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Why I broke up with the Paleo diet

Not since Nathan Pritikin and his skinny genes have we seen such polarization in the food fret set. I have been watching this unfold in the cyber wings for quite sometime now. I jest that Pete Evans ruined our Paleo party, and as the revelation that dumb Belle Gibson was a fraudster rocked the world, that she spoilt the integrity of our wellness industry that we have worked so hard to establish. Sadly my food loving friend and Healthtalks TV co-host Jess Ainscough was also taken down as a scapegoat. Not fair. Fashionable diets are under the microscope and the media are having a jolly good perv.

In the Australian Financial Review yesterday I spoke about the Paleo diet, sugar and my disdain for the fad of bone broth. I’m quoted as eating a part Paleo diet. Doesn’t every health conscious person who eats meat and fish? Paleo has become a socio-economic status symbol hashtag. I can assure you that the rules are pretty loose these days, and that my favourite grain – rice – is now allowed in some pious Paleo pastures.

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Doesn’t this way of eating simply mean that we are eating a little bit wheat free? After all, wasn’t gluten the enemy before grain? How many gluten free products are there on the market these days? You just about get smacked in the face strolling down the ‘health food’ aisle of the Byron Bay Woolies with its processed packets of synthesised products that have lost their elastic (hope their pants don’t fall down!).

I turned to Paleo in 2011 thanks to Dan Nimmo a hilarious, like-minded punter, and one of QLD’s best personal trainers. Dan shared with me some interesting and valid evidence – in between mid-week race tips – about why most of us should eat less grain. I had this hunch long ago and wrote an article called No Grain, No Gain back in the 90s, so I was pumped to hear his take. At the time I was Head Chef at Cabarita Ocean Health Retreat (since closed) and working up to 12-hour days with a gammy leg, and my bones and scars were screaming.

By eliminating the grain – refined flour in my case – and intermittently fasting for 16 hours each night, then eating predominantly vegetables and high quality protein, I had eradicated the debilitating pain from my body within 14 days. Punctuated with Dan’s gruelling interval training regime, I smashed my genetic hyper-cholesterol through the roof in three months. My GP frowned and dismissed the importance of this advising that there are many indicators to good health. My PT mate Dan high-fived as if we’d won the quaddie at Caulfield.

However, after a few months I realised I had lost my sense of humour. If you know me then you will know that this is a travesty of gigantic proportions. I was sad and really confused. I recall being at Bingin Beach in Bali and my head was all fuzzed up. I was gun fit yet I was miserable. So I devoured a plate of taboo – nasi goreng – and immediately got my gags back! So this was my turning point. I need a few grains to stimulate my serotonin pathway. It’s who I am.

Every fitness expert I have ever known prescribes a very low carbohydrate eating plan in order to enhance lean muscle mass. We have known this for years, therefore the Paleo diet is simply a brand name for a mindful approach to eating that does not include the dampening digestive elements [1] like bread and pasta – amongst other foods – that make up much of the Standard Australian Diet (SAD). However, the claim that our ancestors ate this way is a myth.

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Ötzi the Iceman died around 3,300 B.C., yet his body was preserved frozen in the Alps until 1991. Researchers have long known about some of Otzi’s earlier meals. Based on fecal material removed from his bowels, they know he dined on red deer meat and possibly cereal in the hours leading up to his death. Not so Paleo. Source

For me, I still eat a small amount pasta maybe every four or maybe six weeks. Yes it makes my tummy swell and I get really, really tired afterwards, but seriously, how good is a bowl of spaghetti with someone you love? My Italian friends almost have kittens when someone drops the GF word. A small bowl of steamed white Japanese short grain rice and miso soup three times per week helps me thrive. Oddly, I was labelled as Macrobiotic by journalist/blogger Sarah Wilson – perhaps because I teach Japanese cooking and speak Japanese. Until then I didn’t think I would have to pigeonhole my work. My message is broad, my niche deep and my marketplace ripe.

My mantra is – and always will be – “Eat unprocessed, mostly organic food at a shared table full of happy guests”.

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Importantly, I slow cook whole chooks (just like that good lookin’ bird above – recipe here) and joints year round, and make stock from bones and seaweed. Seaweed is the highest source of minerals you can find and a few strands will boost your bony bits. Bones contain glucosamine, a naturally occurring simple sugar component, which is the building block of larger complex sugars called glycosaminoglycans. Glycosaminoglycans form the gel-like ground substance found in connective tissue, mucous secretions and synovial fluid. Therefore consuming mineral rich foods, stocks and slow cooked dishes are so essential for rebuilding my connective tissues and integrity of my joints.

Glyconutrients and polysaccharides are the keys to health. These are sugar components that form the sugar chains that coat and protect all body cells against germs and invasions. They are our naturally occurring Space Invaders, filling the spaces between cells which are often anti-inflammatory. They help to regulate immune response, are the carriers for stem cells and coat the neurons for efficient neurotransmitter function.

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I support all who campaign for a lifestyle of shared table eating and the celebration of healthy food.  To the Indonesians – and much of Asia where they eat lots of rice – all eating is healthy. The Balinese would prefer to eat solo and savour their supper than talk and eat with a group. And the idea of incorporating new flavours and fusions from other cuisines is simply interference. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it kind of approach.

So why do we insist on analysing every morsel when inherently we know what works?  Eat good fresh food, locally grown and not too much. If you do eat or drink too much, have less the next day or week. If you’re tummy hurts when you eat certain foods, seek help. Take probiotics, apple cider vinegar or aloe vera – just not all at once – and listen to your body to work out which is best for you. Listen, that’s right, tune in. Don’t beat yourself up! Know that as we age, our bodies change. I have written extensively about the mind-gut connection, so you might like to revisit That Ol’ Gut Feeling.

Unconditional self-acceptance is the key to happiness which I am writing about in my new book On Food and Happiness (the title just blessed by author of On Food and Cooking,  Harold McGee – a book you simply must read if you cook). For the sake of a few kilos and one dress size, I would rather be happier than skinnier with wrinkles – wouldn’t you?

As I approach my 50th birthday this Easter, I am making peace with my curves, my belly and bust and most of all, learning to love my ol’ gammy leg that has been broken in three places including that rather painful snap of my femur. There are scars, lumps and an iliotibial band so tight you can strum it. As for my tensor fasciae latae, no, not a tight facial coffee, but part of the thigh muscle – go near it and you’re bound to get a smack! Too many grains and acid forming foods still aggravate it, but with decades of yoga and ocean swimming it comes good. The ocean fixes everything.

Our modern Australian cuisine has evolved from the availability of produce introduced by immigrants, and this great land has welcomed it. Yet what about our own backyard full of indigenous goodies? Our daily food rituals are declarations of who we are, just one of the ways we express ourselves. Whether it is the sensual delight of a single ingredient or the progressive showcase of a degustation banquet, nothing defines us more than what we eat and how it has been prepared. Howabout we take an all encompassing approach to our daily dishes and let the D word, diet, die?

With gratitude,

Sammy x

NEXT EVENT 30 APRIL 2017


[1] Traditional Chinese medicine recognizes five climactic factors: dampness, dryness, cold, heat, and wind. Dampness is associated with symptoms related to excess fluids (for example, phlegm and edema), dryness is associated with chapped mucous membranes, and heat is associated with inflammatory conditions.

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