Book Review: Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo
August 4, 2012 in Book Reviews
I have a new favorite paleo resource book: Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo, nutritional councilor and blogger behind www.BalancedBites.com. The aim of Practical Paleo, as the title suggests, is to focus on the practical aspects of implementing a paleo diet, allowing the reader to understand what to eat and why, how to prioritize within budget, lifestyle and personal value constraints, and very importantly, how to modify one’s diet to address specific health challenges. While the first half of Practical Paleo provides information to guide an individual’s decisions regarding diet, the second half of the book provides a solid foundation of recipes, meal planning strategies, and cooking and food preparation tips to help pull it off.
I was impressed with Practical Paleo from the moment I flipped through its pages and got my first glance at its contents. The book is impeccably organized, with a design reminiscent of a good textbook (the kind of textbook that you actually enjoying reading). The book is divided into three parts. The first part of the book, which lays out the basic principles of a paleo diet in beautifully clear and concise language, is subdivided into sections, each with descriptive titles, bolded take home messages (prefaced with the phrase “know this:”), clear and accurate diagrams, tables, lists and charts—all of which contribute to the very easy to read aspect of this book. The second part of Practical Paleo provides meal plans tailored to address specific health challenges (including no health challenges), including suggested diet and lifestyle modifications and recommendations for superfoods, supplements and herbal remedies to support healing. This is, by far, my favorite part of the book, and I was excited to see more information for dealing with autoimmune disease than any paleo resource book to date. The supplement recommendations will be invaluable to readers as they seek out ways to promote recovery from various health conditions. The third part of the book contains over 120 recipes, covering a wide range of flavors and providing a solid base for hundreds of possible paleo meals.
Part 1 of Practical Paleo starts with a brief introduction to the basic principles of a paleo diet followed by a section appropriately titled “Everything We’ve Been Taught about Good Nutrition Is Wrong”, in which Diane systematically challenges general misconceptions surrounding what constitutes a healthy diet. Diane manages to intertwine the fundamentals of a paleo diet as she corrects misinformation about what is healthy, culminating in a straight-forward guide of what to eat and what to avoid. On page 41, Diane promises “After you finish this book, your confusion will be gone and you’ll have the tools you need at your fingertips to navigate the modern food landscape quite easily”. Practical Paleo more than fulfills this promise.
Once the reader has been introduced to the basic concepts, Practical Paleo launches into a brilliant description of the various aspects of digestion and digestive health, and how these relate to inflammation and autoimmunity. This book truly shines in its comprehensive description of the process of digestion and how lifestyle factors such as stress and sleep as well as diet choices positively or negatively impact each aspect of digestion, including how this then affects overall health. The explanations are clear, concise and extremely informative. This section includes the extremely helpful “Guide to Digestion” and “Guide to Your Poop”, which together allow the reader to evaluate their own digestive in preparation for optimizing their diet in Part 2. This section continues on to a thorough explanation of factors that may contribute to the development of a “leaky gut” and even more importantly a thorough guide to healing a leaky gut. In fact, the one-page “Guide to Healing a Leaky Gut” on page 88 is probably my favorite page of the entire book, outlining a more comprehensive approach to healing than any I have seen in any other paleo resource book.
Very helpful for many readers, Practical Paleo also contains a section on blood sugar regulation. Carbohydrate consumption is one of the most contentious issues within the paleo community. Practical Paleo gracefully avoids controversy with logical explanations, acknowledging the individual nature of carbohydrate requirements and the various factors which may affect them. Clear explanations of the roles of insulin, glucagon and cortisol in blood sugar management and inflammation help the individual navigate this topic successfully. One of my favorite descriptions in the book is how Diane defines good carbs versus bad carbs, a refreshing perspective that distills this topic to the most crucial elements.
Part 2 of Practical Paleo is the 30-day meal plans. I believe this section to be Practical Paleo’s most important contribution to paleo literature. This section is divided into recommendations for individuals with various health challenges, including: autoimmune disease, blood sugar regulation issues, digestive health issues, thyroid conditions, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, neurological disease, heart disease, and cancer recovery. There are further recommendations for those concerned with athletic performance and fat loss, as well as people with no particular health conditions who are simply looking to improve their overall health. Each 30-day meal plan is prefaced with extra dietary restrictions, recommendations for increased consumption of specific foods, supplements recommendations and suggestions for dealing with various other mitigating factors. To my knowledge, this information is unique in the paleo literature, especially the focus on food sources of various supportive nutrients and nutritional supplements and herbal remedies worthy of strong consideration for each health challenge. I cannot adequately emphasize how valuable this information is, both to me personally but also to the many individuals out there struggling with health issues and in desperate need of a comprehensive solution.
Part 3 of Practical Paleo contains a section on kitchen basics, which includes everything from how to chop an onion to spice blends to healing and probiotic foods, and contains over 120 recipes representing a delightful variety of flavors. I would be remiss in my review to not try at least a few of these recipes and report on my success! My first thought as I browsed the recipes was “Wow, this is just the way I cook!”. In fact some of the recipes were nearly identical to my own variations on these foods. The recipes are more geared toward the experienced cook in terms of the descriptions of each step, but they are generally simple enough that they could be tackled by someone new to cooking without too much room for mishap. The recipes are labeled if they contain eggs, nuts, nightshades or FODMAPs with modifications to exclude those ingredients where appropriate. Because I follow the Autoimmune Protocol, this allowed me to focus in on five recipes I wanted to try right away (okay, one of those recipes was one my kids wanted me to try). In general, I found these recipes were geared perfectly for my taste buds, low in salt and sweeteners and still full of flavor.
The herbal tea-infused gelatin cubes are brilliant. I have to admit that I have always enjoyed jello and the flavors that I can create with this recipe are endless. I used unsweetened chamomille-lavender herbal tea for this rendition, which made for one of the tastiest guilt-free treats I have ever enjoyed. As far as healing foods go, how can you top this?
The Thanksgiving Stuffing Meatballs were very simple to make and so flavorful! I substituted steamed taro for the chestnuts as none were available (and I didn’t want to substitute nuts as the recipe suggests). I ate these delicious meatballs, as the recipe recommends, with the Simple Cranberry Sauce (also very easy) and it made me long for fall with flavors that evoke family gatherings and crisp mornings.
My daughters and I made the Moo-less Chocolate Mousse together. I have been meaning to try one of the many variations of avocado-chocolate mousse out there and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. The recipe was easy to make, took half the amount of time called for, and it created a rich, creamy not-too-sweet and ridiculously delicious pudding which my daughters and I inhaled in one sitting. This treat is now at the top of my list in indulgences I can partake in as well as a treat I don’t mind letting my kids enjoy!
My daughters and I also made the Chocolate Coconut Cookies together. The ingredients list is a little surprising in the world of paleo baking and the simplicity of these cookies appealed to me greatly. They were easy make and avoided many of the specialty ingredients so commonly found in paleo cookies. Actually, most of the sweet recipes in this book avoids specialty ingredients (although coconut butter and nut butters are included in several recipes). I also deeply appreciated that these cookies are really not very sweet, which appeals to my family’s paleo-adapted palettes. My oldest didn’t like them because “they were too crunchy”, but my youngest and my husband gobbled them down (I couldn’t eat them because they contained eggs).
The recipes I tried definitely get two thumbs up. Practical Paleo is also visually stunning, with spectacular photography (by Bill Staley), but also with a visual layout that truly enhances the readability of this book. Beautifully illustrated schematics and diagrams enhance the technical explanations in the first part of this book. The formatting of lists and tables makes these so easily readable that it is worth mentioning in a review! And the food photography is so exquisite that flipping through the recipe pages makes my mouth water every single time. And may I just say that Diane could pursue a career as a hand model if this whole changing people’s lives through good nutrition thing doesn’t work out!
Clearly laid-out summary “guide to” pages act as quick reference guides to several key topics, most of which are repeated as tear-out guides at the end of the book (sadly, not my favorite: “Guide to Healing a Leaky Gut”). The tear-out guides, designed to be posted on the door to your fridge or to live in your purse for easy reference when you go shopping, include: a paleo food list to make shopping easier, important pantry items, a guide to food quality (for prioritizing on a budget), a guide to cooking fats, a guide to paleo fats and oils, a guide to starchy vegetables, a guide to avoiding gluten, and a guide to paleo sweeteners. I love these “guide to” pages and the sheer amount of easy to find information contained within these pages is worth the purchase price of the book alone. The guide to avoiding gluten even includes a cut-out, business card-sized card to give to wait staff or kitchen staff at a restaurant to help you avoid gluten exposure while dining out.
It may seem a bit silly to appreciate a good index, but for some inexplicable reason indexes are missing from most paleo resource books and many paleo cook books. Practical Paleo may just be the easiest to navigate paleo book yet with a table of contents, a recipe list (which comes immediately after the table of contents) and two comprehensive indexes, one for topics covered in the first two sections of the book and one for recipe ingredients. For me, this means I am more likely to pick up Practical Paleo to quickly look something up compared to another book where I will have to search much harder for the answers to my questions.
I truly appreciate some of the stances that Diane takes that are contrary to even paleo conventional wisdom. Her opinion of fish oil supplementation is very in line with my own and she explains her reasons clearly and concisely. Her opinion on eating within the thirty-minute post workout window, which is often recommended within fitness communities but also in the paleo community, surprised me. However, her argument for not eating right after exercising makes so much intuitive sense and it has allowed me to relax after my yoga classes and simply eat once I can make some lunch when I get home (as opposed to trying to remember to pack a snack to eat in the car so I can replenish my muscle glycogen stores within my “window of opportunity”). This book is not simply a new shiny package explaining the paleo diet to make it accessible to an increasing section of the community. Instead, this book reevaluates many of the fundamental concepts of paleo nutrition and provides an independent (and very well explained and supported) view on what constitutes a healthy diet and lifestyle.
This is quite simply the best “how to” book I have seen addressing the practical aspects of implementing a paleo diet. Practical Paleo is not only resoundingly successful at explaining the basic principles of a paleo diet in straight forward, approachable language, but it also manages to go into incredible detail regarding digestion, inflammation, autoimmunity, blood sugar regulation and weight loss. The tear-out guides are genius. The inclusion of diet modifications to address different health concerns, including specific supplement recommendations, is unique in the paleo literature. This is the book that I wish I had written and I cannot recommend it enough. Even the seasoned paleo dieter is likely to find many jewels of wisdom within its pages not to mention some delicious recipes to add to their repertoire.