A couple months ago I wrote a guest post talking about easy ways to incorporate healthy eating into your life, and I decided to revise it a bit and put it up here on the site for posterity’s sake.
It is no secret that I follow a mostly Paleo-minded way of eating and cooking (more specifically, a model based on the Perfect Health Diet). And while the Paleo diet is a lot of fun and a great template to eat from, it’s a pretty drastic change from your standard, everyday Western fare. Switching to a Paleo way of eating is a major adjustment, and one that many people aren’t willing to jump into headfirst. And I get that. So I wrote up a few steps that anyone can take that aren’t drastic, or terribly inconvenient, but are big steps towards eating better. Think of this as the first steps in easing into an ancestral diet at your own pace.
1. Swap out your oils. Grain and seed-derived oils are ridiculously bad for you (here is a good post that breaks down why most of them are bad). The solution? We use three main oils at the house: grass-fed butter (or clarified butter, also known as ghee), coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil. I use coconut oil and ghee for higher heats (350+), butter for sautéing or browning foods, and olive oil for salads or low-temperature sautés and some roasting. There are two kinds of coconut oil out there – virgin and refined. Virgin coconut oil has a slight coconut taste to it, which is excellent with chicken and seafood dishes. Chances are you won’t notice the coconut taste in most dishes, or grow to like it like my family did. Other good fats are non-hydrogenated lard (rendered pig fat) and tallow (rendered beef fat) from grass-fed animals, but those are harder to come by and take a little extra work. In a nutshell, swapping out your oils for these three staples is one of the easiest transitions you can make, and it will go a long way towards improving your Omega-6/Omega-3 fatty acid ratio (which will in turn help curb inflammation and other bad stuff).
2. White rice is just fine. Don’t force yourself to eat that hippie brown rice stuff if you don’t like it. There is little evidence that brown rice is any better for you than white rice, and it may be worse for you than white rice due to its high amount of phytic acid, which inhibits nutrient absorption. One thing I would suggest is to get away from making plain rice; instead, look for ways to add nutrients to the rice as it cooks, like in my Mexican rice recipe, which is made using homemade chicken stock.
3. Berries over fruits. Berries are packed with vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants, and have a generally lower sugar content than most other fruits. Cherries and kiwi aren’t bad either. That’s not to say that all the other fruits are bad for you, but if you are shopping for fruit be sure to stop by the berries first. Bear in mind that some fruits should always be bought organic (apples, strawberries, blueberries), while others are fine if conventionally grown (kiwi, mangoes, grapefruit). Full list of the “dirty dozen” and “clean 15” is found here. Or better yet, grow your own! Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries grow like weeds (especially the latter two), and come back every year.
Yuca (Cassava), which can be used to make delicious fries
4. Get back to your roots. Root vegetables are nutrient dense and should be a major source of your food energy. Root vegetables are usually broken down into three categories – true roots (carrots), stems/tubers (potatoes), and bulbs (onions). There are so many different root vegetables out there, too, and you’ll likely have a great time trying them all out. Besides the obvious carrots, potatoes, and onions, when was the last time you had beets, turnips, radishes, cassava/yuca, taro, celery roots, yams, jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, or shallots? Head on over to your local grocery store (or better yet, your local Asian market) and pick up something new to try out. Stuck on what to try? Here is a recent root-vegetable contest with hundreds of recipes. Or just roast them!
Rogan Josh – an exotic-tasting dish using familiar and easy-to-find ingredients
5. Think historically. Seriously, this is kind of why I have this website. The foods we ate even a couple generations ago were simpler, more pleasurable, and definitely healthier than what you can find in modern grocery stores and restaurants. Instead of looking forward at new “Paleo-friendly” inventions, I think your time would be better served looking backwards at traditional dishes and preparations using simple, whole ingredients. Along those same lines, expand your palate by trying ethnic foods; there are almost limitless amounts of traditional tastes out there if you branch out and try other cultures’ cuisines. One major element of this is to try out new animal parts, which is a major part of all cuisines (except ours). Another aspect of this is eating fermented food, which can improve gut health. So eat all of the yogurt, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, pickles, and sauerkraut you can get your hands on.
Homemade Phở using oxtail, knuckle bone, and brisket
6. Try out different cuts and types of meat, including organ meats. Humankind spent a long time eating every part of the animals they hunted, so mimicking this behavior is probably a better idea than focusing on muscle meat alone. You don’t have to go all-in and start gnawing on pig’s feet/brains today, but it’s definitely something to consider easing into. It can be as simple as ordering Phở Đặc Biệt the next time you go to a Vietnamese restaurant, which often has tendon and tripe in it. Along those same lines, definitely look for cuts of meat that have the bones attached, since they often taste the best and you can use the bones to make broth afterwards if you’re up for it. Grass-fed and pastured meats are best, but if they’re not in your price range I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.
A little planning goes a long way
7. Don’t let failed attempts at meal planning stop you from eating right. Our method is pretty simple: we think in terms of meat. Once a week, we come up with six meats – chicken, ground beef, fish, a roast, etc, and spread them out over the week so you don’t get burnt out on just one meat. Then, we think geographically: Mexican food one night, Indian another, and so on. Once you have the meats and themes down, it’s now just a matter of pairing the two. From there, you can start to piece together your veggies and spices and you’ve easily made a varied and fun week’s worth of food. In our house, lunch is leftovers from various dinners throughout the week, and we leave that one day open (usually Friday nights) to eat out or catch up on leftovers. It took us a while to figure out this pattern, but it’s been smooth sailing ever since. Keep a log of all the meals you enjoyed and refer to the log when you’re out of meal ideas. If we’re ever in a pinch, we have some ready-made meals available, like the Seeds of Change Indian simmer sauces, for those nights where we don’t feel like cooking something from scratch.
Don’t fall back on ordering pizza – even if it is gluten-free pizza
Lastly, a couple words of advice. This isn’t a “diet”, but a dietary lifestyle change. And it’s definitely not a sprint to some imaginary finish/waist line. There seems to be a mounting pressure to make a drastic and immediate change to your diet RIGHT NOW, and I just don’t buy it. To me, that feels like a sure-fire way to overwhelm yourself and your family. Instead, take your time and ease into a healthy lifestyle to increase the probability it’ll stick. Allow yourself to make mistakes, don’t beat yourself up over every food decision, learn, and move on. There isn’t a perfect state to reach; eating is a work in progress for everyone, there’s no such thing as cruise control. People (and habits) change, and there are always ways to tweak, adjust, and try out new eating adventures. That’s what makes it fun!