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Book review: Nourishing Traditions

nourishingtraditionsNourishing Traditions
The cookbook the challenges politically correct nutrition and the diet dictocrats
By Sally Fallon, with Mary Enig, Ph.D.

I’ve been putting this off for a couple months now.  How do you review a book like this?  This all started with a post I did for this blog back in April.  A comment on another blog led me to the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) website, which I found to be very confusing.

A week or so later my friend Tracey loaned me her copy of Nourishing Traditions, which I quickly bought, and honestly it’s been laying around my kitchen ever since.  I pick it up nearly every day, either to read more of it or to find a recipe.

I think the subtitle does it a bit of a disservice.  It sounds kooky.  The accolades from Robert Atkins inside the front cover make it seem even kookier.  And when I first started reading it, I was skeptical.  But now that I’ve gone deeper down the rabbit hole of food and nutrition reading, I keep getting more and more confirmation of pretty much everything Fallon says.

Among the more shocking things:

1. Saturated fat is not nearly as bad as we’ve all been led to believe — in fact it might even be essential to brain and reproductive health.  Fallon points to convincing research that shows sugars, hydrogenated fats, and refined carbohydrates as being much more dangerous for your heart.

2. Soy is not as healthy as you think.  This one is the hardest one for me to come to terms with, since I was a vegetarian for so long (1999-2007 or so).  But she points out that traditional Asian cultures only ate soy products that had been fermented or cultured (such as tempeh, fermented soy sauce, or miso), because soy is hard to digest and can end up costing your body more minerals to digest it than it offers in return.  The WAPF is probably most famous for its anti-soy stance, and I think that it is taken too far sometimes.  Fallon herself is just fine with certain soy foods, as long as they’ve been prepared in traditional ways.

3. Milk, as we drink it today, is not nearly the health food that it once was.  Cow’s milk is full of beneficial enzymes and vitamins that are killed during the pasteurization process, and then it is homogenized, which denatures it even further.  Fallon recommends finding a source for raw milk from cows who are fed all or mostly a grass-based diet.  Good luck with that one, folks!  It’s actually illegal for stores to sell raw milk in the US, so you have to buy it right from the farm.  Raw milk won’t be passing my lips anytime soon, alas.

Well, this whole “shocking truths” thing just goes on and on, depressingly at times.  In the end there are very few of our most beloved foods that are allowed, and few ways in which we are allowed to prepare them.  Grilling and microwaving are out.  Coffee, chocolate, alcohol, sugar, most breads (even whole grain), boxed cereals, and white flour are out.

Happily, other wonderful things are encouraged.  Bloody red meat.  Butter.  Whole milk.  Eggs.  Preferably all from organic/local sources.  There is quite a bit of information on the difference, nutritionally speaking, between meat/dairy/eggs from conventionally raised animals vs. meat from animals that are allowed to roam around eating grass.

I have decided to take the pick and choose approach to dealing with this book, because I frankly don’t have it in me to try and accomplish all these very lofty goals.  I still have to work!  However, we have implemented a number of things that Fallon recommends.  Among them:

1. Make bone broths from chicken carcasses.  Freeze the broth in ice cube trays and add it to various foods while cooking.

2. Eat fermented and cultured foods, at least once per day, but preferably have something fermented, cultured, or even just raw at every meal.  This was a much easier goal to reach during the summer.

3. Soak most grains and beans overnight before using them.  This neutralizes phytic acid, something Fallon describes as an “anti-nutrient” and also makes the grains easier to digest, and much tastier.  (An easy way to do this is to start making steel-cut oatmeal or pancakes for breakfast on a regular basis, with eggs on the side of course.)

4. Cut back on sugar.  Oh my, is this hard.

5. Take a teaspoon of cod liver oil in lieu of vitamins.

In the semi-near future I’d like to start implementing a lot of the other things from the book, but it’s going to take time.

And now a word of caution.  This is to myself as well as you all.  WAPF/Nourishing Traditions sometimes starts to venture into “theory of everything” territory, where the western diet is to blame for cancer, obesity, ADHD, depression, infertility, diabetes, ugliness, cavities, mosquito bites, and pretty much every problem known to modern humans.  When they get on the anti-soy warpath, they actually start to sound downright cultish.

So I’m trying to temper my panic with a reminder that a person can only do so much, and I’m doing the best that I can right now.  I’m healthier now than I was a year ago or even 6 months ago.  I’ve lost about 10 lbs since I started reading this book.  I lose 5-7 lbs. every summer due to all the biking/gardening, so I’m not ready to declare Nourishing Traditions to be a diet book yet.  Stay tuned.

Which brings me back to that endorsement from Dr. Atkins.  I can totally see, after reading this, that Dr. Atkins was reading some of the same research when he wrote his diet books.  There’s a grain of truth to the low carb diet plan, although anything that says no to fruits and vegetables is a little suspect.  Fallon puts almost no restrictions on whole foods.

And although she encourages saturated fats, it’s not like she thinks you should go eat a stick of butter tonight.  Everything in moderation.  You’re going to put a small amount of some sort of fatty spread on your bread, right?  Well butter is one of your best choices because it contains crazy amounts of vitamin A and the fat that best helps your body to absorb it.

I could go on and on, but I think I’ll stop there for tonight.  Tomorrow night Sometime soon I’ll review a couple of the recipes from the book. (Updated 11/5/09)

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Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

indefenseoffoodIn Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
by Michael Pollan

This book’s been out for a couple years now but I only just got around to reading it.  And actually I didn’t read it; I listened to the audio book.

First a note on that: I don’t highly recommend the audio version.  The reader, Scott Brick, had kind of a nasally, annoying voice.  It wasn’t enough to diminish the importance of the material for me, but still something to note.

This is the book that launched the phrase, which I’m sure many of you have heard by now:

“Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”

The book is broken down into three sections:  The Age of Nutritionism, The Western Diet, and Getting Over Nutritionism.

Nutritionism is the term Pollan uses (he did not coin it, however) to describe how we came to focus on the building blocks of foods (vitamins, minerals, nutrients, etc.) instead of foods themselves, and why that is problematic.  Margarine is such a perfect example of this phenomenon.  Because margarine is such a highly processed product, the food industry can change enough of its ingredients to make it appealing no matter what the current nutrition fad is.  So while a few years ago margarine was all about being low in cholesterol, now it’s all about being trans-fat free.

Pollan talks a lot about food processing and labelling, and blasts holes in a lot of sacred cows such as the lipid hypothesis (which is what connects a high cholesterol diet with coronary heart disease), and the idea that soy is good for you (his take: that depends on how it’s prepared).  Much of this information was also presented in Nourishing Traditions (by Sally Fallon), for which I still have to write up a review.

To be completely honest, part of me really wanted to dismiss Sally Fallon and Dr. Weston A Price’s ideas because they seemed so radical.  But to hear those same ideas coming out of someone as mainstream as Michael Pollan was kinda shocking in its own way.  When Pollan talked about Price’s research in this book, my first reaction was “Oh wow, this all might actually be true.  SHIT!”

Actually, Pollan himself has had a pretty big impact on my life.  It was the Omnivore’s Dilemma that convinced me to bring meat back into my life after spending 8 years as a vegetarian.  (Well, it didn’t help that I was pregnant with twins and having major steak cravings.)

If you are new to this stuff, I highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma or the movie Food, Inc. as a jumping-off point.  In Defense of Food, along with Nourishing Traditions, takes things to the next level.  I feel like I’m now in the sophomore year of my New Home Economics major.  I’m still a long ways from graduating though.

Pollan breaks his seven word manifesto down into what he calls “eating algorithms” to help us try to eat healthier without feeling so much anxiety about invisible nutrients and keeping track of which one is now good for us and which one is now bad for us.

As you might suspect, each part of his catch-phrase is slightly more complicated than it first appears to be.  Example: Eat Food.  He expands on that to help you understand that much of what you see at the supermarket isn’t necessarily real food.  A good example is something like plain, whole milk yogurt.  It’s been around for eons.  But to say that a product like “Go-gurt” (squeezable low-fat yogurt pouches flavored with high-fructose corn syrup, among other things) is the nutritional equivalent of the original yogurt?  Well, that’s questionable at this point.

Then he talks about the “Mostly Plants” part and breaks down the difference between eating mostly seeds (as we do now), and eating mostly leaves (as we did for all of human history until the last 100 or so years).  Hint: leaves are better.

Finally, the part that hit me right in the heart and gut: “Not too much.”  This is clearly one of my biggest hurdles (in addition to a good old fashioned sugar addiction).  For a long time, I’ve been telling myself,  it’s organic!  It’s homemade!  It’s all-natural!  It’s OK for me to have seconds and thirds because that just means more good-for-you stuff!  Well calories are still calories, unfortunately, and it would do me a lot of good to learn a little self-control.

I thought there were a lot of really great take-aways from this book, and even though I’ve read many of them before it never hurts to be reminded.  This will be going on the “highly recommended” list.


Milling your own flour

wheatberriesEven typing that post title, it still sounds completely crazy.  One year ago, I never would have imagined that this was where I was headed.  I wasn’t even baking my own bread yet!  Yet here I was 3 weeks ago, searching Craigslist for secondhand grain mills, and found one for $50.  I brought it home, unsure of what to expect.

grainmill1I was actually really scared to use it because Adam had read some Amazon reviews where it burned out Kitchenaid motors.  I waited a few days, then I tried milling some wheat berries.  Turns out my fears were unfounded; the Kitchenaid didn’t even heat up.  (That is one product I would heartily endorse as worth the extra money.)

We milled about four and a half cups of whole wheat flour.  We used 3.5 of those to make a loaf of whole wheat bread, and the rest we soaked in buttermilk overnight and made waffles the next morning.  Soaking whole grains (especially soaking them in something fermented or cultured like buttermilk or yogurt) makes them more nutritionally available.  It also has the added benefit of making them A LOT more palatable.

Those were the best danged waffles I’ve ever had, and they were 100% whole grain.  Light, fluffy, absolutely wonderful:


The bread turned out great too:


I got into this whole “milling my own flour” thing mainly for health/nutrition purposes.  Once again, I was inspired in part by Nourishing Traditions.  The “eat whole grains” thing is pretty much a no-brainer at this point, but I was unaware of the fact that whole wheat flour goes rancid, very quickly.  So preservatives are added to it to keep it from going rancid.  Is this what makes whole wheat products so danged heavy?  I don’t know.  But the flour that we milled produced bread and waffles that were as light or lighter than even stuff made with white flour.

I like to think there’s an eco-component to this as well.  I’ve cut out several middle men and therefore several trips on trucks for my little kernels of wheat.  And wow is it cheap to buy this stuff in bulk.  Check out these rock-bottom prices on organic grains at my Co-op this week:

Buckwheat: $1.39/lb
Rye: $.79/lb
Wheat: $1.29/lb
Spelt: $1.49/lb

So far, I am really liking this, and keep thinking of new breakfast foods to try.  This morning we made old-fashioned rice porridge, with brown rice that we had milled at the “coarse” setting and soaked overnight in yogurt.  We’ve also tried buckwheat pancakes, and have a couple loaves of bread under our belt (literally).

What do you think?  Is this about food snobbery and nutrition, or can I claim newfound eco-credentials with this new development?

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I just don’t get it.

I was so excited about the Bittman “Vegan Before 6” article, and then I saw in the comments that someone posted a link to  The Weston A. Price Foundation philosophies of eating.

So I spent some time reading up about Mr. Price’s research and now I feel really  confused.  Mr Price and his foundation have done research that shows in fact that, among other things: eating lots high-fat meat is good for you, our diets should be based in animal proteins, soy is bad for you, and whole grain bread is bad for you, among other things.  This is why I feel like I need to take a liberal art course about nutrition — there is so much contradictory information out there.  Who is right?

Before you go out and buy a bunch of bacon, spend a couple minutes on the Weston Price Foundation website.  They don’t advocate the type of meat-eating that most Americans do; on the contrary, their diet could best be summed up in one word as paleolithic.  It’s whole foods to the extreme.  Here are their 20 Dietary Guidelines (copied from the site):

  1. Eat whole, natural foods.
  2. Eat only foods that will spoil, but eat them before they do.
  3. Eat naturally-raised meat including fish, seafood, poultry, beef, lamb, game, organ meats and eggs.
  4. Eat whole, naturally-produced milk products from pasture-fed cows, preferably raw and/or fermented, such as whole yogurt, cultured butter, whole cheeses and fresh and sour cream.
  5. Use only traditional fats and oils including butter and other animal fats, extra virgin olive oil, expeller expressed sesame and flax oil and the tropical oils-coconut and palm.
  6. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables, preferably organic, in salads and soups, or lightly steamed.
  7. Use whole grains and nuts that have been prepared by soaking, sprouting or sour leavening to neutralize phytic acid and other anti-nutrients.
  8. Include enzyme-enhanced lacto-fermented vegetables, fruits, beverages and condiments in your diet on a regular basis.
  9. Prepare homemade meat stocks from the bones of chicken, beef, lamb or fish and use liberally in soups and sauces.
  10. Use herb teas and coffee substitutes in moderation.
  11. Use filtered water for cooking and drinking.
  12. Use unrefined Celtic seasalt and a variety of herbs and spices for food interest and appetite stimulation.
  13. Make your own salad dressing using raw vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and expeller expressed flax oil.
  14. Use natural sweeteners in moderation, such as raw honey, maple syrup, dehydrated cane sugar juice and stevia powder.
  15. Use only unpasteurized wine or beer in strict moderation with meals.
  16. Cook only in stainless steel, cast iron, glass or good quality enamel.
  17. Use only natural supplements.
  18. Get plenty of sleep, exercise and natural light.
  19. Think positive thoughts and minimize stress.
  20. Practice forgiveness.

I can get behind a lot of that stuff (especially forgiveness), but some of it I find downright confusing.  What is Celtic sea salt and why is that better than normal sea salt?  How do I “sour-leaven” a grain?  What the heck is enzyme-enhanced lacto-fermentation?  Are roasted nuts out?  The thought of steamed or soaked walnuts does not appeal to me at all.

I also noticed some inconsistencies.  For example, they talk about embracing traditionally fattier meats like red meat, but then emphasize that those meats must be grass-fed/pasture-raised.  Well, grass-fed beef is naturally a much lower-fat meat its corn-fed, CAFO-raised counterpart.

Also, the primitive people that Price studied probably needed more calories to sustain them than we cubicle-dwelling moderns.  Anybody out there familiar with this diet?  Practice it?  I’d really like to see a recipe book that espouses these ideas; it would help me understand some of these principles a little better.

One guideline that I really liked was “eat only foods that will spoil” — guess that rules out Twinkies, huh?