Sharon Ka’iulani Odom: Embracing Cultural Heritage

Sharon Ka’iulani Odom, RD

“In Hawaiian culture, food nourishes the body, mind and spirit,” says Sharon Ka’iulani Odom, Roots Project Director, Kokua Kalihi Valley Health Clinic. “Religious and spiritual practices govern planting, harvesting and eating.”

The concept of malama `äina (to care for the land) refers to a reciprocal relationship: “For the land to supply food and sustenance, we must in turn take care of it,” says Odom. “This is a kuleana (responsibility) that is very natural in native Hawaiian culture, since for centuries the islands were completely isolated and self-sustaining.”

Native Hawaiians’ traditional diet kept them strong and healthy, but this began to change after foreign ships started arriving in the late 18th century. Along with the introduction of infectious diseases to which native Hawaiians had no immunity, their diet and lifestyles became more Westernized and chronic diseases became the most prevalent type of illness. Today, of all the ethnic groups in Hawaii, native Hawaiians have the highest rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, stroke, asthma, hypertension and cancer. To turn this tide, many native Hawaiians are turning to their roots.

Teaching Hawaiians about the culture and wisdom of their ancestors provides a natural segue into education on nutrition and healthy living. For example, field trips to lo’i (traditional taro farms) or loko i’a (fish ponds) are perfect backdrops to lessons in keeping the body healthy, and hula (traditional dance), hoe wa`a (canoe paddling) and he`e nalau (surfing) encourage physical activity.

“Our most significant food plant is kalo (taro),” says Odom. As the offspring of the gods Wakea and Hoohokulani, the kalo plant is seen as the eldest sibling of all Hawaiian people. “Kalo requires the utmost care and respect, from planting in the soil until presentation on the table. Hawaiians would pound kalo and water into a paste called poi, a staple of their diet.”

Other chief carbohydrates include ÿuala (sweet potato), ÿulu (breadfruit) and uhi (yam), which, as the base of the traditional Hawaiian diet, provide fiber, vitamins and minerals. Native Hawaiian cuisine also includes greens in the form of limu (seaweed), lü`au (taro leaves), palula (sweet potato leaves) and other herbs and plants.

The major sources of protein for native Hawaiians are lean animal foods such as iÿa (fish), moa (chicken), pelehü (turkey) and other fowl and seafood. These typically were baked in an imu (underground oven), boiled or roasted. Pig and dog were reserved for the ali`i (royalty) and later were eaten mostly during celebrations, not on a daily basis.

“Appreciating our heritage is a healthy practice in itself,” says Odom. “Through honoring our culture and ancestors, we honor ourselves.”

Food & Nutrition Magazine
Food & Nutrition Magazine publishes articles on food and diet trends, highlights of nutrition research and resources, updates on public health issues and policy initiatives related to nutrition, and explorations of the cultural and social factors that shape Americans’ diets and health.