Book Review: It Starts with Food

by | Oct 21, 2015 | Book Reviews, Nutrition

Cover of It Starts with Food

It Starts with Food

This Paleo diet tome by Dallas & Melissa Hartwig of Whole30 fame is a groundbreaking ‘must read’ for anyone who desires a deeper knowledge of the scientific underpinnings and nutritional value of a Paleo diet. It Starts with Food (Victory Belt Publishing, Las Vegas 2012)

According the Hartwigs, It Starts with Food is “. . . an approachable path to a new, healthy relationship with food and sustainable, satisfying nutritional habits.”

The overarching premise is that everything one eats makes them more healthy or less healthy. Thus, it’s all about food with the “it” being a person’s overall health.

The authors freely acknowledge that dieting is emotional and confusing, but assure the reader that the Whole30 plan will lead the reader to an easy life-changing nutritional transition.

The basis for the Hartwigs’ nutritional plan is the paleo style diet popularized by Robb Wolf, New York Times best-selling author of The Paleo Solution.

Assuring the reader that their recommendations are science-based and supported by extensive clinical experiences, the authors launch in to the basic science of nutrition undergirding their Whole30 diet pan followed by a discussion of ‘less healthy’ and ‘more healthy’ foods to eat. The closing chapters set out specific meal ‘maps’ plans with a few basic recipes and helpful food combination charts, conversion charts and citations to other publications and websites.

Each chapter ends with a concise and succinct summary that is excellent.

At the core of the Hartwigs’ thesis are four “Good Food Standards” proposing that the food one eats must: (1) promote a healthy psychological response; (2) promote a healthy hormonal response; (3) support a healthy gut; and (4) support immune function and minimize inflammation.

Standard One – Psychology of Eating

Appropriately, the first topic of discussion is the psychology of dieting and the habits, cravings, stress and guilt associated with food. Modern processed foods with high carb content stack the biological ‘deck’ against us.

The goal is to out smart our compulsion to eat the wrong foods by re-wiring our brains to crave nutritious foods instead. Guess what? The Hartwigs are the electricians!

Standard Two – Hormonal Response

Obviously, no one volume can contain a compete explanation of all that is currently known about the vast complexity of the human body and its systems. In that vein, the authors focus on the science the reader needs to know to understand the Whole30 diet map.

Focusing on four major hormones, insulin, leptin, glucagon and cortisol, the Hartwigs do an admirable job of explaining in layman’s terms the chain of events that begins with over-consumption of carbs and ends badly with Type 2 Diabetes.

Not to despair, most dietary problems can be reversed through diet.

Standard Three – The Gut

Consistent with their thesis, the Harwigs explain why, “ . . . you should only consume foods (and drinks) that support normal, healthy digestive function; eating anything that impairs the integrity of your gut impairs the integrity of your health.”

The description of the journey of food through the digestive tract is clear and interesting. While the obvious purpose of the digestive system is to allow nutrients to enter the bloodstream, the gut plays a central role in the immune system by keeping the wrong things out of the bloodstream. An unhealthy gut results in ‘leaky gut syndrome’ that allows bad things inside the body through the damaged intestinal wall.

In connection with keeping bad things out, the gut is also the home of billions if not trillions of friendly bacteria that help keep the gut free of unwanted bacteria and other toxins.

Unfortunately, eating the wrong foods causes damage to the gut and the tenuous balance between good and bad bacteria. Thankfully, eating the right foods can reverse things and restore balance.

Because most readers have never deeply contemplated the interaction between the gut and the immune system, this chapter should be a ‘wake up call’ for those who want to learn how to heal their gut.

Standard Four – Chronic Inflammation

This chapter may be the most important in the book. It is a breath of fresh air all those folks who have heard about the necessity of reducing ‘inflammation’ but did not have a clue as to what this means or what to do about it.

The authors do an excellent job using simple analogies to explain how the body’s immune system normally functions to both defend and afterwards repair the body from attack and how this system can go terribly wrong.

At the risk of poorly paraphrasing the authors, stress as well as certain lifestyle choices has a tendency to overwork, confuse and hamper the immune system.

Long term stress on the immune system gives rise to chronic systemic inflammation’ which should be distinguished from acute localized inflammation, such as inflammation associated with an injury, or acute systemic inflammation, such as short-term systemic inflammation associated with fighting a common cold.

Thus, when the body’s defense systems are constantly overworked our health suffers, and the chaos that ensues is generally referred to as ‘metabolic syndrome’ that is the precursor of a host of chronic health issues from diabetes to cardiovascular disease.

Finally, the Hartwigs disabuse the reader of the fatalistic idea that his or her destiny is set in stone by genetic code. The truth is that a person does have control over how his or her genetic code is ‘turned on’ by diet, exercise routine, sleep and stress level, both physical and psychological.

What to Eat?

So, what can I eat on the Whole30 diet?

Part 3 considers what foods are less healthy, such as cereal grains, legumes, sugar, seed oils and dairy, while Part 4 addresses the more healthy choices, such as eggs, fats and the right meats and seafood.

Unhealthy Foods


On the unhealthy list, the Hartwigs begin with sugar and artificial sweeteners, and for good reason. Sugar and its substitutes fail all four of the Good Food Standards from unhealthy psychological response to causing systemic inflammation. All sugar fails the test, not just cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup. It does not matter whether the sweetener is natural, ex. agave, honey, etc., or artificial, they all contain empty calories and no nutritional value whatsoever. They are not to be eaten in any form, except in limited amounts.


Alcohol fails the Good Food Standard and, like sugar, it is composed of completely ‘empty calories.’ The Hartwigs warn the reader not to be gullible – the argument that red wine is healthy because it contains resveratrol does not stand up to scrutiny.

Seed Oils

Seed oils directly promote systemic inflammation due to a high content of polyunsaturated fatty acids and high omega-6 content. These oil react with oxygen to produce ‘free radicals’ that damage cells. The products to avoid include canola, peanut, soybean, corn, sunflower, grapeseed, cottonseed, sesame and other seed oils.

Because they are inexpensive, most all restaurants use them, and most processed foods contain them. So, eating out and eating grocery store processed/prepared foods is a dangerous thing!

Cereal Grains

Cereal grains, such as wheat, oats, barley, rye, corn, rice and numerous other grains, including so-called whole grain products, are simply dangerous because these refined grains keep the calories but have lost the nutrients. The Hartwigs categorize refined grains as ‘junk food’ as they do not deliver nutrients but cause increased blood sugar levels and obesity.


The Hartwigs advise to eliminate milk during the Whole30 program. Milk and its components, such as casein, whey and lactose, are specific nutrients that may have differing affects on each individual.

The milk amino acids, such as casein, can trigger an adverse immune response; milk hormones in whey can stimulate the release of insulin; and lactose intolerance can cause disruption with the gut.

For these reasons, the Hartwigs also strongly recommend against dairy, including whey protein powder supplements, for the majority of people. The nutrients provided by dairy can easily be obtained from other whole, nutrient-rich foods.

Note, this does not apply to dairy fats, such as cream and butter.

What about calcium?

The Hartwigs provide a well-written explanation of why diary is not the only good source of calcium. This section is well worth the read to those who have a real threat of osteoporosis. There are better ways to make sure a diet enhances calcium.

Healthy Foods

Animal Protein

Animal proteins are best acquired through foods such as beef, lamb, poultry, and pork, as well as seafood, eggs, organ meat and bone marrow or bone broths. What matters is what the animals you eat ate. Was it ‘natural’ or mass-produced? This section is informative for discriminating shopper to focus on natural as opposed to industrial processed meats.

A must-read section on just what part cholesterol plays in the body and why cholesterol is not bad but a necessary player in good health. In sum, eating right, including eggs, is the better way to address cholesterol concerns than more and more prescription medications.


Vegetables are a healthy, nutrient-rich delivery system for carbs, not to mention that vegies contain anti-inflammatory antioxidants that fight free radicals that can damages cells, and that’s a good thing. The authors suggest fermented vegies, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, are a good choice, too.


Fruit is not essential, but can be an equally useful way to acquire the same anti-inflammatory antioxidants found in vegetables. Just don’t over do it because fruit contains fructose that ends up as glucose, and we know that more than a little is definitely bad for the body’s systems.

The Right Fats

The Hartwigs reemphasize the role of healthy fats as the body’s main energy source rather than glucose. This chapter debunks conventional wisdom, actually the myths perpetuated over the last fifty years that associate fats with hearth disease and other poor health outcomes. The truth is that overconsumption of carbohydrates is the problem.

So, organic, grass-fed, and pastured meats and eggs, wild-caught seafood, and animal fats, like clarified butter, ghee, lard, and beef tallow, together with coconut oil and the right nuts, are the best sources of fat, and should be a major part of the diet.

The Whole30

The remainder of the book weighs in to the details of structuring a Whole30 meal plan with many strategies for long-term success.

And, success you will have if you invest the time to not only read, but also study and absorb, the wisdom of It Starts with Food.


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