Paleo fail

For my Application of Nutrition Concepts course, we were divided into groups and told to pick a weight-loss book to review.  I’ve been curious about Paleo diets, and my group agreed on this topic.  I conducted a good, old-fashioned Google search for Paleo diet books, and one of the first things that came up was Eat to Live by Joel Furhman.

Knowing nothing about the book, but seeing that copies were readily available at both the city and county libraries, I suggested the book to my group.  Everyone agreed, and we submitted the title to the instructor.  And then I started reading the book.

Dr. Fuhrman’s weight loss plan is definitely NOT Paleo.  Oops!  Eat to Live advocates a plant-based diet, which on the surface seems the exact opposite of Paleo.  However, some of the components for sound, safe weight loss are shared.  Dr. Fuhrman’s plan focuses on increasing nutrient density in the diet.  Adherents should avoid processed foods and cut out refined carbohydrates (pp. 36-39); this is an aspect that the diet shares with Paleo.

Instead of learning more about Paleo, I ended up with a book that tracks rather closely with how I already eat, except that my diet is much higher in fat than what Dr. Fuhrman advocates, which makes sense given that I am trying to maintain weight (in a body that, unlike most people’s, doesn’t hoard pounds).

Eventually, I’ll get around to reading more about Paleo diets.  I’m also fascinated by ketogenic diets, since they claim many of the same health and weight-loss benefits as a very low-fat, plant-based diet (as seen in Furhman’s book), but are at the extreme opposite end of the fat-consumption spectrum.


Food philosophy: Great grains

Variety is the spice of life, and I certainly take that to heart when it comes to grains (and food in general!).  As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t go for lo-carb or fad diets (as a health- and eco-conscious vegetarian, a decent number of my calories come from whole grains and legumes), but I DO avoid eating large quantities of refined grains.

The first step for me was switching to products (bread, pasta, breakfast cereal, crackers, etc.) that were 100% whole wheat.  Growing up, my family used a lot of whole grains, and did most of our baking with 100% whole wheat pastry flour, so this wasn’t a huge switch for me, overall.  [Tip: when trying whole wheat pasta, start with angel hair; also, brand can matter.]

But there’s a lot more to the grain-scene than wheat, and, while I don’t have a medical reason to avoid wheat, I realized there were health benefits to expanding my grain consumption.

Fortunately, there are now a variety of easily accessible options in this department:

  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Oats, including oat groats (for risotto)
  • Corn meal (for polenta and cornbread)
  • Potatoes

That list is by no means exhaustive.  Some of the above straddle the line between grain vs. seed or starch vs. vegetable.  For my planning purposes, I tend to treat them all as grain/starch, though the distinctions can be important, nutrient-wise.

Avoiding an all-wheat, all-the-time diet does require a bit of effort, and it’s become part of my [informal] meal planning.  Sometimes it’s tricky, especially with a toddler, who, while a great eater overall, is not always into quinoa or millet.

Here’s what an average day looks like for me, grain-wise:

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal (I use a mix of rolled and steel-cut oats)
  • Breakfast #2/Morning snack: Wheat-based — 100% whole grain pancakes, waffles, toast w/peanut butter or egg, or quick bread
  • Lunch: Alternate grain
  • Afternoon snack: Often wheat-based, though sometimes granola, whole-grain corn chips, or non-wheat leftover
  • Dinner: Wheat-based

Lunch and dinner flip-flop, so if our lunch one day is wheat-based, I try to prioritize an alternate grain for dinner.  If I know we’ll be eating away from home (whether a restaurant or someone’s house), I usually assume the meal will be wheat-based, and plan accordingly throughout the day.

Even with a concerted effort to eat a variety of grains, I end up eating a decent bit of wheat — it’s pretty ubiquitous in the U.S. diet.  Here are some of my thoughts and experiences with the wheat alternatives.

We grow almost all of the potatoes we eat, which is great, because we know they’re not full of chemicals (a problem with conventionally grown potatoes), but not so great in terms of prep time.  Potatoes store best unwashed, so that means meal prep involves not just chopping and cooking the potatoes, but also rinsing and scrubbing off a substantial amount of dirt.  Strike one.

I also feel like, relative to other grains/starches, potatoes require a large amount of both fat (butter, olive oil, cheese, sour cream, etc.) and salt.  Strike two.

But there’s no strike three.  Potatoes are one of the only calorie crops (think grains and legumes) that don’t require special processing like milling or shelling, which make them a great option for the grow-your-own scene.  If you eat the skins, they are a good source of several nutrients and they help increase variety.  I didn’t realize how much the potato option helped with grain/starch variety until we ran out of potatoes in March.

Technically a seed, quinoa is one of the highest protein grains out there.  It also cooks relatively quickly (faster than brown rice) and works in a variety of dishes.

The protein and nutrients come with a price though, as this is one of the more expensive grains you can buy, even if you stick to “white” quinoa (still a whole grain, just a different variety than the more expensive “red”).  Until recently, I found the bulk bins at Local Harvest Grocery to be the best bet, priced a bit under $4/lb (making it cheaper than the WF bulk bins).  Unfortunately, on my most recent LH visit, the price had jumped to over $7/lb!

I was so surprised that I asked the cashier if the price was correct.  He confirmed that it was, though he didn’t know why.  (I haven’t gone back to see if there was a similar price jump at WF.)  I plan to continue eating quinoa, but at that price, I may not increase my consumption (currently averages one dinner plus one lunch [leftover] per week).

Toddler tips
Grain variety is a bit trickier with babies and toddlers.  Wheat-based products, like bread and noodles, lend themselves to little fingers (and are often kid favorites).  While you can buy alternate-grain version of pasta and bread, they tend to be pricey.

Adding peanut butter (or another nut butter) after cooking rice, millet, or quinoa is one trick that worked for us.  The nut butter a) increases tastiness and b) makes the grain easier for a toddler to handle on a spoon or fork (or even with fingers).

Before G was using a spoon, I made him oat clusters instead of oatmeal.  To prepare, I made a really think batch of oatmeal on the stove top, then chilled.  In the morning, I served bite-sized chunks of the oatmeal, dotted with peanut butter.  Perfect for little fingers, if a bit labor intensive.  Now he eats oatmeal with me every morning; I intentionally keep his on the thick side, for ease of spooning and less mess.

Finally, potatoes are a great finger food for babies and toddlers.

Your turn: what is your favorite non-wheat grain, and how do you use it?  Anything I should add to my regular rotation?



Food philosophy: Eat your beans

Wow, I feel like I wrote my first “Food Philosophy” post (on fad diets) yesterday, not two months ago — time really does fly!  In that post, I mentioned beans as an innocent victim of low-carb diets.

Beans (as in legumes, dried or canned) are a fabulous food: high in fiber, good source of vegetarian protein,  and easy to store and transport.  Despite being vilified by some diets because of their high carbohydrate levels, they are a low Glycemic Index (GI) food, another factor in their favor, since low-GI diets are associated with reduced risk of a number of chronic diseases (including heart disease and type 2 diabetes).  In short, a food’s GI is a measure of how a particular food impacts blood sugar levels when consumed (you can read more about GI here).

The variety of beans is almost endless, and they can be prepared in many ways.  I try to incorporate a serving of beans (1/2 cup cooked beans) into at least one meal a day, which is relatively easy, with a bit of planning.

In grad school, I ate some variation on beans and rice for lunch almost every day.  I prepared a big batch at the beginning of the week, and had a cheap, nutritious, portable lunch easily at hand.  These days, the recipes are often a bit more complicated, but I enjoy going back to that staple, as in this oven-baked twist.


Something about sitting in a hot oven for 45-minutes really elevated the flavor, making it almost creamy and cheesy (though no cream or cheese were involved).

Dry vs. Canned
Canned beans are convenient, but because of the BPA in can linings, I almost exclusively buy dry beans.  I can also buy dry beans in bulk, reusing my own bags, with little to no packaging waste.  You can read my full list of advantages of dry over canned in this post.

I rarely use the brining method for preparing dried beans mentioned in that post anymore.  First, it requires a quick soak, which uses more energy than an overnight soak.  Second, it wastes salt.  Sure, salt it cheap, but I realized I could get nearly the same effect (nicely salted beans) by doing a regular soak (either quick or overnight), cooking and draining and beans, and then adding salt directly to the hot, cooked beans and letting it soak in a bit before using the beans.

Quick tip: prepare twice as many dried beans as you need for a recipe/meal.  Freeze the extra cooked, cooled beans in a quart-sized freezer bag, and they’re ready when you need them, almost as fast as opening a can of beans!

Eat your beans
Until recently, if asked, I probably would have said that chickpeas (AKA garbanzo beans) were my favorite legume.  They still rank high, but over the last year, two other legumes stole my heart: lentils and cowpeas.

Lentils (or dal, in Indian cooking) rank high for their versatility.  I love blending well-cooked lentils into a variety of soups to make a hearty base.  They are also fabulous in chili (recipe post languishing in draft form).  Lentils also star in Snobby Joe’s, a vegetarian take on Sloppy Joe’s.  Unlike other legumes, many types of lentils don’t need to be soaked before cooking, so they’re great in a pinch, when you realize you forgot to soak beans for dinner.

Cowpeas come in an amazing number of forms.  If you’ve eaten black-eyed peas before, then you’ve had one type of cowpea.  Matthew grew one variety last summer (and Gabriel helped shell them).  Our harvest was enough for just a few meals, but they were delicious.


For the past few years, we’ve been fortunate to have a local source for some of our beans.  Paul at Bellews Creek Farm grows two types of [dried] beans every year, usually black beans and something else.  This year, the “something else” was a type of cowpea: a pink-eyed cowpea.

Both varieties of cowpea — what we grew in our garden, and the pink-eyed peas from Bellews Creek — rank among the most flavorful beans I’ve ever had.  While I’ve incorporated them into a number of dishes, I also enjoy then straight-up, with just a bit of salt.  If you’re in StL, look for Bellews Creek beans in the bulk bins at Local Harvest Grocery.  Seriously, try some!

I hope to have that lentil chili recipe ready soon, but in the meantime, check out the other bean-y recipes on my recipe page.

Food philosophy: Fad diets

I was in the car returning from a Whole Foods/Trader Joe’s run last week, when the DJ on the radio station mentioned something about a new diet, the “honey diet.”  While I didn’t bother going to the station’s website for more details, the gist was “replace all white sugar with honey, eliminate all carbohydrates one [or two?] days a week, and, whatever you do, don’t. eat. potatoes.  EVER.”

Um, yeah, can you say, “Fad diet?”  Like a string of fad diets before, the “honey diet” picks something to villainize, in this case, the humble potato, along with carbohydrates in general.  Would potatoes be a problem if you’re sitting around all day consuming nothing but french fries (and oil and salt)?  Sure.  But potatoes, especially locally and/or organically grown potatoes cooked with the skins on, can certainly be part of a healthy diet.

I read the phrase “Paleo diet” before I heard it spoken anywhere, and in my head it was pronounced “pa-lay-o,” with the emphasis on the “lay.”  I didn’t realize it was referring to our Paleolithic ancestors, and thus pronounced “pay-lee-o” for quite some time.

My first reaction was, “Haven’t we already [more or less] done this?  It was called Atkins.”

Or, to paraphrase a quote from Zoolander,  “Atkins? Lo-carb? Paleo? They’re all the same [diet]. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.”

The thing is, I agree with some of the Paleo principles, especially those of the “Eat real food” variety.  I also agree that there are benefits from minimizing some of the foods that Paleo says we should minimize or eliminate, like dairy and added sugar.  The diet also talks about eating eggs and meat from pasture-raised animals, another plus.

One of my problems with Paleo is the vilification of whole grains and legumes.  I just can’t get on board with eliminating two major categories of nutrient-packed foods, both of which can be good vegetarian sources of protein.

From an environmental and world-population standpoint, we can’t all eat a diet based on pasture-raised meat.  There were far, far fewer humans on this planet when our Paleolithic ancestors were running around, so it worked then.  Now?  Not so much.

The Paleo diet also doesn’t take into account the fact that the idealized Paleolithic humans had far different lifestyles and energy needs than we do today, nor the fact that few of our Stone Age ancestors lived past the age of thirty, meaning we don’t know how this diet will play out, health-wise, in an age when people are regularly living seventy years or more.

The blog post, Archaeologists Officially Declare Collective Sigh Over “Paleo Diet,” while apparently satirical, and not reflective of a real scientific conference, offers some good food for thought in the midst of an over-hyped fad diet:

What people seem to ignore, he said, was that the fresh fruits and vegetables forming the basis of the Paleo Diet were created by the same agricultural process that produced cereal grains. “Nearly every food item you currently eat today has been modified from its ancestral form, typically in a drastic way, ” he began. “The notion that we have not yet adapted to eat wheat, yet we have had sufficient time to adapt to kale or lentils is ridiculous. In fact, for most practitioners of the Paleo Diet, who are typically westerners, the majority of the food they consume has been available to their gene pool for less than five centuries. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, avocados, pecans, cashews, and blueberries are all New World crops, and have only been on the dinner table of African and Eurasian populations for probably 10 generations of their evolutionary history.

“You really want to be Paleo? Then don’t buy anything from a store. Gather and kill what you need to eat. Wild grasses and tubers, acorns, gophers, crickets- They all provide a lot of nutrition. You’ll spend a lot of energy gathering the stuff, of course, and you’re going to be hungry, but that’ll help you maintain that lean physique you’re after. And hunting down the neighbor’s cats for dinner because you’ve already eaten your way through the local squirrel population will probably give you all the exercise you’ll ever need.”

In a world where we’re faced with an overabundance of unhealthy food choices (not to mention other barriers to healthy eating, like lack of time or money to prepare healthier foods), the black and white, “Eat this.  Don’t eat that,” structure of fad diets is seductive.

The trick is to build your own healthy eating plan, whatever that looks like for you, but which can probably include almost all food, in moderation, if most of your calories come from a variety of real, whole, unprocessed foods.  Look any “diet” over with a critical eye, take the good advice (if any), and leave the rest.  Fads come and go; healthy eating habits last a lifetime.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some potatoes to cook.

Next up: “Great Grains,” my approach to carbohydrates.