• Your life and health are your own responsibility.
• Your decisions to act (or not act) based on information or advice anyone provides you—including me—are your own responsibility.


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.


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.)