Joseph Finau: A Kiwi Tongan Being Like Daphnis

Australia’s Indigenous Health Woes

The official statistics I have quoted on indigenous health related to diabesity are appalling.  Anecdotally too, there are horrific case examples.

We looked at the nonsensical state of innovation in diabetes and diet. In a situation analogous to the slowness to accept the cure for scurvy, we have seen forces that appear to be holding back effective dietary solutions for indigenous health. Those solutions, based on a traditional diet, were demonstrated back in the 1980s.

The situation looks bleak, but the low-carbohydrate movement has always focussed on grassroots solutions. That is a good strategy. You see the stakeholders who have the most to gain are people whose health is improved. The problem with low carb is that almost everyone else has something to lose. That is particularly the case for the food and pharmaceutical industries who benefit from the status quo. If you are in government and reading this, I have a message. It is incredibly short-sighted not to openly understand whether there are the disempowered stakeholders you should put first. This is an ancient problem for bureaucracy. You need to be counter-intuitive and anthropological. But we are getting deep.  The efficient management of innovation by the government is a topic for another post.

Be Like Daphnis

Be Like Daphnis
Be Like Daphnis (C) Astrokatie

The good news is that change is happening at the grassroots. I came across this Internet meme about Daphnis.  It is one of the smaller moons of Saturn and the small ripples it makes in the rings of its much larger neighbour, and it seems appropriate to represent the change we can individually make. I think it is also very apt for this post.

We examined the success of Joy Aghogho in Nigeria. Dr Jay Wortman has done fantastic work with the First Nations peoples of Canada (see his comment in a previous post). Island nations like Vanuatu are going back to traditional foods although one wonders if they have the science completely right.

Joseph Finau: A Kiwi Tongan

I want to focus on the efforts of one individual in New Zealand who is making a difference. Joseph Finau commented on one of my posts, and I think it is worth considering his recent journey.

Joseph is a single dad from Auckland, New Zealand who has a remarkable story of battling diabesity and weathering personal tragedy.  Losing 100KG (220 lb) is something entirely amazing but moving beyond that I want to celebrate his success in innovating within his community. 

According to the 2013  NZ census, about 60,000 people of Tongan descent live in New Zealand.  Most live in the North Island in and around Auckland. Like many Pacific peoples, and in common with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Tongans have suffered from diabesity in the transition from a hunter-gatherer diet and lifestyle to a Western diet and lifestyle. For their diet, diabesity is commonly blamed on the eating of turkey tails, lamb flaps and corned beef.  Joseph has a different point of view- one born from the perspective of his success.

I believe that going back to the way our ancestors ate is the only way to cure ourselves from this western disease (Diabetes). for the last 3 years I’ve been eating Island foods mixed in with Western foods. example: Taro leaves & coconut cream & corned beef. Tongans loves corned beef but told it’s no good. the thing is? CORNBEEF has NO CARBOHYDRATES or SUGAR which means it’s low carb.

Joseph has adapted the Western foods Tongan’s love with some traditional food (less the starchy staples) to make Tongan and Pacific island dishes the low-carb way. That is also what the Nigerians have done and it is also what Western low-carbers have done. Corned beef cooked with cabbage in coconut cream and raw fish (AKA ceviche or kokoda) are but two dishes. Joseph has addressed one of the complaints, that low carb is too expensive, by also thinking about the economics for large families who need to be fed on a budget.

Is Low Carb Too Expensive?

The economics of low carb are an interesting topic perhaps for a future post. Let us just say here that the current criticism that low carb is expensive has some validity.  It is also true that economies of scale have not yet kicked into the food supply. For sure there will be winners and losers.  We only need to look at what has happened to the cost of solar power as economies of scale kicked in. A technology that was always a great idea but was uneconomic is now economic.

Data from the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research show the inverse relationship between scale and cost. CREDIT:
Data from the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research show the inverse relationship between scale and cost. CREDIT:

However, for the moment Joseph does have solutions that work for him and his community on a budget. As he shows, it doesn’t have to be about grass fed steak, tinned corned beef (which Tongans already eat) is fine.


Joseph has a Facebook group to reach out to people in his community and around the world.  He runs cooking workshops, and his group has a procession of recipes from the one thousand or so members.

Kiwi Tongan Cooking
Joseph Finau shows how to cook LCHF Tongan style

Now one thousand members may be small compared to the 340,000 now in the Ketogenic Lifestyle (Nigerian) group, but with 190,000,000 Nigerians and only 170,000 Tongans and Kiwi Tongans, it is actually quite significant.

What are the lessons for Australia?

Many people have long regarded Tongan diabesity as an intractable problem. Joseph is proving them wrong.

It seems that low-carb can be adapted to almost any cuisine and budget. By analysis of the Nyungar diet and by looking at the work of Prof. O’Dea and (most importantly) consulting with the communities, we should be able to adapt Western food to be closer to the macronutrients that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders became metabolically used to for 30,000 to 50,000 years. It should be possible to make it affordable, available, and it should be more culturally appropriate than the food choices available today.

I am not saying it would be easy. I hesitate to suggest solutions for a people who have had plenty of ‘advice’ from my kind in the past. Social issues are always complex. Any solution must come from their grassroots. We need some champions like Joseph to lead the way to say eating needs to be different. Staple ‘modern’ bush tucker needs to be redefined and delineated from a preference for McDonalds or KFC. Awareness needs to be built about traditional diet and the reasons that fats and sugars are sought after, but need not be consumed in excess. That needs to be internalised. If it is hard for urban dwellers to avoid fast food, then the other side of the coin is poor access to healthy food in remote communities.

In the end, it will be a personal choice. However, if people and communities don’t have knowledge of this option, how can they choose a traditionally oriented diet for optimum health? 

‘Blind Freddy’ can see that the existing approach is not working.  It doesn’t work for the indigenous people of the world, and it isn’t working for us. We need different thinking.

Is a ‘Sugar Tax’ a Solution?

A sugar tax might provide revenue for some change while food supply economics normalise. If we are to have a sugar tax, why not apply it to tax the majority of unhealthy eating Australians to subsidise the food supply of those who may struggle to afford healthy food because of their socioeconomic or geographic disadvantage? Focus the funds on innovation to change ingrained food habits. This would be likely to normalise when the economics of the food supply and demand and supply settle down anyway.

No-one is arguing any more against sugar being unhealthy (apart from the food lobby). Before taxing other ‘unhealthy’ foods, the science needs to be settled.

It is in the nature of researchers to always call for more research funding. Frankly, when you see misguided research that appears to be being undertaken into diabesity, there are much better uses for the money. I am neither anti-research nor anti-academic, but funding should be judicious and focussed on settling the science for starters.

What are the lessons for NZ?

My Anzac cousins, you chose not to federate with us, and I get that. The last thing you need is some Aussie blogger telling you what to do!  Joseph is doing fine, and you have other fantastic people in the low-carb community, but I have to question:

Why on Earth do your bureaucrats and food policy people follow Australia when we think that our dietary guidelines and institutions are dumb and broken?

It perhaps says a lot about the power of trans-Tasman economics over trans-Tasman rivalry, and there is probably a PhD thesis somewhere in that.

I think it is time to assert some of that famous independent Kiwi thinking. Otherwise, pretty soon the change will be over in Australia, and we will claim that Prof. Grant (Schofield) was really an Aussie researcher- just like Split Enz was an Aussie rock band.

Keep Going Joseph

My message to Joseph is simple. You may not have 340,000 group members on facebook but you are like Daphnis, and you are making waves at the grass-roots and leading by example.

You are not half the man you used to be, but twice the man most of us will ever be.

“Kai mate”, my Kiwi Tongan friend, and may that eating be low carb for a long and healthy life.

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