I seem to be the queen of blunders. Sometimes I think I have nailed mistake-making down to a fine art. But as I often tell my kids, making mistakes is A-OK so long as you learn the lessons. For how else do we learn and grow? For the purpose of this blog I will spare you the gory details of other aspects of my life and limit the sharing of my 'lessons' to those on the nutritional front. I will even spare you the agony of reliving the biggest nutritional faux pas I've made like subscribing to a vegetarian diet, a vegan diet, the blood type diet, a low-fat diet, the conventional food pyramid diet, or even a severely calorie restricted diet. Instead, I will share with you what I feel were the 10 biggest mistakes I made when almost a decade ago I migrated to a traditional wholefoods diet (aka an ancestral, primal or paleo-style diet).
Mistake #1. Overeating fats and protein / Going too low carb
When I learnt that saturated fats and cholesterol are essential for good heath (and don't cause heart disease or clog arteries), well, it blew by mind. After I gathered the pieces of my brain off the floor and got over my initial shock, anger and disbelief, I started relishing eating liberal amounts of butter, fatty lamb chops, bacon, eggs and cream after decades of deprivation. I can assure you that it was not a hardship.... the taste of saturated fat and muscle meat was nothing short of orgasmic. There was initial guilt and trepidation: "Can I REALLY eat that???" "Are you SURE?" "Will I expand like an air bag??" But I saw first hand that I started looking and feeling so much better and not to mention that I started ovulating again. I was like a kid that had been in detention for so long now being let loose and able to indulge with gay abandon what my body had been starved of for so long: nutrients!
As is often the case with me, in my desire for more nutrients, optimal health and to be a fat (ketone) burner rather than a sugar burner, I took it to the extreme and started crowding out carbohydrates to virtually miniscule amounts and even ditching root vegetables (like potatoes, sweet potatoes, beetroots etc) - for fear that they are too starchy and will somehow tip me over into sugar burning territory and instant weight gain. Some experts like Chris Kresser don't count above ground veggies in carbohydrate intake at all due to their limited calories (more energy is expended in digesting them). So the upshot of eating no root vegetables at all, virtually no fruit, and only fermented dairy meant that was I was for a certain period of time eating virtually no carbs.
The result: nausea from overeating fats, weight gain from overeating protein and dips in energy from lack of carbs. So the very things that saved me were also (in the wrong balance!) starting to undermine my health. I see too many people who start adopting a traditional wholefoods diet making this same mistake. Going too low carb and then throwing in the towel on the basis that a "Paleo diet doesn't work as I had no energy and was constantly tired". This is particularly the case with athletes and lactating women whose requirements for carbohydrates (especially in the form of root vegetables and dairy) are much higher than the average person.
I've learnt that even though fats and muscle meat are more nutrient-dense than carbs, carbs (in the form of fresh seasonal unsprayed vegetables and fruits) contain a multitude of micronutrients, antioxidants, fibre, are detoxifying and some are prebiotics (the food that probiotics- your friendly gut bacteria need to feed on). I've also learnt that eating root vegetables in moderation is not akin to eating refined sugar. And whole milk is another great source of carbohydrates (if lactose tolerated).
So things i'm working are: (A) tweaking macronutrient ratios for me (and this is different for everyone) to about 65% fat, 20% carbs and only 15% protein. (Athletes and lactating woman will need to increase carb levels above this). And for me this translates to making veggies fill about 3/4 of my plate, the protein/fat fill about a 1/4 of my plate or roughly about a palm size per meal plus 1 cup of broth per day. (B) not fearing root vegetables (especially when there are greater demands placed on my body) and ensuring that I eat them regularly if not daily.
Mistake #2. Overeating (generally)
I am often ask whether it is possible to eat too much of a given food that is considered a Paleo staple like pâté or broth or butter or sauerkraut. "Yes, sadly" is the answer. Overeating even the most nutritious foods can lead to inflammation in the body and often weight gain. There is a famous Ayurvedic saying that any given food can be either a medicine or a poison depending on how much is consumed. And this goes for seemingly benign things like water (yes it is possible to drink too much water which can dilute your body's micronutrients and dilute the hydrochloric acid content of your stomach leading to digestive difficulties. I learnt that one the hard way). And what constitutes "too much" of a given food really depends on the individual, their activity level, their goals (to lose or gain weight), their genetics, their metabolism etc.
So because I love food so much, and because the food I eat is so tasty (it's the nutrients in foods that gives food its delicious flavour) it's not hard to see how overeating is possible especially when one has a habit of eating too fast and not chewing well. This was especially the case when I migrating from a vegetarian diet to a traditional wholefoods diet when my body was so starved of nutrients that sitting down to a plate of mouth-watering nutrient-dense food was like falling in love. I just couldn't get enough. If I only ate enough to sustain me I would probably only need to eat a fraction of what I am currently eating. But as I have mentioned in a previous blog post before, we eat not just for sustenance but for pleasure too. It's a fine balance which I still struggle with- eating enough to get my fix of nutrients and taste, but not overdoing it. Knowing when enough is enough.
In addition, there are times that I could have easily skipped a meal not because I had any desire to intermittent fast but simply because I wasn't at all hungry due to having eaten a large amount of nutrient-dense food at my previous meal that I haven't yet burnt off. I often hear people who have started eating more nutrient-dense wholefoods make the remark that they feel satiated for such longer periods of time and don't feel hungry as often. It has taken me a while to change my mindset that it's ok to skip a meal if I'm genuinely not hungry. It has become so ingrained in our psyche to eat at least 3 meals a day and at set times. "Because now is a convenient time" or "because others are hungry" or "because that's the time I've always eaten that meal". I'm getting better at listening to my body and feeding myself when hunger calls. I do appreciate that there are times and days when this is not always possible due to travel or the needs of children or pending appointments etc.
So the things I'm working on are: (A) filling my plate once (not twice and then some) to a really decent amount- not too little, not too much. (B) eating slowly and chewing well. (C) only eating when I'm hungry even if this means skipping a meal when others are eating.
Mistake #3. Not eating enough seafood
Several months into my love affair with eating meat again I realised that I had inadvertently forgotten about seafood. I was also so hell-bent on getting my iron levels back on track that I had focused on red meat to the exclusion of all else. And seafood is not a food that is talked too much in Paleo circles. But not eating enough of it is a trap that I see a lot of people falling into. There are certain micronutrients in wild sea animals that do not exist in land animals or not as abundantly. Zinc deficiency for example is common in the general population.
So the things I'm working on are: (A) having 2 set nights of the week that are reserved for wild seafood (so I don't forget!). (B) remembering that there is more to seafood than just fish eg prawns, oysters, muscles, octopus, calamari etc.
Mistake #4. Subscribing to the latest superfoods or trendily packaged organic foods.
Every day or week it seems that there is some new superfood on the market touted as the cure-all to all our ailments. One week its chia seeds, the next its goji berries, the next its mangosteen, the next its green juices or acai berries or lacuma or maca root. And the list goes on and on. Affluent Westerners are easy targets for food manufacturers (whether organic and not) to convince that their latest product is the elixir to health. And it's so easy for confused mums to subscribe to the notion that maybe that superfood might just be the very thing that Hunter (no one is called Johnny in the eastern suburbs anymore) is missing in his diet. It's also so easy for busy exhausted mums to just throw that packaged food into the trolley in response to the scaling cries of their demanding kids. I've been there, done that. And was staggered to see how quickly my wallet took a massive hit.
I'm not generally a fan of the superfood movement and I'm very cautious with juicing. Come and speak to me if you want to know why- it's a longer story. Nail the basic traditional wholefoods diet then tweak it to suit your constitution and needs- and don't feel obliged to buy the expensive superfood or juice or gorgeously presented overpriced packaged food.... unless you want to, but know that you probably don't need it in the context of a well-rounded traditional wholefoods diet.
So the things I'm working on are constantly reminding myself that: (A) there is no one panacea (B) all traditional wholefoods, properly sourced and prepared, are important for robust health. (C) if it comes in a box or package, read all of the ingredients carefully even if it has "certified organic" stamped all over it. For more information on whether organic certification alone makes something healthy, you might like to read one of my earlier blogs here. (D) it's ok to say "No, we don't need that" to my kids. They will learn to respect my boundaries and often the epic tantrum that I feared would come if I say "No" either never comes or passes quickly.
Mistake #5. Not eating enough broth, organ meats or lacto-fermented foods.
Meat and veg alone isn't going to cut it. Sorry. It's an awesome start, and if your diet consist exclusively or almost exclusively of pastured meat, seafood, eggs, dairy, chemical free fruit and veggies and coconut oil then you're doing better than 90% of the population in the industrialised world who are eating a conventional diet. But for really robust health and longevity, you will need to incorporate bone broths, organ meats (like liver, heart, brains) and fermented foods (like kefir and sauerkraut) into your diet. If you want superfoods – here they are!! Why? It's not only because these foods are the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet but also because they have specific beneficial nutritional properties: (a) did you know that bone broths or organ meat should be consumed whenever muscle meat or eggs are consumed? This is because eggs and muscle meat contain an amino acid called methionine which can only fulfil its essential functions in the body in the presence of glycine which can found in the bones, connective tissue and organ meats of pastured animals. Modern diets provide abundant quantities of methionine-rich muscle meat while bone broths and organ meat have fallen by the way-side. The result of this imbalance is that an excess of methionine raises homeocystein levels in the blood which is a significant risk factor in cardiovasular disease, mental illness and fractures. So bone broths and organ meat really balance out our muscle meat and egg intake.
(b) home-made fermented foods contain beneficial bacteria (called probiotics). Having sufficient quantity and diversity of such bacteria in our digestive tract is essential for strong immunity, digestive function, metabolism / weight control, clear skin and brain function - to name just a few reasons. My consumption of bone broths, organ meats and lacto-fermented foods was a very gradual process. I worked their way up into my diet over a period of years.
So the things I'm working on are: (A) consuming bone broth and lacto-fermented foods daily (even if it's a tablespoon here and there). (B) consuming organ meats at least once a week.
Mistake #6. Eating grains and legumes along with animal proteins.
My introduction into traditional wholefoods was through the work of Dr Weston A Price and not the world of Paleo. In fact I hadn't even heard of the term 'Paleo' as a dietary regime until many years after I had started eating a traditional wholefods diet. The term 'Paleo' certainly wasn't bandied around a decade ago to the frequency that it is today. The WAP Foundation (of which I am a member) promotes the unprocessed diets of traditional populations pre industrial revolution (ie before the advent of processed foods) but post agricultural revolution (ie after the advent of grains and legumes 10,000 years ago). As a result, the consumption of properly prepared grains and legumes is advocated by this Foundation. Coming from a macrobiotic vegetarian diet where I was already eating properly prepared grained and legumes on a daily basis as my main staple food, it wasn't such a hard transition to migrate to traditional wholefoods. All I did was to simply ADD all the nutrient-dense food that I hadn't been eating as a vegetarian, like animal products, but I kept eating grains and legumes for some years later.
The problem with consuming grains and legumes in addition to animal proteins was that I was overconsuming protein and had started to gain weight. Not to mention how laborious it was to properly prepare grains and legumes (soaking, sprouting, leavening etc) - I felt that sourcing and cooking my food was becoming a full-time occupation in itself. The advice of my natropath and the upshot of my own independent research was that properly prepared grains and legumes are not necessary in the context of nutrient-dense animal foods. Mankind survived and thrived for our entire history on this planet without them until very recently. And given that they are not as nutrient-dense as animal foods (and in the case of gluten actually do more hard than good) and given that they are so time-consuming to prepare, it was an easy (and liberating) step to slowly and gradually ditch them. And like the incorporation of broth and organ meats, the transition off grains and legumes was a gradual process. Sourdough bread daily, to every second day, to once a week, to fortnightly, to monthly, to once in a blue moon. I don't do so well (emotionally) with cold turkey approaches.
So the things I'm working on are: (A) just sticking to the foods that give me the most nutrient-dense bang for my buck and time. (B) knowing that if I crave a food I just eat it regardless of what it is.
Mistake #7. Buying exclusively expensive cuts of meat (and starting to resent the cost of a Paleo diet)
When I started eating meat again I made a bee line for the sexy expensive cuts of meat like eye fillet, New York steak, sirloin, lamb chops, T-bone, rump etc. Because that is all I knew. These can cost up to $60+/kilo. I hear people complaining of how expensive pastured meat is all the time. And indeed I can easily see how your meat bill could rack up quickly if you are eating these sexy cuts almost every day!
But what I didn't appreciate at the time is that there is a bountiful supply of less expensive cuts of meat out there like osso bucco, lamb shanks, loin chops, chump chops, lamb necks, beef cheeks and lamb shoulder. These are around $25 a kilo or less. Many of these cheaper cuts have the added benefit of being on the bone and fattier so they are actually more nutritious as well as more economical. But I had no idea how to cook these lesser known cuts of meats. I knew how to pan fry or BBQ a steak, but what the hell do i do with chump chops? So i turned to old-fashioned traditional sources for help- cooks like my mum, and cook books that were old and dusty and not at all trendy. And I experimented, trialled and errored but at the end of the day I learnt. Through sheer determination and years of practice I can now make a half decant casserole or roast or braise or crustless pie. And this added a much broader dimension to my culinary repertoire as well as fending off taste fatigue and not burning a hole in my wallet.
So the things I'm working on are: (A) not forgetting the cheaper, lesser known, cuts of meat (B) constantly thinking of new and different ways to cook these cheaper cuts.
Mistake #8. Focusing too much to feeding my kids sweets and treats instead of nutrient-dense savoury food
For better or for worse, our bodies are not designed to eat large amounts of sweet food. In fact our hunter gatherer genes are designed to eat about as much sweet foods as we do grains of pepper today- next to nothing! But sugar is ubiquitous in society today and this mismatch between our genes and our environment is one of the reasons for the unprecedented rise of chronic illness and degenerative diseases. Despite the fact that sweet foods are not suited to our physiology, the challenge for modern day parents is to raise children who on the one hand are healthy and robust and given the best start in life, with on the other hand, not making them feel left out from their peer group. This is a constant struggle and one which I battle with. Constant education, reinforcement and leading by example all play key roles but one doesn't want to raise physiologically strong but emotionally resentful kids. So the way i deal with this issue is to make and offer a steady stream of home-made nutritious sweets, cakes and desserts (by replacing all of the nasty ingredients with nutrient-dense ones).
There was a time though that I became too concerned with them not feeling left out and ensuring that they had enough (home-made) sweet foods. Desserts every night, something sweet for every afternoon tea, a cake or muffins baked every weekend. Not only was all this extra baking exhausting for me but I soon realised that they really don't need it and I alone was the one responsible for cultivating a sweet tooth in them and for them asking religiously every night "what's for dessert mum?" So gradually and over time my focus became on getting back to the basics and cutting out some of the unnecessary extras. When their bellies were so full of broth, pastured meats, veggies, dairy and eggs there was no room for anything else. And when dessert stopped being offered every night and when the question was more often than not answered in the negative, then they simply stopped asking for it.
So the things I'm working on are: (A) focusing my energy on where it is most beneficial: a solid nutrient dense savoury diet and nailing that first (B) reserving (home-made) sweets and desserts for occasional consumption and not as a daily staple (C) being more creative in offering savoury (rather than sweet) snacks like yogurt, activated nuts, various local and imported cheeses, nori sheets, salted cucumber rounds with cream cheese, hard boiled eggs with home made mayo or paprika, tzatziki dip, guacamole etc
Mistake #9. Overtraining and not getting enough sleep and rest
While diet has one of the most profound impacts upon our health, there are other important lifestyle factors that equally impact our wellbeing - like adequate sleep, play, connection with others, time spent in the sunshine and outdoors generally, our mental thoughts, our ability to cope with and manage stress, the amount and way we exercise and how and what we breathe.
One mistake I repeatedly fall into is pushing myself too hard at the gym (and in life generally) and undervaluing the importance of sleep and rest. I've known for years how important these factors are, on paper, but putting them into practice is so much harder for me than sourcing and preparing 3 nutrient-dense meals a day. Over the past year or two, getting 5 to 6 hours sleep a night became normal, being sore after every gym session became normal and constantly flying from one activity to another at rocket-speed all day long became normal. I find it hard to do things by halves. I am really really lousy at doing nothing (aka relaxing) when there is always stuff that can be done on the home or business front. My drive and passion for life mean that I push myself and not know when I should really just stop or as one close friend put it "slow the F#$K down!". Despite my best efforts on the nutrition front, the cracks in my health started to appear slowly but surely - dry red skin around the eyes that wouldn't budge, sore muscles that didn't recover prior to my next gym workout, and my bullet-proof immune system started to weaken. Chris Kresser's book "Your Personal Paleo Code" was a timely reminder for me of the importance of non-dietary lifestyle factors. In the same way athletes can't out train a bad diet, I have begun to personally appreciate that the most nutrient-dense diet in the world is no substitute for lack of sleep and overtraining.
So the things I'm working on are: (A) prioritising at least 8 hours of sleep per night (B) doing my own interval training, yoga and meditation practice at an intensity and for lengths of time that suits me and how I'm feeling (C) incorporating more play into my life
Mistake #10. Beating myself up when I fall off the bandwagon.
I am only human and despite my best intentions I do and will inevitably fall off the bandwagon.
So what I am working on is practicing forgiveness and not beating myself up when I fall down the rabbit hole (yet again).
Now I'd like to hear from you. Has anyone fallen into any of the above traps in their journey towards a more traditional wholefoods diet or holistic lifestyle? What other pitfalls have you discovered that you can share?