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

May 29, 2012
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Let me begin my review by stating outright that I don’t like most books, philosophies, and things.  It’s a matter of quality in a vast variety of realms.   Intelligence, rationality, common sense, scientific-coherence, clear communication of ideas.  Love, feminism, equianimity, no-nonsense approaches to life.   Hard-hitting and real and down-to-Earth all at the same time.  These are a few of my minimum standards for acceptability.

I don’t like most books.

I love It Starts with Food.

The rockstar couple of Dallas and Melissa Hartwig wrote this book like they meant it, and, god damnit, it shows.  

Melissa and Dallas approach food in a way that optimizes the best of all worlds.   Food is not a convenience; it is not an indulgence; it is not an enemy.  It is not even medicine, in that certain foods are not proscribed for healing particular ailments.  Instead, food is nourishment.  Food is a blessing.  And food, when interacted with properly, assures all people–no matter how sick and fatigued they might be–the health, confidence, energy, and vitality that each individual has the potential to realize, but that has gotten so lost in the modern world.

It Starts with Food is based on the premise of four “good food” standards.  These standards must be met by all allowed foods, and if the standards are compromised in any way, the food needs to be eliminated (at least in the strict 30-day “clean” phase of the Whole30 program).   This may sound alarming at first– that probably eliminates a lot of foods!– and many might cry.  And sure, if you consider things like Whoppers and Snickers as food, then it does eliminate a lot.  These principles do not, however, eliminate anything that nourishes, anything that is real, anything that comes from the Earth and can be plucked (or butchered) right from the grounds of a local farm.

These four food standards are:

1) That the food promotes a “healthy psychological response.”

2) That the food promotes a “healthy hormonal response.”

3) That the food supports a healthy gut.

And, therefore, 4) That the food supports healthy immune function.

These four food standards, and the order in which they fall, are the precise reason that I love and advocate this book so fiercely.   I’ll get to that in the bulleted list below.  First, I’ll air my “critiques” –if in fact they can really be called as such.   They’re honest, but minimal, and anyway no review is critique or believable without them.  Secondly I’ll list all of the delightful things to look forward to in It Starts with Food, and why this is the perfect book to get someone moving on the path of self-healing and -love.

Points of difference/critique:

  • Some things in the book that are relevant for health are glossed over, such as fitness, sunshine, and sleep.  More than anything I would like to see sleep addressed.  However– the title of the book is It Starts with Food, so we can presume that the book is going to be about Food first and foremost.  I appreciate this focus, and honestly poor food choices are the primary reason everyone’s in this mess anyway, so it’s appropriate to be real and address this issue first.
  • Seed oils were not quite villianized enough for my tastes.  Though they do receive their own chapter of concern, later on in the book the big things to be avoided are always “grains, sugar, dairy, and legumes.”  Legumes are much more innocent than O6s, in my opinion.
  • Fiber!  The Hartwigs advocate fiber.  Disagree!
  • Re-introduction of toxins.  The Hartwigs start bringing things back into the diet on day 30, starting with dairy for three days, then gluten grains for a day or two, etc.  While this may work on a short-term evaluative basis, for people with hormonal issues, the negative effects of these products are far more long-range and far more insidious.  For example, for women with androgen issues, I would never recommend putting dairy back into the diet, especially at 30 days.  It takes months for hormones to readjust to different diets.  However, the Hartwigs do caution about longer-term effects, so kudos to them for hitting on this important point.
  • Caveats for “paleos not working” and “help!”  I would have liked to have seen more instruction for people who still struggle after the Whole30 with their health.  Dallas and Melissa instruct people to hold onto the program longer, but there are also specific health (mental and physiological) issues that endure through a paleo diet and need to be addressed in a specific and perhaps separate way (a la the hormone issues I mentioned above).    On the other hand, the Hartwigs do have a whole chapter on “special populations” and recommend that people with real health conditions consult their doctors and remain in conversation with them as they move forward.

as for the meat of the book, and why I enjoyed it so thoroughly:

  • ‘Tough’ love.  The Hartwigs are full of love and encouragement and sympathy.  It’s amazing.  What’s even more amazing is how they manage to integrate this with lighting a hard-lined, radical fire in your soul.  “It is not hard.” They write.  “Please don’t tell us this program is hard.  Quitting heroin is hard.  Beating cancer is hard.  Birthing a baby is hard.  Drinking your coffee black . Is . Not. Hard.”  Food cravings are a nightmare, and certain situations and health problems are frightfully challenging, but the approach the Hartwigs take to this issues–that of positive strength, steadfastness, and encouragement–disarms the power of toxic foods, and in turn encourages an individual’s belief in her ability to do it.
  • Honesty.  The Hartwigs tell their readers straight up the limits of the research, and encourage experimentation and skepticism.
  • The world’s most accessible analogies.  I’ve gone through this science with a fine tooth comb several times, but I still found their analogies helpful.  Some examples include the immune system as firefighters, intestinal lining as human skin, in that abrasions permit the passage of toxins, and eating meals properly is likened to becoming accustomed and then automated to driving a car in driver’s training.  Brilliant, accessible, and yet scientific to a T.
  • Explanatory sidebars and diagrams.  The sidebars are a huge help, and enable the Hartwigs to deal with complex issues without fuddling around in the details.  Definitions, specifications, and clarifications are all designated special spots in sidebars that are super helpful.  Diagrams are simple and easy to understand.  Sidebars also include practical tips.  For example, getting sunflower oil instead of peanut oil for peanut butter, or talking about celiac and gluten with respect to wheat proteins.
  • Humor.   The Hartwigs are great.  Hard-hitting, sarcastic, and down-to-Earth all the while.  EG, regarding protein portion sizes:  “Also, for the record,” they write, “one and two sized palm portions are not your only options. You’ve also got 1.25  palms, 1.5 palsm, 1.942 palsm, and every possibility in between.  This should not be overwhelming.  You all have palms.”
  • Simple food plan.   The food plan is awesome: one palm of protein, fill the rest of the plate with vegetables.  “Um, that’s it.”   And then adding in thumb sizes for the fats.  Honestly– as someone who has spent the last ten years of her life trying to figure out how much to eat and when, it’s surprisingly helpful.
  •  Food quality.  The Hartwigs emphasize food quality, particularly the quality of animal foods, as the primary aim of nutrition.  That’s so important.  So often people let conventional meat-buying go by unmentioned, but it really is problematic in the long-term, especially for people with hormone problems, and any kind of liver burden and toxicity.
  • Radicality.  The Hartwigs insist on being completely clean for the Whole30.  They’re not throwing punches.  They are serious about health.  If you want to get better, you need to avoid food toxins for at least 30 days.  Thank you, Dallas and Melissa, for bringing that reality to people in an accessible, loving, empowering way.

And for the aspects of the book that make it truly fabulous, and the best diet book I have ever read:

  • Stress.  The Hartwigs beg you not to stress about your food.   Stress is psychologically but also physiologically important.  While they’ve thrown lots of science, concerns, and diseases at their readers, in the end all they want is for you to undertake a life of eating real food, and to relax into and trust that decision.
  • The eating experience.    The “how” of eating is important.  The Hartwigs encourage their readers to think of eating as a “nourishing experience.”  Nourishing!    Yes!  Moreover, I love how reverently they talk about food and the eating experience.    For them, eating is about focusing on a single pleasure, taking a break out of the day, preparing food for and treating one’s self, relaxing into and enjoying the gift of nature’s brilliance.
  • Restoration of health and hormones as the true path to health.    The Hartwigs don’t tell their readers how much to eat or how much of anything to eat because the point of it all is to trust in natural hormones.  I love this.  This is what I believe about food, and I am so glad to see it trumpeted.   Bodies are designed to work, and treating them well and with the proper nourishment is all most people need in order to heal, slim down, and become radiant, energetic beings.   “In addition,” they write, “you won’t be weighing, measuring, or tracking your calories at all.  We think those are all unnatural, unsustainable, psychlogically unhealthy processes that take the joy out of food and eating.”  And in the end, they assert that hormones are more important than calories, that it is okay to be uncertain at the outset–but that trust is crucial because if we cannot trust natural foods and our bodies, what can we trust?  “For perhaps the first time in your life, you can rely on your body to tell you what it needs.”
  • The emphasis on health, particularly on psychological health.  This is the most important point of the whole book.  The first of the good food requirements is that the food be psychologically satisfying.  This is amazing and so important, and I am so so so so so happy about this book for this reason.  A healthy body is nothing without a healthy mind.   The Hartwigs emphasize psychology with this food category, but it doesn’t stop there.  Throughout the whole book they caution against stress, they advise their clients to never step on a scale, they speak directly to food cravings and disordered eaters, and they don’t use the word “cheat” because eating should always be guilt free.   Amen!  Their diet is not a diet, it is not about restriction, and it is not even about losing weight.  So many diet books out there slap the “lose weight!” subtitle onto a book in order to sell more copies, and the Hartwigs do mention weight loss (because it happens! automatically and unintentionally in 95 percent of their clients!), but they don’t really care.  What they care about is health.  And with health, a healthy weight always follows.
  • Love.  The fire and passion Melissa and Dallas have for their work are obvious over and over and over again throughout this book.    It shows in how reverently they talk about food and the eating experience, in their fire and their tough love, and in their affinity for and closeness with all of their clients.  Thank you, Melissa and Dallas, for caring so much about people and their holistic health to go through the trouble of putting together this fantastic book.

I do not like most books about food.

But this book–It Starts with Food–by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, being released this June 12, 2012– is full of excellent science, easy to follow plans, an emphasis on real, vital health, psychological well-being, passion, humor, reverence, relatability, and love.    I would really like to see a bit more love and attention for people for whom the program does not work wonders, but the general message of positivity, progress, and love, and their unique and powerful emphasis on psychological health earns the Hartwigs six million stars.

 

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Managing director of Paleo for Women and author of Sexy by Nature.

13 Comments

  1. It really troubles me when authors — particularly paleo authors — say it’s “not hard” to go paleo. Paleo people should know better than anyone the addictive properties of processed carbohydrates, properties so strong that kicking them is *almost as hard* as kicking heroin. Ya, dude — going paleo is hard.

    Secondly, hearing that kind of thing makes me worry for people who are struggling to change their diets. When I first started paleo, I had someone tell me something very similar. When I was struggling, I remember thinking to myself, “If it’s so not-hard, why am I struggling so much? What’s wrong with me?” Cue a long line of self-defeating and self-loathing that, obviously was counter productive.

    It was your blog that helped me realize that there wasn’t, in fact, something wrong with me, but rather it was the food.

    I understand sometimes that tough love is necessary, but honestly I believe that such things should be special-tailored to people who you think need it, not put in a book for everyone to read. Tough love to one person may be the perfect fodder for self-loathing in another. “Tough love,” as it were, works for a specific subset of people and it is one that’s more narrow than that which the book is trying to reach.

    I could also go on a rant about the whole concept of tough love, but I’ll leave my comment there for now.

    /end rant

    • You make a wonderful point, but what the Hartwigs are doing is trying to get their message out and to spread the joy of their lifestyle to as many people as possible. Their attempt to call the diet “not hard” is one to convince people before they get started that it’s easy. Hardly anyone is going to undertake a diet that is marketed as “really hard, good luck fuckers.” And no– I know that’s not your point either. I know what you’re saying is that people need gentle love and coaching and forgiveness, but that’s a) still apparent in their book–how much they love and support their clients and have great sympathy for people who struggle with cravings is obvious (trust me, if it weren’t, I would NOT have liked the book– their specific loving and helpful message to people with cravings is in fact the number one reason I like the book) and b) the whole “it’s easy, anyone can do it, you can do it” approach speaks to the largest audience possible, and is the most inspiring. In my opinion.

      Plus, yeah, it’s hard. Cravings are hard. But what’s harder is diabetes, is cancer, is heart disease, is Alzheimer’s. The only solution is to dive in and commit yourself and push through. As someone who councils disordered eaters for a living, I still think their message is positive and helpful and true. Their tough love is not “suck it up, you bastards” but is instead “look, you really can do this. It’s easy. We’ll show you how.”

      The point I’ll easy cede to and agree on with you is that Paleo is NOT a cure-all. But it works and helps SO many people. I agree– Dallis and Melissa would have done well, and an honest service to the world, to give an even greater caveat to special populations and to people who don’t have the “magical” (their world) revelation that so many others do. But in terms of having to make choices of who to speak to and how to get that message across to them, I can forgive that.

  2. Great review….however, you spelled Dallas’ name wrong…

    • Whoa! Thanks. Holy crap. One of my best friends is Dallas with an “i” and I spent my whole college career correcting people on it, telling them to use an “i.” Hah. My sincere apologies.

      • When I did a Master’s level paper for a course, I wrote a report on a book we read, and dog gone it, I wrote the author’s name wrong in every citation….like big time mistake….I wrote Anderson instead of Armstrong…so I am a bit critical about it now, because it brings up that memory..haha :)

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  4. Pingback: Victorybelt » Blog Archive » Book Review: It Starts With Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig

  5. What dont you like about Nell’s Paleoista?

    • I didn’t find it to be a good resource on the paleo diet. In fact, Nell refers her readers to Cordain’s book if they want to understand the diet. Instead, she teaches people how to stock cupboards, how to shop for paleo foods, how to be fashionable and fabulous on a paleo diet, and how to stick to a paleo diet even when it’s “not cool” to do so. It’s all well and good, but it’s not a recipe for empowerment. It is, instead, encouraging women into typical gender roles, putting them in dresses with shopping bags (the cover image), tailoring the book to an uneducated audience…. again. All well and good for reaching that audience, but not my cup of tea, and not anything that I think is going to do anything transformative for anybody.

      • THANK YOU!! I feel the exact same way about this book.

      • I’ve found it to be true that anything containing the “-ista” suffix is built to appeal to a very particular audience–one usually made of mostly women holding shopping bags and cellphones and a sizable amount of snark–and that audience isn’t me. So I feel you on that one.

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  7. Pingback: Paleo Food Dallas | The Paleo Recipe Blog

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