The Maori diet and its impact on health

The changes in the Maori diet that have occurred over the last 200 years will be discussed at the New Zealand Dietetic Association National Conference in Hamilton next week.

The arrival of the European and the urbanisation of Maori have drastically changed Maori eating habits over this relatively short time frame.  Pre-European Maori food was gathered from bush, sea, rivers and lakes.  Some root crops were cultivated.  Birds, fish, shellfish, eels, vegetation, eggs and wild honey were taken and prepared for eating. Obtaining food was a prized accomplishment and food was a symbol of hospitality and generosity.  This symbolism is still relevant today.

In pre-European times the Kereru was a bird taken for food in a sustainable way.  The female birds were considered tapu (off limits) while nesting and only male birds were taken at certain times of the year.  They were then preserved in their own fat.

The Europeans brought with them new foods such as potatoes and the fattier meats of pork, beef and mutton.  Ensuing land loss, sickness and poverty meant less area for hunting and cultivating food, so Maori moved to eating more European cheaper cuts of meat.  This is where the “boil up” including “pork bones, watercress, potatoes, kumera and doughboys” was born.  This is still a favourite with Maori today, although the younger generations are tending to be less enamoured with the “boil up”.  Their palate tends to favour the fast foods of today.

Health Sponsorship Council research shows that there is significant consumption of convenient, fast, fatty food such as KFC.  This high fat diet is a major contributor to obesity, heart and kidney disease among Maori.

Recent focus group research with Maori shows that perceived drawbacks of healthy eating were that it was “too expensive, requires time, effort, planning”, and the resistance to healthy eating by a partner or family member was seen as a source of conflict to be avoided.  Healthy food awareness was high, but concern about healthy eating was low and understanding of why healthy eating is important was poor.

Hiki Pihema, Senior Dietitian with Tairawhiti District Health Board at Gisborne hospital, has been a long serving Dietitian working with Maori.  Hiki comments:

“The numbers of Maori coming forward for assistance with healthy eating is low.”

Hiki believes that the key to making some headway in Maoridom is to encourage more Maori (and Pacific Island) people into the Dietetics profession and take a whanau based approach.

“The whole whanau needs to be brought into the picture, as often bad habits start in childhood.  Kids often go from house to house to house and the whanau as a whole needs to be aware and take some responsibility for healthy eating habits as a group.
“It’s time to stop pointing the finger,” Pihema says, “and break down the barriers to getting the word out to our Maori, that healthy eating isn’t more expensive and that it is necessary for long term health.  Who better to achieve this than Maori and Pacific Island people themselves, as a complement to a dietetic workforce that is culturally competent?

“There needs to be a course offered in the North Island to appeal to a Maori and Pacific Island workforce.  Currently only 33 dietitians graduate in New Zealand each year and the course is only offered at Otago University. 10% of the places are targeted for Maori students. The remoteness of this location of study to their homes may not appeal to the Maori/ Pacifika population.

“Unfortunately in many places today, fizzy drink is cheaper than milk, but milk is still the better choice, and water is free. These and other messages need to reach more Maori and create change.  I am horrified to see cases of Type II diabetes in teenagers today,” says Hiki.

To talk to Hiki Pihema, or any other scientists about the Dietetic Association Conference (which takes place from 1-3 September in Hamilton), or any nutrition issues, please contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email: