Posted by: kimmeroo | March 26, 2013

It Starts With Food: Book Review

As mentioned briefly in previous posts, I’m currently feeling the need to better define the ideal ‘diet’ (in the broader, lifestyle sense) to strive for, that best matches my health and fitness goals, and my values. As part of this journey I have been reading lots and lots and lots. Books and internet. One of the books I picked up was It Starts with Food, by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig.

It Starts With Food: Discover The Whole30 And Change Your Life In Unexpected Ways

I had heard a lot about this book, mostly in the paleo type circles. I’d say that on the whole it got rave reviews. I would say that the review I’m giving it is a good review, but not a rave review…

It Starts with Food (ISWF) is split into a few main sections. First, it discusses ‘Good Food Standards’ – i.e., the criteria on which the Hartwigs judge the quality of a food. This includes a fascinating discussion of how food affects people mentally and physically (hormonally). It describes conditions such as insulin resistance and leptin sensitivity in an engaging and easy to understand section. The addictive qualities of modern, processed foods are also discussed. I really enjoyed this part of the book.

The second part gets into which foods are deemed ‘less healthy,’ including sugar, sweeteners, and alcohol, seed oils, grains and legumes, and dairy. I found this part of the book interesting, but not 100% convincing. To be clear, I don’t specifically disagree with anything they said, but I found that some conflicting information was ignored.

Sugar, sweeteners, and alcohol – I’m totally on board with considering these ‘less healthy.’ No complaints here.

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Seed oils – Yes and no. On the whole, I agree. However, I have read conflicting information about flax, hemp, and sesame oil. Most notably, in his Thrive book, Brendan Brazier explains that flax seed oil is desirable because it contains a high ratio of omega 3: omega 6, at a ratio of 5:1. He also writes that hemp oil contains the ideal ratio of omega 6: omega 3. While he cautions that you shouldn’t cook with these oils to avoid transforming the fats, they are included in salad dressings, etc. This information isn’t presented in ISWF, which instead makes the general statement that “Seed oils contain an abundance of omega-6, while providing us with virtually no omega-3s” (p. 101), and then says that “Consuming seed oils with high levels of omega-6 promotes systemic inflammation” (p. 101). While this is true of many seed oils (e.g., canola), based on what I have read there are seed oils that are high in beneficial omega 3 (e.g., flax, hemp).

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Grains and Legumes – okay, I have some issues with this section as well. ISWF argues against grains, pseudograins (e.g., quinoa), and legumes. It seems logical enough as you read through this section. One of the main arguments against grains and legumes is that they contain ‘phytates,’ which they also refer to as ‘anti-nutrients.’ The argument here is that phytates bind to the beneficial minerals and nutrients, rendering them unavailable to your body. Sounds convincing enough. But then I googled “benefits of phytates” and found some information that was not presented in ISWF. For example, on Dr. Andrew Weil’s site he writes:

Phytates in your everyday meals should not be an issue for you as long as you’re eating a balanced diet. Most of us consume enough minerals in common foods to more than make up for the small amounts of these micronutrients that might be tied up by phytates. The only individuals who might need to be careful are vegetarians who consume a lot of wheat bran, which is a concentrated source of these substances. Phytate-associated deficiencies of iron and zinc do occur in some third-world countries where people mostly eat grains.

You also should be aware that phytates themselves have some health benefits, including anti-inflammatory effects. In laboratory research, phytates have helped normalize cell growth and stopped the proliferation of cancer cells. They also may help prevent cardiovascular disease and lower a food’s glycemic load” (emphasis added) (source).

There is also an enzyme called phytase which frees phosphate and mineral residues from phytates, making them available for our body to use (source).

Now, it’s quite possible that the Hartwigs are well aware of the above, but still feel that the potential risks outweigh the potential benefits. Fair enough. However, the fact that the potential benefits were not even mentioned reduced the credibility a bit for me.

Dairy – I’m pretty much on board with this one. The recommendation of giving up dairy seems pretty common across a wide range of approaches to nutrition.

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After reviewing the ‘less healthy’ foods, the third chunk of the book gets into the recommended foods, i.e., meat, seafood, and eggs, vegetables and fruit, and healthy fats. As with the last section, I learned a lot in this section, but also feel that some things were left out or glossed over.

First, they write that “All animal protein sources are complete, while most plant-based protein sources are incomplete” (p. 143). This is true. However, there is a lack of consensus that this actually matters. The vegetarian perspective would argue that as long as you eat a variety of foods to obtain all the essential amino acids, it doesn’t matter whether you consume them all together in a ‘complete protein.’ This isn’t discussed at all in ISWF, so I’m not particularly convinced that eating ‘complete’ protein sources is necessary.

The second issue I have with this section is the discussion of conventionally raised (i.e., factory farmed) meat. To their credit, the Hartwigs strongly recommend pasture-raised animals. However, if you are forced to buy conventional meat, they recommend buying the leanest cuts and removing any visible fat, because that is where the toxins get concentrated. Cool, I didn’t realize that. However, what I think is lacking here is a discussion of the omega 3: omega 6 ratio. In the seed oils section, for example, seed oils are villain-ized for being high in omega 6, and thus promoting systemic inflammation. A key theme throughout the book is the risks associated with systemic inflammation (I agree). So, I would have thought that the high levels of omega 6 in conventional meat (versus pasture raised meat) would have merited more discussion.

For instance, after a quick internet search I found the following (source):

Range fed eggs have an omega 6:3 ratio of 1.5 to one whereas the “supermarket egg“has a ratio of 20 to one.
The grass-fed bison had omega 6 to omega 3 ratios of 4.0 to one, and the grain-fed bison had ratios of 21 to one.
For instance, after 200 days in the feedlot grain-fed cattle have omega 6 to omega 3 ratios that exceed 20 to one. Many cattle are fed 200 days or more in the United States.

Sooo given the inflammatory effects of omega 6, I would have expected a discussion of omega 6 in conventional meat. Seems like a diet that’s high in conventional meats could be a very inflammatory diet.

Recommended meat?

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After reviewing the recommended foods, the Hartwigs outline their 30 day program. I like the way they approach this. It’s basically a strict 30 days eating only the recommended foods, after which you reintroduce the ‘less healthy’ foods one at a time, so you can assess the impacts each has on your body. Then you can judge for yourself which foods to include/exclude. I really like this – it recognizes that everyone is different, and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach.

The book concludes with a bunch of resources – recipes, charts showing different ways to cook veggies, etc. I think I’ll be referring to this section a lot!

Scrolling back through this post I realize that it sounds quite negative. That’s really not the case. I enjoyed the book, and I learned a lot. I don’t think it was perfect, and I won’t be adopting this approach 100%, but that’s true of pretty much any nutrition book. I would absolutely recommend ISWF but, as with any book, make sure you read it with a critical eye and draw your own conclusions. It’s a great addition to any health and fitness library, but I don’t think it’s the be-all-end-all.

Have you read ISWF? What did you think? And if you disagree with anything I said, let me know! I’m still learning about all this stuff, and would value any input.



  1. This is a great review. I too am very skeptical about the grains thing. But I started my 2nd whole 30 yesterday despite not being 100% sold because its just such an easy way for me to eat healthy and I liked it enough to do it again. I want to read ISWF soon!

    • It’s so hard to define what is ‘best’! I’m skeptical that grains are really that bad, but on the other hand, maybe they’re also not really that necessary? I dunno… good for you doing the Whole30 though. I’d say that on the whole it’s a good way to kick start healthy eating. Looking forward to reading more about your experiences with it.

  2. How completely can you remove toxins by removing the fat, especially since the hallmark of conventional beef production is marbling, which is concentration of fat in muscle tissue? And why would you want to be part of a system that introduces toxins into these poor animals and the environment?

    Kind of reminds me of Don Matesz who was a paleo blogger on a strict budget who wrote a bunch of articles defending conventional meat. Then a few months later he confessed that actually he believed his paleo diet contributed to a bunch of health problems he had. Now he’s a militant vegan. It’s weird because the general approach to additives in paleo and especially Whole9 is precautionary- you know keep MSG out of your diet because it’s this novel ingredient and we really don’t know the effects. But that’s exactly what I think about conventional meat.

    That said, conventional beef has negligible omega-6, maybe that’s what they meant by toxins because you can avoid it by avoiding the fattier conventional cuts and with chicken by just eating breasts without skin. You are going to get more omega-6 from a handful of paleo nuts than from a conventional steak. Ratios are different, but the total amount is small.

    I know Melissa and Dallas are really against factory farming, but it just seems to not jive with their generally strict approach. I think most people will find coffee more overwhelming to give up than switching to better meat sources. I absolutely do not believe people will get the same results on a paleo diet than contains factory farmed meat, I’ve seen it first hand too many times.

    Looking at that section of their book it seems their approach to meat could use some refinement. It is at least not as bad as Paul Jaminet, who thinks conventional meat is just totally fine and recommends farmed salmon. I don’t think anyone is “forced” to buy anything, but of course there are exceptions like young people who live at home.

    I found this review because I saw Dallas tweet that “lean conventional meat is acceptable,” which was a bit disappointing. Acceptable for whom? And what type of conventional? Even among conventional farms there are better than worse sources. I’m just personally not sure that a paleo diet with conventional meat is healthier than a real food mostly vegetarian diet that includes some grains and legumes. Yes, it’s definitely healthier than an awful SAD diet, which is often what these discussion come back to, as if paleo is the only alternative to that, which it isn’t.

    I haven’t had time to review this entire book, but thanks for your food for thought.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I have been doing a lot more thinking about this since putting that post up, and there is definitely going to be another follow-up post. I thought about deleting this one, actually, because I don’t think it accurately reflects my views, but decided to leave it up to show the overall progression of my thoughts… But here are a few tidbits of where I’m at:

      – I don’t agree with factory farming. For whatever reason I have managed to bury my head in the sand thus far, but I am reaching the point where I am too morally conflicted to continue eating. Even if I accept that it’s healthy for me (which I don’t, really), it’s not healthy for the animals (how they’re treated, not just the fact of their death), the planet, or overall human health (e.g., antibiotic resistance). I just can’t support it.
      – I’m still not convinced of the health value of conventional meat. Maybe you can reduce the negatives by buying lean cuts, but there are way too many additives and issues to eliminate them.
      – I’m not sure I buy into the issues with grains and legumes. I mean, I can understand how they have negative impacts on those who are susceptible to them, but I’m not convinced they’re bad for everyone. I do see the value in eliminating them for a period of time and then reintroducing them, although I’m not sure I’m ready to take that on. Especially because I also think they have many benefits. I like Brendan Brazier’s approach to this one – reducing the processed grains, but focusing on the pseudo-grains like quinoa and amaranth, and rice.

      Thanks again for your thoughts. I’m going to look up some of the names you mentioned. And I’ll be posting an update soon – I’m feeling a bit hypocritical and want to clarify my views!

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