Got Poi? The Original Hawaiian Diet
By Stacy Yuen Hernandez
Jul 3, 2004 - 11:30:00 AM
A Hawaiian foodstuff is on its way to becoming a household word in places other than the 50th State. Recent news articles praise the benefits of poi, even describing the pudding-like paste as a “miracle food” that speeds up weight loss. Labeling it a “miracle food” may be an overstatement, but it's not news that poi is one of the most nutritious and healing foods around and can play an important role in weight-reduction programs. All this talk about poi may be new to some, who perhaps never heard of poi or maybe tasted it once at a luau. “It doesn't taste like much of anything,” you may have said after that first lick, not even knowing what poi really is. The diet of the ancient Hawaiians centered around the starchy staple and today it is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
Ancient Hawaiians revered poi and modern Hawaiians continue to have great respect for the sticky grayish-purple substance. The traditional island dish is made from the corm of the taro plant, a tuber plant in the potato family. The corm is mashed with water and eaten in place of rice, mashed potatoes or bread. It is still eaten that way today, or creatively used in recipes replacing other ingredients. “If (dieters) replace all other carbohydrates in their diets with poi, they'll probably lose weight,” says Alvin Huang, an Associate Researcher at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, who has devoted years to the study of poi. Huang says those trying to lose weight or simply eat healthy can substitute fattening foods like sour cream with poi. Poi is one of the principal items in the Wai'anae Diet Program, a study launched in 1989 by Hawai'i physician Terry Shintani. Its predecessor, the 1987 Moloka'i Diet Study, developed by Dr. Noa Aluli, was a scientifically controlled study which looked at cardiovascular health improvements. Both programs, which utilized the traditional Hawaiian diet, were successful. Dr. Claire Hughes, then chief of the state Department of Health's nutrition branch, assisted in the Wai'anae Diet study. Hughes says it's important to note that these diets did not include any stimulating beverages, such as coffee, tea or soda. Like all diet plans, they were under the supervision of health professionals, she says.
One of the participants in the first study group started the program at 425 pounds, and lost 150 pounds after one year on the Wai'anae Diet. His overall health improved as well, and he no longer needed daily insulin for Diabetes and drugs for hypertension. Results of the Wai'anae Diet Program were published in the well-respected American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In the study of 20 obese patients, the average dieter lost 17 pounds. Blood pressure and blood sugar levels improved as well. Amazingly, these results were seen in just three weeks. The Wai'anae Diet is basically the diet of the ancient Hawaiians. Studies show they were very healthy people. Early Western Explorers described them as "middle-size, well made, agile and capable of bearing great fatigue." Archaeological studies of the skeletal remains showed they were in good health and led strenuous lives.
Hughes says the diet of the ancient Hawaiians was high in complex carbohydrates, low in fat and moderate in protein. "In old Hawai'i, the diet was 78-80 percent carbohydrate with about 12% protein," she says. The real key is that they consumed only 10% fat. Although there is no conclusive evidence that ancient Hawaiians suffered from diet-related diseases, coronary disease is one of the leading causes of death today among pure and part-Hawaiians. Huang says poi is the only staple that combines both starch and dietary fiber. Even oatmeal, an equally benevolent food, can't brag about that. Oatmeal is made up of soluble and insoluble fiber, but very little carbohydrates. Like oatmeal, poi has been proven to reduce cholesterol. In the Wai'anae Diet Program, cholesterol decreased an average of 14% from 222 to 191. This means a reduction in heart attack risk. Low in fat and protein, and containing vitamin B, calcium and phosphorous, poi has fewer calories than rice. It's a naturally fermented product and the degree of fermentation determines the taste of the poi. Fresh poi is called “sweet poi,” and poi that has fermented for a few days is called “sour poi.”
Huang says sour poi could be more nutritious than fresh poi, because natural fermentation in sour poi could further digest the starch, accumulate more lactic acid, and digestive enzymes to make it more healthful. Ancient Hawaiians did this by keeping the poi in a clean, cool chamber for 3 to 5 days. Huang says this can be done in a modern clean incubator at a set temperature but does not recommend people making sour poi at home. Huang says this process is best left up to the poi manufacturers. Poi is a perishable product. But just how perishable? It depends on the brand of poi you buy.
If you're a first-time poi-buyer and your poi has just arrived from Hawai'i—what do you do now? Before ordering, check with the company to determine how long its poi will keep. The lower the bacteria count, the slower the poi ferments, giving it a longer shelf life. You can usually keep your poi in the bag in a cool, dark place for up to four days. If you'll be using it within six days, squeeze the poi out of the bag and place it in a bowl, drizzle some water over the top to prevent a crust from forming, cover, and refrigerate. You'll need to freeze your poi if you plan to keep it longer. Just place the entire bag into the freezer and it will store for up to six months.
Huang says when frozen poi is properly thawed, it is as nutritious as fresh poi and will not lose its flavor. Proper thawing means either thawing in a microwave with a layer of tap water over the surface of the frozen poi, or placing it in the refrigerator for a period between 12 to 24 hours, but no longer. Once you're ready to eat your poi, check the bag for preparation instructions. Some brands may require you to mix the poi with water, others are ready to eat. If you've never had poi before, chances are your first reaction to it will be that it doesn't taste like much of anything. Some describe it as an “acquired” taste. It's not palatable to some – but you don't need to eat it straight from the bag. Try chilling your poi and adding sweetener or incorporating it into your recipes for smoothies (replacing yogurt). It can also be added to stews as a thickening agent. The possibilities with poi are endless.
Poi is a gentle food, hypoallergenic and easily digestible. It has saved the lives of babies who have been allergic to everything else. Poi is for everyone—from the health-challenged to the super-fit endurance athlete. In fact, many Hawai'i endurance athletes eat poi prior to their athletic events. Huang says a system called The Glycemic Index ranks foods on how they affect our blood sugar levels, measuring how much your blood sugar increases in the two or three hours after eating. Huang says the index shows poi has a very gradual release after consumption, lasting about 4 hours. This means that long-distance runners and other endurance athletes can sustain a higher energy level after eating poi.
With all its positive qualities, poi continues to be a popular food item in Hawai'i. If it's new to you, consider yourself lucky to have discovered what may be the perfect food to incorporate into your present diet.
To order Terry Shintani's Hawaii Diet book from Amazon.com, please click on the book cover below. Mahalo.
Copyright 1998-2009 by Craig W Walsh