So, I've been eating Paleo, more or less, since October 20, 2012. Three months.
I've bought 5 Paleo cookbooks and probably 30 e-books and shorter guides, read lots of books, watched many videos. To some extent, I don't really need the cookbooks, because I'm a good cook, but it helps to have inspiration. It can be easy to get into a rut. But I confess, I sometimes find Paleo cookbooks surprisingly simplistic. Simple is good. I like recipes with very few ingredients. I'm just surprised someone would need a recipe for beef stew or plain broth.
Then I remember that I've been cooking from scratch all my life. If my family went out for a meal, it was a good meal in a nice restaurant, better than we'd have at home. This was a baseline assumption. Eating out equals a treat, not simply getting out of cooking and never because it was fast. If the food is not as good as home-cooked, my parents or my husband and I wouldn't bother. So knowing how to make stew or broth or other dishes seems effortless to me, something I hardly need to have explained. But that didn't just happen, it's the result of how I grew up, the assumptions and values I was raised with and experiences I've had along the way. It's easy to take your own life history for granted and not see that something so natural for me can be a treasure for other people.
My mother followed Julia Child and other great chefs. She would host dinner parties and plan her menus with great care. So I have it ingrained that cooking is something you would WANT to do well, a skill and craft you can strive to perfect.
I was married for 14 years to a man who took pride in being frugal. We both cooked. He often planned and cooked for large events and parties, I did most of the day to day cooking. We saved bones, meat scraps and vegetables and made a huge pot of soup stock, then we divided the stock into two or three portions, and made a different soup from each portion (as examples, a curried rice soup, a tomato based minestrone style, and a hearty lentil and yam soup, all from the same base). We'd freeze the soups in two-portion size containers, and have that with bread, maybe sliced meat and vegetables, pickles or whatever we felt like eating, as our lunch at home.
We bought a few pre-packaged items at CostCo, mostly things like frozen breaded fish or portions of meat or chicken, and HUGE bags of frozen mixed vegetables we couldn't get at our local supermarket. These were ingredients for meals we'd then cook ourselves. We bought few items ready to serve, or that needed only to be microwaved. We had a huge upright freezer, just two of us, that was always full, of ingredients or of foods we had prepared ourselves. We'd go in on a whole cow or a pig with friends or family members, so we had a stock of meat on hand. We'd get packages of meat from people who hunted. We'd buy produce in season and freeze it for later, when bell peppers can cost as much as fresh meat.
So for me, the idea of cooking everything myself is nothing new. Following recipes is not new. I need cookbooks and blogs for ideas on what to pack for lunch if I won't be at home, or Paleo-friendly snacks. Getting caught on an all-day shopping trip with only the Food Court as an option is not the best situation for making good food choices. Even a farmer's market can be problematic at meal-time, if the only items for sale need to be cooked or processed to be edible, or you're already maxed out on fruit for the day and need something substantial. When your companions opt for bagels and cream cheese or ice cream, or other scrumptious looking easy fare, you need to have a plan to ward off temptation, or some Paleo friendly snack in your shoulder bag. This is where cookbooks and blogs can be invaluable for tips and tricks.
And I came of age in the 1970s, when Frances Moore Lappe's Food For a Small planet was popular and vegetarianism was starting to become mainstream. I lived in a town that took everything counterculture seriously, and learned how to cook with brown rice and lentils, how to use whole grains, why sugar was bad for you. When I was at art college, we would challenge each other to go without sugar for a week or a month, and share our experiences. Then I went to university in a much larger city, met people from other cultures, learned to love other foods. Art historians LOVE good food, so we would have amazing potlucks when I was in grad school, where everyone brought fabulous dishes and shared recipes, and we would talk about each dish and what was so great about it. We appreciated food and talked about it like, well, art historians: the colours, the textures, the way the flavours blended or stood out.
My personal experience with food and cooking is, I now realize, vast compared to that of many people. And, I must grudgingly admit, perhaps my age is a factor here, that I grew up at a time when stay-at-home moms were common, and learning to cook well, or at least decently, was expected for most mothers and wives. Maybe it's not as easy for people who grew up in two-income families or with single parents, without the model of cooking as something that took up a good portion of the day and could be done well. And I grew up in small towns and both my parents were from small towns, where take out food simply was not an option decades ago.
But I know a woman, older than me, whose mother saw cooking as a necessary evil. She wanted to be helping out on the family farm or reading. She felt that cooking was not as important as picking fruit or studying, even though cooking and food were obviously necessary. Cooking was not "real work," it didn't contribute, in her mind, in the same way that orchard work did, and it wasn't important the way mastery of an intellectual topic could be. So it's not even a generational thing or about where you grew up, it's also about the specific qualities your family emphasized and saw as valuable.
Implicit in my own upbringing was the sense that food was important, that cooking tasty, nourishing food was a critical part of a happy home, a major contribution. Both of my grandmothers were good cooks, and both regarded that as something to be proud of.
I don't know if my maternal grandmother loved cooking 3 meals a day every day for a family of 5 kids plus assorted friends and relatives. In fact, I'm fairly sure she did not LOVE it all the time. Even cooking for two can get tedious day in and day out. I don't even know that she was a GOOD cook. But the assumption in my mother's family was that people cooked, that home cooking tasted good, and it was something you would want to do. The jokes about home cooking maybe not being anything you'd want to eat have never made sense to me, so that tells me being a good cook was a baseline assumption in my mother's family. And I know that my mother's paternal grandmother would run across town with Swedish specialties for the grandkids, so piping hot from her oven she had to wear oven mitts. Mom said maybe she thought Mom's mother never fed the kids, from the way all of them fell on everything she brought and devoured it like vultures.
(As a side note, one of her specialties was Swedish oven pancake, which became a Christmas tradition in the family. And so much a valued tradition that one of my cousins took pictures of his own Swedish oven pancakes this Christmas morning, and emailed them to me. See below, "food is love.")
I know for sure my father's mother was a good cook. I remember her meals. I remember that when we visited, she made a point of making things she knew someone in the family enjoyed. She always made roast beef because she was sure my father loved her roast beef dinners more than anything. Finally, my mother broke it to her that my Dad ALSO really loved her fried chicken and he wished she would sometimes make that. My father loved his mother's strawberry shortcake so much, my mother spent decades perfecting shortcake like her mother-in-law made.
I was well into my twenties before I realized it was possible to say, "no, thank you, Grandma, I don't NEED another piece of chicken/slice of beef/potato/Yorkshire pudding." It still did not go over well when I did say it, it didn't WORK, but it was POSSIBLE to try to turn it down! That took adult fortitude and gumption to figure out in the face of an old-time Grandma!
Maybe that's what people need to get, that food is love. Food is not simply nutrients or a chore, it's something we need on many levels. Food is nourishment and comfort, a way of giving love to family and friends, and ourselves. Maybe if we saw that as its PRIMARY purpose, and really believed in that, we'd have less inclination to just grab a burger on the way home or eat a packaged meal. Cook from scratch, or at least from ingredients you combine yourself, set the table even if you're alone, or at least use a plate, not the pot. Pack yourself a nice lunch. Make meal plans and cook food ahead so you have real food when you're hungry.
The time and energy it takes to cook and eat a meal is not wasted. Grabbing something quick is sometimes necessary, but it doesn't nourish our bodies, or our souls, the same way a home-cooked meal can. Getting that, really getting it, makes Paleo cooking a pleasure for me. I leave out a few ingredients now from the classic dishes (no potatoes in the beef stew these days), or I follow a recipe to learn how to work with unusual flours or nuts in place of flour, but the methods are the same. After several years of feeling there was nothing I could eat, Paleo cooking has brought me back to my roots, back to the understanding that we don't merely eat to live. Food is love, food is life.
A few weeks ago I stumbled onto a Paleo food blog and realized, "this is for me!" Since then, I've bought or ordered about 6 books on Paleo and cooked up a storm!
If you're having trouble tolerating foods, read on. If you just want to know what the fuss is about Paleo diets, there's a reading list at the bottom of the note.
For years, I suffered from unknown respiratory problems every winter. In 2008 I went to Morocco and came back with a sinus infection, went on antibiotics for 14 weeks, on and off, which is guaranteed to devastate your immune system and intestinal flora. That fall, I realized I had food allergies and sensitivities. I went back to Morocco for 6 weeks that winter, which, oddly enough, changed my life, maybe saved it. I HAD to find food I could eat, and there's almost no processed food there. Everything is fresh and seasonal. And if I could read food labels in French, well, surely I could feed myself in Canada!
The next year, my father developed cancer and died, my mother was diagnosed with dementia. I had to move back to my hometown to help her. This was highly stressful for both of us. My hometown is a good place to have unusual food needs, so I was able to find things I could eat there, but I was not motivated to cook, and food was not a source of pleasure. I've been an avid cook all my life, so this was a hard time. It was, at best, a holding pattern.
My mother died in 2011, and that year, I gained 40 pounds. Part of it was diet, I know. I'd started eating grains again, comfort food, and too much fruit and sugar. In healthy forms, but too much for my system.
I'd heard about Paleo before, but never looked at it in depth. When I did, I realized that this method of looking at food avoids all the foods that cause me problems. And the point of Paleo is not just to avoid foods known to cause problems for many people, but to enjoy the foods you CAN eat. It's not about deprivation, it's about seeing food as something that will make you whole and healthy. Food is medicine.
Above all, take control of what you eat.
There are several underlying concepts behind the Paleo diet concept, which is not a diet so much as a lifestyle. A primary one is that for more than a million years, human beings were hunter gatherers. Agriculture is a recent development in our history, and ten thousand years or less is not enough time for all humans to adapt completely to thriving on a diet of mostly grains and grain products. But more importantly, even if our ancestors ate grain, it was in a more natural form than the highly processed products we see in stores now. Stone ground whole wheat or sprouted rye is a very different substance than white flour. I'm not even going to talk about all of the refined starches and sugars we ingest. The single highest source of calories from carbs in the US is high-fructose corn syrup. Not wheat flour or corn or even sugar in a form you can see. It's in food you don't even know it's in, in forms you can't recognize, and it's so highly caloric, it's the biggest single source of calories we get from carbs today.
Similarly, modern milk products are nothing like whole fresh milk straight from the cow or goat. The more processed a product is, the less like real food it has become. Low fat milk products are full of carbs and sugars.
If you know anything about food allergies, you know that there are 8 or 9 known deadly food allergens: milk, eggs, soy, peanuts, wheat, seafood, sulfites, tree nuts and sesame. And guess what? Four or five of these are in pretty much every processed food sold in North America. Talk about a recipe for creating allergies, even in people who were only mildly sensitive!
There is a syndrome called "leaky gut," which is not accepted by some medical authorities but has the support of many scientists. Leaky gut happens when you eat foods that irritate your intestinal tract, go on antibiotics and destroy your normal intestinal flora, and some other problems. Your intestines, like your skin, are a primary barrier to toxins, allergens and irritants. Maintaining the integrity of your intestinal barriers is important to good health. You may not be aware of irritation; it may only affect you on a cellular level. In a simple form, think of it this way: the cells lining your intestines have several layers, and as these get irritated and inflamed, they swell away from one another and there will be tiny gaps between these cells. Entire particles can leak through the walls of your intestines into your blood stream, and when they do, they're targetted as invaders by your immune system. This may create more allergies or food sensitivities. It also leads to further inflammation, which may happen in parts of your body unrelated to your digestion. Auto-immune disorders such as hypothyroidism, inflammatory disorders like fibromyalgia or arthritis, even illnesses as seemingly unrelated as heart disease and diabetes may be triggered or made worse by eating foods that irritate your gut.
If you're finding you're becoming sensitive to more and more foods as time goes on, it may not be age or bad genes. It may be the food you're eating that's leading, in a roundabout way, to heightened sensitivities. You may not know which foods cause these reactions; a food reaction can take as long as 72 hours if it's not a direct allergic reaction, so you may not be able to trace cause and effect.
An allergy is a response of your immune system. This will rarely be an intestinal reaction, but hives, itching, swelling, headaches and anaphylactic shock. An intestinal response (nausea, vomiting, dairrhea, constipation) is an intolerance and rarely caused by an allergy as such. There are also food aversions, that you simply cannot get a food down without gagging. And there are sensitivities, which can take many forms. If the problem you have with a food can be treated with digestive enzymes, it's an intolerance, not an allergy.
If you have a problem with stomach acid, see a doctor to be sure you don't have damage to your esophagus caused by acid reflux. But the sensation of acid stomach can actually be caused by not enough acid in your stomach to digest your food properly, which can be caused by an imbalance in your system. This may be the result of recent food poisoning, antibiotics disturbing your intestinal flora, or just eating the wrong foods for a long time.
Practical Paleo (see below) gives some good, concise information about digestive problems and intestinal health.
None of this advice is meant to be a substitute for seeing your doctor or a good nutriitionist or naturopath. There are other factors to optimal health: get enough sleep (it's NOT for sissies!), reduce the stress in your life, find ways to focus on the positive. If you find yourself always cranky or sad or angry, talk to your doctor and see if you have a physical problem or a psychological problem that can be treated. Being in a negative state all the time is a serious health risk, to you and the people around you. Get some exercise, even if it's just a walk. Do something fun. Make stuff so you feel a sense of achievement. And eat good food.
Eating well is more than avoiding the bad stuff. It's about eating a variety of healthy foods that nourish your body, provide nutrients you need, and nourish the good bacteria we need in our systems to help our bodies do the work they do to support us.
One author I read recently said we started to see the onset of "diseases of civilisation" at the same time science began its reductionist way of looking at food, in terms of calories, carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Heart attacks were unknown as recently as 200 years ago. Cancer was not a feature of life and dementia was uncommon. And this is not because people used to die too young to get this stuff and we live longer; we don't. The notion that people in the past died young is based on skewed statistics. Infant mortality was more common, and even a few people dying before their first birthday pulls the "average" lifespan of a population down quickly. Infection killed people, and accidents often spelled certain death. But the people who DID survive often had just as good a chance of living to a ripe old age as we do. And studies have shown that their teeth were better and their bones were stronger than ours are.
We don't know what the long-term effects of a diet of soda pop, skim milk, burgers, frozen pizzas and store-bought cookies will be. Elderly people alive today grew up on a very different diet than we eat now. I mean, who eats liver anymore, or makes soup from scratch?
The biggest single environmental factor in your health is what you eat. And it's one thing you CAN control.
Food should be about what tastes good, and what has been demonstrated, through millennia, to make people feel stronger and healthier. And if it can be local, fresh and seasonal, even better.
Most of the books below have commonalities. Practical Paleo is great for basic knowledge and a one-stop resource for science, nutrition, shopping tips and recipes. The best books for understanding the science are Deep Nutrition and Primal Body, Primal Mind. Well Fed has wonderful, practical tips for cooking from scratch even if you're living a hectic modern lifestyle. And great recipes from global cuisine!
Most of what's in these books I've read in other places, so this is not weird science. Why isn't your doctor telling you this stuff? Besides the oft-noted fact that most doctors get only a week of nutrition in medical school, doctors also are trained to TREAT health problems, in a practical applied-science way. They are not necessarily trained to track a problem to its root cause. They don't have time to do that in 10 or 15 minutes with each patient.
Our medical system is dominated by a corporate mentality, and by corporations that manufacture drugs. I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories and I'm not an anti-corporate crank. I'm sure most doctors are sincerely interested in making people well. However, when I read that pharmaceutical companies WANT to sell drugs to healthy people, that there's money to be made in promoting illness and no money to be made in making people healthy enough not to need drugs, the penny dropped. We need to take control of what we eat, and we need to stop focussing on poor health and what can go wrong, and focus on good health and what we can do RIGHT!
Even when I was living in my old hometown the past 3 years, living with a lot of stress, I had one cold. Just one. Clearly I was doing something right. I'd like to carry on along that same track!
My husband and I used to save bones and make soup stock. He had clear signs of arthritis, yet no degeneration or pain. After a doctor commented on this, we realized the soup made from scratch was likely why. Bone broth is a cornerstone of the Paleo lifestyle. It puts back into our bodies many of the nutrients we need to keep our bones, connective tissues and even blood vessels strong and supple.
If you tolerate dairy, eat whole milk. Eat real yogurt and real cheese. Don't eat processed dairy, which is hardly even food anymore. "Low fat" foods are full of sugar and other weird stuff. Don't let them in your house. Eat liver once in a while. Eat lots of vegetables and some fruit. Buy local organic produce in season. Use your freezer. Make food from scratch. If you think you're too busy, read Well Fed, which has some fabulous tips on how to eat nutritious delicious food even if you're busy.
There are other principles, but those are the basics. This is not weird food. Nobody says you need to eat a mammoth or crunch down bugs or anything.
Above all, don't take my word for it. Read some of these books. Google "paleo" and see what comes up. There are a few people making money from this, but on the whole, nobody is going to get insanely wealthy from telling you to make your own soup stock and sauerkraut, and buy produce from your local farmer's market.
Ignore the science and this is really just Grandma's kitchen. My grandmother lived to be 97. If you left her table feeling full, it was from too much chicken or roast beef with homemade gravy and Yorkshire pudding, not because you made yourself sick with too many tortilla chips or Dingdongs. Okay, maybe not everybody's grandma cooked like that. Both of my grandmothers were good cooks, they had gardens and grew fruit and raised chickens. They bought beef from the farmer down the road and made soup from bones and scraps. Those Grandma meals made people strong and healthy.
Since I've been shopping for food the Paleo way, I'm bringing home bags and bags of groceries, but because it's all whole food, it costs me $15-25 a bag. Thirty years ago, I figured $20 a bag was good shopping, so this is not costing me a fortune. Seeking out grass-fed or free-range meat and eggs will cost more, high quality produce can cost more, but there are ways of reducing these costs: go in on buying a whole cow or pig with friends, join a CSA to get organic produce regularly, shop at a farmer's market, buy in bulk, get friendly with local farmers, buy a freezer, grow your own fruits, vegetables and herbs. Any or all of these things also help support your local or nearby producers and businesses, and help create stronger communities, which are good things!
The books I've been reading are:
Make It Paleo: Over 200 Grain Free Recipes For Any Occasion by Bill Staley, Hayley Mason and Mark Sisson
Practical Paleo: A Customized Approach to Health and a Whole-Foods Lifestyle by Diane Sanfilippo, Bill Staley and Robb Wolf
Well Fed: Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat by Melissa Joulwan, David Humphreys and Kathleen Shanno
Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food by Catherine Shanahan and Luke Shanahan
Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and a Longer Life by Nora T. Gedgaudas
It Starts with Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways by Melissa Hartwigand Dallas Hartwig
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I'm easily amused. I try to be positive about things, yet I am also driven to distraction by irrationality. Especially if the purpose is valid, but could be achieved with less drama. You'll see all of this in my writing!