HONOLULU — The ancient Hawaiians were svelte and strong. Many of their descendants are obese and prone to heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.
Two Hawaiian nutritionists set out to answer that question, and the result is a diet that is low in fat, high in complex carbohydrates and based on the eating habits of the ancient islanders--on the breadfruit, poi and other fruits that were the staples of their lives.
Richard Donner Sr. says it works. Donner, a native Hawaiian, entered the Waianae Diet Program weighing 490 pounds. After three weeks he was down to 447 pounds and confident he would break the 300-pound barrier.
"All of my pants were tight on me, now I have to use a belt," Donner said. "I feel great. My blood pressure is normal now. I don't get as tired. I can play with my grandchildren and children again."
The diet, for both native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians, was created by Dr. Terry Shintani of the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center and Claire Hughes, a native Hawaiian nutritionist. They began working on the diet in 1987, after Shintani received his master's degree in nutrition from Harvard University.
According to congressional statistics compiled in 1987, the death rate due to heart disease in full-blooded Hawaiians exceeds the national average by 278%. For cancer, it exceeds the average by 226%; stroke, 245%; and diabetes, an incredible 688%. Sixty-five percent are obese.
Native Hawaiians, who number about 200,000, live an average four years less than the 78-year life expectancy for Hawaii residents. Nationally, their death rate is 34% higher than all other races. Seventy percent of all native Hawaiian deaths are diet-related, according to the congressional study.
"We started thinking of the traditional Hawaiian diet as a good way to lose weight because ancient drawings, photos and writings depicted Hawaiians that were slim and strong," Shintani said.
With donations from community groups and help from volunteers, Shintani gathered a group of overweight native Hawaiians in 1989 and put them on the diet.
They were allowed to eat as much poi, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, taro and fruit as they wanted, along with controlled amounts of fish and chicken. Calorie intake was reduced from an average 2,594 calories to 1,569, while fat was cut from 40% to 7%.
"Western nutritionists used to say poi was bad for you," Shintani said. "It just goes to show there's more to traditional knowledge than what you might think."
Each member of the group lost an average of 17 pounds in the three-week program. They also were able to reduce the amount of medicine they were taking, due in part to lower cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
They gained understanding and respect for native history. And they began to enjoy life again.
No one exemplified the diet's success more than Ed Aikala. Before he started the diet he weighed 425 pounds and spent $500 a month on medicine to treat myriad health problems, including diabetes and high blood pressure. At one point, he was hospitalized and received last rites.
Soon afterward, Aikala joined the diet project. In two years he lost 150 pounds and regained control of his life. He became the program's inspirational leader, carting a plastic garbage bag full of empty prescription bottles to weekly meetings to remind himself and motivate others.
Aikala died in a car accident Christmas Day, and his loss devastated the diet group. Since then, Shintani said several people have stepped forward to assume Aikala's leadership role.
A second group started the diet last fall, and has achieved similar success; a third group was scheduled to start this month.
Lack of funding has hampered efforts to expand the program and has led to a waiting list of more than 100 people, Shintani said. Two people on the waiting list have died.
"I've tried to get the Legislature to pass a bill that would support this on all islands, but that would cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars and they turned me down," Shintani said. "I will keep trying. Meanwhile, people are dying while we wait for someone to help us."