The foods you eat may be making you sick, according to Dallas and Melissa Hartwig’s New York Times bestseller, It Starts with Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways.
It’s taken me a few weeks to collect my thoughts in some sort of organized fashion to write this review. This book presented a huge learning curve for me, especially given that I’d heard of Paleo but not much else. There’s so much I have to say about my experience reading this book and my reaction to it. I loved it. I hated it. I wanted to do everything the Hartwigs said. I wanted to throw it out the window. It made me excited. It made me sad. It made me think.
During my attempt to collect my thoughts, I read many of the other online reviews. No-one, it seemed, had the same response to the book as I did. This left me further confused. Did I not get it? Was I looking at it the wrong way? I decided not to write a review like the others. For a start, there are so many good reviews, it seems pointless to summarize the same information and package it differently. So, if you want a synopsis of It Starts with Food, please scroll to the bottom where I’ve linked to the reviews I read.
What I’m going to do in this review is share my response to the book and how I am going to make changes and NOT make changes based on that response.
A bit about me
A little background before I begin, so you can see where I’m coming from: I’ve never dieted in my life. That is not to say I have always had a good relationship with food, and for a year or two in college food and I definitely did not see eye-to-eye, but I’ve never actually dieted. Yes, I’m lucky that I’ve never been terribly overweight, don’t have medical issues, and can pretty much eat what I like in moderation. I believe in dieting for life, as in eating healthy all of the time and indulging occasionally. I don’t eat fast food. My downfall is sugar. I thought the Atkins Diet was a dangerous fad. I’ve been known to eat an entire box of Girl Scout cookies in one sitting.
A bit about the book
In a nutshell, It Starts with Food explains why certain foods make you unhealthy by doing one or more (in some cases all four) of the following:
- Promoting an unhealthy psychological response (granted, I never felt really good about eating all those GS cookies)
- Causing an unhealthy hormonal response
- Creating an unhealthy environment in your gut
- Causing inflammation and and unbalancing your immune system
The Hartwigs lay out the foods that can cause these responses and explain why. They then explain how to reset your body using the Whole30 program, by eliminating all these foods for 30 days. After the 30 days, you can gradually reintroduce the foods in order to determine which are making you sick.
To be honest, I felt that they made these foods sound so threatening, most people would probably never want to eat them again. This book reads like a Stephen King for junk-food lovers. Not an entirely bad thing, I suppose.
My initial response to what I learned
While reading the first few chapters, I found myself nodding my head a lot. There were frequent “a-ha” moments, like when I read, “The foods you eat exert a powerful psychological influence…” or when I discovered that our cravings for “frankenfoods” are caused by a rewiring of the ancient signals that help us determine sweet (energy), fatty (calories), salty (fluid conservation). In short, frankenfoods, foods scientifically designed to stimulate our taste buds, confuse the brain. But because these foods have no nutritional value, our brains do not tell us to stop eating them, since the brain only tells us to stop eating something when we’re nutritionally sated. They are “food without brakes” because we receive no signal to stop. That’s me and the Girl Scout cookies.
I learned that I have to retrain my brain NOT to crave artificial foods, but to crave foods that have nutritional value, that will fill me up like filling up at the gas station, and turn off the signal when the tank is full.
But I also learned that it’s not that simple. In order to reset the body with the Whole30 program, a slew of foods I eat on a regular basis are off limits. Eliminating sugar, sweeteners, and alcohol, that would be OK. I think I could probably even manage without the seed oils such as canola, flax, sesame, and sunflower. Grains and legumes – that would be harder. I like my grains. I don’t know if I can eat my soft boiled eggs without dipping toast soldiers in them. Dairy. Hmmm. This is a tough one. My younger sister is a dairy farmer in New Zealand. I eat Greek yogurt every day. I like milk in my tea.
Why should/would I even consider Whole30?
Of course, I could survive without these foods for a month. But do I want to? And does not wanting to mean that I am too emotionally attached to my food? I think what it boils down to is the fact that I have little incentive to do so. The Hartwigs claim that the Whole30 can eliminate a variety of symptoms, diseases and conditions such as: diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, acne, excema, psoriasis, chronic fatigue, asthma, sinus infections, allergies, migraines, acid reflux, Crohn’s, celiac disease, endometriosis, PCOS, autism, fibromyalgia, ADHD, hypothyroidism, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
That’s quite a list. I don’t have any of these conditions besides allergies, and I think the lack of a strong incentive is what makes this difficult for me. I’m sure the Hartwigs would say I’m too emotionally attached to my dairy and grains, and perhaps they’re right. But, honestly, the thought of eating eggs for breakfast makes me sick. I love eggs, just not for breakfast. The other day I stared at an egg for about 30 minutes before putting in back in the fridge and pulling out the greek yogurt. I just couldn’t do it. Eggs for lunch, no problem. Dinner, great. Just not for breakfast.
I thought I might share the book with my niece who has Crohn’s. Then I read the extra restrictions for people with IBS and IBD:
- Be cautious with fruit consumption; peel all fruit. Avoid berries, citrus, dried fruits and fruit juices.
- Avoid all nuts and seeds.
- Avoid coffee, even decaffeinated.
- Understand that your digestion may get worse before it gets better.
Well that sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Still, I suppose if there’s the chance it might cure her Crohn’s, she’d be willing to give it a shot.
This book answered questions for me I’d never thought to ask. It also made me ask questions I’d never thought of. I learned that the Paleo diet is based on what we ate during the Paleolithic era (approx. 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years before present day), and assumes that we’re genetically predisposed to a diet of protein (meat, fish, eggs), vegetables, nuts and fruit. My question is, have we made no biological adaptations since that era? Perhaps not. I’m not a scientist and this book has a scientific backing for every one of its claims. But I like to question things nevertheless.
This book frustrated me. The authors went on and on for pages about how much is a palm-size piece of protein. I mean, how hard is this to determine? It reminded me of my college days when a professor would assign a 5-page paper and there were always a couple of bright sparks who wanted to know if that should be single- or double-spaced, what font size, how many paragraphs, if the first page should be the title page, ad infinitum. I realize that palm-size may not be obvious to some, but several pages of explaining exactly what this meant was nauseating. And yes, I skipped most of it.
Changes I will make based on what I learned
This book enlightened me. I have learned that, if I’m craving sweet stuff I should try some herbal tea. I have tried that a couple of times, particularly in the evening when for some reason I want to snack. I’ve learned that my cravings for frankenfoods are artificial and that if I ignore them for long enough, they’ll go away.
The book contains generous resources, including some great recipes. I’m going to try the Citrus Chicken, Butternut Squash Puree with Roasted Garlic and Almond Poached Pears with Raspberry Cream. And the list of top 20 vegetables that you should eat often includes my favorites: bell peppers, beets, carrots, spinach, sweet potato, and winter squashes.
The Hartwigs recommend eating grass-fed beef and wild-caught salmon. I do this anyway, since eating meat/fish that has been loaded up with antibiotics and fed an unnatural diet is not healthy eating. I think the sooner more people adopt this lifestyle change the sooner we can eliminate feed lots and the healthier we’ll all be. Of course, all we really have to do to eliminate feed lots is stop eating McDonalds, but that’s another story.
I will eat less processed food. I have a habit of reaching for the “healthy” snack bars and other processed goods. I’ll be working on reducing this.
I will eat more vegetables. I will eat more vegetables. I will eat more vegetables.
Changes I won’t make based on what I learned or because I’m just like that
Fruit smoothies. I am not getting rid of my fruit smoothies. The Hartwigs say that liquid foods don’t promote the same satiety as solid ones. They also say we shouldn’t eat that much fruit in one sitting, because it burdens the liver. But since the people this affects the most are those who are insulin resistant and obese, I’ll keep my healthy smoothies. Today’s smoothie packed a punch with OJ, spinach, cherries, pineapple, chia seeds, almond milk, and protein powder since I’d just completed a 6 mile run and a 1 hr strength workout. Not giving that up.
Eat only three meals a day. No snacking. Now, I don’t know about you, but, as an athlete, I can’t go that long without eating something. I like the whole “grazing” theory. And weren’t we told a few years back that eating 5 or 6 small meals throughout the day is better than 3 large ones? Maybe three meals a day works for some, but for someone like me, training for 2 – 3 hours every day, that will never work. I will happily graze, just more healthily.
I just started training for Boston Marathon, which is one of my reasons for not trying Whole30. I admit that I’m curious to see if there is a health benefit; if I would, as some claim, feel better, sleep better, perform better. However, starting a diet as drastic as this while putting my body through marathon training is, I think, foolish. The Hartwigs do say that you’ll feel pretty rough for the first week, and that’s just not something I need when I’m increasing mileage and intensity.
At the end of the day, while I certainly don’t see myself eating Paleo any time soon and don’t subscribe to the theory that we should eat just like our Paleolithic ancestors (besides, no-one’s suggested using stone tools or hunting woolly mammoth), I give It Starts with Food credit for pointing out to me where I’m going wrong with my food relationship and how I can fix that.
For more information, visit whole9life.com
I was provided with a free copy of It Starts with Food via FitFluential LLC. I was not compensated for this review and the opinions stated herein are my own.
Other It Starts with Food reviews:
Happy Fit Mama (I like that this review also questions some of the theories)
Have you read It Starts with Food? If so, are you planning on trying the Whole30 program?
What changes, if any, are you making to your diet?