Skip to main content

The Hawaiian Diet: Traditional Native vs. "Local" Food

Brittany has lived on the Big Island of Hawaii for most of her life. She has a BA in Sociology/English and Comp Lit from Occidental College.

From the traditional lu'au to the modern plate lunch, Hawaiian cuisine has changed dramatically over time.

From the traditional lu'au to the modern plate lunch, Hawaiian cuisine has changed dramatically over time.

What Is Hawaiian Cuisine?

Hawaiian food is difficult to define. Food that is currently advertised as “Hawaiian food” in the continental United States is very different from what Native Hawaiians ate.

Ancient Hawaiians had a very healthy diet; it is said to be one of the healthiest in the world. In contemporary Hawaiian culture, however, most people do not limit themselves to what Native Hawaiians ate; rather, they embellish the traditional Hawaiian diet with foods of other cultures.

Because Hawaii is the most ethnically amalgamated state in the nation (Kasindorf 2007:1), the types of food consumed there are a mix of many different cultures of the people who call Hawaii home. In parts of the United States, this cuisine is known as “Hawaiian food” or “Hawaiian barbeque”; in Hawaii, however, residents refer to it as “local food.”

"Local food" is generally unhealthy and has caused obesity rates in Hawaii to increase. Through extensive research on Hawaiian culture, food, assimilation, and historical events, this article analyzes both the benefits of Hawaii’s ethnic amalgamation and the unfortunate effects of unhealthy, popular foods in Hawaii.

Differences between the ancient Hawaiian diet and today's American diet

Differences between the ancient Hawaiian diet and today's American diet

Native Hawaiian Diet

The ancient Hawaiian diet is said to be one of the healthiest diets in the world (Ann Cecil 2002:1). Ancient Hawaiians' main diet consisted of poi (which comes from the taro root), fish, birds, breadfruit, pigs, yams, shellfish, and seaweed. The women were the hunters and gatherers and the men were the cooks. Both tasks required hard, physical labor; their diet satisfied their needs for carbohydrates, starch, and protein.

Ancient Hawaiian foods. Pounding the taro to make poi (bottom right).

Ancient Hawaiian foods. Pounding the taro to make poi (bottom right).

Ancient Hawaiians and Exercise

“The ancient Hawaiians were fit. The traditional Hawaiian diet may have been ‘one of the best in the world’. It was a simple, high starch, high fiber, low saturated fat, low sodium and low cholesterol diet. It had 12 percent protein, 18 percent fat and 70 percent carbohydrates. By comparison, the typical American diet today has 15 percent protein, 40 percent fat and 45 percent carbohydrates” (Kanahele 1998).

With the amount of exercise they were getting, Native Hawaiians were healthy and strong. Many Hawaiian legends boast about the strength of the warriors; King Kamehameha I was crowned because he was able to lift a 700-pound boulder over his head.

Traditional Hawaiian dishes

Traditional Hawaiian dishes

Diet and Social Status

Although their main diet was healthy, higher-status individuals were allowed to eat more fatty foods: “In Hawaii, ‘the feast was co-opted as a virtual prerogative of the ruling class, less an instrument of power than a pervasive, daily reminder of the immense gulf of social distinctions that separated the ali’i [chiefs] from maka’ainana [commoners]’” (Kirch and O’Day 2003:485). Although certain members of the group ate different foods, they continued the tradition of eating together. Hawaiians ate a single, large meal during the day, which was in the early afternoon. (They ate smaller meals at other times, but these were not thought of as a meal because they were rarely shared with company.)

Ancient Hawaiian lu'au. Top right: preparing the imu, or underground oven.

Ancient Hawaiian lu'au. Top right: preparing the imu, or underground oven.

The Hawaiian Lu'au

The ancient Hawaiian’s major meal of the day was a lu’au. A lu’au is a feast and celebration where the food is laid out for everyone to share. The ali’i would get a special meal, which was brought to them by lower-status people:

“Due to their socially superior position and ability to control resources, elites had more options for their diet. They were able to select certain foods and demand specific items as tribute without fear of dietary deficiency. Commoners had a more limited consumption of luxury, fatty foods” (Kirch and O’Day 2003:490).

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Delishably

In contemporary American society, it seems that members of lower classes have limited access to healthy foods; in ancient Hawaii, the situation was the opposite.

Immigration to Hawaii from the early 1800s to the early 1900s

Immigration to Hawaii from the early 1800s to the early 1900s

Immigration and History

The many immigrants that came to Hawaii brought their tastes for certain foods with them. Japanese and Chinese immigrants traveled to Hawaii and worked on the sugarcane plantations. Laudan (1996) writes: “The Chinese, the first immigrants to work on the plantations, demanded rice instead of poi, the Hawaiian staple. At first, their rice had to be imported, but as the Hawaiian population declined, so did the demand for the taro from which poi was made” (31). Hawaiian staples changed as immigrants traveled to Hawaii. Because foreigners’ tastes had to be adjusted to what was available in Hawaii, food was shared, mixed, and imported as Masuoka (1945) explains in his essay.

Japanese Immigrants

Masuoka (1945) conducted a study that analyzed the eating habits of 100 Japanese families living in Hawaii in the early 1940s. In his results, he concludes that the Japanese immigrant in Hawaii tends to eat differently from traditional Hawaiian and traditional Japanese individuals. He discovered that the families of Japanese immigrants who traveled to Hawaii and worked on sugarcane plantations acquired a taste for sweeter foods. Sweet foods were considered a luxury in Japan—whereas sugar was a key staple in Hawaii at this time; Hawaiian food is known worldwide for its sweetness.

Native Resistance to Newcomers

When immigrants first came to Hawaii, Native elders were not ready to give up or share their culture with the newcomers:

“Native leaders saw their people faced by loss of autonomy and of territory, looked back with poignant memory to the good old days, resented the confidently domineering ways of the newcomers who were thwarting their activities at so many points, could foresee no future other than displacement and destruction of their race” (Keesing 1934:449).

Blending and Assimilation

As the youth began to mix with immigrants from the East, modern Hawaiian culture began to form. Their ability to assimilate came from a collective identity. Hawaiians believe that they are part of the Orient and share a feeling of “the other.” This is because they too were looked down on by Western cultures:

“Being an immigrant, or belonging to an ethnic minority, often means belonging to a category of disadvantage in today’s Western multiethnic societies. This disadvantage is not based upon a particular ethnicity, but could rather be understood in terms of being defined as the Other—something that affects certain ethnicities more than others” (Hallden, Grand and Hellgren 2008:4).

Ethnic amalgamation in Hawaii

Ethnic amalgamation in Hawaii

"Hawaii's Foods Are a Mélange"

The assimilation of Eastern cultures immigrating to Hawaii caused the local cuisine to change and mix:

“Today, then, Hawaii’s foods are a mélange, imperfectly adjusted to the soil and climate of the Islands, imperfectly adjusted along themselves. In this lies their interest. For all the nostalgia for foods rooted in one place, for all the loving stories of peasants around the Mediterranean eating the products of the lands they till, the reality is what each one of us eats . . . is the result of centuries of change” (Laudan 1996:6).

This change is obvious when we look at what is considered Hawaiian cuisine in current society. Many cultures came to assimilate in Hawaii and the culture was affected dramatically.

Clockwise from top left: poke, saimin, spam musubi, tripe stew, kimchee, loco moco

Clockwise from top left: poke, saimin, spam musubi, tripe stew, kimchee, loco moco

Language, Ethnicity, and Pidgin English

In order to understand others, residents of Hawaii created their own language: pidgin English (which is commonly referred to as “broken English”). For example, “'manapua' is the pidgin word for 'dim sum.' It purportedly comes from a contraction of three Hawaiian words: 'mea,' which means 'thing'; 'ono,' which means 'delicious'; and 'pua’a,' which means 'pig.' So a manapua is a 'delicious pig thing'” (Scanlan 2009:1).

Like our food, our culture is mixed and influenced by immigration. Because Hawaiian was not a written language, it was difficult for foreigners to learn; they shorten sentences and mix them with Hawaiian, Pilipino, Japanese and Portuguese words. This language still exists in Hawaii today and it is what defines our ethnically amalgamated culture:

“Pacific Islanders historically have constructed their ethnic identities rather more complexly than many other peoples. Pacific Islanders have long had a greater consciousness than other American groups of being mixed peoples, of having multiple ethnic identities….They seem more comfortable than other Americans with holding in tension two or more ethnic identities, with being deeply more involved in more than one at the same time” (Spickard and Fong 1995:1368).

Because of the many cultures that traveled to Hawaii, it became a place of ethnic acceptance, where culture mixed. The local cuisine changed as more immigrants traveled to Hawaii.

A classic "local" plate lunch with mac salad, rice, and meat

A classic "local" plate lunch with mac salad, rice, and meat

"Local" Food

After centuries of immigration, many Hawaiian residents label themselves as multiethnic or multiracial. In a 2005 census survey, 21 percent of Hawaii’s population listed themselves as belonging to more than one race.

In Hawaii, there is a word for multiracial people: hapa (this term literally means “mixed”). Linda Lingle, governor of Hawaii from 2002–10, says Hawaii is “a model for the world” (Kasindorf 2007:1), where culture is celebrated and mixed; Hawaii is America’s true melting pot. Lingle also notes that every one in two marriages crosses racial lines; this is more than any other place in the United States (Sullivan 2005:1). Hawaiian culture has blended with others and so has our food.

The popular restaurant chain L&L advertises itself as “Hawaiian BBQ” in the continental United States. Their menu consists of mainly plate lunches, which include rice, macaroni salad, and an entrée (including fish, chicken, beef, pork, or spam) in a Styrofoam box. In Hawaii, L&L advertises that they serve “Korean BBQ.” Although the menus are identical, the food is tied to a different culture. Hawaiian food is now known as a combination of many Asian dishes.

Residents of Hawaii call this type of cuisine “local food.” Popular local foods include musubi (spam wrapped in rice and seaweed), macaroni salad, kimchee, long rice, and saimin (Japanese noodle soup).

Fast food in Hawaii reflects local dishes.

Fast food in Hawaii reflects local dishes.

Hawaiian Fast Food

Fast food restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King began to incorporate popular local food into their menus. McDonald's has breakfast menus, which offer Portuguese sausage and spam. At Mcdonald's in China, they are currently testing and marketing their “Hawaiian Burger.” This item is a hamburger patty with teriyaki sauce, lettuce, tomato, and a slice of pineapple on a sesame seed bun. What defines this burger as “Hawaiian” is not only the pineapple slice, which was eaten by Natives, but also the teriyaki flavor, which is from Japanese cuisine.

McDonald's also makes special advertisements for Hawaiian consumers. They often have an Asian male rapping about fast food. These commercials suggest that they are attempting to appeal to the large, Asian community in Hawaii. McDonald’s’ newest additions to the menu are pineapple pie and the sweet taro pie. These items are popular in Hawaii because they appeal to the types of foods Hawaiians are used to eating.

Although these foods are delicious, they affect the health and well-being of Hawaiian residents immensely. It seems that the fatty and luxurious foods which were reserved for the higher class in ancient Hawaiian society are now available to the public, causing an obesity epidemic.

Obesity in Hawaii

Because of the availability of fatty foods, an obesity epidemic has erupted in Hawaii. Among people living in Hawaii, 17.6 percent are obese. This number is substantial; decades before, Hawaii’s obesity rates were low compared to the rest of the nation. Unfortunately, obesity rates of certain races in Hawaii are higher than others. Among Native Hawaiians, 39 percent are obese (Evans 2004:1): “In Hawaii, data clearly substantiate that Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander populations are more at risk for overweight and obesity and obesity-attributable health complications than other ethnic groups” (25).

Native Hawaiians may be more obese than other races in the same area due to class/economic status, hereditary factors and lifestyle choices. Because of the poor public transportation on islands other than Oahu, many people don’t have the opportunities to travel to a store for groceries. When the local restaurants only sell fatty foods, companies try to protect Hawaii from obesity.

Obesity in Hawaii

Obesity in Hawaii

Child Obesity and the Role of Schools

Child obesity has become a major issue within the United States. When Michelle Obama was first lady, one of her goals was to attempt to lower the national rate of child obesity. In Hawaii, 20 percent of children are obese (Evans 2004:16). Native Hawaiian children have an obesity rate that doubles the national children’s obesity rating. This high rating could be a result of Hawaii’s inconsistent educational system.

Since the beginning of the 2009–10 school year, Hawaiian public schools are closed on Fridays; the government calls them “furlough Fridays.” Because of the lack of funding for Hawaiian education, all students and teachers get to enjoy three-day weekends all school year long. Students have less routine in their daily lives, which heightens the risk of using drugs and alcohol and also gaining weight. They could make poor diet choices if they are home alone (while parents are at work) during Furlough Fridays. Because unhealthy food is cheaper, available, and appealing to children, unsupervised children could gain weight without nutritional education. If so, they can become socially detached from society due to social stigmas (Julier 2007: 487).

The Hawaii board of education continues to struggle to get adequate funding. For the school year of 2010-2011, teachers are being asked to work three school days without pay. Teachers are threatening to strike; if they follow through, it would create more instability in the children’s lives, causing them to possibly gain weight. President Obama is working to rid the 256 public schools of furlough Fridays through a bill that would increase the budget.

In a place that is known for its warm weather and beautiful landscapes, Hawaiian obesity shouldn’t be an issue. There are many ways to get exercise that people in other parts of the world cannot do. Fortunately, there are programs in place to help Hawaiian residents lose weight and make healthier choices. Kaiser Permanente shares pamphlets of information with their patients, which instructs them to make healthier food choices. They suggest that instead of the classic plate lunch, the typical Hawaiian should choose to get vegetables instead of rice, skinless chicken instead of chicken katsu, etc. Kaiser also sponsors the Aloha Run, which gets many people to come out with their families and get some exercise.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Hawaiian food culture evolved because of immigration and assimilation. The food that locals eat now is very different from that of the Natives (a healthy, rich diet). In current Hawaiian society, there is an obesity epidemic. Without education, Hawaii will continue to gain weight by eating unhealthy foods (like a plate lunch). Children that are attending public school should be able to attend on Fridays; if not, the obesity rates will continue to rise and children will have less daily routine.

Although the amalgamation of Hawaii is positive—“a model for the world”—the types of food that Hawaiians consume on a daily basis is not good for their health. In order to fix the problems with unhealthy eating in Hawaii there must be more access to public transportation and fewer fast food restaurants in low-income areas. The availability of unhealthy and cheap food makes it difficult for Hawaiians to make healthier choices. Through education and the promotion of exercise, Hawaii can rid itself of the obesity epidemic it is currently facing.


Boero, Natalie. “All the News that’s Fat to Print: The American ‘Obesity Epidemic’ in the Media.” Quantative Sociology. 30:41-60.

Byles, Julie. 2009. “Obesity: The New Global Threat to Healthy Aging and Longevity.” Health Sociology Review. 18:412-422.

Corum, Ann Kondo. 1983. Ethnic Foods of Hawai’i. Honolulu, HI: Bess Press.

Evans, Brooke. 2004. “Obesity in Hawaii: Health Policy Options.” University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Hallden, Karin. Elias le Grand. Zenis Hellgren. 2008. “Ethnicity and Social Divisions: Contemporary Research in Sociology.” Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Julier, Alice. 2007. “The Political Economy of Obesity: The Fat Pay All.” Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge. 482-499.

Kanahele, George, PHD. 1998. Pookela Hawaiian Culture Course. Kā'anapali Beach Hotel.

Kasindorf, Martin. 2007. “Racial Tensions are Simmering in Hawaii’s Melting Pot.” USA Today.

Keesing, Felix M. 1934. “The Changing Life of Native Peoples in the Pacific Area: A Sketch in Cultural Dynamics.” The American Journal of Sociology. 39:443-458.

Kirch, Patrick. Sharyn O’Day. 2003. “New Archaeological Insights into Food and Status: A Case Study from Pre-Contact Hawaii.” World Archaeology. 34: 484-497.

Laudan, Rachel. 1996. The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Law, Sylvia. 2000. “Health Care in Hawai'i: An Agenda for Research and Reform.” American Journal of Law and Medicine.

Linnekin, Jocelyn. Lin Poyer. 1991. “Cultural Identity and Ethnicity in the Pacific.” Journal of Sociology. 27:112-113.

Masuoka, Jitsuichi. 1945. “Changing Food Habits of the Japanese in Hawaii.” American Sociological Review. 10:759-765.

Nestle, Marion. 2003. “The Ironic Politics of Obesity.” Science Magazine. 229: 781.

Reinecke, John. 1938 “‘Pidgin English’ in Hawaii: A Local Study in the Sociology of Language.” American Journal of Sociology.

Scanlan, Laura. 2009. “The Voice of Hawaii.” Humanities. 30:1-3.

Schmitt, Robert C. 1981. “Early Hawaiian Statistics.” The American Statistician. 35:1-3.

Spickard, Paul R. Rowena Fong. 1995. “Pacific Islander Americans and Multiethnicity: A Vision of America's Future?” Social Forces. 73: 1365-1383.

Sullivan, Paul. 2005. “Killing Aloha: The Akaka Bill is Wrong for the State of Hawaii and Wrong for the United States.” Honolulu, HI.

More About Hawaii

Related Articles