrition, sleep and physical activity in the pre-teen years through mid-twenties…or, the rapid growing period…can result in less than potential or expected height. Childhood illnesses, if prolonged, can also interfere with potential growth in height. Our ancestors breast-fed all infants, ensuring a strengthened immune system, growth potential and a good start in life.

Photo: PoiClearly, deterioration in Hawaiian health is the result of far-poorer diets, less sleep and less physical-fitness. Sitting and using electronic devices for long periods dramatically reduces physical exertion and calorie use. Consuming French fries, candies and chips and drinking soda, beer or wine…all choices that are devoid of growth and health-promoting nutrients work against health Fortunately, with exercise, we can exchange fat for muscle and become more muscular like our ancestors. And, by eating more like the traditional Hawaiian diet, that is high in complex carbohydrates from vegetables, a few fruits, and low in fats and animal products, with no sweetened drinks… we can regain health.

In addition, a daily exercise regimen is necessary. For those of us who are older, a long daily walk is one of the best overall exercises. To achieve maximum health, we are also encouraged to develop upper body strength. This means some weight bearing exercises, which requires that we learn how to do them properly without hurting ourselves. Drinking adequate amounts of water, eight glasses a day is particularly important when exercising.

The remedies to return to the vibrant state of health of our ancestors are simple, although not necessarily easy. Making some small dietary changes and gradually adding physical activity will be rewarding and life-sustaining.

Of all questions asked about health, WEIGHT…mostly, overweight, is the most frequent one posed to me. Overweight and obesity is problem; it is an American problem. Concern about the diagnosis of obesity is well-founded. And, yes, we should handle it, right away. Overweight, extreme overweight and all related to problems that challenge health and life. Back a few decades, children were rarely overweight, and none reached the extremely high weights until late childhood. Extreme overweight challenges health and life of children, as well.

Obesity plagues even more Hawaiians today than ever before. Survey data from the Department of Health in 2002 showed that about half (52.5 percent) of Hawaiians were overweight. According to a small 2002 study of those fifty-two percent, half are very much overweight, which means that about 1/4 of us are obese. Recent studies indicate that the propensity towards obesity has actually increased since the early 2000s.

Obesity is linked to all the illnesses that lead to higher death rates among Hawaiians. When we look around at friends and family, if everyone is heavy, we think that is the norm for us, and we accept it. Sadly, many of our children are affected very early in life.

In 1921, in the newspaper Ka Hoku o Hawai‘i, the Reverend Stephen L. Desha wrote about human leg bones found near Hale o Keawe at Honaunau. He wrote, “…it was seen that (the bone) from the foot to the knee, when set alongside the leg of a certain man of Honaunau, the length of this bone reached almost halfway up the thigh of the living man. In adding the bone from the knee to the thigh, these two bones reached to the chest of the living man, so that we are able to realize that this was a very large man, perhaps seven or eight feet in height.”


Ancient Hawaiians ate healthy to keep up with a physically-demanding lifestyle. – Photo: Kawena Lei Carvalho-Mattos