Non-communicable diseases (NCDs)hit the news again this week, after a shocking report from the World Health Organisation which claimed that nearly 80 per cent of deaths in the South Pacific region are from a NCD-related disease. According to Mosese Baseisei, the health promotion officer of the Viseisei Sai Health Centre in Vuda, this rate jumps to 86 per cent in Fiji with diabetes, heart disease, obesity and some cancers now claiming more lives than ever before. Dr Ezekiel Nukura, the technical officer with the visiting World Health Organisation team, also went as far to blame the cheap imports that have flooded the region which contain chemical ingredients, artificial colours and artificial flavours. Instant noodles didn't escape his report either, and combined with the tinned foods and enormous amounts of bread and margarine that Fijians consume, all contribute to the alarming sickness and eventual early deaths of Fijians.
Earlier in the week I visited the Viseisei Sai Health Centre to help the health officers and local people understand and identify the good and bad foods.
The high risk NCD cooking class was the first in Fiji, and a community project that I am more than happy to be involved with. With approval from the Ministry of Health, these classes help locals understand why they are getting sick compared to their grandparents. Fijians have not had to worry too much about a balanced diet in the distant past because the primal diet of their iTaukei ancestors was more organic, less processed and they were more active. Today, the combination of bad, cheap manufactured foods, smoking, alcohol, less fresh foods and lack of exercise has now contributed to this alarming death rate. A lot of people ask me what should they eat if the are high-risk NCD patients, and the answer is simple: exactly what your distant relatives used to eat! Guests in Viseisei learned that their diets lacked the essential vitamins and minerals for a healthy body. By adding more raw salads, fresh fruits, coconut and crunchy vegetables to their meals, Fijians can quickly begin to balance their diet.
Fiji is not alone in its battle against NCDs, but the difference is that this country can still reverse one of the world's biggest health crisis caused by the change in diet and lifestyle. Why; because the opportunity to eat more fresh foods, herbs and super foods is all around us. From the ancient islands of Kadavu and Rotuma, to the interior and rainforest regions that are far removed from supermarkets and shops, Fijians are living longer. With the same DNA and genes, why do you think remote Fiji is living until 80 to 90 years of age, compared to their urban cousins? Laziness to prepare fresh meals and the convenience of buying cheap tinned foods, instant noodles and salty snacks is the reason. The move away from traditionally healthy diets has now become fatal to Fijians.
But there is good news if Fiji makes the necessary changes now. The human body is an amazingly adaptable living organism. Despite all the poisons and chemicals we may eat, drink and breath, damaged cells can become healthier if we feed our bodies more nutrition and especially the medicine foods. These super foods include cabbages, leafy green vegetables, fresh herbs, raw vegetables, virgin coconut oil, coconut water, honey and black tea with no milk or sugar. When you combine a healthy diet of fresh foods with recommended Western medication, many NCD's can be slowed and reversed. An American doctor in New York I speak with, Dr William Davis, has reversed his diabetes and lost his fat belly by removing flour from his diet. Dr Davis believes that the modified modern wheat that we now eat around the world is one of the major contributors to diabetes and obesity. If you think about how much bread the average Fijian now eats, you begin to understand why these two diseases are now so prolific in this country. Dr Davis says that flour has become the new food drug of the 21st century, and we are now addicted.
The high risk NCD cooking class included grilled fresh fish cooked in virgin coconut oil, and a delicious chicken noodle soup that does not need the flavour sachet that comes with the instant noodles. In the time it took me to talk about the good and bad foods, my chefs Jyotish Kumar and Dewendra Naidu were able to whip up two healthy dishes that were both filling and nutritious. To say that you don't have time to make more healthy and fresh dishes is a poor excuse for laziness. If Fijians truly want to live longer lives without NCDs, making time to eat a more balanced and healthy diet should be the highest priority.
It may be too late for the older generation of Fijians, who resist change or who will not listen until its too late, however if not for your children's sake, the family should learn what is good and what is bad. At least then, the future generation of Fijians will be more informed and will be able to make a better choice. My sincere thanks to Mosese Baseisei, Benjamin Narayan, Professor Rajat Gyaneshwar and all the staff at Viseisei Sai Health Centre for initiating this wonderful project that has begun to make the local people rethink the food they will eat from now on.
* Lance Seeto is an author, writer and executive chef based on Castaway Island Fiji. Follow his adventures on his Facebook page Fijian Food Safari.