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Book Review: “It Starts With Food,” by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig

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What Is The “Whole 30″?

There are two approaches to “going Paleo”: the “taper off” approach, in which you eliminate non-Paleo foods from your life in multiple steps as you feel ready, and the “boot camp/detox” approach, in which you commit to a completely new diet all at once.

The most vocal and successful proponents of the boot camp/detox approach to Paleo are Dallas and Melissa Hartwig. In their “Whole30″ program, you commit to eating 100% strict Paleo for 30 days. No cheat days, no 80/20 rule, no white rice or white potatoes, no exceptions. The purpose of It Starts With Food is simple—to get you to do a Whole 30—and the Hartwigs are betting that your health and life will improve so greatly that you’ll stick with it…

…or at least be cautious about re-introducing non-Whole30 foods, so you can rationally evaluate the effect of each one instead of simply falling off the wagon.

What Distinguishes “It Starts With Food” From The Other Paleo Books Out There?

What distinguishes the different Paleo books isn’t so much their actual dietary recommendations. Sure, the Perfect Health Diet permits white rice and white potatoes, both it and the Primal Blueprint are moderately tolerant of dairy, and there is still a bit of push-pull over optimal fat and carb content…but at the end of the day, everyone agrees that meat and vegetables ought to be the foundation of our diet (plus eggs unless you’re allergic, and fruit in moderation), and that anything containing grains, seed oils, and/or refined sugar is right out.

Therefore, I won’t spend a lot of time on the factual content of It Starts With Food, because it won’t be surprising to anyone in the paleo community—especially if you’ve already read Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution, of which ISWF’s middle sections are, in most respects, a less chatty and informal version. (Although ISWF is explicitly saturated fat-tolerant, though not fat-philic, and it’s worth noting that clarified butter gets a hall pass.)

What distinguishes ISWF is the approach it takes to advocacy. For instance, the Perfect Health Diet is primarily based on modern-day biology and biochemistry, and the Primal Blueprint works mostly from an evolutionary context. In contrast, It Starts With Food bases itself on changing your relationship with food, using a tough-love (though not harsh) approach throughout.

“The food you eat either makes you more healthy or less healthy. Those are your two options. There is no food neutral; there is no food Switzerland…” (p. 12)

However, it’s not all whip-cracking and ominous warnings. Aside from the usual promises of better health, relief from sickness, etc.—anecdotes of which are planted throughout the text—Chapter 4 closes with the following promises:

First, you will once again be able to appreciate the natural, delicious flavors (including sweet, fatty, and salty) found in whole foods.
Second, the pleasure and reward you experience when eating that delicious food will once again be closely tied with nutrition, satiation, and satiety—you’ll be able to stop eating because you’re satisfied, not because you’re “full”.
Third, you will never again be controlled by your food. (p. 38)

The Hartwigs maintain these themes throughout: if you eat according to the Whole 30, you ought not to have to count calories, always be hungry, or continually crave cheat foods.

Goal: To Sell You The Whole30

The Hartwigs’ stated goal is to convince you that it’s a good idea to do the Whole30—to be strict Paleo for 30 days straight—without cheating. And since they know that most such New Year’s Resolution-styled efforts end in abject failure, they want to make it as easy for you as they can.

Then, after you’ve been “clean” for 30 days, you can start evaluating your favorite non-Whole30 foods to see what effect their reintroduction has on you.

Does It Succeed?

I think the best argument for trying a Whole30 is found on page 204:

“Think of it like this. You’re allergic to cats, and you own ten of them. One day, fed up with your allergies, you decide to get rid of nine of your cats. Will you feel better?”

And the reason I think this book will succeed in convincing many people to try a Whole30 is primarily because of Chapter 16 (“Meal Planning Made Easy”) and Appendix A (“The Meal Map”). Too many diet books, paleo and otherwise, leave the reader with a giant list of forbidden foods (including everything you eat on a daily basis) and, if you’re lucky, a thinly veiled advertisement for another book with actual recipes in it. “Now what do I do?” you think.

In contrast, these two chapters of ISWF tell you everything you need to complete a Whole30 on your own. Their quantity guidelines are both simple and refreshing (“one to two palm-size servings of protein” … “a meal-size portion is the number of eggs you can hold in one hand”). Even better is their mix-and-match approach to meats, vegetables, spices, and sauces, which allows the reader to create hundreds of their own dishes using the flavor combinations they personally find most palatable.

I’ve been using the “one-skillet cooking” technique for quite a while, and Appendix A has given me several new ideas to try.

(Minor Quibbles)

I do have a couple nits to pick. The information on magnesium left out the important fact that if magnesium citrate gives you the runs, other chelates, like malate and glyclnate, have a much reduced laxative effect. Also, ghee and clarified butter are not the same thing! (To make ghee, you must “toast” the residual proteins before pouring off the pure butterfat.) And while this isn’t a quibble, it’s worth noting that “coconut aminos”—a common ingredient in the recipes—are a soy sauce substitute.

However, this is small stuff.

Conclusion

It Starts With Food successfully balances encouragement, tough love, and a simple yet option-rich meal plan to produce a solid, well-placed motivational kick in the butt. In other words, it’s everything you need to do a Whole30 except your own desire and willingness to try it.


Disclaimer: I received two free copies of this book, and gave one away to a lucky member of the gnolls.org mailing list. And if you buy a copy of It Starts With Food from any of the Amazon links on this page, including this one, I get a small spiff. (At no cost to you…buying stuff through my affiliate links is a great way to make Amazon contribute to gnolls.org. Note that you can buy anything, not just the item you clicked through to.)

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17 comments

Permalink: Book Review: “It Starts With Food,” by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig
  • anand srivastava

    I didn’t understand the difference between clarified butter and ghee.

    I though clarified butter is butter with only the butter fat. Which is the same as ghee.

    What is the real difference?

  • Ghee is a type of clarified butter.

    Clarified butter is a banner term for butter which has been rendered to separate the milk solids from the fat. Ghee is then cooked on slowly to darken and really purify the fat. That is the only distinction I can think of.

  • Jan's Sushi Bar

    Paul is 100% correct. Once you’ve melted butter and removed the water and milk solids, you have clarified butter. Ghee is slowly cooked over low heat until the milk solids are browned and the fat has a lovely nutty flavor.

  • Lauren

    The longer cooking of ghee has to happen /before/ the fat is separated from the solids – it is the toasting of the solids that infuses the fats with the nutty flavour and more golden colour that ghee is known for. The longer cooking also condenses ghee more, making it firmer, longer-lasting and further intensifying the flavour compared to clarified butter. Frankly I just use clarified Kerrygold most of the time because making ghee makes a mess of my pots. But in some dishes you really do want the ghee taste.

    Nice review, J. I’ll flip through ISWF and see if I like it better than PB or TPS for curious newbies. So far I haven’t found a book I can hand over and walk away.

  • Angie

    I make ghee in my crockpot, letting it go until the milk solids are dark brown and it smells delicious. Then strain it. Not a mess.

  • Otherworld

    Angie, I never thought of making ghee in the crockpot…thanks for the tip! I, too, love the smell and nutty flavor that comes from the “toasting” of the solids.

    Does anyone know the composition of the foam that rises to the top, versus the solids that sink to the bottom? I have heard that the solids are protein.

    The review of ISWF is helpful. I have been thinking about trying it and this has inspired me to do so.

  • Charles

    Yes, Google “Ghee crockpot” and you’ll get a lot of references. It’s easy and works great.

  • I cheat … I buy mine:

  • Tim

    I’m on day ten of the whole 30 now. I have previously been ‘paleo’ for about two years but have still been carrying around about ten to fifteen extra lbs (I think, my small tire doesn’t have a label saying how much it weighs). The only real differences between whole 30 and what I’d been doing were dairy and alcohol though my alcohol consumption is sporadic and more of a European pattern than an American one. That said… I’ve already lost several lbs and I do feel better. Maybe I really did need to ditch the dairy. I’ll definitely stick it out to the end and in the future I’ll likely be more careful about the dairy I do eat, but my absinthe collection must be properly cared for. On the whole I’d say the experience is already useful, even if I don’t lose another ounce.

    -Tim

  • Anand:

    Paul, Jan, and Lauren have it right.

    Paul, Jan, Lauren:

    Correct.  Interestingly, making ghee doesn't seem to do much damage to my saucepan…sure, I have to scrub it out afterward, but it's no worse than making chili.

    Angie:

    I've never tried to make that much ghee at once, but I bet it works great!

    Otherworld:

    The foam on the top is sugar, and the solids that sink to the bottom are protein.

    Tim:

    I'm glad you're finding useful information from your Whole 30!

    JS

  • Derek

    When will the Paleo/Primal community figure out that obtaining magnesium from food is better than magnesium citrate, or any other magnesium supplement? If the diet is superior, it should not need supplements.

    Sprouted/fermented beans and buckwheat recipes are gluten free, provide a good source of magnesium, and contend with the oh so evil phytate.

    The demonization of so many food groups by Primal/Paleo is over the top.

  • Derek:

    We know that already.

    However, much of our dietary magnesium (and other minerals) used to come from the naturally occurring minerals in groundwater — minerals that have been, for the most part, stripped out by modern water treatment plants.  (“The water's too hard.  It's clogging my showerhead and pipes, and my soap doesn't make enough suds.”) 

    Also, green leafy vegetables, from chard to basil to spinach to kale to seaweed, are excellent sources of magnesium.

    See this article for why I don't blithely trust processed Neolithic foods, even if they contain reduced levels of the few known antinutrients and aren't obviously unhealthy.  Sure, WAPF-compliant beans and grains are better for you than the SAD…but they're still nutritionally inferior to meat, eggs, and veggies, and I see no reason to eat them unless you're too poor to afford real food or in denial about your bread addiction.

    JS

  • Eva

    Derek, it may not be possible to get proper levels of all nutrients from foods from a grocery store. Most soils have been stripped of most of their nutrients. Farmers only add those back in that are required for growth which is only a few. Many things (really most if not all) in the store are also very hybridized, picked green, full of chemicals, etc. Not everyone can do all homegrown organic. Ever did some research on what has magnesium in it these days? You’d have to actually really pay attention to it every day to eat the recommended amount daily in natural foods. And that is assuming the USDA suggested amounts are not too low. Magnesium is one of those that is not super plentiful in many foods. Even most foods ‘high’ in magnesium are not really that high. Anyway, might not be wise to ready to point fingers. The paleo era is gone. We can try to approximate the general gist of it but we cannot get it back. Those food sources are no longer available and most of us are not eating brain matter, blood, and bone marrow daily either.

    As for Whole30, since when are potatoes and tubers not paleo? We are adapted for starch digestion for a reason. Fruit is also paleo, although moderation is likely warranted. Does anyone really want to argue that ancient humans did not eat fruit and tubers? Not everyone on paleo needs to lose weight either.

  • Eva:

    The Whole 30 is very much an elimination diet — the idea being that you can start reintroducing foods one at a time to see which ones cause problems for you.  And they're fine with sweet potatoes and fruit in moderation AFAIK.

    JS

  • […] Review: “It Starts With Food,” by Dallas and Melissa […]

  • JayJay

    I’m doing a 30 day elimination. Meat, fats, vege, fruit. No potato, green beans or corn. (I grow those in my garden). My unstable blood sugar is fixed, lost a few KG, but i’m still not adjusted. Its not a problem, I have no new symptoms, Just don’t have a lot a lot of energy, I still get hungry but not as ravenous and I don’t sleep well, digestion is not so good. I wonder if I’m eating too low carb.

  • JayJay:

    You're not getting many carbs on a Whole 30: your only starch source is sweet potatoes (and, to a lesser extent, bananas).  

    However: total up your calories for the day.  You might be surprised to find out how little you're eating, due to the lack of calorie-dense foods…especially since you've lost “several KG”, which is over five pounds, very quickly.  

    Result: lack of energy might just be due to not eating enough.

    JS

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