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Education: Higher Education

The Healing Elements- A Native Hawaiian Perspective

Class 3. Physical Elements: Traditional Foods, Diet and Physical Activity


This third class examines the physical elements that affect health and well-being. It focuses on the traditional foods that contributed to the robust and healthy physiques of Hawaiians prior to Western contact. Students will also learn about the decline of Hawaiian health and the prevalence of illnesses among contemporary Native Hawaiians that can be attributed to an unhealthy diet. Finally, the class will read about the success of modern dietary programs that are based on traditional Hawaiian foods. The objective is for students to internalize the importance of nutrition and a healthy diet and apply the lessons in their own lives. Physical activity is another important element in good health and well-being. Accounts and images provided by early explorers, artists and writers depict Native Hawaiians engaged in physically active and productive livelihoods such as fishing, farming, gathering, paddling, hula, etc. This important aspect of health is also discussed.


  • Aluli, Noa Emmett. “Prevalence of Obesity in a Native Hawaiian Population.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, v 53 (6) 1991: 1556S-1560S. Available online at (accessed 5/24/2011).
  • Blaisdell, R. Kekuni. “1995 update on Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiian) Health.” Revised abstract of a paper presented at the Asian American and Pacific Islander Health Summit, San Francisco: June 21-24, 1995. Available online at (accessed on 5/24/2011).
  • Fujita, R., K.L. Braun, and C.K. Hughes. “The Traditional Hawaiian Diet: A Review of the Literature.” Pacific Health Dialog 11, no. 2 (2004): 250-9. Available online at
    (accessed 5/24/2011).
  • Ho‘oulu Advisory Committee. “Improving Native Hawaiian Health, Fitness and Diet, Expanding on Lessons Learned.” Report for the Hawai‘i Department of Health, Office Health Equity and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, 2003.
  • Ellis-Jenkins, “Aunty” Betty Kawohiokalani. “Cultural Education: Kupuna Wisdom.” Papa Ola Lōkāhi. (accessed on 4/24/2013).

Pre-class Assignment

Students read the three articles (Kekuni Blaisdell; Noa Emmett Aluli; and Fujita, Braun, and Hughes) and the report of the Ho‘oulu Advisory Committee, and browse the Native Hawaiian Health Web site listed above. Students should also browse the web for images of Hawaiian fishing, taro farming, hula and canoe paddling as examples of cultural and subsistence physical activities.

class activity

Teachers review the rapid decline of the Native Hawaiian population with contact and contemporary health disparities of Native Hawaiians then lead discussion of the following questions.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the leading causes of death for Native Hawaiians? How does this compare with the U.S. population? How are these diseases related to obesity?
  2. What factors may contribute to obesity in Native Hawaiians? Is obesity a cultural norm among Native Hawaiians?
  3. How did the traditional diet of Native Hawaiians change with processed and preserved foods introduced from America and Asia? How has this contributed to obesity in Native Hawaiians?
  4. Review the major health indicators for Native Hawaiians in 1990 outlined by Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell and how a Traditional Hawaiian-based Diet can improve these indicators.
  5. How can a diet of traditional Hawaiian foods, or similar substitutes improve Hawaiian health?
  6. In general, how does diet affect one's health?
  7. How does economic class affect diet and health?
  8. How can we make healthy food more accessible in working class communities—farmers' markets, community gardens, roof gardens, etc?

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