When Dr. Luz Calvo was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, she embarked upon an unimaginable food journey.
A vegetarian for over 15 years, Calvo believed everything she was eating was healthy, but what she discovered was that the “industrialized American diet” is what often leads to some of the most dangerous and prevalent diseases among Latinos such as diabetes, heart disease and various forms of cancer.
Throughout her intense chemotherapy sessions and her subsequent recovery, Calvo, who is a professor at California State University, East Bay, began to research food — not only where it comes from, but how it’s grown and what influence and impact it has on the human body. Through the course of her research, a startling statistic emerged and it began to shape her present views about the importance of food justice and food as medicine.
“U.S. born Latinas have a 50 percent higher risk of getting breast cancer than foreign-born Latinas. México, ironically, has some of the lowest rates of breast cancer in the world. When I read that, I was alarmed and I started to question everything I was eating; all of the food and its health benefits. That’s when I turned to the food of my ancestors,” said Calvo.
Calvo and her partner, Dr. Catriona Rueda Esquibel, an Associate Professor at San Francisco State University, together went on a food self-discovery that took them back to their roots, literally and figuratively.
Calvo, who draws her roots to Sonora, México and Esquibel, whose family is from New México, began to dissect the traditional Mexican diet. Esquibel remembered the diverse diet provided by her mother as a young child — it was made up of home grown squash and a variety of vegetables, wild greens and herbs. Her mother raised baby chicks next to her stove every year to provide eggs and meat for the family.
As Calvo continued to research food, more statistics emerged including the fact that immigrant Latinas have significantly lower rates of breast cancer than U.S. born Latinas and the longer Latina immigrants live in the United States, the higher their risk for developing breast cancer.
Oddly, learning English was also associated with a higher risk of breast cancer among immigrant women. To Calvo, there was something in the United States and something about acculturating to US culture that were likely contributing to increased breast cancer rates.
“That’s when a light went on for me. What if the diet of rural México and Central América, a diet that is ancestral and plant-based such as corn, squash, wild greens, nopales, prickly pear cactus, fresh fruit, nuts and seeds was protecting folks from the diseases associated with life in the US, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers?”
The research of both Calvo and Esquibel led to the writing and publishing of their book, ‘Decolonize Your Diet’ which is filled with plant-based Mexican-American recipes for health and overall healing.
The Latino community has popular and strong traditions that usually involve food, but it’s the incorporation of products from the industrialized American diet that are hurting Latinos and the cause of so many health woes.
“The word ‘decolonize’ means looking at the foods that our ancestors ate before the Spanish conquistadores arrived; before all of the invasions. Those foods were staples to the Mexican diet and they had enormous health benefits,” said Calvo.
At a special presentation at the Sol Collective, Calvo explained the importance of decolonizing one of the most basic and transient staples of the American diet that is causing one the worst epidemic of diabetes and obesity among Latinos: soda.
“It appears that at almost every meal, a Latino family will incorporate a Coke or another sugary beverage into the meal to the point that it’s almost not polite to not have that as an option at the table. Then you look at all the other forms of junk food and there are absolutely no health benefits found in any of them,” said Calvo.
Calvo and Esquibel are hoping their book and their work will help Latino communities stop to think about the foods they are consuming and to question the health benefits, if any, of what they are putting into their bodies.
Going back to a traditional diet, they say, is not just a form of resistance against powerful illnesses like heart disease or cancer, but an act of political resistance.
“Eating the foods that actually nourish our bodies is one way to begin a movement against colonization and against corporations who hire engineers to calculate the bliss point of addiction in their products for the average consumer,” said Calvo.
Worst of all, she said, corporations tend to target Latino children and youth at a much higher rate. More advertisements are directed in places where there is a large concentration of immigrant and Latino communities. As a result, the first generations of Latinos born in the United States are living shorter lives due to obesity and diabetes. The healthy food and natural drinks made by their parents and grandparents has almost entirely been lost.
A can of soda usually contains about 140 “empty calories” said Calvo and contains 1/3 teaspoons of sugar and 39 grams of carbohydrates and has no nutritional value. Worse, most sodas and other sugary drinks are made from high fructose corn syrup that is made from genetically modified corn.
“GMO corn is highly processed, cheap to make and worse than cane sugar. Almost 88 percent of the corn in the United States is used for ethanol, animal feed and to make high fructose corn syrup. It’s grown by big agribusiness and it threatens the existence of natural corn,” said Calvo.
Corn — or maíz — is a large component of the traditional Mexican diet and in its natural form, is actually healthy and one of the most important and original crops of México that dates back thousands of years before the conquest.
“México is the birthplace of ancient corn and unfortunately, the legacy of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), many indigenous farmers have been forced off their land because the introduction of GMO corn in México has left many farmers unable to compete with cheap, US corn,” said Calvo.
Calvo and Esquibel firmly believe the Latino community and all communities in the United States should make a genuine effort to return to their roots and traditions. Instead of drinking a soda, why not an aqua fresca like a water kefir, which are fermented drinks where the idea of creating ‘soda’ first emerged.
“Fermented drinks in the America’s were in existence long before the Spanish arrived and long before Europeans have been known to drink similar beverages. Our drinks are chicha, tejuino, pulque, tepache, and colonche,” said Esquibel.
Calvo said there are healthier alternatives to sugary drinks that can be made at home like the water kefir which can be made from natural fruits and herbs and has that bubbly ‘soda’ taste and is created by a simple three step process. Best of all, water kefirs are low in sugar and provide an abundance of health benefits.
“They contain a great dose of probiotics and help boost the immune system. They also have anti-inflammatory qualities and have anti-cancer properties. Best of all, you can drink them as much as you want and as much as you would like throughout the course of a lifetime,” said Calvo.
Calvo encourages Latino youth to take a careful look at what they are consuming and to make a conscious effort to read the fine print on the back labels from the products they are buying at their local grocery store.
“I usually tell my students, if there is a word there that you have to google, that you can’t pronounce or that you don’t know what it is, chances are, it’s a chemical or something else that could cause your body harm,” said Calvo.
Their book, Decolonize Your Diet is part of a larger movement that utilizes ancestral knowledge to help communities of color respond to the public health crisis and the decimation of the food systems foundation, brought upon by the industrialized Western diet.
Their goal is to empower people to choose wholesome foods to improve the physical and spiritual health of their families, communities and Mother Earth. Their book can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, among other retailers.