Some traditional Native American foods are rich in nutrition as well as heritage.
Thanksgiving may be the only time many of us are aware of the influence of Native American foods on what we eat. Yet, if some dietitians and devoted cooks had a say, that would change.
That's because traditional American fare -- from North, Central, or South America -- contains a rich and colorful palate of heart-healthy foods, such as beta-carotene-packed pumpkin, fiber-loaded beans, and antioxidant-rich berries.
"Traditional Native American food [is] as varied as the Americas from which it originated," Harold H. Baxter, DDS, author of the pending book Dining at Noah's Table, tells WebMD.
Yet it's all too easy to overlook Native American fruits and vegetables in our modern diets, experts say.
"We just don't eat enough of most of these [traditional] foods any more," says David Grotto, RD, author of an upcoming book on eating traditionally called 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life.
"Our cupboard used to be our medicine cabinet. A solution to a lot of what ails us may be getting back to these traditional foods."
Here are five familiar Native American foods that would make healthy additions to any diet:
Traced back to Central and South America, corn has served Native Americans as both drink and diet staple; its husks as dolls, masks, even fuel. Along with squash and beans, corn makes up the revered trinity many Native Americans call "The Three Sisters," vegetables frequently sown together.
"The corn provided a stalk for the bean vines to climb around, and the beans returned the favor by replacing the nitrogen in the soil," Chief Roy Crazy Horse writes in an article on the Powhatan Renape Nation's web site. "The squash spread out its broad shady leaves to keep other plants from crowding out the corn."
Corn is also nutritious, containing vitamins C and K, phytochemicals, B vitamins, and fiber. Another bonus: Corn just may help to prevent cancer.
"One of corn's phytochemicals, cryptoxanthin, was shown in one study to offer a 27% reduction in lung cancer risk," says Grotto, who is also a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.
Indigenous recipes for this ubiquitous food include sweet corn soup and chowder, cornbread, and popcorn. Enjoy ears fresh or roasted, and cut corn into salads or wraps. And try different colored corn when it's available -- those colors represent different body-boosting phytochemicals, says Grotto.