The Tokelau Island Migrant Study: Background and Overview

Tokelau's troubles began in 1765 with its 'discovery' by British commodore John Byron. Traditionally, residents of the three small coral atolls collectively called Tokelau (Nukunonu, Fakaofo and Atafu) lived an isolated subsistence lifestyle, relying almost exclusively on coconut, seafood, wild fowl and fruit for food. The first reliable account of the Tokelauan population, by an American expedition in 1841, found the people there healthy and happy. Here's an excerpt from Migration and Health in a Small Society: the Case of Tokelau (1992):
The expedition considered the people living there to be healthy and handsome... They all appeared to be thriving on their 'meager diet' of fish and coconut, for no evidence of cultivation was seen... People of both sexes were tattooed with geometric designs and figures of turtles and fish. The numerous reports and journals of the Expedition leave the impression of a generally admirable people - amiable (though cautious), peaceful, orderly, and resourceful.
Between 1841 and 1863, the population of Tokelau was reduced to a fraction of its original size by epidemics and kidnapping by slave ships. The old social and religious order was broken, and the inhabitants were converted to Christianity by overzealous and competing Protestant and Catholic missionaries. During this time, Tokelauans also gained new food sources from other Polynesian islands, including breadfruit trees, pulaka (a starchy tuber), pigs and chickens. Breadfruit is a starchy fruit used like plantain.

Tokelau became a territory of New Zealand in 1925, and Tokelauans were granted New Zealand citizenship in 1948. In 1963, a government-assisted migration program was established to (voluntarily) bring Tokelauans to the New Zealand mainland, as the population of Tokelau had reached a cozy 1,870 people. When a cyclone devastated coconut and breadfruit crops in 1966, Tokelauans began taking advantage of the assisted migration program in earnest. By 1971, roughly half of Tokelauans lived on the New Zealand mainland.

There are two reasons why the Tokelau Island Migrant study is unique. First, it's one of the best-documented transitions from a traditional to a modern lifestyle, studied over decades on Tokelau and in New Zealand. Regular visits by physicians recorded the health of the population as it shifted from a relatively traditional diet to a more Western one. The second thing that makes this population unique is they traditionally have an extraordinarily high saturated fat intake from coconut. They derive between 54 and 62 percent of their calories from coconut, which is 87% saturated. This gives them perhaps the highest documented saturated fat intake in the world. This will be a test of the "diet-heart hypothesis", the idea that dietary fat, cholesterol and especially saturated fat contribute to cardiovascular disease!

Through the late 1960s, cargo ships visited Tokelau every three months, making only small contributions to the islanders' diets. In 1968, just two percent of Tokelauans' calories came from sugar. By 1978, the number had risen to 8 percent, and by 1982, 14 percent. The increase came chiefly from refined sugar and sweetened imported foods. In 1961, ships brought 12 lb of flour per person per year to Tokelau, increasing to 60 lb per year by 1980. During this time, importation of low-quality canned meats such as "mutton flaps" and chicken backs, and sweets also increased. Rice imports declined in the 1970s. The diet of migrants to New Zealand rapidly became highly Westernized, containing a higher proportion of refined carbohydrates such as flour and sugar, more red meat and poultry, and less coconut and seafood.

Here's a nice quote from Migration and Health in a Small Society: the Case of Tokelau, to set the tone for the rest of the posts in this series:
In the mid- and late twentieth century, 'Western diseases'- that is, diseases of affluence (Trowell and Burkitt 1981)- have become the major health risk for Polynesians, because of exposure to cosmopolitan diet patterns and life-style.
The varying cultures and resource bases of islands in the Pacific have influenced the degree to which their populations have been modernized and thus exposed to Western diseases. At one end of the spectrum are relatively traditional subsistence societies such as those on Tokelau and on the low islands- for example Pukapuka, Manihiki, and Rakahanga in the Northern Cook Islands. These atolls are characterized by the almost complete absence of soil, by the inhabitants' dependence on coconut in varied forms, and by a bountiful supply of fish as a major part of the traditional diet. Their populations are notable for their low levels of blood pressure, high rates of infectious disease, and low rates of coronary heart disease, obesity and diabetes. At the other end of the spectrum are those Polynesian societies, such as the Hawaiians and the Maori of New Zealand, who were submerged by 'Western' settlers and the dominating cultures they brought with them. These populations have inevitably acquired the diseases of the 'West', sometimes to an exaggerated degree.
That quote could have been straight out of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, despite being published 60 years later. Good science is timeless. Join me in future posts as I explore the health of Tokelauan society as it transitions from a traditional diet and lifestyle to a modern one.


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