I entered the food writing world back in 2001 as an agrarian environmentalist – hardly a platform for securing a tv deal, much less an opportunity to have my name plastered on Made-in-China designer cookware. Nevertheless, my work to connect good food with good farming has been warmly received by a steadfast core of farmers and foodies. My food writing has centered around ecological principles – rather than writing according to popular food and diet trends, I’ve kept to the subject of grassfed and pastured meat, and I’ve made my ingredient selections based on what I felt was environmentally sustainable.
…..Which is why so many of you who’ve come out to hear me speak over the years have witnessed my nervous doggie dance whenever someone asks me for nutritional information. I’m not a dietician, and I always prefer to defer to any nutritional experts in the room, rather than claim expertise in that area.
But the truth I am confronting in my career is that, when I share recipes from my kitchen, while I may not be giving dietary advice, I am most certainly putting forward my dietary opinions. I have always adhered to the basic nutritional tenets advanced by the Weston Price Foundation. I feel they are sensible, by and large ecological, and extremely tasty. In our family we kept bread and sweet consumption to a minimum, soaked our grains and legumes prior to eating them, steadfastly avoided processed foods, kept our dairy raw, religiously took our fish oil and butter oil, and enjoyed our grassfed meats and organic fruits and veggies. With the rare special-occasion exception, these dietary guidelines have long been reflected in my recipes, and were the underlining principles as I began writing my most recent cookbook, Long Way on a Little (due out in Sept 2012).
Seeking to offer guidance for families who wanted to reduce food waste and stretch their meat dollars further, I set about developing recipes for Long Way on a Little that extended grassfed meats with more grains and legumes, such as bean or whole grain dishes cooked in nourishing broth, accented by bits of meat, or rice pasta casseroles in rich creamy sauces fortified with egg yolks. It was, beyond a doubt, delicious.
Then I got sick. A debilitating (and embarrassing) fungal infection began in my foot and spread throughout my body, leaving me bed-ridden for nearly two weeks, and unable to digest little more than meat and vegetables. I assumed it was owing to the stress of releasing Radical Homemakers, a rather controversial book that attracted more publicity than I was comfortable with. But then I began to notice my already lean husband growing thinner and thinner every day. Unsure whether it was stress, cancer, a food allergy or some other horrible condition, we only could figure out we were dealing with a malabsorption issue. Finely, one month before his 53rd birthday, we learned he had developed type I (a.k.a. “juvenile”) diabetes. (Those of you who know Bob can attest that it fits right into his ageless character that he should develop a juvenile illness after the age of 50.) In the same month, my eight-year-old daughter who has never tasted soda and could count the number of lollipops she’s had in a lifetime on one hand, came home in tears from her dental check-up with a mouth full of cavities.
I still feel the Weston Price dietary principles are sound, but when it came to our family’s health, something was dreadfully wrong. Every chair in my home was suddenly piled with a stack of books as I poured over any information I could find to try to identify what might be causing all these health complications.
I was especially frightened for my husband, the robust man who was suddenly burdened with 7 blood tests and four insulin injections per day, along with a glucagon gun that I was supposed to use in emergency situations when his blood sugar dropped so low that he became unconscious. We were paying for insulin out-of-pocket, and a one month’s supply was $850. We needed to figure out how to stretch that insulin as far as possible, how to preserve what functionality remained in his pancreas, how to prevent the blood sugar swings that could put him into a diabetic coma.
According to a book recommended by the endocrinologist, he should be living on a steady diet of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and if he ever touched a piece of meat, his pancreas would rot and his feet would fall off (admittedly, that was my interpretation of the work). According to another book by a diabetes expert, he should be living on meat and meat alone, with an occasional spinach salad for a special treat. If he ever touched a piece of fruit, his pancreas would rot and his feet would fall off (Ed. Note., again). According to the nutritional counselor we met with at the hospital who advised us based on the American Diabetes Association guidelines, he should be loading up on breads, cereals, all the ice cream he wanted (he was, after all, thin and in need of weight gain!), “and even a little of that good, wholesome grain-fed beef now and then” (yes. I paid $95 out of pocket for that session. ).GRRR.
If our family switched to diet plan A, I was going to be eaten alive by fungus. If we switched to diet plan B, Bob would probably divorce me and the kids would likely enroll themselves in foster care. And clearly, under diet plan C, we’d make the pharmaceutical industry and multinational food corporations very wealthy while we endured chronic illness for the rest of our lives.
And that’s when I learned about the Paleo Diet. A number of new readers who were using The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill told me they’d been referred to my books by various Paleo Diet websites. They explained that Paleo folks were keen on them because many of the recipes suited their dietary needs. Essentially, the Paleo diet is very consistent with the teachings of WAPF, and in fact, many of its adherents are ardent grassfed meat supporters and members of the Weston Price Foundation. The primary difference between Paleo and Weston Price is that when going Paleo, grains and legumes are removed from daily consumption. Some Paleo writers argue that dairy is also a no-no, but there are many others who agree with Weston Price that raw dairy is a perfectly nourishing food. The Paleo Diet allows for a wide array of fruits, vegetables and natural sweeteners, but they must be taken in strict moderation in order to reduce a body’s demand for insulin. We tried it, and discovered that, as grassfed folks and WAPFers, the shift was natural and easy. We were already most of the way there. It allows for enough variety that Bob and the girls have decided not to abandon me in my kitchen, and we’ve discovered that by adhering to it, we can make a one month supply of insulin last several months while keeping Bob’s blood sugar levels normal and steady. The glucagon gun is gathering dust on a shelf. And, for the record, so far my daughter’s cavities have not advanced.
I still feel I am not enough of a nutritional expert to say that Paleo eating is the only way to go. I’ve met too many people in my lifetime with widely disparate diets through which they claim to enjoy perfect health. I am loathe to draw universal conclusions. – Heck, I’ve even met healthy vegetarians….whatdya know?? However, what I’ve learned is that by adopting these basic principles and folding them in with the advice from Weston Price Foundation, such as the importance of fat soluble vitamins, bones and the organ meats, my family seems to be on the mend.
What does this mean for that new book I was telling you about? Well, I had to go back and re-write it with the basic question: How does one have a sustainable meat-based diet that is free of grains and legumes? I hate to give away the ending before the book is released, but I can tell you this: it is possible. And our life is more delicious now than it ever was.
Shannon Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm raising grassfed meat in Upstate New York. She is the author of The Grassfed Gourmet, The Farmer and the Grill, and Radical Homemakers. Her newest book, Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lovers’ Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously, is due out in September 2012. To be notified of the book’s release, or to receive her Grassfed Cooking articles, sign up for the Grassfed Cooking Newsletter, a free service for grassfed farmers and meat lovers. Copies of her books can be purchased through GrassfedCooking.comat both retail and wholesale prices.