Book Review: It Starts With Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig

June 12, 2012 in Categories: by

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The much anticipated book It Starts With Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, the rockstar bloggers behind is finally here!  And you will not be disappointed.  Combining the shrewd insight, scientific understanding, and dry wit that their blog and has become so well-known for, the Hartwigs have written a comprehensive guide to sustainable, healthy eating within the framework of the paleo diet.  The Hartwigs present clear, convincing rationale for their elimination diet approach, titled the Whole30, to affect lasting change, breaking bad habits, stopping cravings, recovering from addictions and restoring a healthy relationship with food.

The diet guidelines presented in It Starts With Food are based on one overarching principle:

“The food you eat either makes you more healthy or less healthy.  Those are your options.  There is no food neutral; there is no food Switzerland…”

With this concept in mind, the Hartwigs have developed four criteria, called the Good Food Standards, for establishing whether a food will make you more healthy or less healthy.  For a food to be given a recurring role in your diet, it must do all of the following:

1.    promote a healthy psychological response,
2.    promote a healthy hormonal response,
3.    support a healthy gut, and
4.    support immune function and minimize inflammation. 

The book then sets out to meticulously explain how the specific foods we eat affect the entire body, why these criteria are essential for overall health, and which foods do not meet this criteria and are therefore excluded from the Whole30 and the paleo diet in general.

It Starts With Food truly shines in the rationale chapters leading up to the Whole30 diet prescriptions.  Dallas and Melissa approach each topic from an entirely novel vantage point and the explanations of the effect of food on our psychology, hormones, gut health, and body-wide inflammation are uniquely approachable and easy to follow.  Their emphasis on the psychological responses to food (such as food as reward, food associations, cravings and addictions) is unique in the paleo literature.  Furthermore, the physiological responses to food (how food affects hormones, gut health and inflammation) are explained from a completely original, fresh perspective.  This is the book to get if you want to thoroughly understand the whys of the paleo diet (and especially if you find yourself getting bogged down in Robb Wolf’sor Prof. Loren Cordain’sexplanations) to help you both make better choices for yourself and explain those choices coherently to your curious family members.  The innovative way in which the paleo diet principles are explained in this book will make the paleo diet accessible to a whole new section of the public. 

Once the rules are laid out for which foods are included in the Whole30 program, It Starts With Food provides a brilliant prescription for how to fill your plate.  How much of what to eat is one of the most common questions that new paleo dieters face, and clear explanations of how to optimally balance macronutrient intake can be hard to find.  Dallas and Melissa are also exceedingly clear on which gray-area foods (like green beans and vinegar) are included and which are not. 

It Starts With Food emphasizes an elimination diet approach to changing how you eat, with an eye to long-term sustainability.  The Whole30 program mandates a 30-day commitment to a verystrict paleo diet as the minimum amount of time required to accomplish the goals of healing the gut, reducing inflammation, restoring hormone balance and sensitivity, and rewiring psychological responses to food.  The book lays out a truly convincing argument (with some amusing analogies) for jumping in with both feet and devoting 30 days to “no cheats, no slips and no excuses”.  Upon completion of the Whole30, it is the reader’s job to evaluate whether or not further time following the Whole30 prescriptions is needed to address health issues or food addiction issues before reintroducing any of the eliminated foods.  Acknowledging the variability in an individual’s response to certain foods, It Starts With Food also lays out strategies for reintroducing eliminated foods to allow the reader to definitively evaluate which foods promote their individual good health versus foods that contribute to health issues, weight problems, and food cravings (although I would probably suggest a different order for reintroducing which foods and save gluten-containing grains for last).

Dallas and Melissa also help the reader go beyond their 30-day commitment and address lifelong sustainability.  They provide some outstanding advice to help the reader continue the healthy eating habits formed during their Whole30, including a guide to indulgences, suggestions to help find balance, and ideas on how not to alienate your family because you now eat differently from them.  Very helpful to many readers, It Starts With Food also provides additional diet recommendations for those with diabetes, autoimmune disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Inflammatory Bowel Disease, food allergies, athletes and highly active individuals, vegetarians and vegans, pregnant and lactating women, and even kids.  It Starts With Food focuses purely on diet (and where diet affects other lifestyle factors like stress management and sleep quality), including an entire chapter dedicated to supplement recommendations (I should probably point out that I don’t entirely agree with their fish oil recommendations). 

The recipe appendix of It Starts With Food is as unique and innovative as the rationale chapters.  Rather than providing specific recipes (although there certainly are some), the Hartwigs provide “Master Recipes” with, in some cases, dozens of possible variations.  This appendix, titled “The Meal Map”, is more accurately described an instructional on how to cook paleo meals rather than a recipe section.  The reader can start with the basic master recipe and then play with the variations for endless variety.  There is even a 4-page long table on how to cook different veggies by different methods.  Their approach to both cooking food and to finding variety is very similar to my own.  These master recipes are all quick and simple to prepare, helping the reader in the sustainability aspect of a paleo diet by teaching them how to cook delicious food with minimum time and energy investment.   

It Starts With Food is worthy of the hype and anticipation that the paleo community has felt for its release.  Its focus on forming a lifelong healthy relationship with food makes it an excellent resource both for people new to the paleo diet concepts and for those who have been eating this way for a while.  Most importantly, I believe that the approachable and original explanations of the rationale behind the paleo diet will make this diet accessible to a new section of the public.  If you are going to give one paleo diet book to a friend or family member to help inform them about this way of eating, this is the book to get.  


Sounds great! I’m looking forward to reading it myself, and your glowing review (and other’s) might have just popped it to the top of my reading pile 🙂

I just ordered this book! Can’t wait to read it. Do you have any advice for transitoning children to a grain free diet? My 4 year old is ADDICTED to carbs and sugar. we traveled to asia and where there for quite sometime. We ate a lot of pastries and since then that’s all my daighter wants to consume. I’m truly concerned. When I say no to bread,sugar, crackers or a “snack” food it’s a full blown fit everytime. for lunch I gave her a grass fed hot dog, raw cheese, fermetned pickle and she cried forever becuase she wanted bread for lunch! Any ideas!

The way I did it with my kids was to introduce paleo baking (muffins, breads, cookies…) to substitute many of their staples and to phase out the things I just couldn’t replicate. As their taste buds slowly adapted, I have been offering fewer and fewer baked goods and slowly reducing the sweetness of what they do get. My 5-year old happily eats foods now that she wouldn’t have gone anywhere near 6 months ago. We also relied fairly heavily on fruit at the beginning as the acceptable compromise. Actually, they still eat more fruit than vegetables, which is my next battle (not to eliminate fruit but more to just increase vegetables).

Ok I think we can do that! My poor little addict 🙁 It’s sad to say but she really is addicted. Thank for the input!

Thanks for this review. I am leaning towards buying this book but also torn between this and Practical Paleo by Dianne Sanfilippo. What are your thoughts on which one is better, you also had a good review of the latter. Thanks!

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