Early in my professional career, I was humbled and honored by the invitation to co-research a study with Dr. Claire Hughes, among other esteemed Native Hawaiian health practitioners.
A number of studies and programs had repeatedly demonstrated the success of a traditional Hawaiian diet in lowering body weight, cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose and/or blood pressure, among Native Hawaiian adults.
With this known, researchers wanted to go a step further to determine whether a traditional Hawaiian diet boosted athletic abilities as well.
This was a revolutionary point to explore for two reasons. First, general mainstream advice to athletes advises a diet that has a low to moderate amount of carbohydrates. Second, the composition of a traditional Hawaiian diet was far from being low or even moderate in carbohydrates. In fact, carbohydrates made up approximately 78% of Hawaiʻi’s pre-Western diet. Examples include taro and sweet potato and their leaves, yams, breadfruit, and bananas.
In our study – the Uliʻeo Koa Program: Warrior Preparedness Program – we worked with Native Hawaiian male and female members of a lua group. The program participants engaged in two hours of daily exercise; one hour of light exercise and one of vigorous intensity. All meals provided to the athletes followed a traditional Hawaiian diet pattern. At the end of this program, despite eating a high carbohydrate diet, members experienced more muscular strength, endurance, and flexibility than before.
An interesting thing to keep in mind is that red meat and eggs were not provided in this program, only limited amounts of fish and chicken.
The program findings were not entirely surprising.
Historian Samuel Kamakau described the diet of warriors during the reign of Kamehameha I. To prepare his warriors for martial art instruction and training, Kamehameha provided them with a generous supply of starchy vegetables and fish. The diet was the same regardless of whether they were chiefs or commoners. Kamehameha encouraged them to provide for themselves by cultivating their land and fishing. While providing instruction, he set an example by working alongside them. During battle, vegetables and fruit were the primary foods of the warriors, as they were the most readily available and convenient.
The fact that Native Hawaiians were physically impressive gives further proof of the nutritional adequacy of this plant-based diet. Historical writings describe Hawaiians as “tall, shapely, and muscular.” The average height of the men was thought to be five feet ten inches, with some as tall as six feet seven inches. If Hawaiians were a nutritionally malnourished people, historians would not have reported such favorable characteristics.
So what is the best diet for athletes? Look no further than our own history. As was said about Kamehameha, “Furnishing food and things for the wellbeing of his people was the first stepping stone to victory, as who can be a strong man in a battle if he lacks the food to strengthen his body?”