No Bones About It

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Many of us were taught that you need to drink milk or eat dairy foods to get the calcium needed for strong bones. Milk and other dairy foods weren’t part of a traditional Hawaiian diet. Does that mean our Native Hawaiian ancestors didn’t have strong bones? Written records on the bone health of Native Hawaiians are scarce. However, current research about osteoporosis may give us a clue.

Osteoporosis is a condition wherein the bones became weak and brittle, which increases the risk of bone fractures. While the chance that you’ll get osteoporosis is dependent on a number of things, the ones we have some control over are lifestyle choices. Lifestyle choices include the foods we choose to eat and the type and amount of exercise we do.

A group of researchers compared different studies to see the relationship between different foods and risk of developing osteoporosis. While dairy was found to lower the risk of osteoporosis, it wasn’t the only food to do so. Other foods that lowered risk of osteoporosis included fish, vegetables, fruits, and tea. These foods are the basis of a traditional Hawaiian diet!

Strong bones rely on more than just calcium. Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, found in fish, are two other important nutrients. Omega-3 fatty acids help to prevent your body from losing too much calcium. Vitamin D increases the amount of calcium that gets absorbed by your body. Oily fish, such as ahi, aku, ʻōpelu, and akule, have more omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D than other fish. Try to eat at least two servings of fish weekly.

Vegetables and fruits, particularly those that contain vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin K, each play a role in preventing too much bone loss and increasing bone density. Lūʻau leaves are an original superfood, as it contains all those nutrients plus calcium. Other bone-building traditional foods include banana, ʻuala (sweet potato), kalo (taro), and limu. Aim to eat four or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

Tea might not be thought of as being a traditional Hawaiian drink but it was. Historians write about Native Hawaiians preparing koʻokoʻolau tea for use as a “general tonic,” while māmaki tea was used for general “run-down” conditions. This indicates its common use, likely on a regular basis.

Physical exercise, particularly weight-bearing and muscle strengthening exercises, are just as important to building and maintaining strong bones. The physically active lifestyle of Native Hawaiians included both of these exercises. Weight-bearing exercises are those that use your bones to support your weight, such as walking, jogging, dancing, or surfing. Weight-bearing exercises should be done 4-5 times a week, 30-45 minutes each time.

Muscle strengthening exercises include lifting weights or using your body weight as resistance (such as push-ups, planks, and squats). Wrestling and martial arts training would incorporate these types of exercises. A good muscle-strengthening schedule should work all major muscle groups, two to three times per week.

Did Native Hawaiians have strong bones? Without a doubt.