Book Review: Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo

When I started hearing the hype about Practical Paleo: A Customized Approach to Health and a Whole-Foods Lifestyle, I assumed it was just another cookie cutter cookbook, but Diane Sanfilippo’s masterpiece is much more than that.

Yes, it’s loaded with recipes, each of which includes prep time, cooking time and yield, along with notes about whether the dish includes nuts, eggs or nightshades, as well as helpful tips or suggestions for replacing certain ingredients..and gorgeous photos, of course. The comprehensive recipe selection includes breakfast foods, entrees (categorized by the type of meat used), sides and salads, sauces and dips, and desserts. The recipes are quite forgiving, which is always nice if you’re trying something new or aren’t used to cooking, and everything we’ve sampled so far (about 15 recipes) has been delicious. The spice blends section alone will help provide flavor and variety to your dishes.

There’s also 30-day meal plans, and the thing that’s so great about them is that there are so many to choose from…and each include some information on the condition or issue you’re trying to address, diet and lifestyle recommendations, supplements and herbs to consider, supportive nutrients (and the foods that contain them), and, of course, the meal plan. A heart-health meal plan. A meal plan for people recovering from cancer. One for blood sugar regulation. One for digestive health. One for autoimmune conditions. One for thyroid health. Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, multiple sclerosis… you name it, and there’s a 30-day meal plan for it. There’s also a squeaky clean Paleo plan, if you’re testing out the diet for the first time, and my favorite–a plan for athletic performance, which includes an ample amount of much-needed starchy grains. Diane’s website, Balanced Bites, even has grocery list printouts of a handy guide of ingredients you can download each week for each plan, which saves a ton of time if you wish to follow them. (A word of warning: if you’re used to cooking with leftovers and just eating eggs for breakfast every morning, meal plans can get $$$, even when they do incorporate leftovers, like Practical Paleo’s does. We did notice that a week of meal plan foods lasts us a good 10 days, though.)

What else does this book have? Really great pullout guides and info sheets on everything from what foods you can eat to tips for travel and eating out. Guides to Paleo foods, how to stock the pantry, food quality, fats and oils and cooking fats (as in, which to use depending on what temperature you’ll be cooking them at.) A guide to dense sources of Paleo carbs. A guide for sweeteners to use. These guides are all simultaneously easy to use and incredibly comprehensive. Sanfilippo must be one of those hyper-organized people, because all the recipes have specially designated key codes for types of foods–so if you want a quick visual guide to avoid using nightshades, for example, or would prefer to cook without fish, you’re set.

Most Paleo cookbooks explain the diet, and this was no exception–comprehensive yet highly accessible information on all things Paleo. One thing that was unique to this book (which isn’t sexy to write about, but is a great feature), was detailed information on different types of poop (complete with drawings of shapes and texture), what’s actually going on in your body, and what you can do to address it. I love that someone actually took the time to discuss this, because bowel movements are largely ignored, except by acupuncturists.

My new favorite Paleo cookbook is always the one I’m using, but Practical Paleo has quickly made its way to the top of the list. It’s available online for $26 or so,  and is well worth the price. Very highly recommended.


Beyond Resolutions: Five Baby Steps for Lasting Health

Had I made any New Year’s resolutions, they’d already be broken. I was invited to brunch on New Year’s day, and there was chocolate (among other things). In addition, a friend brought me a loaf of delicious, freshly baked homemade bread. I typically don’t eat grains at all, let alone wheat, but just couldn’t resist. I try to at least limit my consumption to post-workout time, which diminishes the negative effects for me. And after the delicious loaf of bread is gone, I probably won’t eat any bread for weeks, if not months. But trying to maintain a puritanical attitude towards my own diet hasn’t been effective for me. I simply cannot maintain 100% consistency for more than, say, 30 days–and even then there is a backlash.

It’s important, I feel, to break out of the either/or cycle, 100% or 0%. I’m not trying to de-emphasize the importance of having goals and tracking progress, but setting realistic goals or even working towards something slowly–or looking at the big picture instead of expecting yourself to follow a very strict protocol simply because the calendar year has changed doesn’t seem to be the best strategy.

Here are some simple steps for creating lasting change in your diet. As always, this can be applied towards any other goal  you have that is too much of a shift to just jump into wholeheartedly.

  • Make sure you have an abundance of “good” food around. This gives you multiple options to choose from, and can only help you on your quest.
  • Push “bad” foods to post-workout. Not ready to give up some foods completely? At least shift the timing of them to right after a workout, so that your body can use some of the empty calories to help build your muscles and aid in your recovery. There are clean post-workout foods that may have a more favorable effect, but we’re talking baby steps.
  • Cut your junk food servings in half. Not ready to quit cold turkey? No problem. Just eat half of the amount you  normally would. Over time, you can decrease it in half again… Get where we’re going?
  • Focus on one meal or one habit at a time. Make sure you’re eating healthy, nutritious breakfasts (or whatever meal of your choice.) Make sure you’re staying hydrated or taking your fish oil. Pick just one habit (or one meal) and let it become habit. After a month or two, add another.
  • Set action-based goals. It’s easy to decide you want to lose X amount of pounds or lift X amount of pounds, and those are great long-term goals to keep an eye on your progress towards. But what’s even more effective is setting goals based on your activity. You can’t force your body to lose a certain amount of poundage a week, but you can certainly decide to lift 3 days a week and do 2 days of cardio. Focusing on your own actions is a lot more empowering, especially when results are slower than you’d like.

Anything else? Feel free to share your favorite strategy.

Five Reasons to Stop Trying to Look Cool in the Gym

“Show me a guy who is afraid to look bad, and I will show you a guy you can beat every time.” – Lou Brock

So there I was, taking advantage of the free week pass at the coolest gym I’ve ever been in. I was surrounded by Strongman equipment I’d only heard of but never seen in person. And by the new Jungle Gym toys I’ve always wanted to buy. And by grunting powerlifters who were working their butts off instead of taking up space by the power racks to do nothing…or worse, glaring creepily. And it was awesome. But then I found myself looking at my workout and feeling a little inadequate. I mean these guys are dropping serious poundage and I’m supposed to reverse flies, three-point rows and bird dogs? Everyone’s gonna think I’m doing pansy girl workouts I got out of some cheesy teenybopper “women’s health” magazine.

Taking a step back, I reminded myself that I picked the program I’m on for a reason. I’m dealing with some injuries I don’t want to aggravate. I’m slowly working my way back up to using real weights again since I spent over a year working out in a home gym with 50-lb. dumbbells being the heaviest item in my arsenal. I’m ramping up my grappling training in a pretty hardcore way and don’t want to overdo things. Besides, you can’t do heavy deads or clean+jerks every day.

I carefully scouted out BJJ gyms until I found the perfect fit for me, eagerly planning to do at least one class a day, six days a week. The first week, Thanksgiving and an out-of-town outing got in my way. The second week, I only barely got through a Monday night class and then collapsed into bed for 12 hours with some kind of plague. I haven’t been back since–both because I’m sick as a dog and because I don’t want to get others sick before a tournament on the 10th. And again, the thought crossed my mind that other people might not think I’m serious missing my entire second week of training. I might look like that girl that shows up once a week and disappears for a month. I’m going to have to start all over trying to build up rapport with these near-strangers who have no idea how serious I am about my training. Sure, if anyone asks, I could tell them I was sick, but most people don’t ask–they just silently judge everyone without really understanding all the circumstances.

We’ve all been guilty of engaging in these futile, obsessive tendencies. Here’s five reasons not to.

  • You’re following a progression for a reason.

Whether you’re taking a back-off week because you know what the effects of over-training look like, overcoming an injury or just taking a while to build or rebuild a solid foundation, there’s a reason you’re following the program you’re on. All the (perceived) thoughts of anyone else in the world won’t change the reasoning for your program. (And if you’re sick or injured…you’re sick or injured. Nobody other than your health care provider can tell you when you can go back–you have to trust your own body and judgement.)

  • Trying to look cool messes up your form, which makes you susceptible to injury.

We’ve all seen guys trying to show off just how much they can bench press or think they can bench. Even if biting off more than they can chew actually has the effect they’re looking for, it certainly doesn’t prevent any injuries. Don’t get me wrong–there’s a time and a place for trying to be your best and show people what you’re made of. But every single day at the gym? If you’re trying to push yourself and embrace the grind, more power to you. But if you’re trying to look cool by doing more than you can comfortably do, the only way to do that is to cheat on form. And if you cheat on form, you’re only cheating yourself… So give your body some love and work with it. (In sports where showing off is usually at the expense of others, remember that this will always come back to you in the end. Karma is real.)

  • The “good” guys aren’t silently judging you anyway. (Or even paying attention.)

The only people I have ever heard make comments on what people were doing in the gym and how dumb they are (etc.) were douchebags. (This includes the king of Gold’s Gym in Eau Claire, who was very offended by women deadlifting, it seems. Were I to change my workout to hamstring curls (with gloves on), I might have made friends with a guy who was a total tool. I’m sure you get the point. (I will admit to silently judging other’s poor form in the gym, though. Nobody’s perfect.)

  • Trying to look cool stops you from working fundamentals.

Playing scales will never be sexy, and neither will working on squat form with a PVC pipe. And both are absolutely fundamental.  Whether it’s drilling, working on form or something similar, getting to where you want to go will always require something that may be boring for others to watch or that other gym-goers may not get. And that’s okay, as long as you keep doing it. I’m thinking of someone I trained with once who had over 10 years of grappling, which didn’t seem evident to me right away…until I noticed I was getting swept with the exact same sweep time and time again. Someone was working fundamentals and didn’t care whether or not I noticed. That’s how people get really good.

  • Fixating on what others think will stop you in your pursuit of excellence.

As I’ve shown above, being so worried about how others view you (which we’ve all been guilty of) can stop you from working fundamentals, following smartly designed progressions and even lead to injury. But it can also crush your creativity, since you’re less likely to take risks which may not look cool while you’re in the process of acquiring those skills. It can also throw you off mentally, taking your focus off of where it needs to be for your sport or activity. And it generally puts you in the wrong frame of mind, one where you’re more concerned about what you look like than what you can do and what it feels like. Additionally, it can lead to all kinds of mental blocks and excuses about areas you need to work. Finally, it can lead to a fierce competitive streak. There is nothing wrong with competition. Cut-throat competition can lead to a lot of growth, but friendly competition leads to a more refined growth.

So take it from someone recovering from this very thought process–approaching things with genuine curiosity, playfulness and joy leads to far better results.

(For more on this topic, I’d recommend Josh Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning.

Book Review: The Paleo Solution

Robb Wolf’s Paleo Solution has already made the New York Times bestsellers list, and was virtually sold out before it even came to print. He’s already made waves on T-Nation, Tim Ferriss’ blog and public radio and, of course, was featured prominently in Eat This: The Ultimate Food Resource Guide. I almost feel like a book review is overkill, but I definitely wanted to add my voice to the choir.

Giving up grains and dairy isn’t popular, which is why this book is so necessary. It outlines the scientific evidence for the “original human diet,” delves into the harmful effects of Neolithic foods and details the practical application of Paleolithic eating with a masterful combination of ancient wisdom and modern science.

The Paleo Solution is both informative and entertaining, comprehensive and accessible. Whether you’re a science geek or a cave dweller, there is something in the book for you if you’re interested in understanding Paleolithic nutrition, wanting to lose weight and reverse disease or are simply chasing improved health and athletic performance.

Here’s what you’ll get if you get your hands on the book:

  • The hows and whys of Paleo nutrition, written in an engaging and accessible manner
  • The nuts and bolts of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and hormones (including glucagon, leptin, cortisol and insulin-like growth factor)
  • Information on digestion, insulin resistance, leaky gut syndrome and other disease states, and their relationship to Neolithic foods
  • Solutions for reducing stress and controlling cortisol (primarily through sleep)
  • The recipe for the infamous NorCal margarita (not ideal, but better than gluten-rich beer or “froufrou drinks with umbrellas”)
  • Specific information on which blood markers to monitor if you’re looking to track your progress
  • A very basic workout program, specifically written for beginners or intermediate exercisers (and a list of resources for those who are a bit beyond that.)
  • A one-month meal plan, written by the amazing Scotty Hagnas (who writes awesome recipes for the Performance Menu each month, and has some cookbooks out as well). The recipes look simple, delicious and nutritious.
  • Comprehensive information on some important supplements, including what they do and how much we need.
  • A boatload of references (30 pages of them, to be exact)

I feel comfortable offering a blanket recommendation for Robb’s book because it has so much for everybody. If you’re not into the nitty-gritty details, you can simply read the overviews on topics you’re interested in. If you’re a scientist, you can geek out on the more comprehensive information included. Need some support in making the transition? That’s why the 4 weeks of meals and exercise program would come in handy. (And if you’re not sold on the Paleo diet, you’ll learn exactly which biomarkers to track before and after a one-month experiment, so you can make a more informed decision.)

If you’re a fan of Robb’s blog or podcast, you will love the book. Already got your hands on it? Would love to hear what you think in the comments.