Seventy-five years after World War II swept through the Pacific, culminating with the world’s first use of nuclear weapons against another country, an invisible war still rages in the region—the war against obesity.
According to this 2012 study on obesity, our people are the winners—in terms of being the most obese—compared with all other racial and ethnic groups. Unfortunately, this means we are losing the war.
I don’t call it a war to sound overly dramatic but to put it in proper context. Let me explain. People might die because they are obese but not from obesity itself. They die from other conditions—heart disease, diabetes, etc.—that are related to it.
Similarly, people who die from cancer don’t actually die from it. They die from conditions that they would’ve easily fought off if it weren’t for the their bodies being weakened by cancer.
The only difference between cancer and obesity is that most people blame the deaths of their loved ones on cancer, but if a loved one dies from diabetes caused by obesity, then it’s the diabetes fault. Ironically, many cancers are linked to obesity and the conditions caused by it.
World War II And The Arrival Of Commodities
When my wife first became pregnant, I asked my grandma for a list of possible names for my boy. From the extensive list of deceased ancestors, I picked out Akira, my grandma’s brother’s name.
In the end, my wife and I chose another name. This was mostly due to personal troubles in our relationship but also out of a superstitious belief about not naming babies after ancestors who died prematurely.
Akira died under a guava tree when a U.S. airplane dropped a bomb nearby. There are stories of entire families being strafed in flybys while fishing. Too scared to fish or farm, others died of starvation while hiding in mangrove forests and caves.
All the deaths happened differently, but they all fall under one umbrella—the Pacific War. No one blames the bullets or the bombs or the lack of food. We just say, “They died because of the war.” If the war never came to our shores, many of our ancestors wouldn’t have suffered such gruesome fates.
Today there’s no active war in our region, but we still witness suffering like amputations because of diabetes and physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The war didn’t just leave behind horrific memories and generational trauma, it also left us dependent on imported commodities which have led to the crises facing our region.
Commodities such as canned foods and chocolate became available during the post-war years. Having suffered just a few failed attacks, the U.S. mainland was relatively unscathed and in a good position to establish itself as the economic powerhouse that would rebuild the world.
To stave off starvation caused by the war, self-stable foods such as Spam were widely distributed on the islands. According to this 2008 article from the New York Times, the canned meat was first introduced to locals by U.S. soldiers. These kinds of foods were only meant as a stop-gap while our people recovered and rebuilt our lands and cultures.
Another food that became very popular after the war was rice. To be fair, in Palau, rice became available when the Japanese took control of the islands but was more of a luxury food during Nanyo Cho.
My grandma would tell me that they’d eat it mixed with a little coconut syrup and water during special occasions. Only after the war did rice begin to supplant staple foods like taro and breadfruit.
The foods that helped our people win the battle against starvation have now fully assimilated themselves into our diets in times of plenty. Basically, we’re still on a wartime diet 75 years after the war.
There’s a saying that most of us have probably heard before; you can win a battle but lose a war. There are other interpretations of this, but since we’re currently losing the war, I think this variation is more appropriate.
The Obesity Numbers Don’t Lie
It’s time to face hard facts. The top 10 most obese countries in the world are all in the Pacific region. My home country is top 3.
When I first decided to write this article, there wasn’t much sense of urgency. I just thought I’d write something about obesity with some academic sources that I’ve gleaned from class and online sources. I had a nice outline with some bullet points that I could weave in with my own experiences.
The numbers on the above graph threw all of that out the window. It made this more personal than I’d intended.
Decolonizing Our Mind
Looking around the world, we see similar patterns of colonization—settling on Indigenous land, acquiring of more land, creating dependency, and then assimilating the Natives. Some have suffered overtly hostile takeovers and are at later stages, while others are in the throes of newer, subtler methods.
I believe our Pacific paradise is the target for these new methods, and we are unwittingly helping the process along.
When I was a fisherman, we would catch the best fish to eat and sell them at hotels for tourists to enjoy. Then we’d take the money and spend it on alcohol, cigarettes, and canned foods.
Light-skinned babies are adored, referred to as “beches” which translates to new. Dark-skinned babies, not so much. Do we really hate ourselves that much?
In Palau, when someone we know gains a bunch of weight, we say, “Bo becherei, ng oldeu er a rengul.” This translates to, “Leave them be, they’re pleasing their heart.” Nothing wrong with pleasing ones heart, but there’s a point when it crosses into gluttonous territory.
We have to be able to call this out without it being considered fat-shaming. A true friend will tell you if you have broccoli in your teeth.
Prioritizing Our Health And Well-Being
I can’t speak for other Pacific nations, but I would argue that my home island of Palau is close to total assimilation. Now, I’m not arguing for or against assimilation because it would be hypocritical of me either way.
On one hand, I’m able to do what I love because of the conveniences afforded to me by this new way of life. But, on the other, I see—and experience—its negative effects, whether it’s health, greed, or cultural degradation.
Sometimes it feels like there are too many factors to consider and too little time to consider all of them. As of right now, I believe that health and well-being must be our main priorities.
This is probably the most important factor because money and culture won’t matter if we are all sick or dead. All the in-family fighting over land and chiefly titles are irrelevant if there are no people on the land to rule.
So Many Problems, Add Obesity To The List
Great! So now we have to worry about the coronavirus, our ailing economies, rising sea levels, and now this. What do we do then?
First, and foremost, we have to be our own advocates—get to work on ourselves and stop with all the willful ignorance. This is easier said than done, and for me, it’s a struggle everyday but I’ve embraced the struggle.
Open dialogue would be a good start, too. We can’t discuss obesity out of existence, but we can begin to acknowledge it as a national health crisis and start taking it seriously.
I don’t just mean having the health experts and the politicians have meetings then make decisions for us. Our leaders must engage us, and we must hold our leaders accountable. It must be a collaborative effort. We can’t have solutions if the problem isn’t yet acknowledged by everyone.
Practical Solutions For Childhood Obesity
I don’t know how things are now, but when I went to high school, canned foods were on the menu probably 2-3 times a week. Corned beef and rice was my favorite. What was yours?
We all know that our children are the future. Naturally, we should start them on the right path and make sure they avoid the pitfalls we’ve found ourselves trapped in.
In Japan, they have one of the lowest rates of childhood obesity in the world. They do this through mandatory school lunches, early childhood nutrition education, and regular health checkups.
The school lunches are local, seasonal, and nutritious. In this 2019 article about fighting childhood obesity from the South China Morning Post, the lunches are also meant to educate the children about nutrition and better eating habits.
Implementing a similar program would help our children make better food choices as adolescents and adults. It also fosters a stronger connection to our region’s traditions of sustainability, community cooperation, and Indigenous pride.
These are just a few options that we can implement right now that would be a great investment in the future.
Practical Solutions For Adult Obesity
We need to be brutally honest with ourselves. Taking responsibility for our current situation is hard to do especially when we learn more of the horrible shit that colonizers did to our proud people. The fact of the matter is we are useless in the fight against decolonization if we’re fighting diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
It’s especially important for us to be accountable given that most children inherit their parents habits. We must set a good example for them in all aspects of health and well-being, and we should start by acknowledging and taking on the problem of adult obesity in our region.
I would say let’s do it for our children, but I honestly think this approach rarely works, especially in parenting. We have to learn to balance being a parent and being an individual. Our physical, emotional, and mental health fall into the category of being an individual. How can I be a good parent if I’m neglecting the things that I actually have control over?
There are so many helpful resources online that it can sometimes be overwhelming. Personally, I would recommend the low-carb 16:8 intermittent fasting diet that Dr. Jason Fung recommends. It’s easy and practical, and you can implement it right away without making drastic changes to your lifestyle.
All you have to do is pick a eating window that falls within an 8-hour period. For me I chose between 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. as the times I can eat—or drink anything with calories. The remaining 16 hours of the day I would only drink water.
Not eating for 16 hours may sound hard, but considering that we need 8 hours of sleep, it’s actually only 8 hours of no food. If you’re not already getting 8 hours of sleep, this would be a good time to start.
My weight loss journey and path to overall well-being has had its ups and downs, but I’m grateful to still have a chance to fight.
I lost almost 30 pounds in just over 3 months, dropping from 195 to 170 from April to June. My heartburn—which I’ve been suppressing with medication for 5 years—disappeared, and I got rid of the medication. There are many stories similar to mine that you can find online or on YouTube.
This video from Dr. Jason Fung explains how therapeutic fasting works.
A Samoan man who had worked for 20 years as a mortician said this in a video interview, “Now I see the old burying their young.” This breaks my heart because I cannot even begin to imagine the pain of having to bury one of my kids.
The obesity crisis is arguably the most important challenge facing our region today. Others might say climate change and rising sea levels are more important, and it’s hard to argue with their point because current scientific consensus says that it’s an existential threat.
I would just say that fighting climate change has to be a global effort in order to be effective. If a single large country deviates from the plan, we won’t be able to stop it.
Alternately, the fight against obesity comes down to each individual. It’s a one-person fight. Me against obesity.
There are no external factors that can stop you if you decide to kick obesity in the ass. External factors can actually help. Our families, communities, and governments can cooperate to spread awareness, implement legislation, and make more resources available to those most affected.
We are descended from those who braved typhoons and high waves to settle archipelagos in the greatest ocean on Earth. I’m optimistic that we, as Indigenous Pacific people, will overcome as we always have. #WarAgainstObesityTweet
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