Archive for the “Real Food” Category

Hey, Fatheads! Long time since I’ve got to sit in the Big Chair. I asked Tom if I could fill in for awhile because I seem to be buying a book a week for my nook after his reviews and citations, and I wanted to give my PayPal account a rest.

If you’re a regular here, you may remember one of my last guest posts was “The Yankee Farm Report,” where I went on about chickens, cows, and compost.  For us it’s all about real food that you not only know where it comes from, but that you’ve also participated in the full cycle.

[ I know Tom and Chareva have their own land and chickens (and now they've had goats), but I figured I still had him on the whole farm life scene.

Then they ate a raccoon. On purpose.

Game. Set. Match. Second place again! Cripes. The Wife assures me we won't be trying that. ]

Anyway, back then I had about 50 chickens that were too big and getting bigger because we’d bought them in September and by the time they were big enough to process (butcher) we were right in the middle of the coldest winter we’d had in decades. We (meaning The Oldest Son, Linda, and I) finally got started processing them in February, and they averaged about 10 lbs. Plus it was still damned cold out,so keeping the water you dip the (already killed) chicken in at the right temperature with a camp stove in a garage was a borderline proposition. But the biggest pain — and I know any of you who’ve ever lived on a farm will back me up on this — was plucking the now soaking wet carcass. After that is when you get the innards out and start making it look like what you see when you go to the store for a whole chicken.

We got four done the first time we tried but it took about that many hours. We did another eight and improved our time a bit, but it still took us about six hours.

We’re doing the math in our heads – twelve birds down, thirty-two to go. At that rate, we should be able to finish by, oh,  about Christmas, 2016! That pretty much did it for me. I told The Oldest Son — “we’re building a chicken plucker!”

We still had to process another dozen by hand while I assembled the Whizbang Chicken Plucker from terrific plans in a book by Herrick Kimball that Linda happened to have, but once completed, we really tuned up our technique with the remaining birds. We still weren’t super fast, but it went so much smoother that Linda agreed to trying another batch.

I was going to get another fifty Freedom Rangers — a breed that grows fast, but does well on pasture and without the health issues that make Tyson/Big Chicken’s Cornish Cross so pathetic.  Then my buddy Greg — the one with the truck and tractor from my Yankee Farm Report — asked me to get an extra twenty-five for him, so this would be seventy-five. Except when I called to place the order, the nice man on the phone pointed out that with the volume price break, it would cost me two dollars more to buy seventy-five than to get an even hundred.  So I figured Linda wouldn’t mind an extra twenty-five birds. I mean, they were FREE, right? Plus, they’re so cute and tiny when you get them.

Of course, right after I ordered, my buddy’s friendly neighbors passed an ordinance prohibiting backyard chickens in their  1,500 citizen metropolis (proving that little burgs can shove their heads just as far up their a**es as big cities). So I had to explain to Linda that there would be a few more chickens on the farm than we’d talked about. But only double.

At any rate, this time things actually went wonderfully. At about a month, the chicks were moved into some old chicken tractors  (think portable coop — Tom’s had pictures of his in previous posts) that had been sitting at the farm unused for years (after a bit of patching up). Linda used an ATV to move them once a day.  Here’s what chickens look like when they get to eat bugs, scratch in the dirt, get moved to a new patch of fresh pasture every day, and generally get to express their chicken-ness:

These are a black variant of the same Freedom Ranger bird…

Of course, after about three months, it was time to start processing. We’d made some improvements with our first “learning curve” batch, but with this group we really worked out the kinks.

We spent three Saturdays in a row processing, and got better each time as we made adjustments to our layout and process. Once we had the chicken plucker, the bottleneck became dispatching the chickens.

I’d made a home-made kill cone, but we decided to use a couple of traffic cones with the ends cut off.  They’re sturdier, easier to mount to the platform we were using, and I just didn’t have time to do any fabricating. Greg helped the first week, a friend that works with The Oldest Son helped the next. They were both there the last week, so we added another cone.

We did twenty the first Saturday, another twenty-five the next, and all fifty remaining on the third Saturday (I know — that’s not 100. We’d had some attrition early).

We got everything (kill cones, scalder, plucker, processing table, coolers with ice) lined up only a few steps away. Here’s how it lays out:

Linda would bring nine chickens at a time from the chicken tractor out in the field. We’d use the kill cones to quickly dispatch them three at a time (we started with four cones, but adjusted back to three):

After the kill, the birds are dunked in the scalder, which for now is a turkey fryer setup (which The Wife has banned me from using at home due to an unfortunate incident years ago!). The temp has to be around 145-150.

(I say “for now” because the scalder and keeping it in the magic temperature range of 145-150 degrees is now the new bottleneck, and the same author has published plans for a Whizbang Chicken Scalder.)The soaking/dipping in hot water for about a minute is what loosens the feathers so they can be plucked. Then they go into the amazing Whizbang Chicken Plucker…

About thirty seconds later, they come out cleaner than if you’d spent five minutes hand-plucking.

Plus you can put up to three in at a time, so you’re replacing fifteen minutes of wet, smelly labor with a flick of the switch. Gotta love technology.

Here’s how it looks in action (that’s Greg “narrating” and taking the video with his phone, and Linda running the plucker. She seemed amused by my answer to Greg’s query as to my total investment in the plucker):

Once that’s done, they go to the processing table, where in about two minutes The Oldest Son can turn a plucked chicken into a clean bird ready to go into the ice bath cooler to chill down prior to bagging.

That’s not Joel Salatin fast yet (I’ve seen a YouTube of Salatin doing a chicken in about 25 seconds, and he was talking the whole time), but with our other helpers at the table working about half to three-quarters of The Oldest Son’s speed, they get them done as fast as Linda and I can work the kill/scald/pluck side of the operation.

All told, we got to the farm to do the the final fifty chickens at about 9:30 am, and had all fifty bagged and in coolers, we’d cleaned and put everything away, and were pulling out of the drive by 3:00.

Five and a half hours of labor on a warm, cloudy summer day with some good friends and we had filled the freezers for us and some family and friends with weeks’ worth of real food. We felt, as one of Tom’s previous posts mused, the Joy of Being Dog-Tied Satisfied, while looking forward to many good meals…

We just received our newest batch of 100 chicks (Linda’s idea!)the first week of August, and they moved into the pasture two weeks ago.  That will be the last batch for this year, but by the end of October we’ll have freezers jam-packed with real food for winter; and I think we’ll get serious about seeing if we can make this, if not a full business, at least a paying hobby in 2015.


The Older Brother


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Hard to believe, but it’s that time of the year already: the girls’ summer vacation is half over, the Fourth of July has come and gone, and the All-Star Game is next week. Time flies.

This also the time of year when Chareva’s gardens start becoming productive, which means people we’ve known for years won’t look us in the eye for fear we’ll offer them zucchini.

Chareva’s done her best to dispose of the wildly prolific plants. We’ve had baked zucchini, sautéed zucchini, zucchini fritters, zucchini on salads – heck, she even sneaked zucchini into her meatloaf recipe a couple of times. (It did not go undetected.) It’s gotten to the point where if she asks what we want for dinner, the girls and I say in unison, “Not zucchini.”

The exception was her zucchini muffins, which she made once as an experiment and again at the girls’ request. Here’s her recipe – in case one of us bumps into you in public and manages to squeeze a zucchini into your hand before you can refuse.

dry ingredients
1 cup almond flour
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut flakes (ground)
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup rice flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour
1/2 cup vanilla whey protein powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice

wet ingredients
1/4 cup coconut oil (melted)
1/4 cup butter (melted)
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp liquid Stevia
1 Tbsp molasses
3 eggs (beaten)
1 medium zucchini (grated), or about 2 cups squeezed. Discard juice.**

Mix wet ingredients in one bowl. Mix dry in another. Combine all ingredients in one bowl. Spoon into greased muffin tins. (Tip: Use a lint free coffee filter to generously grease the inside of the muffin tins with lard or bacon grease.)

Bake muffins in a 325 degree oven for 35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Makes 12 muffins at around 10 carbs each*.  (They’re awesome with some melted Kerrygold butter, by the way — Tom.)

*The combined flours add up to about 100 net carbs. To make the muffins lower in carbs, eliminate the rice flour and increase the coconut flour to one cup. Additionally the tapioca flour can be substituted with more almond flour. We were pleasantly surprised, however, at the lighter and slightly crispy texture that the tapioca and rice flours added. The molasses adds a nice brown color to the muffins, along with a bit of sweetness.

** In an effort help us dispose of the zucchini, Sara tried making zucchini-juice popsicles. The verdict: they’re horrible. Don’t try this at home.


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Our land served more as a disc-golf course than a farm while Jimmy and Christine Moore were visiting.  Jimmy and I ended up playing 27 rounds, which means we walked more than 27 miles during the week he was here.  Not bad, considering it was very hot and humid until Thursday, his last full day here.

There were some reminders during the week that in addition to disc-golf baskets, there are animals occupying the property.  Sara received a visit from a local goat expert, who coached her on catching and harnessing her goats so they can be trained … although we’re not expecting them to do tricks or anything when the 4-H fair rolls around.

Sara’s other 4-H project is to raise 25 chickens and auction off five of them.  Now she’s down to 21 chickens.  For the third time since we moved here, a predator discovered one of our coops and decided to treat it as a takeout restaurant.  This time it was the coop behind the house.

Chareva walked out to her garden one morning a few days ago and noticed some chicken feathers stuck to the fence next to the coop.  When she counted the chickens, there were only 22 left.  No other clues.  Since she didn’t find any McNuggets or other recognizable pieces of chicken, I thought perhaps the killer this time was a fox.  Raccoons tend to leave body parts as evidence, from what I’ve read.

I set the same trap that caught a raccoon a couple of years ago, but when I checked it the next morning, the can of cat food I used for bait was gone even though the trap door was still open.  So I baited it again and pointed my trail camera at it, hoping to at least get a mug shot of the perpetrator.

The next day, Chareva found that some critter had ripped open the tarp that covers the hoop-house and killed another chicken – most of the carcass was still inside the coop.  So I checked my trail camera and saw that a raccoon had knocked the trap over on its side, then (or so it appeared in the fuzzy night shots) simply reached through the wire mesh and pulled out chunks of the cat food.  Pleased with the appetizer, it apparently then ripped open the tarp and killed a chicken for the main course.

I don’t believe this, I grumbled to myself.  I’m being out-smarted by a raccoon. (In the picture below, you can see how Chareva reinforced the coop where it was torn.)

Figuring the moving parts on the trap might be getting rusty, I took the thing into my workshop and fussed with it until a light tap with a dowel would trip the spring.  Then I wrapped some wire around the mesh at the bait end so the raccoon wouldn’t be able to reach through and grab the cat food.  After baiting the trap yet again, I secured it to the ground with a garden stake.  Now if Rocky Raccoon wanted the cat food, he’d have to go inside the trap to get it – although I figured he might just be smart enough to know better.

Nope.  As Jimmy and Christine were packing to leave on Friday, Chareva came in from the garden to inform me a raccoon was inside the trap.  To get an idea of how powerful these critters are for their size, take a look at the picture below.  See that bit of tin on the floor of the cage near the middle?  That was a full can of cat food.  And the trap door that’s slammed shut was straight, not bent like it is now.  The raccoon gave it that shape trying to bang its way out.

The last time I sent a chicken-killer to the Great Chicken Coop In The Sky, I tossed the carcass in an empty field.  That drew a few comments from readers about how raccoons make a good stew and I’d just wasted some wild game.  Point taken.  And of course, there’s the rebate factor:  by eating the critter that ate Sara’s chickens, we get some of our own chickens back.

So after Jimmy and Christine left, I took a .22 out back and dispatched the raccoon with a clean shot to the head.  Unlike his predecessor, he didn’t flail around inside the cage and force me to take body shots at a moving target.  He hissed and growled at me, then raised his snout to meet the barrel, probably intent on biting it.

With that unpleasant task out of the way, Chareva and I set about skinning and gutting the raccoon after watching some instructional videos on YouTube.

After that, we let it sit overnight in a pot of water, vinegar and salt, as suggested in still more instructional videos.

In the evening, we took the girls to a Fourth of July concert/fireworks celebration at an outdoor amphitheater in a local park.  The band was excellent, the fireworks were awesome as always, and the weather was the best I remember for a July evening in Tennessee – 62 degrees by the time we left the park.  It was all so pleasant and civilized … which is probably why Chareva turned to me during the drive home and said, “I can’t believe we killed and gutted a raccoon today.”

“Yeah, I guess we’re true hillbillies now.   I’m looking forward to your possum pie someday.”

We’ll settle for raccoon stew for now.  On Saturday, Chareva parboiled the raccoon parts to make it easier to separate the meat.  (That’s Coco standing watch and offering to take care of any unwanted parts.)

The meat went into a big pot with some onions, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes and spices.  I named it Chicken-Killer Stew.  The meat was a little on the chewy side, but other than that, I could hardly tell it from beef stew.


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In my last post, there was a quote from a media article in which the First Lady takes credit for rising academic scores — despite no data that I could find.  It’s those low-fat USDA lunches with the hearthealthywholegrains and vegetables, ya see.  Never mind that kids are throwing the vegetables in the trash.

My girls eat their vegetables, but that’s because we slather them (the vegetables, not the girls) in butter and other yummy fats.  Pretty much everything they eat includes yummy fats.  Yummy fats are good for the brain.

So pardon another post full of shameless bragging, but we just received their report cards, which include their scores on the national standardized tests.  They both got straight A’s in school and scored in the high 90s in all subjects on the standardized tests — except for science, where they both scored 100.  (Sara was a little disappointed about her 97 in math.  She scored 100 last time.)

Yes, their capacity to learn is largely genetic.  But I believe their high-fat, whole-foods diet is also allowing their brains and intellectual abilities to grow to their inborn potential.  I also believe the good diet helps them to concentrate and stay focused.

Alana did quite well in math but would like to increase her speed on timed tests, so I built her a little flash-card program I figured I may as well share with any Fat Head readers who have kids in elementary school.  When you fire it up, there’s a setup screen:

The little tyke can choose to work with one number — all sixes, for example — and then see the cards in order, or in random order.  Or she can choose to see all possible cards within a range — everything from 1 x 1 to 10 x 10 in random order, for example.  Younger kids can choose a lower range of numbers.  It works pretty much the same way for practicing division.

Clicking the button on the right displays the answer.  Clicking it again displays the next card.  Pressing the ENTER key is the same as clicking the button, so the wee one can just keep pressing ENTER to work through all the cards.

Anyway, if you’d like to try the program for your future math whiz, right-click this link and choose Save As … (or whatever your browser calls it).  Unzip the folder and run the InstallFlashCards.msi file on your PC.  (Sorry, no Mac or tablet version.)

If you download it and like it, feel free to show your appreciation by clicking the donate button below.  That will put $5 in the Fat Head tip jar.


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When I clicked the Publish button after writing my last post, I told Chareva, “I bet this one will draw a few extra comments.”  Yup.  Nothing like mentioning that word starch to get people excited one way or the other.  I suspect a few readers were concerned I was about to announce I’m abandoning my low-carb diet.

(I’m told one blogger has even speculated that I’m not going on the low-carb cruise this year because I want to “distance” myself from Jimmy Moore.  Heh-heh-heh … I’ll be sure to post plenty of pictures when Jimmy and Christine come to stay with us for a week in July.  The only way I hope to “distance” myself from Jimmy is by out-driving him during our disc golf matches.  I’m skipping the cruise because I knew I was going to be swamped with a software project – which I still am, but the end is finally in sight.)

Anyway, no, I’m not abandoning my low-carb diet.  I’m tweaking it.  The Perfect Health Diet is a low-carb diet.  It’s just not a very-low-carb, Atkins-induction-style diet.   It’s also probably closer to the low-carb diet your paleo ancestors actually consumed than a starch-free diet would be, no matter what the Inuits did or didn’t eat.

According to some posts Richard Nikoley put up recently, the Inuits apparently sought out animals that contain a fair amount of glycogen in their organs.  Their diets may have been up to 20% carbohydrate as a result.  There’s been some debate on that, but let’s suppose for the sake of argument the Inuits really and truly lived on a carb-free diet.  So what?  They were still the exception in the wide, wide world of paleo people, so we can’t exactly point to them and conclude that their diet is the ideal diet for everyone.  Most hunter-gatherers gathered some tubers or other starchy plants to go along with their meat and fish.  Many low-carbers might be better off doing likewise.  (Eating tubers, I mean, not necessarily gathering them.)

Gary Taubes once wrote a post explaining that when people cut calories to lose weight, they almost always cut carbohydrates as well.  Even if all they do is eat less of the same foods, a 30% reduction in calories would mean a 30% reduction in carbohydrates.  But when people go on a diet, they preferentially dump the junk food: desserts, sodas, candies, French fries, etc.  So that 30% reduction in calories could end up translating to a 50% reduction in carbohydrates.  The dieters attribute any weight loss to cutting calories, when in fact cutting their carb intake in half might have triggered hormonal changes that made the weight loss possible.

Fair point.  But we have to apply the same logic to a low-carb diet.  When we decide to drastically reduce carbohydrates, most of us immediately give up wheat and sugar – both of which (if Robert Lustig and Paul Jaminet are correct) can induce insulin or leptin resistance.  Jaminet wrote this in the Perfect Health Diet book:

Wheat germ agglutinin binds to insulin receptors, triggering an insulin-like effect.  It is as effective as insulin at pushing glucose into cells and stopping the release of fat from fat cells.  This means eating wheat may block weight loss and promote weight gain, regardless of how many calories are eaten overall.

Almost every modern book on low-carb dieting also presents evidence to convince the reader that processed vegetable oils are garbage and should be replaced with natural saturated fats, which are beneficial.  So when people go on a low-carb diet, they give up what I consider the three worst offenders in the Standard American Diet:  gluten-containing grains, sugar and processed vegetable oils.  Meanwhile, formerly forbidden but nutrient-dense foods like eggs go back on the low-carb dieter’s menu.

So people make the big dietary shift, they lose weight, feel great, and their health improves.  We attribute that to giving up carbs.  But applying Gary Taubes’ logic, what if most of the health benefits come from giving up sugar, wheat and vegetable oils and replacing them with more meats, eggs and butter — and not so much from giving up potatoes and other “safe starches” that happen to be real foods containing real nutrients?

If so, then the real question here is: are people who switch from a high-carb frankenfood diet to a low-carb paleo diet better off with or without a potato to go along with their steak and broccoli?  Will they be healthier consuming no starches at all, or including small servings of “safe starches” in their diets?

That question always seems to spark a bit of dietary tribalism.  When Richard Nikoley announced a few years ago that he considers potatoes a paleo food and was eating them again, some of his readers replied that they were unsubscribing from his blog and would no longer read it.

Really? Because the guy eats home fries with his eggs?

In comments on my last post, I noticed some people resist the idea that anyone might actually become healthier by re-introducing small servings of safe starches or that perhaps they’re better off eating a bit of glucose instead of manufacturing it from protein or fat.  If you can’t live without potatoes, then by gosh, it means you’re sick, or carb-addicted, or giving into social pressure, or whatever.

Ugh. That’s the attitude I see (and don’t much like) among so many vegans:  this works for me, so damnit, it should work for you too, and if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with you – morally if not physically.

As I said in one of my replies, we shouldn’t label ourselves and then cling to a diet or a belief in order to continue wearing the label.  This is about finding what works best for you, period.  There is no diet that’s ideal for everyone – and I’d say that about the Perfect Health Diet as well.  Let’s review what Chris Kresser said about safe starches:

I see a fair number of patients in my practice struggling with symptoms like hair loss, cold hands and feet, plateaued weight loss, low energy and mood imbalances after following a VLC diet for several months… In cases where there is no significant metabolic damage, when I have these folks increase their carbohydrate intake (with starch like tubers and white rice, and fruit) to closer to 150g a day, they almost always feel better. Their hair loss stops, their body temperature increases and their mood and energy improves.

Put some starch back in the diet, their health gets better.  Do we really want to tell those people they’re sick or carb-addicted and should stick to a diet that’s causing them to feel lousy and lose their hair?  I’m reminded of the old Vaudeville bit:

“Doctor, it hurts when I do this!”

“Then don’t do that.”

Those people need to stop doing that.  They need to switch from VLC to something like a Perfect Health Diet.  On the other hand, Kresser also said this:

In other cases, any increase in carbohydrate intake – in any form – will cause weight gain and other unpleasant symptoms.

Those are the people who shouldn’t adopt a Perfect Health Diet.  “Safe” starches aren’t safe for them.  I’ve heard from a few people (including Jimmy Moore) that consuming 100 grams or so of “safe starches” per day triggered a wild increase in their appetites and a craving for way more than those 100 grams.  Those are the true carb addicts, not the people who feel better after eating a potato with dinner.  And as addicts, yes, they should stay away from the foods that trigger the desire to binge.

When I decided to move my own diet towards more of a Perfect Health Diet, my reasoning boiled down to this:  I don’t see a downside, and I might be better off.  The “better off” part is mostly about gut health, for all the reasons I explained in my previous post. My new and improved diet is doing a better job of feeding my gut bacteria, and the rewards so far have been better digestion, deeper sleep and more energy – especially in the morning, when I’m not usually known for my peppy personality.

Back in the day, the downside would have been a glucose spike after eating a potato.  But after starting a protocol of resistant starch and probiotics (and cooking and cooling potatoes before reheating them), that isn’t happening.  If I eat a potato with dinner, my glucose peaks around 125 and then drops into the 90s.  My fasting glucose has fallen a bit too. My appetite and weight both increased a bit when I started eating more starches, then returned to normal.

So with a possible upside and no apparent downside, why the heck wouldn’t I eat a potato?

It hasn’t been a drastic change.  My diet is still high-fat and low-carb, just not as low-carb as before.  On most days, I’ll have a potato or sweet potato with lunch and another with dinner.  So instead of sausage and eggs, I’ll have eggs and a potato.  Or sausage and a potato.  I’ve had rice a few times, but frankly I don’t enjoy rice all that much.  I find it rather bland and unsatisfying.

The one real treat I’ve added – mostly on weekends – is Udi’s gluten-free bread, which makes nice, crunchy toast.  It’s made from tapioca and rice flour, the kind of flours Dr. Davis warns his Wheat Belly readers can seriously spike blood-sugar levels, so I checked my post-meal reaction a few times.  Nope, no big deal.  Up to around 120 or so, then back down to the 90s an hour later.

Meanwhile, the girls are quite happy that we’re including potatoes in more of our meals.  Last weekend, I made hash browns with onions fried in macadamia oil, melted some cheddar cheese on top, then served over-easy eggs on top of the hash browns.  Sara declared it the best breakfast ever and requested that I make it every Saturday.

Since there are potatoes in the house again, I also taught her to mimic the one line from an old Michael Nesmith comedy skit about learning Irish as a second language:  “My, that’s a foin sack ‘o’ potaaatoes.”  (You have to say it with a thick brogue.)

I don’t bother weighing or counting, but I’m probably not quite up to a Perfect Health Diet intake of starch.  I still like my meats, eggs and vegetables and they’re still the biggest components of my diet.  Toss in two medium potatoes, and it’s only about 60 or 70 grams of starch.  I don’t feel any need or desire to go higher.

So far the results have all been positive, but I’ll let you know if that changes.  Like I said, this is about finding what works, not wearing any particular dietary label.

Meanwhile, Paul Jaminet is receiving your questions and will probably have his answers ready next week.


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Many thanks to Richard Nikoley, Tim “Tatertot” Steele and Grace Liu for not only giving comprehensive answers to my many questions about resistant starch, but for taking the time to answer questions in the comments section as well.  I appreciate your dedication, gang.

Speaking of the gang, Richard was the guest host for the latest episode of Jimmy Moore’s Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb show.  Tim and Grace were his primary guests.  I came on at the end.  The topic, of course, was resistant starch.

I started the three-part interview series by saying my next few posts should be filed under Stuff I Got Wrong or Stuff I Wish I Hadn’t Ignored.  Resistant starch was one.  Okay, got that one covered for now.  The other was “safe starch” as prescribed in Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet.

I’ve already explained why I dismissed resistant starch when the topic first hit the media:  the people pushing it were the makers of an industrial corn product that’s used to add a little resistant starch to muffins and other baked goods that are still frankenfood garbage.  They’re still promoting resistant starch that way.

I mostly ignored the “safe starch” issue when it created a buzz in 2011 because I’d given up starchy foods and felt fine.  In fact, I didn’t even watch the Ancestral Health Symposium debate on safe starch until last week.  I say mostly ignored because the one time I commented on it was when Jimmy Moore wrote a blog post and asked for a comment.  I hadn’t read the Perfect Health Diet book, but knew Jaminet recommended a diet that included “safe starches” such as white rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams and plantains to avoid a glucose deficiency.  So I made a wisecrack about how my Irish ancestors died off from a glucose deficiency because they didn’t have access to white rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams and plantains – none of which are native to Ireland.  (Potatoes didn’t come to Ireland until they were brought from the New World.)  Then I went back to ignoring the topic.

I did, however, start adding sweet potatoes and squashes back into my diet here and there after I read more on paleo and ancestral diets and realized that tubers and other starchy plants have been part of the human diet for a long, long time.  Unlike wheat and other cereal grains, roots and tubers are not Neolithic foods that require farming and processing.  They’re ancient foods that can be (and were) gathered by hunter-gatherer societies.  In the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, the author cites research showing that humans began cooking meats and tubers hundreds of thousands of years ago.  It was these calorically-dense foods, easily digested after cooking, that allowed our big brains to develop.

So when we talk about Paleo Man with his tall stature and good bones and teeth, we’re talking about a man who gathered and ate some roots, tubers and other starchy plants to go along with his meat and fish.  My Irish ancestors didn’t eat rice or yams or plantains, but that’s not the point (or so I realize now).  Because the truth is, none of us eats exactly what our paleo ancestors ate.  We can’t.  They hunted animals that have gone extinct.  They gathered plants that have mutated or gone extinct.  When we shift towards what we now call a paleo diet, the best we can do is try to eat foods that provide the nutrients they consumed, not the same plants and animals that provided them with those nutrients.  My Irish ancestors didn’t eat yams, but they likely discovered species of edible roots and tubers while digging up the Guinness bushes to make themselves a yummy drink.

With all that in mind, I added small servings of sweet potatoes and squashes back into my diet, but considered them an acceptable real-food treat, not a necessary part of a healthy diet.  I figured I could just easily live without any starchy foods, and perhaps I can … but perhaps some people can’t, and perhaps I’m better off with those foods than without them.

As you know if you saw my most recent speech, I’m a fan of the Wisdom of Crowds effect: when people communicate what they know with each other, the answers bubble up.  In the cyberspace crowd of health-oriented blogs and Facebook groups, I noticed more and more people saying they developed problems on a strict very-low-carb diet – low thyroid function, cold hands and feet, high fasting glucose, dry eyes, etc. – which went away when they added some “safe starches” back into their diets as prescribed in the Perfect Health Diet.  In the same post about safe starches where I made the wisecrack about my Irish ancestors, in fact, Chris Kresser made this observation:

I see a fair number of patients in my practice struggling with symptoms like hair loss, cold hands and feet, plateaued weight loss, low energy and mood imbalances after following a VLC diet for several months. In many cases they adopted this approach to lose weight, which was successful – at least to a certain point. However, others were not overweight to begin with and simply chose to eat VLC because they got the impression that “carbs are bad”, even for people without metabolic problems. I believe many of these issues are related to the decrease in thyroid hormone levels seen on VLC diets.

In cases where there is no significant metabolic damage, when I have these folks increase their carbohydrate intake (with starch like tubers and white rice, and fruit) to closer to 150g a day, they almost always feel better. Their hair loss stops, their body temperature increases and their mood and energy improves.

So I figured there had to be something to it.  Kresser is a brilliant guy and treats a lot of patients.  That’s real-world experience talking.  But he followed with this:

For people that are overweight and are insulin/leptin resistant, it’s a bit trickier. In some cases increasing carbohydrate intake moderately, to approximately 100g per day, actually re-starts the weight loss again. In other cases, any increase in carbohydrate intake – in any form – will cause weight gain and other unpleasant symptoms. A different approach is required for these patients.

As always, there’s no simple answer and no one-size-fits-all approach. If I could leave your readers with one point, that would be it.

I agree completely.  We’re all different.  Some people may need starchy carbs in their diets, other people probably don’t.  Until recently, I put myself in the second camp.  I was doing fine without making safe starches a part of my daily diet.  I never developed any of the health problems people were saying they cured with safe starches.  Cold hands and feet?  Nope.  Dry eyes?  Nope.  Depressed thyroid?  Not according to the battery of lab tests I had when I turned 55.  So I figured if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and continued pretty much ignoring the safe-starch issue.

It was revisiting resistant starch that finally prompted me to revisit safe starches and read Paul Jaminet’s book.  Why?  Well, it’s all about gut health and the microbiome.  After Richard Nikoley beat me and thousands of other people over the head with a hundred or so posts on resistant starch, I decided to give it try.  Within two days, it solved the one issue I had not just with a low-carb diet, but with every diet I’ve ever tried:  slow digestion.  As I’ve mentioned in several posts, the worst digestion I ever had was back in my grain-eating vegetarian days.  I always had a bottle of Pepto-Bismal in my medicine cabinet and packed the chewable version when I traveled.  Going low-carb cured that.  No more stomach aches, no more irritable bowel, no more gastric reflux – probably because going low-carb meant giving up wheat and other gluten-containing grains.

But the slow digestion stuck around, so I either ate good-sized servings of almonds or swallowed psyllium-husk pills before bed.  That usually did the trick.  But after starting a protocol of resistant starch and probiotics, my digestion has been excellent – better than it’s ever been.  I’m also sleeping more deeply than I have in decades, which is quite a welcome development, since I’ve been prone to occasional bouts of insomnia for most of my life.  I feel clear-headed and alert soon after waking.  Normally it takes two big cups of coffee before I feel truly awake.

That’s when I decided my if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it confidence was misplaced.  Something was broken, or at least far from optimal.  My version of a near-paleo diet was controlling my blood sugar and keeping my weight down, but it wasn’t properly feeding my gut bacteria.

In an email exchange with Richard Nikoley, he told me he first learned about the benefits of resistant starch from Tim Steele.  In an email exchange with Tim Steele, he told me he first learned about the benefits of resistant starch from … wait for it … Paul Jaminet.  Okay, I thought to myself, it’s about time I read this guy’s book.

And so, with apologies to Jaminet for the longest preamble ever to a book review (and for that wisecrack about my Irish ancestors), I’ll explain why I believe it’s one of the best books on nutrition I’ve ever read.

In case you’re not familiar with his story, Paul Jaminet lived on a standard American diet for decades and paid for it with ill health.  His health improved on a very-low-carb paleo diet for awhile, but then he developed other problems – scurvy, to name one example.  So his low-carb paleo diet was better, but obviously still not good enough.  It was the desire to find a perfect diet that inspired all the research that eventually went into the first edition of the Perfect Health Diet book and the Perfect Health Diet website.

Among other careers, Paul Jaminet was once an astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  His wife and co-author, Shou-Ching Jaminet, is a molecular biologist and cancer researcher at the Harvard Medical School.  So let’s just say they’re on the smart side of the bell curve and not afraid to delve into the heavy-duty science stuff.  Fortunately for the book’s readers, they explain it clearly.  In fact, I would describe their writing style as relentlessly logical – and I mean that as a compliment.

The relentless logic that underlies the Perfect Health Diet goes like this:  ill health is the result of pathogens, nutrient deficiencies and toxins.  So other than avoiding pathogens, the key to robust health is a diet that excludes toxins as much as possible while providing the optimal intake of all necessary nutrients.  Optimal intake means enough to derive the biological benefits, but not enough to become toxic – because almost anything can become toxic to humans at some level.  Not too little, not too much.

Among many other nutrients, the Jaminets make a case that there’s an optimal intake of glucose – otherwise known as starch.  (Fruits provide most of their calories as fructose, and sugar is roughly half fructose and half glucose.)  As the book explains:

For glucose, as for all other nutrients, our strategy is to find the peak health range – the intakes at which benefits have ended and there is still no toxicity.

That peak health range is the amount of glucose our bodies require on a daily basis — somewhere in the range of 100 to 150 grams. It’s this chapter of the book that started all the hubbub over “safe starches.”  Yes, your body will convert protein into glucose – even if it has to raid the protein stored in your muscles to do so – but the Jaminets argue that forcing your body to meet its daily glucose requirement through gluconeogenesis can eventually cause the health problems Chris Kresser described seeing in some of his patients: slow thyroid, dry eyes, cold hands and feet, low energy, weight-loss stalls, etc.

I don’t believe everyone on a very-low-carb diet will develop those problems, of course.  I didn’t.  But as I mentioned above, I’ve been including occasional servings of sweet potatoes and squashes in my diet for awhile now, plus I usually consume a high-carb Mexican meal on Saturday night.  Perhaps that made the difference.  Or it could just be that some of us are more efficient at producing glucose from protein than others and therefore avoid the glucose-deficiency problems the Jaminets describe.

The point is, just because a low-carb diet is beneficial for many people, it doesn’t mean a no-carb diet is even better.  If the optimal intake for most people is somewhere in the 100 to 150 gram range, which the Jaminets believe it is, then we need to obtain those carbohydrates from foods that also provide nutrients without tossing toxins into the mix.  That’s the logic behind what they call safe starches:  potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro, tapioca, white rice, plantains, yams and sago.  Those are low-toxin Paleolithic foods (with the possible exception of rice) that provide nutrients such as potassium, copper, vitamin A, resistant starch and fiber.

The Jaminets mention resistant starch specifically several times in the book.  Here’s an example from a section about the benefits of producing butyrate in the colon:

Although the fiber in cereal bran is harmful, two kinds of fiber seem to be highly beneficial:  resistant starch and pectin.  These also happen to be the types that generate the most butyrate.

“Resistant starch” is starch that is indigestible to human digestive enzymes.  Potatoes naturally come with high levels of resistant starch.  But all starchy foods can form resistant starch after cooking and cooling.  Cooking gelatinizes starch into a form that is readily digested by human amylase, but if it is allowed to cool, some of this gelatinized starch re-forms into resistant starch.

In a later chapter on meal planning, the Jaminets mention that they regularly cook several potatoes ahead of time and then store them in the refrigerator (a habit Chareva recently adopted as well).  That means a good chunk of their safe starch is also resistant starch, the kind that keeps our gut bugs fat and happy.

The Perfect Health Diet is not an invitation to go carb-crazy – not by a long shot.  The book specifically says starches should only be eaten as part of meal that includes plenty of fat to avoid glucose spikes.  Despite being dismissed or ignored by much of the low-carb world (including yours truly) because of the safe-starch issue, the Jaminets are essentially advocating a lowish-carb paleo diet.  It’s just not very-low-carb.  If you followed their advice and were at the lower end of the recommended starch intake, your diet would be roughly 20% carbohydrate, 15% protein and 65% fat.  Is that high-fat enough for you?

My Fat Head fast-food diet was 22% carbohydrate, by the way, with a lower proportion of fat (55%) than the Jaminets recommend.  Funny how I became known as a “fat head” low-carb advocate while the Jaminets didn’t, at least not in low-carb circles.  Of course, my 100 grams or so of starch were coming from hamburger buns and potatoes fried in vegetable oils, both of which the Jaminets advise against.  I guess we could call my experiment The Very Imperfect Health Diet.

So far I’ve been focusing on the safe-starch aspect of the Perfect Health Diet, since that’s the section that caused all the debate in the paleo and low-carb diet worlds.  But there’s way more to it than that.  The new paperback edition runs just over 400 pages and offers advice on the optimal levels and best sources for all three macronutrients and plenty of micronutrients.  The first chapter is titled Why We Start with an Evolutionary Perspective, so not surprisingly, almost everything in the book will have paleo enthusiasts nodding their heads in agreement.  (Mark Sisson wrote the forward for this edition.)

The chapter on grains is titled The Most Toxic Food: Cereal Grains.  (It’s like a Reader’s Digest version of Wheat Belly.  They could have titled it Wheat Is Murder.)  The chapter on vegetable oils is titled Liquid Devils: Vegetable Seed Oils.  Sugar takes a beating in a chapter titled The Sweet Toxin: Fructose.  (Dr. Robert Lustig would approve.)

There’s a ton of good information in the book, but since this will already be a long post, I’ll just give you a taste with some random quotes in no particular order:

Don’t be afraid to eat fat!  Hunter-gatherers flourished on a fat-rich diet.

Too often, experts dole out advice based on unproven hypotheses without ever looking at the scientific evidence from evolutionary selection.  In fact, evolution selected for a certain salt intake.  Anti-salt advice was not supported by reliable studies.

One often hears that glucose is the body’s primary fuel.  That is quite mistaken.  It’s true that all human cells can, if need be, metabolize glucose.  But mitochondria, the energy producers in most human cells, prefer to burn fat.  So in the body, fat is the preferred and primary fuel, except in specialist cells that lack mitochondria or ready access to fat.

Saturated and monounsaturated fats are the safest calorie source – indeed the only calorie source that is nontoxic even in very high doses – and should provide the bulk of calories.  Fish, shellfish, beef, lamb, and dairy fats such as butter and cream are the best animal sources; coconut milk and coconut oil are great plant sources.

Saturated fat improves lipid profiles in two ways:  it increases levels of protective HDL cholesterol, and it makes LDL particles larger and more buoyant, protecting them from glycation and oxidation.

Choline is abundant in liver and egg yolks — foods American eat less than ever before, thanks in part to the demonization of cholesterol… Get choline by eating three eggs yolks a day and liver once a week.

As our Paleolithic ancestors who dominated the globe were characterized by tall stature and healthy teeth and bones and their health deteriorated as soon as their diet was altered, we think it’s safe to say that such a low-carb, high-plant, starch-meat-and-fat-based diet is a healthful human diet.

When the obese try to eat less on a malnourishing diet, they sooner or later become hungry and weight loss stalls or reverses.

The long-term effects of eating less without improving the character of the diet are shockingly bad… efforts to eat less often lead to weighing more.

In their own version of what I’ve termed Character vs. Chemistry in several posts, the Jaminets explain that hunger is the body’s way of saying I need nutrients!  If your diet is deficient in a necessary nutrient, you’re going to be hungry, and eventually you’re going to give in and eat more. Nutrient deficiencies, in fact, may explain why people adopt a particular diet, feel great for awhile, then feel not-so-great, adopt a different diet, feel great for awhile, then feel not-so-great, lather, rinse, repeat.  To quote from the book:

Sometimes people alternate among extreme diets.  They do a low-fat diet, and it works great until a fat-associated nutrient becomes scare and hunger returns.  Weight starts to rebound due to hunger for the fat-associated nutrient.  Disturbed by the weight gain, they shift to the opposite diet – low-carb, high-protein, high-fat.  Now weight loss resumes until they become deficient in some plant-associated nutrient that, on their low-carb diet, they no longer obtain.  Then weight loss stops, hunger increases, and the weight comes back.

The key to long-term weight loss, then, is a diet that provides all the necessary nutrients without an overabundance of food. When you give your body what it needs, it stops ramping up your appetite in hopes that you’ll keep eating and eventually stumble across some actual nutrients.

Darned if that doesn’t make perfect sense.  That’s what I kept thinking to myself as I read the book:  Man, this is all so logical.  It just makes sense.

Like I said, the Jaminets are relentlessly logical. Their own health problems inspired them to undertake a seven-year, relentlessly logical review of the science and design a diet based on unprocessed whole foods, high in fat and low in carbohydrates … but not low enough to create a deficiency that could cause other problems, and with the carbohydrates coming from real foods that provide real nutrients, such as resistant starch to feed our gut bacteria.

Is the Perfect Health Diet truly the perfect diet?  I don’t know, but I was persuaded to move my own diet more in that direction.  I’ll describe what that looks like in a future post.

Meanwhile, I asked Paul Jaminet if he’d be up for a Q & A with the Fat Head audience, and he graciously agreed.  Ask your questions in the comments section for this post.  Put the phrase “Question for Paul Jaminet” at the beginning of the comment so I know it’s a question for him, not for me.  I won’t reply to those comments.  I’ll pick a dozen or so questions and forward them to Paul, then post his answers.

Perhaps you’ll be persuaded to eat a potato smothered in grass-fed butter.


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