MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The goal for Brooks and Mallory Gatlin was to eat healthier, more natural, and to leave out processed foods.
Both athletes, the married couple saw the success Brooks Gatlin’s father had while eating a diet referred to as “Paleo.” Because of it, his father was in the best shape of his life. The Gatlins wanted what he had and started their journey into natural eating.
Natural eating through Paleo means no dairy, legumes, grain. No refined salt or sugar. No processed oils. And for the bread and cheese lovers, that was hard.
The Gatlins, both in their 20s, started eating Paleo a year ago in April.
“We’re feeling better, generally,” he said. “We have lots more energy. At the time, we did need to lose a little bit of weight. We got down to a goal weight, but since then, it has been about being healthier.”
Paleo is based upon eating wholesome, contemporary foods from the food groups hunter-gatherer ancestors would have thrived on during the Paleolithic era, the time period from about 2.6 million years ago to the beginning of the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago, according to Loren Cordain, a Paleolithic expert and founder of the Paleo Movement (www.thepaleodiet.
Foods include fresh meats (preferably grass-produced or free-ranging beef, pork, lamb, poultry and game meat, if you can get it), fish, seafood, fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and healthy oils (olive, coconut, avocado, macadamia, walnut and flaxseed). Dairy products, cereal grains, legumes, refined sugars and processed foods were not part of our ancestral menu, according to Cordain.
Despite its naturalness, a study in U.S. News Health gave the Paleo diet a low “healthiness” score. The diet, the report stated, is simply too restrictive and calls nutritional qualities into question. Receiving adequate calcium and vitamin D is not easy, the report states.
Eliminated food groups raise a red flag for Pam Green, a registered dietitian at the Baptist Health Center for Diabetes.
“That usually would signal that we’re not getting the body of nutrition that we need,” she said. “And that would be any kind of diet. I suppose (supplements) could help. But as a nutritionist, those nutrients come from the food themselves. Food is still better to get all of your nutrients.”
One benefit to eating Paleo, Green said, is the exclusion of processed foods and a lot of sugar.
“Maybe that’s why (Paleo eaters) feel a lot better because we’re not eating a lot of junk, and sodas,” she said. “We still don’t fully understand how all those foods work together. There still are some intricacies that those foods give us that vitamins do not.”
In their Millbrook kitchen, the Gatlins are preparing bang bang shrimp, and making a Paleo-based mayonnaise (no soy) to add to the mixture. Putting in the olive oil slowly makes the difference when making your own mayonnaise. A little pepper gives it a kick.
Giving up breads was the hardest for Mallory Gatlin when she and her husband of five years started eating Paleo. For Brooks Gatlin, it was cheese. They consider themselves between 80 percent and 90 percent Paleo.
“I haven’t given up coffee,” Brooks Gatlin said, adding it depends on who you ask whether that is considered a non-Paleo item. “Every now and then, we’ll have a cheat meal and if we’re really (wanting) a Reece’s, we’ll stop by the store.”
But for the most part, the way of eating is their new normal.
“We started it as a 30-day challenge in April,” Brooks Gatlin said. “We decided that we’d decide after the challenge whether we would stay with it. At this point, it’s really not even something we’re doing to reach a goal.
“It’s just kind of a lifestyle now. With no end in sight. Given the choice between feeling how we feel now or going back to how we felt before, it’s obvious this is better than what we were doing before.”
Eric Lewis feels the same way.
He and his wife Wendi Lewis have been cooking Paleo for more than a year, and Eric Lewis — who lost 20 pounds in the first 45 days of eating Paleo — said he has more “even energy.” He did lose some weight, “so part of that energy level is that I’m not physically tired as much.
“Part of it is being healthier. Overall, I think my body is using energy in a more efficient way. I definitely don’t miss that 3 o’clock in the afternoon feeling like I need to take a nap.”
Wendi Lewis, a runner, enjoys eating more natural foods.
“At first, I was like, ‘I can’t drink alcohol or eat bread? I’m going to die,’” she says, laughing. “I was running, training for a half (marathon), and didn’t know how I’d train without carbs. It took my body some getting used to burning different fuels.
“It just tastes better,” she said of the natural foods. “That’s always a benefit to me. For me, it was a different energy. And now, I notice a difference if I eat too many traditional carbs, and I go for a run, I am sluggish.”
Both couples have staple items in their home. The Lewises tend to keep onions and garlic on hand, along with chicken thighs, hamburger meat and steak. The Gatlins keep on hand eggs, chicken and bacon.
There are countless Paleo recipes, websites and ideas with cooking, but one thing both couples say is that measurements aren’t too strict: little bit of this, that. If something needs more honey, it is added. Not hot “enough?” More hot sauce is added.
“With Paleo, it was real repetitive at first,” Mallory Gatlin said, as she mixed chicken salad filled with Paleo mayonnaise, sliced grapes, walnuts and local honey. “But then we found new recipes.”
For instance, a fresh batch of banana walnut Paleo muffins sat in the kitchen. Any other day might find Mallory Gatlin making banana pancakes made with bananas, almond flour, honey, vanilla and salt.
“I’ve got to have my energy, and it just amazes me how much energy I’ve had since we started this,” said Gatlin, a K3 teacher at Prattville Christian, and who also teaches gymnastics to pre-K children twice each week. Before changing her eating habits, “I was always coming home, ready to go to bed.”
They cook enough to eat on throughout the week. Planning helps. Cooking food that can store for up to a week helps. Leftover dinner usually is brought in to work for lunch. Breakfasts are eggs, bacon. A lot of fruit.
“You can do the strict thing (100 percent Paleo), but if you do what we do — throw in a little bit of dairy, throw in a little rice every now and then — so you’re not making yourself just completely get away from everything that your mind considers normal,” Eric Lewis said.
“If you decide you do want to break the rules and have a sandwich, then you can do that because you’re probably only going to eat half before you’re full.”