The Pueblo Food EXPERIENCE
Try to imagine spending three months eating only those foods your ancestors ate more than 400 years ago. Would it be possible? And how would it impact your health and vitality?
In the Pueblo Food Experience, 14 volunteers set out to answer those questions — with astounding results.
The idea germinated when Roxanne Swentzell, artist and cofounder of Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, was speculating with her son Porter — a historian studying Ancestral Puebloan culture — about whether they could eat as their Santa Clara Pueblo ancestors had before Spanish settlers introduced new foods in 1598.
“It was just an absolutely fascinating thought to us, and we wanted to test it to see, first of all, if it was possible, and then what would it do to our bodies if we did,” Swentzell said.
Swentzell — who has been saving and cultivating indigenous seeds for 30 years — had a pre-existing understanding of genetic adaptations to environment and a commitment to cultural preservation.
“We decided to do an experiment based on [the idea] that seeds fit their environment, plants fit their environment, and so do the
“When we talk about health, health isn’t just about our bodies,” Swentzell said. “And so the spiritual aspect and the belonging and the connection to our place and past became a whole level that I wasn’t expecting, and
it healed something in our hearts I think. And that’s my greatest surprise and the biggest gift it gave us.”
genetic codes of humans. Any species — including people — actually are genetically adapted to a certain place,” Swentzell said.
“And I had the perfect situation at hand, because Pueblo people were not relocated, were still in our ancestral place. The only difference is that we’re not eating our ancestral food anymore. But what if we did?”
Fourteen Puebloan volunteers ranging from 6 to 65 years old were given blood tests and weighed before and after the experiment. Although some were fairly healthy at the start, most showed symptoms of diabetes, heart issues, obesity, high blood pressure, allergies and fatigue.
“And so we dove into it, and for three months we did this diet — cold turkey — where we really stuck to it as much as we possibly could,” Swentzell said.
They started in midwinter, when many foods were not available, and group members soon realized they were not prepared. They got through the experiment by sharing tips on where to find food and how to prepare it.
“The learning curve was amazing — fast and steep. . . . I was afraid I’d starve. But, of course, we could eat as much as we wanted, and we did, and we were OK,” Swentzell said. “I know that it took our little group, which is a small community, to be able to carry ourselves through that time of finding the food.
“One of the hardest things was [going] to the store, and sometimes you couldn’t find a single thing in the store that you could eat, because it’s mostly processed European food.” Beans and squash were relatively easy to come by, but corn proved surprisingly difficult. “Even though it was one of our main staples, it has all been genetically modified, and it’s not the same kind of plant that we used to eat.” Swentzell grows local indigenous corn varieties, but she did not have enough for “bulk feeding.”
The group found a source of non-GMO corn in Oregon that could meet the needs of the entire group. “Isn’t that sad? Here we are, corn people, and we had to go to Oregon to find non-GMO corn.”
The group was retested at the end of three months. “It was phenomenal what happened to us. The health benefits were beyond what any of us expected,” Swentzell said.
Dr. Maria Gabrielle, who did the before and after assessments, recorded an average weight loss of 35 to 40 pounds, with one person losing 50 pounds. Blood tests showed large decreases in cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar. Participants also reported feeling healthier and having more energy.
Swentzell’s total cholesterol level — which she previously had not been able to lower — dropped from 245 to 172 mg/dL.
Three years later, many of the volunteers are still following the Pueblo Food Experience diet. For Swentzell, it is a comfortable fit, and she maintains it unless circumstances (such a recent trip to Europe) interfere with finding native foods.
“It’s not a new thing anymore. It’s just what you eat,” Swentzell said. “So if I have to stray, I find things that are the next closest thing to it.”
In their search for food, participants became more aware of their environment and the plants and animals that could be harvested. The effort involved, such as finding food in the hills or looking an animal in the eye, sometimes killing it and watching it die, touched them on deeper levels.
“The connection to your food was so different than it is in the way America is now, where you go buy your food in packages and exchange it with money. It’s a different, different thing,” Swentzell said. “When you’ve watched it be alive, or you grew it from a seed, you eat it with absolutely a different sense of respect and gratitude than if it’s just handed [to you] on a plate.”
Swentzell and others in the group also began to feel a spiritual connection to their ancestors, which took the experiment far beyond a diet into a spiritual journey.
“When we talk about health, health isn’t just about our bodies,” Swentzell said. “And so the spiritual aspect and the belonging and the connection to our place and past became a whole level that I wasn’t expecting, and it healed something in our hearts I think. And that’s my greatest surprise and the biggest gift it gave us.”