What Living With An Amazonian Tribe Taught Me About Nutrition

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It was December of 2011 and I was hot, thirsty, and probably needed a shower. I was also sailing across the Amazon River from the Rio Negro in Northern Brazil where I would spend the next 3 days living and learning the ways of an Amazonian tribe. Excited? Yes, but also pretty frightened about what could happen. I’d been in the jungle for a week by then, and I’d come to the conclusion that the place was dangerous! My guide would tell me stories of jaguars, anacondas and bugs that can do more damage than I wanted to think about. Still though, I was very keen to learn the ways of the Amazon – the people, environment, legends, and the mystical spirituality that I’d heard so much about.I did have an ulterior motive though; I was supremely fascinated by what these guys did for food – what sort of relationship and knowledge they had of nutrition and plant medicine.
What I found didn’t surprise me really; my experience was as magical, mystical and educational as I could’ve hoped for. Most of all, I walked away from this experience with a clarified perspective of health and nutrition, and what I believe to be the answer to fat loss and dietary disease.

Upon disembarking the boat I was greeted by a member of the tribe. Medium height, limited clothing, war paint, but my first thought? Robustly healthy. Biceps that I’d spent years to get (still couldn’t measure up to him), and a naturally athletic look that can either be attributed to hours in the gym or days laboring his body naturally in the Amazon Jungle; I got a feeling it was the latter. I was accompanied by my translator who spoke in the tribe’s native tongue and had pretty good english himself, so I quickly thanked him and gave appreciation for allowing me to stay with him. His response was politely dismissive as he quickly helped me with my backpack and showed me around the village.


*A tribesman and myself…. Putting my muscles to shame.”

While meeting the rest of the tribe, my thoughts were still pretty superficial; strong, lean, healthy people, why?!? How old are these people? I wonder if they’ve ever worked out? As a personal trainer, I’d always preached this type of body to my clients “lean, proportioned, defined and strong.” I’d read about people having the same revelations when coming in touch with these sort of tribes; Dr. Weston A Price for one, who monitored the health of many indigenous tribes and came to the conclusion that those who hadn’t been introduced to process foods (sugar, flour etc) had near perfect teeth and mouth structure….

Although I don’t have an inch of the knowledge of Dr. Price, I still felt that I was onto something in regards to indigenous health. What were these people eating? How did they live? What were they doing nutritionally that I wasn’t?

*Ritualistic song and dance from the tribe: I believe they’re giving thanks to mother nature.

After a day of settling into the village and learning about the customs, rituals and beliefs of the jungle people – very cool, I proceeded to explain to my interpreter that I was really keen to know what sort of diet these people had. I think he was a little surpised and expected a request like going fishing or hiking. He replied, “okkayyy I take you to Medicine Man.”

I’d heard about this man known as “Medicine Man” from my translator on the boat trip over. He’d explained that this man, a native Shaman, had three generations of jungle wisdom and plant medicine behind him, and he was so knowledgeable that he attracted terminally ill people from all over South America to be healed from the concoctions he created and alternative methods that he used. Fair to say that I was pretty nervous at this point; here was a guy who was probably at the peak of spiritualism and all I could conjure up was “so, what’s your diet like.” My insecurities were quickly whisked away when the Shaman greeted me with a soft but warm  handshake and an effortless smile that accentuated all of his facial muscles. He was older, but you could never guess his age. His face projected wisdom and warmth that could bring peace to any person. During the quiet discourse between The Shaman and my translator, I detected the moment when my question was asked. Nervous, and detecting any variations in vibe, I listened to my translator explain to me the answer to my question; “what is the diet of the tribepeople?”

The Shaman’s answer “anything that mother earth gives us.”

What a beautiful answer. Simple, powerful, and all I needed to solve my query.

Not satisfied though, the Shaman went on to explain that they have a deep respect and knowledge about what they eat. He directed me to a really big veggie patch and herb garden, and explained the nature of the food that they ate, and the medicinal qualities involved. His knowledge was endless; “green leafy vegetables immunity and avocados for nail and skin health.” He went further in explaining his intimate knowledge of the herbs. Although I only picked up 50% of what he was saying, it seemed that these herbs helped eliminate the common diseases, and the Shaman explained that the combinations that he, and only he knew of was the catalyst in keeping the tribespeople in optimum health.


*Every morning started with avocado picking*

As I continued my food and medicine journey, I pondered the simplicity of their food system. There was nothing in wrapping, nothing with advertising attached to it, and nothing that said “99% fat free all natural anti – oxident rich…” It just was good, real food; and it’s effects were evident in the health of the tribespeople.

The Shaman continued the tour by explaining the other half of his diet; protein. This was hot on my mind as I’d learnt how important it was and I was from my years of studying nutrition and I was kind of hoping that meat would be a apart of their diet (it was nearly dinner time). Sure as ever, the Shaman was a big proponent of meat in their diet, and explained that the village relied on the fresh Amazonian fish for the bulk of their meals, as well as the wild game that they’d hunt for on a regular basis. Dinner soon came around and I was treated to some of the freshest fish of my life, coupled with a generous serving of amazonian vegetables and fruits (bananas, mangos, jackfruit).


*Jackfruit: My favourite Amazonian fruit


*Cacao: The highest natural source of magnesium, chromium and iron… Imagine having this in your backyard!

Eating this fresh, nutritious meal, I began comparing our culture of diets, calories, and mixed marketing messages with this more simple, nutritious, real food culture. On one hand we have an obesity crises, sugar cravings, type 2 diabetes, and a wealth of dietary related diseases. On the other hand, we have simple, nutritious food that we’ve been eating for 99% of our evolution. This coupled with ancient plant wisdom, and they’ve got the result of lean, robust, mobile people, with a life expectancy that exceeds western culture.


*Pretty stoked after my daily mango picking*

What I learnt:

1. In order to be healthy, we must eat what we’re designed to eat…. This tribe was living proof of that.

2. We’ve managed to complicate the hell out of this dietary/nutrition thing.

3. A minimum stress life is invaluable to health and wellness.

4. We need to start embracing herbs and their medicinal qualities more.

5. There is no more powerful force in the universe than nature, and if we abide by its laws then we’re on the right track.

Upon boarding my rickety boat back to the mainland, I waved goodbye to a few of the tribes people, and began thinking about this simplistic and deeply spiritual way of life. I’d shared meals, laughs, rituals and ceremonies with these people and I was supremely grateful for what I’d experienced. It was primal living at its greatest and I really hope that McDonalds doesn’t find it’s way there!

Thanks for reading,

Steve


*”Medicine Man” and myself

  • nic

    Sounds amazing Steve! Great pic of you and the Medicine Man!

  • Awesome read. 🙂

  • xro99

    Very cool post. Great pix, and yeah, we’ve managed to overcomplicate the hell outta this.

    • Hi,
      Thanks for the comment, yeah we’ve complicated this and much more!

  • Andrew Cowell

    Just found your website Steve. Haven’t read anything yet I don’t immediately concur with. This article is great – such a clear simple message. Good work! 🙂

    • Thanks Andrew, that’s some good motivation to keep writing!

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  • Lara Taylor

    Lovely read…

    Would you share how you find adjusting to ‘normal’ Western life again, having had such an experience? Thanks, Lara 🙂

    • Hi Lara,

      Thanks for reading. Interesting you ask that question as a week after this I found myself at a 4 star resort in the North of Brazil – buffets, chauffeurs, structured tours, the works. Going from one extreme to the other was fascinating. While I enjoyed both experiences, it’s easy to consume for the hell of it and not give a second thought for contemplation.
      I suppose balance is the key, taking the best out of the amazon – minimalism, time for reflection and clean food, whilst enjoying the luxury and opportunities of the western world.
      Steve

  • Moa

    I found this text by accident :p when i was googling about tribes and health. Thanks for writing about your experience. Very interesting and heartwarming! Let me know if you know any books or blogs about this sort of stuff. Greetings from Sweden

  • Jose Emilio Orozco

    Than you for sharing your expirience, it opened my eyes on simple nutrition an diet.

  • Heather Lymbery

    Must have been an awesome experience, thanks for sharing it. It nice to be reminded of what I already knew