The Cook Has Done What?! The Cook Has Gone Paleo.

Photography and food styling by Tanya Zouev

I’ve been quiet for a while on this blog. I’ve missed posting, I’ve missed my readers. “Por qué?”, you ask? Well for a number of reasons actually, but mainly my health. You see, a few years ago my health started going downhill and about twelve months ago it got worse. Back then I blamed it on sleep deprivation after having my son, then later I blamed it on working too hard, on moving house three times in one year, on having too much on my to-do list. I found a lot of things to blame it on.

Half way through last year whilst I was yet again lamenting to someone that I could never lose weight and that I was always sick, it suddenly occurred to me that the only thing I never blamed was my diet. It was July, it was cold and I was battling yet another upper respiratory infection that had been lingering since May. None of my clothes fit, I had a swag of health issues, I took antibiotics regularly to deal with recurring sinus infections, I was always tired and I relied far too heavily on coffee and sugar to keep my energy levels up. Then I saw a photograph of myself taken at a then-recent PR event and my first thought was, “holy cow, I’m fat”. Nothing like a bad photo of yourself to give you a reality check I say.

I have always worked hard and in my family that earns you acceptance and validation. If you run yourself down and get sick, it’s like, “oh, but at least you were working hard to get sick so that’s ok”. My migrant parents worked hard from the minute they stepped onto Australia soil in the 1950’s and they were my example growing up of what you do if you want to be successful. I started working in the photographic industry at age sixteen and I’ve never stopped. In twenty-seven years the longest I have ever taken off is six weeks, and even then I’ve only done this twice. I’ve always been freelance which means I’ve never been on a salary or had any kind of entitlements like sick leave or holiday pay. If I don’t work I don’t get paid. When I do work it’s all hands on deck and there is little time for anything else because the nature of my work is so full on. I love my work, but I am also prone to loving my work a little too much and in turn find my life incredibly out of balance.

But you can only work like this for so long, especially if you don’t take care of your body. That’s why I became sick and overweight, and riddled with health issues including recurring infections, acne, rosacea, heartburn, dandruff, hair loss, bouts of IBS, gout and chronic hay fever. That’s also why I needed to make permanent changes to my lifestyle starting with food. The problem is I was hellishly resistant to eating well. I’d tried for as long as I can remember to eat healthily but kept getting tempted by the kind of crap I grew up eating: wheat, potatoes and sugar. Even upon discovering in 2006 that I had allergies to various foods including a major one to wheat, I still kept sneaking in plenty that made me sick.

What I really needed to know was why I kept going back to eating the foods which I knew made me unwell. A colleague suggested I read some material on the Paleo lifestyle, one that she had adopted some eighteen months back and was loving. At first I scoffed at her gentle persuasion but at the same time I was intrigued by the elimination of most of her health issues and by her seemingly effortless fifteen kilo weight loss. She reported that her cholesterol and blood pressure were down, many ailments had cleared up, her sleep had improved and her energy levels had gone through the roof. So I ordered as many Paleo books as I could get my hands on. Within three weeks I’d read Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, Primal Body Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas, The Paleo Solution and 30 Day Transformation by Robb Wolf, The Paleo Diet by Dr Loren Cordain, It All Starts With Food by Melissa and Doug Hartwig and a couple of dozen Paleo cookbooks. I couldn’t get enough of it and I wanted to know more.

Primal Blueprint was my favourite all-round book explaining the benefits and how-to of a Primal and Paleo lifestyle (I find Mark Sisson’s writing entertaining and informative, take a look at his website Mark’s Daily Apple) however it was It All Starts With Food that I particularly found life changing. It was inside Melissa & Doug Hartwig’s book that I found my missing link, the answer to why I ate food that was bad for me. It had never occurred to me that I was in fact addicted to the sugar and grains I’d been eating since I was a child and to quote the Hartwigs, ” These foods (namely sugar and grains) fail our first Good Food Standard: a healthy psychological response. These foods light up pleasure, reward and emotional pathways in the brain, offering supernormally stimulating flavours without providing the nutrition that nature intended.” They go on to explain, “These are Foods-With-No-Brakes, promoting overconsumption and inability to control your cravings, habits and behaviours”. Well, let’s just say that I had one of the biggest “uh-huh!” moments of my life.

I didn’t want yet another thing to blame, I just wanted to understand the physiological reasons behind why these foods held their grip on me. I had no idea that grains and refined sugar were so addictive and I certainly had no idea that those foods actually hit the opiate receptors in our brains, making us want them even more. It made sense when I thought about my sugar and carb-fuelled binges which would start with “just one or two” potato chips or jelly snakes and then end up with enough calories consumed to power a rocket ship.

The decision was made to deal with my sugar addiction first and to quit on August 1. It was the first day of a three week shoot for a wholefoods and refined-sugar free cookbook by a well known nutritionist and I would be surrounded by healthy food. I ate what was cooked at the shoot and at the end of August I weighed myself and I had in fact not only not lost any weight, I had gained an extra three kilos and was still sick. The food I was eating may have been free of refined sugar but it still contained legumes, grains and gluten which I suspected weren’t right for me. Going sugar free wasn’t enough, I decided to go Paleo. I cut out the legumes and grains however decided to keep a very small amount of organic and raw dairy in my diet.

You may be thinking fair enough, quit refined sugar but why grains and legumes? We are forever being hocked information by nutritionists and doctors alike about how awesome whole grains are and what an amazing source of protein legumes are. I have read a colossal amount on the subject and it pretty much comes down to the fact that grains and legumes contain all or some of the following: anti-nutrients, lectins, gluten, and phytates. This is a big topic, too big to discuss in one paragraph so if you’re interested, please click on these links to read more on the subject by Mark Sisson so that you may form your own opinion. (This is information that has made a lot of sense, and has been a good fit for me personally. I understand that not everybody agrees with it, and it’s fine if you don’t.)

Even though I had been interested in raw and wholefoods for many years, I never took any kind of healthy eating seriously enough to stick to it long term. I’d tried going vegan, raw-vegan and vegetarian, all for periods of time ranging from a couple of months to a year and more, but nothing felt right. I was still always sick and hungry. But this time it was different, it was easy. The afternoon energy crashes were eliminated along with the 2:40pm sugar cravings that appeared dutifully every afternoon. I didn’t get crazy-hungry (the kind of feeling when you get so agitated at being hungry you could eat the entire universe and anything that gets in your way). I could eat my fill of anything on the list of allowed foods and I found that I barely got hungry anymore due the nutrient-rich, low GI nature of what I ate. My energy levels started to improve, the brain fog lifted, and I noticed that my hair had stopped falling out in the shower. I was feeling pretty good and on the days I was shooting I didn’t get as tired.

Then two weeks into my new lifestyle, I got the Paleo flu. Apparently it is not uncommon to get sick once you quit sugar and grains. Your body is so used to running on sugar that when you quit, you literally crash as your physiology becomes accustomed to burning fat instead. I was sick for an entire month, some days I even couldn’t get out of bed. The lethargy was palpable, the flu symptoms severe (I got a full blown sinus and ear infection), the brain fog returned with a vengeance and my skin broke out. The aches and pains came back and I felt like shit, then to top it off I caught a dose of stomach flu (just in case I didn’t feel sick enough). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have second thoughts about the whole Paleo business, but intuitively I knew I just had to keep going with it.

After a few weeks of illness things started to look up. The flu went away, my skin cleared (both the acne and rosecea disappeared) and I felt better again. Then I noticed all the aches and pains had disappeared as well as the swelling in my right hand that I’d had for years (I’d attributed this to RSI from working with a computer mouse). My hair became thicker and shinier, my fingernails stopped breaking so often. The most surprising thing however was that in the height of hay fever season I barely had any symptoms. I had suffered chronic allergies since my mid twenties, and I relied a lot on antihistamines to feel normal from late August though to February. With these improvements in my overall health, there was certainly no going back now.

But it wasn’t just food that I was hellishly resistant to, it was exercise as well. The life of a photographer isn’t a sedentary one (except for the days where you need to sit in front of a computer to process files or retouch) and I tend to be quite active. My waistline however indicated that I wasn’t active enough. I loathed (and still do) the gym and my general opinion of exercise was that it was all a bit of a bother. However I decided to try Crossfit and found the weirdest thing happened, I actually started to look forward to classes, even getting up at 5am to get to the first session of the day. I began thinking about exercising during the course of a normal day instead of obliterating it from my mind. I started with two sessions a week and increased this to three with walking and sprinting (as Mark Sisson suggests) on other days. Whilst I’m not quite as wild about fitness as for example, my incredibly fit husband, I am enthusiastic enough about Crossfit to get to my local box several times a week and enjoy the WOD’s (workout of the day), as gruelling as most of them are. Each week that passes I find I’m that little bit fitter, stronger and healthier and this is something I find exciting.

If you read any of the Paleo books I recommend above, you will find that all the authors speak of inflammation and the foods that cause this. (For a simple yet informative explanation of the different types of inflammation read this article by The Lazy Caveman here.) When we eat the wrong food and don’t take care of ourselves our bodies respond by getting sick, it’s really that simple. All of the health issues I experienced from the acne to gout were the result of chronic inflammation from eating badly, lack of sleep and lack of exercise. Unfortunately in the west we are so accustomed to treating symptoms with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories that we overlook alternatives, such as our basic nutrition. Thankfully there is much we can do for ourselves in order to raise the quality of our health and lives beyond our expectations.

So you see, going Paleo is not just about food. It’s not a diet, it’s not a weight loss plan, it’s not some faddish slimming program where you stuff yourself with bacon and keto bars Atkins-style (though judging by the obsession by some Paleo foodies with bacon you’d think otherwise). It’s about addressing your entire lifestyle and how you treat your body. You may be asking at this point have I lost any weight? Well yes I have, about seven kilos (15 pounds) in six months, however this lifestyle isn’t just about weight loss for me. It just happens to be a very pleasant side effect, and I’m relieved that after not being able to lose weight for years that I have finally found a way of eating that is right for me. I still have another eight or so kilos to go but I’m happy with my progress so far and I like that it’s slow and sustainable.

Whilst I’m not about to start preaching about clean-living, eating raw celery sticks for every meal or replacing your morning coffee with dandelion tea, the direction of this food blog will change. After the last six months of first hand experiencing the effects of quitting refined sugar and grains, I simply can’t go back to eating the way I used to. Even though I plan to still enjoy the rare slice of Black Forest Pavlova, it certainly isn’t going to be a regular part of my diet anymore and I don’t encourage it to be part of yours either. If you’re wondering what I eat these days, my diet is based on Melissa and Doug Hartwig’s The Whole30 program. It means eating a lot of nutrient-rich vegetables, eggs, some meat and seafood, loads of good fats (coconut, macadamia and olive oils), coconuts and a little fruit and nuts. The only exception I make is a tiny amount of dairy though most days I don’t eat it at all. I have the odd Paleo-compliant treat though I prefer this to be something I eat on occasion rather than the regular thing it used to be. I’ve been asked if I have increased my meat consumption and the answer is no. I have a moral issue with eating large amounts of meat so I supplement my meals with a lot of vegetables and make sure these are always on hand.

I’m not going to try to convince you that Paleo cookies are the same thing as a packet of Oreos because they’re not. You can’t compare a creamy café latte made with cows milk to a long black with a dash of almond milk, it’s just not the same thing (but it is delicious in a different way). But the secret is becoming ok with it all and accepting that if you have a body that is prone to illness and weight gain (like mine), that you learn to adapt and enjoy food that gives health rather than taking it away. Melissa and Doug Hartwig may say that it all starts with food, but I say it goes one step further and that it also starts with your head.

I will be back next week with the first of my new grain-free and refined-sugar free recipes.

Until then,