by Robin Trimingham
(In photo: Doreen Williams-James)
Just about everyone has heard the expression “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” or “eating the crust of a sandwich will make your hair curly” but did you ever wonder where these health proverbs come from?
Better yet – to what extent is there any truth to our “cultural health beliefs” in Bermuda and how does this impact our general attitude to wellness and personal healthcare decisions?
According to Google, “Cultural Health” (sometimes referred to as “Granny Wisdom”) can be loosely defined as the combined effect that our belief system, community culture, and values have on our social and physical health.
Not surprisingly, this combination of factors tends to intuitively affect not just how people think and feel about their health – and health problems – but how, when, and from whom they seek health care, and more importantly how likely they are to adhere to recommended lifestyle changes and medical treatment plans.
Dr Ayesha Peets Talbot of Ocean Rock Wellness sees examples of how cultural upbringing has affected the health of her patients on a daily basis and while some local beliefs (such as using aloe for sunburns) can be quite beneficial, others such as the notion that “ketchup causes inflammation”, or that “sitting on a damp wall can cause piles”, can be quite humorous.
On a more serious note, she pointed out that, “we must never forget that our ancestors experienced lean times and shortages in Bermuda due to war and slavery – and people were raised to always finish their plate out of necessity.
“As they often had to make-do with what they were able to find (or forage) locally, people also became accustomed to eating a very starchy and salty diet which is evident in traditional dishes such as shark hash, fish chowder, cassava pie and of course, peas and rice.”
Not surprisingly, when conditions improved, Bermudians adopted an almost celebratory relationship with food, piling their plates high on special occasions such as Christmas or Cup Match.
“The problem today”, says Dr Peets Talbot, “is that a lot of people don’t really understand the concept of portion control and any occasion such as a birthday or an office gathering has become a socially acceptable occasion to over-eat.”
A fact, she says, that is exacerbated by cultural changes associated with the modernization of our island. “Once upon a time we walked or rode bicycles everywhere and the food that we ate was more organic. Now our processed food may be more convenient, but it also often contains toxic properties, and our children are sitting inside the home playing with devices instead of playing outside – which just compounds the problem”.
Interestingly, Dr Peets Talbot also believes that life on the rock has caused Bermudians to develop a self-sustaining attitude toward all aspects of life and this includes attitudes toward health. “As islanders we don’t always take proper responsibility for our health, but we tend to believe that we are entitled to health care – be that local or overseas treatment”.
As with all cultural phenomena, interest in Granny Wisdom and other traditional wellness practices tends to rise and fall over time but thankfully the interest in the benefits of local plants and traditional herbal knowledge has persisted in some families.
This is particularly true in the case of Doreen Williams-James who operates Wild Herbs and Plants of Bermuda. As a child Ms Williams-James recalls picking wild spinach and scurvy grass with her father, and she now offers educational tours to help others learn how to forage for locally sourced organic ingredients.
“Everything I know about local plants I learned from my father Hillary Calbert Williams,” says Ms Williams-James.
“He is one of eleven children, so needless to say, my grandmother Alexandria Williams became very knowledgeable regarding eating from the land in order to provide for her family, and when he grew up, he passed his knowledge on to me,” she explains.
Strolling through the Cooper’s Island Nature Reserve in St. David’s with Ms Williams-James is a fascinating experience even if you think you know a thing or two about Bermudian plants.
“There are so many plants with nutritional benefits on this island,” says Ms. Williams-James, “but local knowledge has died out to the point that people are walking right past free food to go and buy food in the store which makes no sense because our bodies were designed to eat whatever is currently in season”.
The range of nutritious edible plants that are literally right at our feet includes everything from the familiar aloe, Surinam cherries, allspice, and pawpaw, to the less well-known cochineal nopal cactus, prickly pear, purslane, plantago, scurvy grass and wild mustard greens.
Not surprisingly, Ms Williams-James believes that many people are reluctant to forage for wild plants for fear of picking the wrong thing and because of the perceived amount of time and effort required to do this.
“These days convenience seems to be the most important thing,” she says. “People just don’t want to do the prep work, and they don’t really understand that the food in the stores which has been picked green or is genetically modified is not what your body really needs.
“What is really sad is that our children can no longer associate basic food items with their source – many do not even understand that apple juice in a box comes from an apple”.
On this, Dr Peets Talbot agrees, “Children learn what to eat and how to eat from their family.
“Our food and style of eating is very different now and although it may be convenient it is also unhealthy, and this is very obvious in children with obesity.”
Both experts also agree that people need to make more effort to educate themselves regarding what food is healthy and what is not, and often the simplest way to improve health is to eat more foods in their natural state as our Grannies did.