Junk Food is Replacing Potatoes and Leading to Type 2 Diabetes in Peru

For at least 12,000 years, Peru has been inhabited by descendants ofthe Inca civilization. For countless generations, the farmers of thePeruvian Andes have lived on potatoes, cornmeal cakes, and alpacha,or goat meat.

Grilled guinea pig is the main course on special occasions, andavocados, tomatoes, yucca root, and beans round out the traditionalmenu.

Almost half of Peru's population is still indigenous, and they eatan average of two pounds of potatoes at every meal. At 13,000 feetabove sea level, I counted over 150 varieties of potatoes availablein a Cusco market.

Sitting down to join a family for lunch, I ate fresh potatoes dugright out of the ground, a striking contrast to the cold-storedRusset potatoes found in American supermarkets. A local publichealth specialist told me that Peru has over 3,000 types of tubersstored in test tubes or cold chambers in their gene bank.

Recently, the glycemic index has given potatoes a bad name inNorth America, yet potatoes are the world's fourth most importantfood source after wheat, corn, and rice. And the scientists I spokewith had nothing but praise for the potato's resistance to cold,drought, insects, and diseases.

Now, however, the indigenous population is beginning to abandonpotatoes in favor of junk food. In June 2007, during a two-weekvisit to the Peruvian Andes, I saw soft drinks, chips, puffedcereals, and even a Peruvian version of Twinkies.

Soda ads are painted on every wall and building, making them astatus symbol for all ages. The local guides, or "sherpas," aremaking enough money to take such goodies back to their families, andwesternized foods are taking over their diets.

One morning in a local market, several women told me that peoplehave begun to spend their money on "foreign food." Puffed cerealsare eaten for breakfast instead of corn soup or leftovers. Crackersand chips are much more expensive than local fruits like papaya,avocado, and plums, yet people choose them whenever they have money.

I watched one shaman eat western food for three days in a row. Hisage was 48 but he looked like 70, and my interpreter told me that hehad been feeling tired and complaining of leg problems The one timethat he allowed me to check his blood glucose, about an hour afterone of his westernized lunches, his reading was 263 mg/dl.

All this junk food is leading to obesity and then, inevitably, totype 2 diabetes. And public health officials have begun to worryabout how to diagnose and treat the disease in a population of sevenmillion that never sees a doctor and has no medical insurance. It'sa small sample of how western food is disrupting the diets ofindigenous populations all over the world.

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