Nutritional consultant Nell Stephenson adopted healthy eating habits early in life. But she still suffered from stomachaches for years.
“I’d do what they always told you to do to settle your stomach: I ate saltines and drank a 7-Up,” she says. “Little did I know I was making everything worse!”
After years of experimenting with different diet plans, including vegan and gluten-free, Stephenson stumbled onto the Paleo diet. The fresh, unprocessed eating plan—named for its similarity to what our hunter-gatherer predecessors ate—made her feel better within days.
Stephenson began blogging as “Paleoista” in 2007 and found her readers asking over and over for practical tips on shopping, cooking and meal planning. So she penned “the how-to book I wanted to read”: the just-released Paleoista: Gain Energy, Get Lean and Feel Fabulous With the Diet You Were Born to Eat.
“People think Paleo is very extreme, and that it’s going to be difficult to follow,” Stephenson says. “But once you get the hang of it, it’s simple.”
We snagged an interview with the newly minted author to get her insider secrets.
Spry: Before turning to Paleo, you followed a gluten-free diet, which solved some of your GI issues, but not all. How is the Paleo diet different from GF?
Nell Stephenson: The main difference is if you are following just a gluten-free plan, all you’re doing is eliminating grains that contain gluten. With Paleo, you’re eliminating all grains, all dairy, soy and legumes. The basic plan is lots of fresh food, lots of veggies and fruits, and nothing processed.
Spry: What do you tell people who worry they won’t have the time to devote to this diet?
NS: The truth is it doesn’t take that much prep time. It’s not like you need 5 hours a day, and you must become a gourmet chef. What I recommend is two grocery shopping trips a week, and one hour of preparing food after each trip. During that hour, you steam batches of veggies, bake chicken and fish and slice fruit. At the end of the hour, you’ve got a stocked fridge and endless combinations of protein and veggies to choose from. You can even pre-pack your meals for the next day.
Spry: What’s on your Paleo shopping list?
NS: I recommend the more variety, the better. I’ll buy 10 different kinds of veggies and fruits. But if you’re not used to eating a lot of produce, you might start with 3. I love kale, it’s my favorite veggie. Avocado or coconut oil are great to make smoothies with frozen fruit and maybe a little almond butter. For protein, I like raw salmon and lean bison. Day to day, you want to be eating some vegetables and fruit, some protein and some healthy fat.
Spry: What are some simple kitchen skills people should master to make the plan easier?
NS: Paleo is friendly for even someone who’s never done anything but toast bread! Knowing how to steam veggies and bake fish is really a good place to start. For someone who is new to cooking, I always say, ‘Don’t be afraid to mess things up.’ Cooking is not like baking. The only real mistakes you can make are oversalting—and you’re not salting on Paleo—or burning your meal. You might find that you liked one marinade for fish, but you didn’t like it with chicken. That’s fine, but nothing’s ruined. You can be flexible. So many people have a fear of not cooking perfectly.
Spry: What kinds of seasonings do you use to flavor your meals?
NS: Any fresh or dried herbs are fine, for the most part. Just read the label and make sure there’s nothing strange added. Citrus fruit makes a good alternative to vinegar, and olive oil is great instead of butter.
I actually really enjoy the challenge of “Paleo-izing” regional cuisine. People will say, “How can you make an Asian meal without soy sauce?” Well, you can use ginger and lemongrass. And to thicken sauces without flour, use the reduction method.
I tell people, “Don’t get rid of your cookbooks.” Just modify the recipes.
Spry: Do you have any go-to Paleo snacks?
NS: Honestly, I view snacks and meals as one and the same. If you’re eating 2,000 calories a day, I recommend 5 400-calorie meals spaced out. It’s about relearning that there’s no such thing as a snack food or a breakfast food. Often I’ll have leftover dinner for breakfast, like filet and kale or salmon and broccoli. Starting the day with protein and fat is actually the best thing to do to support your metabolism. Half a bagel and jam may be lower in calories, but it sets you up for an insulin response, and you’re going to be hungry an hour later.
Spry: How do you approach eating out?
NS: I love dining out—we do it 1-2 times a week. If you know where you’re going, call ahead and explain that you can’t eat certain things. It’s not quite as simple as just looking at the menu. Restaurants will do things like add flour to roasted vegetables for added crunch, which you wouldn’t know. So ask a lot of questions.
Spry: You’re a longtime endurance athlete. How has the Paleo diet affected that part of your life?
NS: It definitely supports endurance training at a high level. You’re not starching up with bagels and pasta; the starch of choice is yams and they’re great for both fueling and recovery. It’s almost like a car—you’re burning cleaner fuel with fewer by-products. And of course, it’s great to go to a race and not be sidelined by a stomachache!
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