Nell Stephenson’s first book, The Paleo Diet Cookbook, was a straight-forward paleo diet guide, co-authored with paleo pioneer Loren Cordain. Her new book, out May 1, is … a little different. The book, Paleoista: Gain Energy, Get Lean and Feel Fabulous with the Diet You Were Born to Eat, developed (and took its name) from her nutritional consulting company and accompanying blog, where the focus is on interpreting the paleo diet and lifestyle in a less primal, more “feminine, fashionable” way. That description—combined with Paleoista’s fashion-y illustrations and Sex and the City meets Skinnygirl vibe—might make Stephenson sound like a priss, but the author and paleo advocate is also a personal trainer and 5-time Ironman athlete. I talked with her about the paleo diet philosophy, the need for a female-friendly paleo book, and what’s so bad about whole grains and beans.
How would you quickly describe the paleo diet to someone who’s never heard of it?
It’s based on how humans are supposed to be eating, based on how paleo people ate. Basically, you’re eating things that are fresh food and you’re not eating anything that’s not—no dairy, no grains, nothing that requires andy kind of refinement. Its core is fresh vegetables and fruit, lean meats and poultry, wild fish and unprocessed fats.
How did you get started on the paleo diet?
I cam across the paleo diet doing research to try to figure out why I was having stomach issues. I’d had stomach issues all my life, but they went from being mildly annoying to really terrible in 2004, after I contracted a parasite during an Ironman race. I was convinced it must have something to do with what I was eating, but I was eating lots of vegetables and fruit, whole grains, organic dairy and beans at the time, all of which I thought were good for me. Anyway, I learned that people can have a latent allergy to gluten, or a level of gluten intolerance that’s below Celiac’s disease, so I decided to give gluten-free a try. And I felt better in about three days.
I continued gluten-free for about a year, but I was still eating other grains, still eating soy, peanuts and dairy. I felt better, but I didn’t feel fantastic. So I wondered what else might be in my diet that was actually causing harm, and I stumbled across the paleo diet. I gave it a try and about a week or two in there was no going back. I’ve been paleo ever since.
When I think of the paleo diet, I picture mostly men, and a lot of crazy libertarian survivalist types. What stereotypes have you encountered about the paleo diet?
I think the most common one is that the paleo diet has to be approached as “the caveman diet.” There’s nothing wrong with that approach, this primal idea, but it didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t like the fact that I had to be cave-y, if you will, some sort of cavewoman, which is the reason I coined the term “paleoista,” which is a combination of ‘paleo’ and ‘fashionista.’ It’s modern. The message is, hey, here’s another voice in the paleo-sphere, from a woman who walks the walks.
So you felt there was a need for paleo info aimed squarely at women?
In general, when you look at the paleo books and writing, it is largely dominated by the male voice. These are people who really know their stuff, and I just have a different angle on it.
You refer to “the paleo lifestyle,” not just the paleo diet. Can you explain the difference?
We’ve heard this in terms of weight loss—you talk about a diet and how it has to be a lifestyle change, you have to do something that you’re going to live with indefinitely. That’s why so many diets don’t work, because they’re too strict, or too low in calories, and son on. The paleo lifestyle is a lifestyle because it’s something you can follow not just at home, or here or there, but everywhere; you can do this everywhere. We don’t live in a bubble—we have business trips, we have parties—and one of the things I want to make clean in the book is that this is possible to do everywhere.
Who might want to try the paleo diet?
I believe whole-heartecdly that the paleo diet benefits anybody. But most people that I ’ve worked with don’t tend to try it until they feel something is wrong, and they can’t figure it out, they can’t figure out why they have migraines or acne or stomach pain. It makes sense—if you think you feel fine, you wouldn’t think there’s something wrong with what you’re eating. But you’re still doing harm to your body, even if you might not know it right now. My advice is that people who are curious give it a try before something feels wrong.
And you point out in the book that it’s an appropriate diet for athletes.
Yes! Whetehr you’re a recreational athlete or a high-performance athlete. I’ve been doing paleo since 2005, and eating this way has got me through five Ironman championships. People say, “How are you training if you’re not eating pasta and bagels and energy bars?” It’s very easy: The starch of choice is yams. You take the skin off, and you eat that yam as your source of strarch with your otherwise normally balanced meals, while you’re training.