Another road to wellness Words by Mark Brown Illustrations by Kyle Blair Half of our household had been eating gluten-free for a couple of years when “paleo” crossed our door in the form of Well Fed, a punk-rock cookbook written by a black-clad blogger with a dream of moving to Prague. If going gluten-free was a sacrifice, eating paleo was a leap into a fiery volcano.

While I’ve never felt better, nutritionally speaking, I feel as if I’d been cooking on one leg. With no pasta to fall back on, the grilled or roasted meats of the weekend tend to become the curries and tacos of midweek, until by Thursday I’m scouring the freezer for some forgotten soup, which bores me now that we don’t eat bread.

But, in paleo, the banishment of bread is just for starters. Paleo’s list of no-nos includes anything processed (the middle of the typical grocery store, versus the perimeter); all grains (whole or other, rice and corn, too); legumes (it’s to do with how the body processes the sugars); soy (a legume, but an insidious one); sugar, dairy, alcohol and vegetable oils (the bulk of which are hydrogenated). Which leaves you with meat, fruit and vegetables, spices and nuts. And eggs. Which leaves you scrambling.

Up to the task, Melissa Joulwan’s Well Fed looks less like a cookbook and more like a battle plan. There are sections for notes, ideas for variations, suggestions for pairings on other pages. Anticipating the wary, there is sales pitch throughout: “Moroccan Meatballs: Get Lost on a Street in Marrakesh,” “Cocoa- Toasted Caulifl ower: Cocoa is a Reward for Eating Your Veggies,” “Velvety Butternut Squash: Silky and Sublime.”

The day I tried to contact Joulwan, she was knee-deep in a three-day conference held in Austin, Texas, called PaleoFX. PaleoFX brings together, according to its website, “New York Times best-selling authors, leading health professionals, athletes and coaches, research scientists, activists, bloggers, podcasters, and more.”

Joulwan (then an Austin resident; she’s now in New Hampshire) and her Well Fed cookbooks fit a few of those categories.

The paleo diet dictates eating only foods that would have been available to our Paleolithic ancestors, back in caveman days: lots of meat, fish, vegetables and fruits but no dairy, grain products or processed foods. The other big paleo conference is the Ancestral Health Symposium, whose website offers a Code of Conduct for participants: “We are considerate. We are welcoming. We are respectful.” While photos from the PaleoFX website show fit-looking young people in blue jeans and T-shirts adorned with event lanyards, those posted from the Ancestral Health meet-up feature a lot of podiums.

“That one’s more for the academic people who are doing primary research,” Joulwan said, “and then PaleoFX is more for the layperson.”

PaleoFX was launched by Michelle and Keith Norris, in the wake of attending the 2011 Ancestral symposium at the University of California at Los Angeles. On the plane home, in fact, where a lot of the big ideas seem to occur.


“They came away inspired,” an online blurb reads, “but Michelle was lamenting the disconnect between the worlds of ancestral health theory and practice.”

Where the theory and practice of paleo meets is a Picadilly Circus of dogma, mantra, ancient heritage and modern problems, mostly dietary do’s and don’ts. Paleo is a diet, kind of, that emerged from t h e soup of other (paleo people would say lesser) dietary movements of the last decade.

“I started eating paleo in 2009,” Joulwan said, “and I think that Rob Wolf, who wrote The Paleo Solution, was probably talking about it in 2006 or ’07. Loren Cordain was even before him, but it didn’t have any kind of momentum like it does now.”

Paleo is new enough for its believers to still have living gods. Wolf, Cordain, Mark Sisson [1], Dallas and Melissa Hartwig: This is paleo bedrock, and tracking these people through the movement is like footprinting the diet’s DNA.

But paleo is old, too, old enough, in theory, to need new disciples to preach its gospel. Joulwan is such a convert. Before paleo, she was a lifelong dieter and self-described fat kid who grew up eating her dad’s restaurant cooking—The Country Squire in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania, which calls itself “The Little Town That Could”—and always struggled “to be thinner, healthier, happier, all that.”

eatDino3“I was following the Zone diet,” she said. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Zone.” The Zone prescribes 40% protein, 30% fat, 30% carbs. It’s the carbs that got to Joulwan. “Because you only get 30% of your calories from carbs,” she explained, “that means you have two tablespoons of rice or big piles of vegetables. I hadn’t been eating grains for probably a year before I switched to paleo because I like to eat big piles of food.

“I’d lost a bunch of weight, and was feeling really good, but I wanted to get the last 10 pounds off —the curse of women everywhere, those last 10 pounds that you never really actually have to lose, but then you need to lose.” I’ve heard other dieters talk of the last 10, which tends to be a number set according to some arbitrary measure, like what they weighed in high school. Joulwan—who, in her photos, likes to wear a lot of black, from her leather to her bangs—talks like a sensible enough eater to make diets sound more like art than fashion. With a thyroid condition that dictates she can’t have anything “funky going on in her body,” paleo looked like the ticket.

“I’d been hearing whispers about it,” she said of paleo. “The thing I didn’t like about it initially is that I felt like there wasn’t a lot of explanation why. It was just like, ‘Don’t eat dairy.’ But I couldn’t find a really coherent argument for why. ‘Don’t eat legumes.’ But why? I will do whatever cockamamie thing you tell me to do, if you can give me a really good reason.”

That’s when she became acquainted with Melissa Hartwig, who’d written a book called It Starts With Food. They met online, where Hartwig had a crossfit blog that Joulwan, a crossfit blogger, really liked. “And she’d started doing nutrition consulting. But this was well before she and her husband, Dallas, had ever done The Whole 30, or written their book, or anything.”

Dallas and Melissa Hartwig are the tight, hot, white-teethed images of what they want their believers to be. Both are certified by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN). In their press photos, Melissa could pass for Megan Draper on holiday in the Swiss Alps, while Dallas tears into a side of beef with a carving knife. Paleo, you are bound to believe, will restore the beast within.


The Salt Lake City-based Hartwigs are the duo behind a blog called The Whole 30, a concept that commands strict allegiance for 30 days. (They also have the Whole 60, for those twice as committed, and the Whole 9, which number the “factors we believe in” for those serious enough to take the 30 and 60 from torture to lifestyle.) During the 30, the paleo diet—not to mention the dieter—gets a trial by fire.

“If you’re eating pretty strict paleo for more than, say, 30 days,” Joulwan said, “your body adapts. You become more of a fat burner, instead of a sugar burner. This means that your hormonal systems are working in such a way that you’re not craving sugar. You’re relying on fat as a primary energy source, and your body is pretty happy.”

In her books, Joulwan writes that eating paleo is “based on the idea that we feel our best—and are our healthiest, mentally and physically—when we mimic the nutrition of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.” Since most of our hunting is now performed by Cargill and our gathering fostered by Monsanto and finished, by us, in climate-controlled grocery aisles, eating paleo is all in how you mimic. “Liver is the most nutritious meat you can eat,” she said as a for-instance. “It’s packed with vitamin A and other nutrients. Grassfed, pastured, organic chicken livers are between $9 and $15 a pound. Shitty chicken livers are $2 dollars a pound. But you can’t eat shitty chicken livers!”

In paleo, it’s not just what you eat. It’s what your food eats. Paleo, by definition, relies heavily on protein. Joulwan’s Well Fed books are careful to define not only how much meat a given body should eat, but also how to work it into a meal: a burger without a bun, a burrito without a tortilla, a spring roll without a wrap.

We began our own nod to paleo with a ground pork-coconut treat called Bora Bora Fireballs. It’s a tasty baked meatball of pork and pineapple, studded with jalapeño and scallions and rolled in shredded coconut. To me, this was pushing the boundaries of hunter-gatherer, coconut being mostly an island product and therefore exotic.

That’s when I began to comprehend the shortcomings of my own definitions, and to appreciate the malleability of the paleo diet. Rather than picture myself hunting and gathering all day before retiring to a cold cave, I put paleo in my world—imagined him debating with his butcher the ethical treatment of a particular protein, and her poking around in a bin of heirloom tomatoes. If they avoided the enriched bread, dairy case and rows of chips, who could blame them?

“Some people do fine with dairy,” Joulwan said. “There are plenty of people who are primal, which is, like, a shade of paleo. They eat fullfat, organic, grass-fed dairy and have no problems. So, some people do fine with dairy. I don’t. So, there is some flexibility in there, which is annoying but also really awesome.”

If primal is a shade of paleo, then I eat deep in the shadows. I didn’t crack Well Fed to go paleo, but to liven up the dinner menu. [Giving up] wheat was one thing, but tacos, yogurt, cheese, basmati, peanut butter and wine? That would be eating to live, and I’ll never be that prehistoric. “Paleo is constantly showing up on worst-diets-ever and best-diets-ever lists,” Joulwan said. “I know it sounds a little whackadoodle, especially if you take the caveman approach, you know, that we’re all barefoot and we just eat giant chunks of meat. But you can’t argue with how much better you feel when you stop eating these things.”

After I stopped eating wheat, my stomach stopped waking me in the night. Whether I’d changed or the wheat had changed, I couldn’t argue with the results. Paleo, if nothing else, is a gut check—a reaction to all the anti-food that we’ve been swallowing for decades. Paleo fits hand in glove with the locally sourced and sustainable rallying cry, then tightens the nut even further by eliminating all the goodies that we don’t think you can live without—the brick-oven pizzas and craft beers and artisanal cheeses—and by igniting the impulse within us that the Industrial Revolution siphoned off : the need to sustain ourselves without anybody’s help.

“I wanted to be told exactly what to eat,” Joulwan said, “and that separated me all the time from how to really take care of myself.”



Problem is, I never want to be told exactly what to eat, or how much of it. I like regulating myself, on the plate and in the glass. Moderation and me do our little dance, like two satyrs trading blows at close range. Moderation works on paper, but with no Socrates to yank me by the tunic, I view moderation the way a feedlot chicken might, pecking at the allotment doled out by the mechanical chain of the battery cage, with dreams of the barnyard idyll across the road.

We all live, and eat, in some kind of cage. As our thick-skulled ancestors of old would have, paleo is a bull elk you must take by the horns. It’s easy enough to find info, and inspiration.

Of course, paleo makes for perfect blog fodder. Google it and you encounter all manner of nutrition Nazis and crossfit crazies, sites with names like Breaking Muscle, Food Renegade and My Athletic Life who seek and eat things like Gut Microbiome, Soil-Based Probiotics and Resistant Starch. Their mission statements are dietary chest-bumps: “We love butter, grass-fed and wild meats, raw and fermented foods, and local organic veggies. Our heroes are farmers, teachers, poets and homemakers.”

If anything, paleo gets you to eat more vegetables, which is never a bad thing. My trips to the Cherry Street farmers’ market are more fruitful these days for my paleo consciousness. Vegetables vary in their quality and intensity, defining seasons and suggesting possibilities. If you’re going to base a diet largely off of them, you have to eat the best you can find, or afford. Food and drink are choices we live and die by, and if to some happiness is a warm bun, to others it’s a pile of chopped chard dressed in Sunshine Sauce [2].

There’s a bit of culinary bait and switch going on in Well Fed. Joulwan knows what you like (remember, she was a fat kid) and has done her level best to feed upon your fond memories. Hence, such recipes as caulifl ower mash, jicama home fries and chocolate chili. To her credit, though, she’s taken an otherwise drab medley of roots and tubers and bulbs that would otherwise be adding color and commentary to the grocery bins and put them front and center—meaning, on your plate. Well Fed works because it features vegetables, versus tolerates them.

There are, of course, impediments. Namely, money. Ironically, in this America of ours, it’s now cheaper to eat animals than almonds, even apples. While Joulwan calls for quality products in all of her recipes, she qualifies them with a tone of indulgence.


“I don’t want people to feel that, if they can’t do it perfectly, they can’t do it,” she said of the paleo plan. “I don’t know how the normal family of five could eat grass-fed and organic and all that nonsense. I don’t know how they could do it.”

Of course, the rigor of paleo is the real proof of commitment. After the thrill is gone, a few little unconscious slips become more frequent “off -road” treats, as Joulwan calls them, which takes paleo burnout out of your hands and into your body’s. “The brain is tricky,” she said, “and the hormonal signals it sends make it very difficult to eat, say, 70% paleo.”

Joulwan herself is a solid 90-percenter whose weak spots are exposed when she’s busy, when she socializes (usually in a restaurant) and when she travels. This summer, she and her husband relocated from Austin to Vermont. A new environment meant new restaurants to explore and “more gluten-free muffins and gluten-free pizza than I’ve eaten in years.”

“Nothing too terrible,” she added, “but off my usual plan, which means my hormones start behaving differently. It also usually means wine at dinner in a restaurant and eating more starchy carbs than usual.”

Complicating an already complicated lifestyle is Joulwan herself, a best-selling cookbook writer and blogger with online traction. A neighbor friend wants to wine and dine them at a local Japanese- Korean spot, which means soy and drinks and other agents that make it easy to stray off the paleo path. And the symposiums of spring recede in the face of farmers’ markets and restaurant menus.

“If you eat these proteins,” Joulwan said of the invitation she’ll probably accept, “they can punch tiny holes in your gut lining, and then the things that are not meant to get into your bloodstream get into your bloodstream and your body has an autoimmune reaction, and you become infl amed. That’s the story over and over.

“To her, it’s just dinner.”

Tulsan Mark Brown is the author of My Mother is a Chicken (This Land Press, 2012).

[1] Mark Sisson published The Primal Blueprint, a neoman primer on how to eat, work, play and even sex your way to human realization via the lifestyle cocktail of “vibrant health and boundless energy.” Sisson offers a line of skin-tight apparel, produces events, and sells a slew of “services” on his website that include meal planning, physician consultation, personal coaching, and a 21-day plan on how to “safely” and “effortlessly” reduce your body fat.

[2] Sunshine is paleo satay. You substitute sunfl ower butter for peanut butter. The coconut milk stays the same. (Though, in lieu of cans, I’ve lately been buying it by the half-gallon at Sprouts.) Part-lime, part-fire, part-sweet, we eat this sauce on everything from yams to chicken legs. Against the paleo grain, I think, Joulwan tosses a few dashes of rice vinegar into her Sunshine, for authenticity or rebellion, maybe.


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