Indigenous and minority people describe the need to “decolonize” — that society unwinds and redresses centuries of unequal treatment, denial of opportunity, removal, and economic and psychological trauma. Another fresh construction is food “sovereignty.” These terms might be in the same sentence, expressing grief, anger or a statement of cultural identity. Decolonization can begin with the body.
Bodily decolonization can help reverse our unprecedented and unsustainable levels of chronic disease — conditions that affect physical and emotional wellbeing. Minorities experience higher rates of chronic illness, but there is absolutely no ethnic boundary. Non-communicable, chronic sickness gobbles up about 75% of U.S. health care spending and impacts around 45% of the population. Decolonizing our bodies has tremendous positive implications for improving U.S. health, worker productivity and happiness.
The more poignant emblem for decolonization as one might imagine is the addictive, hormone-hacking, metabolic poison we call “sugar.” Industrialized through the trans-Atlantic trade network that colonized the Americas, forcing minorities into slavery four centuries ago, sugar now underpins vast areas of global commerce. In the U.S. it is currently unremarkable to consume about 17 teaspoons daily — day after day.
In the grocery store, around two-thirds of the edibles contain added sugar. In our community food events sweetness is routinely blended into multiple items in a single meal. We’re accustomed to, expectant, and seek out high-carb and sweet food combinations. It is absolutely unremarkable to see a child drinking a cold beverage containing six to twelve teaspoons. We decolonize with every food choice that reduces these sales and strengthens our supply of whole food options.
Health-focused legislation can support bodily decolonization. While none of the 50 U.S. states have passed taxes on sweetened beverages, 40 nations and seven U.S. cities have. Taxing this remarkable, dangerous emblem of colonization and injustice sends society the right message and legislation of this type has been shown to directly improve local health. The new money is used to strengthen public health programming and to fund media to further depress sugar consumption. That’s not a big ask, Juneau.
There are simple, non-nutritive, low-budget ways to decolonize the body: walking, talking to a child, going fishing, riding a bike, cooking healthy food, chopping firewood, helping someone, crafting, or fixing that broken thing, instead of buying new. These primitive activities are a humble contrast to, say, the hours spent on ones’ backside each game-day being colonized by Anheuser-Busch, Frito-Lay, the Lakers, the Seattle Seahawks, etc. and so forth.
Our complex systems of health provision can be viewed through the lens of colonization. Rather than targeting underlying pathologies, our medi-pharma complex routinely colonizes Americans by prescribing drugs or therapies that “target” symptoms, rather than repairing the underlying pathologies — as business model that is as lucrative as it is calamitous. We decolonize our bodies when we take time to understand the underlying conditions and honor the work of health: stress reduction, choosing whole foods, building supportive relations, restricting sugar and processed foods, doable activity; and, yes, a friendly healer might be a benefit in this pursuit.
A second wave of land colonization began following WWII. Now, a few generations later, economic control previously in the callused hands of Jefferson’s “yeoman farmers” is in corporate hands. In the process, the U.S. degraded the soil and uprooted many thousands of farm families; tens of millions of Americans left farm living.
Most of our food comes from the land, so the loss of topsoil — roughly 17 billion tons yearly in the U.S. — can be considered a long-term trauma. Decolonizing will, therefore, require that we re-colonize our microbial wealth — healthy soil in hundreds of thousands of backyards and urban and suburban wastelands and small farms; and healthy microbial life in our own gastrointestinal tracts through eating whole plant foods. Of course, decolonizing also means launching new connections with those who can strengthen our relationship with soil, food, balance and the body.
Indeed, America “fed the world” — wrecking topsoil, consolidating wealth, and diminishing the precious knowledge required to farm well and sustainably — knowledge passed down for many generations. And what, pray tell, have we received from this radical transformation?
• Shelf-stable starch concoctions stripped of whole fiber and essential nutrients that elevate inflammation and craving with each serving.
• High-fructose corn syrup for our addled pallets and processed foods;
• Grain-finished animal products raised with antibiotics, in confinement;
• Vegetable oils with inflammatory ratios of polyunsaturated fats;
“Normal” for many means hacked hormones, elevated rates of anxiety and depression, leaky gut, auto-immune dysregulation, obesity, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease and a dozen other optional metabolic conditions. Have you noticed how hard it is to eat just one?
The revolution can start right now. Walking, stooping, planting, washing, cooking, killing, and carrying are the dirty, joyful and regenerative tasks of decolonization. Decolonization requires that we honor the body.
Formidable opponents will seek to thwart any transformation, however: conventional wisdom, addiction, societal norms, learned behaviors, the need for education, and a gazillion processed foods and their corporate purveyors. Awaiting are greater physical and emotional wellness and the opportunity for a brighter, more just, regenerative future.
• Burl Sheldon is a Haines resident.