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For at least 12,000 years, Peru has been inhabited by descendants of the Inca civilization. For countless generations, the farmers of the Peruvian Andes have lived on potatoes, cornmeal cakes, and alpacha, or goat meat.
Grilled guinea pig is the main course on special occasions, and avocados, tomatoes, yucca root, and beans round out the traditional menu.
Almost half of Peru's population is still indigenous, and they eat an average of two pounds of potatoes at every meal. At 13,000 feet above sea level, I counted over 150 varieties of potatoes available in a Cusco market.
Sitting down to join a family for lunch, I ate fresh potatoes dug right out of the ground, a striking contrast to the cold-stored Russet potatoes found in American supermarkets. A local public health specialist told me that Peru has over 3,000 types of tubers stored in test tubes or cold chambers in their gene bank.
Recently, the glycemic index has given potatoes a bad name in North America, yet potatoes are the world's fourth most important food source after wheat, corn, and rice. And the scientists I spoke with had nothing but praise for the potato's resistance to cold, drought, insects, and diseases.
Now, however, the indigenous population is beginning to abandon potatoes in favor of junk food. In June 2007, during a two-week visit to the Peruvian Andes, I saw soft drinks, chips, puffed cereals, and even a Peruvian version of Twinkies.
Soda ads are painted on every wall and building, making them a status symbol for all ages. The local guides, or "sherpas," are making enough money to take such goodies back to their families, and westernized foods are taking over their diets.
One morning in a local market, several women told me that people have begun to spend their money on "foreign food." Puffed cereals are eaten for breakfast instead of corn soup or leftovers. Crackers and 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. His age was 48 but he looked like 70, and my interpreter told me that he had been feeling tired and complaining of leg problems The one time that he allowed me to check his blood glucose, about an hour after one of his westernized lunches, his reading was 263 mg/dl.
All this junk food is leading to obesity and then, inevitably, to type 2 diabetes. And public health officials have begun to worry about how to diagnose and treat the disease in a population of seven million that never sees a doctor and has no medical insurance. It's a small sample of how western food is disrupting the diets of indigenous populations all over the world.
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