2015 really flew by, huh? I had quite a crazy ride over this past year: I released an eBook, a New York Times-bestselling cookbook, a smartphone/tablet app, embarked on a 12-week book tour, and welcomed our second son into the world. At the same time, this little website reached over 2.5 million readers, and a Yahoo news article about my health journey went viral.
More so than in previous years, I’ve caught myself reflecting on that fateful day in December 2010, when I first stumbled upon the ideas behind the Paleo diet. A lot has changed since then, and the movement has greatly expanded from the few forums that existed when I first changed my diet and restored my health. Here are 10 ideas on food and nutrition I’d like to share.
Taco Bowls – “Paleo” or not? Does it matter?
1. In order for the Paleo diet to survive beyond its fad status, we will need to approach foods beyond a “eat / do not eat” list.
When first approaching the diet, I appreciated the strict list of foods that were and weren’t allowed within the confines of Paleo, because they gave me clear guidance in a time when I needed it. I’m thankful for the path to health that Paleo first set me on, but over the years I found that while the diet provides an excellent initial framework, it’s not always a complete solution. Rather, it requires a bit of self-tweaking to find out what works for you individually; and in addition, there’s a bit of “gray area” amongst the black-and-white Paleo template.
Grains and legumes are not necessarily evil, nor irredeemable. I’ve been talking about the merits of white rice for nearly five years, and my stance hasn’t changed; it may indeed be a grain, and like all plants it contains some level of toxic anti-nutrients. But its most prominent anti-nutrient, phytic acid, is significantly less prominent than in many common foods, like almonds, coconut, and spinach. Moreover, it can be cooked in broth and with other seasonings, like in the Mexican Rice pictured above, to significantly increase its nutritional profile. Also, incorporating it into your eating routine may make your meals more satisfying, making you less likely to give in to food temptations (see #2 below). Lastly, it’s very affordable (see #4 below). Other grains that we eat from time to time include corn (usually in the form of homemade popcorn or corn tortillas), and gluten-free oats.
In terms of legumes, I have found that certain beans – green beans, peas, and fermented soy products like miso and tamari – aren’t quite as detrimental as some of their cousins. Green beans and peas have been cultivated to the point where they’re edible when eaten raw, unlike other legumes; and the fermentation process destroys most of the toxic components of soy, rendering it more safe to eat.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is what works for you. No food is infallible – some folks cannot eat rice, while others cannot eat tomatoes – and it’s potentially dangerous to dismiss a whole, nutritious food from your diet simply because it’s labeled as “not Paleo” based on an “eat / do not eat” list. As Mark Sisson so elegantly put it in 2011, “To malign an entire category of food with impunity and without regard for the subtleties that exist between individual foods within that category is foolish.”
The way I see it, while eating from a list of approved foods makes for excellent marketing and a catchy tagline, a more nuanced, mature approach to nutrition is our best bet for sustained health.
2. Capitalize on naturally flavorful foods and your innate taste preferences.
One of the tenets of ancestral nutrition is that humans evolved in a particular way to prefer a specific diet – based on the foods available to us from the birth of humans some 3+ million years ago to the advent of agriculture about 11,000 years ago. And while the debate on what foods we ate (and what foods we should eat) continues, one thing remains certain – humans crave certain tastes and textures. Why is it that sometimes there’s nothing better than crisp chips, flavorful sauces, or sweet and rich ice cream? My take is that our innate food preferences are a result of evolutionary cues.
Paul Jaminet explains this idea the best, but I’ll paraphrase: humans need certain nutrients in order to survive, and in general ratios of macronutrients (fats, carbs, and proteins). For example, how could we be compelled to spend all day digging for a few hundred calories’ worth of tubers (carbs), when there were millions of calories to be found by taking down one large animal (fat and protein)? The logical explanation is that we developed an innate preference for carbs, which then encouraged us to make an effort to dig up those scarce tubers. But in today’s environment, no food is scarce, which has led to a disbalance in our eating – our cravings encourage us to overeat certain foods that were previously hard to find.
In other words, we should seek those tastes we crave, but from natural sources. That’s the basis I use for building my meals and writing my recipes; by eating flavorful meals that are nutritious, delicious, and satisfying, I’m able to maintain my diet without feeling like it’s a compromise. I also try and eat my meals with a certain macronutrient ratio and balance of components (step #3).
3. Sectioning your meals into components helps to create balance.
When building my meal plans for the week, I found that when I broke down my meals in terms of the four categories above, it became easy to come up with ideas for each dinner. Moreover, it seems that this ratio – equal weights of protein, carbs, and other vegetables – is ideally aligned with traditional practices.
These amounts sound obscene at first glance: an entire pound of meat? An entire pound of starches? I thought the same thing initially, but I was surprised to see how little 1 lb of starchy foods actually are, since they are generally heavy in terms of weight. 1 lb of boiled potato is 91g of carbs, while other veggies are much lower (beets are 45g, squash is 48g, peas are 65g). Less than 50g of carbs a day is considered very low carb, and can often induce ketosis. Rice (130g) and sweet potatoes (110g) are the highest, but they’re still below the 150g usually associated with weight gain. Alternatively, when you divide the intake into two 8oz portions, it sounds much more reasonable.
Starchy foods: rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, peas, parsnips, plantains, yuca, taro, winter squash
Hardy vegetables: broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, radish, turnip, cucumber, green beans, eggplant, summer squash
Leafy vegetables: lettuce, cabbage, kale, spinach, greens, herbs (side salad or braised/sautéed greens)
I treat fruits, berries, chocolate, and nuts as treats (first articulated as “pleasure foods” in the Perfect Health Diet), to be eaten seasonally and sparingly, and not factored into meal building. Healthy fats (olive oil, coconut oil, lard, tallow, duck fat, butter, and ghee) and acids (citrus fruits, vinegars, alcohol, and acidic vegetables like tomatoes) are added naturally during the cooking process – like fats to keep food from sticking, and acids to add brightness to the final dish.
For the past year or so I’ve been using this template when calculating portions for the recipes on this site, as well as the dishes that appear in Paleo Takeout. Eating this way is also very economical (step #4).
Macronutrient ratios are very individualized, as there are many factors involved: activity level, genetics, metabolic history, sleep, and gut flora. For example, my wife naturally eats a bit less than I do, and our son Oliver rarely eats leafy vegetables (although I often sneak them into his taco bowls).
4. Consider the economical benefit of safe starches.
The following is an excerpt from my eBook, The Safe Starch Cookbook, which I think is fitting for this post. The two charts below are based on average online grassfed/pastured meat prices and organic co-op produce prices as of December 2014. I kept it simple, with common, frequently-eaten foods. There was a bit of fun math involved in these calculations; for example, a dozen eggs usually weigh 1.5 lbs, so I multiplied a $3 avg price for eggs by 2/3 to get the per-pound cost. Okay, enough nerdery, let’s move on to why this matters.
By eating one pound a day each of protein, starches, and veggies, that equals about 90 pounds a month of meat and produce, as charted below (you might eat more beef or eggs than that, but again, this is just an example). When factoring in average costs for these items, it appears that a diet that includes safe starches is about $293 per person (not factoring in pantry items since those are of similar cost across the board).
Low-carb diets tend to result in a higher protein intake, since our bodies naturally consume more protein during an absence of carbs, in order to convert some of that protein to glucose for energy. I made an assumption that low-carbers still eat some carbs (4oz/day), and maintain a one-pound vegetable intake (and likely a higher fat intake to even out an overall caloric deficit).
This example highlights that incorporating safe starches into your diet could save you something like $68 per person, per month – over $4,000 a year for a family of five! There’s a reason that starchy foods have been staple and survival foods for millennia. Think of it this way: if your current grocery budget cannot support grassfed and pastured meats for your family, incorporating safe starches into your family’s eating habits might allow you to afford these items. Or you could use the extra money to go to Disney World. I won’t judge.
5. Owning, and regularly using, pantry staples can seriously up your cooking game.
A quick and easy way to boost the flavor in your meals is to stock your pantry with some ingredients. Many of these items are prominent in my recipes, and adding a drop here or there to dishes can excite the tastebuds and bring out the flavor in the other ingredients. Here’s a quick breakdown of what I consider essentials:
Acids: apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, red & white wine vinegars, limes, lemons, cooking wines (rice, white, red)
Fats: ghee, butter, coconut oil, lard, tallow, duck fat, olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil
Flavor boosters: fish sauce, shrimp paste, Tabasco or other hot sauce, anchovy paste, tomato paste, worcestershire sauce, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, mustard
Dried goods: dried chiles, spices, dried mushrooms, dried seaweed, dried shrimp
6. Take advantage of modern gadgets.
While eating like our great-grandparents is likely a helpful frame of mind, it’s not necessary to cook like them. It can take over 12 hours to make a flavorful, nutrient-dense broth over a stovetop, but does it need to? Modern gadgets like the Instant Pot, convection microwaves, or a smartphone-enabled remote thermometer save valuable time in the kitchen and help produce excellent results.
Jambalaya, easy to make in large batches
7. Consider cooking only once a day.
At our house, I only cook once a day – for dinner. I fast through breakfast or put together a simple meal of protein (a bit of jerky, dried fish, canned fish) and fruit (banana, apple, berries), and then enjoy leftovers for lunch. When making dinner, I prepare extra portions to eat for the following day’s lunch. This gives me the flexibility to focus on preparing only one meal a day, while keeping the fridge fully stocked with delicious prepared food. Other folks have found utility in batch-cooking on the weekend, which I think is a great idea, too. In the end, what matters is finding a solution that works for you and your family.
8. Branch out to world cuisines. There are times when you may crave familiar tastes (the underlying reason why I wrote Paleo Takeout), but sometimes cooking at home all the time can get a bit boring. I’ve found that experimenting with new flavor combinations, often using spices already in your pantry, can broaden your cooking skills and bring some variety into your home. Some of my favorite examples include Sukuma Wiki and this week’s recipe, Bobotie.
9. Despite what the media may say, Paleo is not a meat-focused diet.
I’ll be honest – when preparing a meal, I usually build it based on the meat first. If I have chicken on hand, I’ll come up with a meal that uses it, and put together the rest of the meal based on how I prepare the chicken. But all the same, the amount of protein pales in size compared to the rest of the meal (see #3 above). If popular media articles were any indication, Paleo eaters dine solely on meat (while wearing loincloths, naturally). But luckily, actual eating trends are swinging the other way – for example, the most-visited recipe on this site in 2015 was the Ital Stew dish you see above.
10. When it comes to optimal health, diet does not exist in a vacuum. You’re probably heard the old adage, “you cannot outrun a bad diet”, implying that exercise will not provide you with health on its own. Similarly, I have found that my own inflammatory markers (measured via periodic bloodwork) are lowest when I am regularly getting at least eight hours of sleep.
Other indicators have a large impact on overall health, besides sleep: exposure to sunlight, low stress, time spent in nature, regular exercise, and an active lifestyle are all important. Incorporating each of these elements into my life has has just as profound an impact on the way I feel as eating right.
Thanks to everyone for making 2015 a year to remember. I have a feeling 2016 will be pretty great, too!