Expert Interview Series: Melissa Joulwan on the Advantages of Paleo Diets

Melissa Joulwan is the author of the best-selling Paleo cookbooks, Well Fed and Well Fed 2. We recently checked in to find out why she's embraced the Paleo Diet and why we should consider checking it out. Here's what...

Paleo diets

Melissa Joulwan is the author of the best-selling Paleo cookbooks, Well Fed and Well Fed 2. We recently checked in to find out why she's embraced the Paleo Diet and why we should consider checking it out. Here's what she had to say:

Tell us your story. How did you discover the Paleo Diet?

I found Paleo at the gym! In 2008, I joined CrossFit bootcamp and, honestly, I came in last in every challenge when I first started. But I persevered and eight months later, I was finishing every bootcamp workout first and was ready to advance to indoor CrossFit classes. Despite my success and commitment to daily workouts, I felt a lack of strength, both emotionally and physically. Insomnia, allergies and stomach aches prompted me to consult a doctor who discovered a nodule on my thyroid. Facing a high risk of cancer, I underwent a thyroidectomy which left me sluggish, foggy-headed and anxious about re-gaining the weight I'd fought so hard to lose. In my quest to remain healthy, I discovered the Paleo diet.

How has going Paleo transformed your life?

Once I committed to Paleo I also made a point of getting eight hours of sleep every night, and I worked with my doctor to find the correct doses for my thyroid hormones. Though I was nutritionally fit, the overwhelming physical stress of my daily workouts and beat-the-clock CrossFit training exhausted me. I was then diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. That sparked an interest in how diet affects hormones, body composition, mood and motivation. Self-experimentation to achieve optimal health resulted in my new routine, which includes daily meditation, gentle yoga classes, walking, strength training, occasional sprints, and short, high-intensity workouts.

Throughout this process, I also rediscovered my love for cooking. Using simple, fresh ingredients combined with a range of multi-cultural flavors, I started to create recipes that transformed old favorites to fit into the Paleo template. Although I occasionally indulge in a glass of wine or other non-Paleo treat, my commitment to and appreciation for the Paleo diet has never wavered, teaching me how to eliminate cravings and curb emotional eating. The solid foundation provided by following the Paleo also made it possible for me to measure other health and quality-of-life markers.

The other major change is my career! In 2008, I created my blog "Melissa Joulwan's Well Fed" as a way to share my adventures in the kitchen, the gym and in life. The support and positive feedback that I received from my blog led to my first cookbook, the Wall Street Journal best-seller Well Fed: Paleo Recipes for People Who Love To Eat and my follow up cookbook Well Fed 2: More Paleo Recipes For People Who Love To Eat. I'm currently at work on my new book Well Fed: Weeknights (November 2016), which will feature complete Paleo meals that can be made in 45 minutes or less.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the Paleo Diet?

The biggest misconception is that Paleo is a high-fat, high-protein, low-carb diet that requires only meat, loincloths and bare feet. In reality, the Paleo template is very flexible and is meant to be adapated to personal needs.

Everyone focuses a lot on what's eliminated: grains, dairy, legumes (including soy), added sugars, and alcohol to reduce inflammation. But I like to talk about what's included: all fruits and vegetables; all animal proteins like chicken, fish, lamb, beef, pork, etc.; and naturally-occurring (and delicious) fats like olives and olive oil, coconut and everything made from coconut, grass-fed ghee, duck fat... I've never felt deprived eating this way, and I eat a LOT of vegetables.

What have been your favorite food discoveries since switching to Paleo?

I was very sad to say goodbye to peanut butter, but sunflower seed butter is a really great substitute. It's one of my favorite ingredients because it works equally well as a sweet treat - spread on a banana, for example - and savory in West African groundnut stew or an Asian "peanut" sauce.

Even if someone isn't ready to commit to a full Paleo Diet, what types of foods do you think everyone should immediately stop eating?

I have two tips for anyone who's not ready to go all-in. First, eat protein at breakfast. I know a muffin and coffee, or a bowl of cereal is fast and easy, but that's a recipe for hunger in about 90 minutes because it wreaks havoc on your blood sugar. Two hard-boiled eggs, a handful of almonds and a piece of fruit are equally fast, but far more nutritious.

Second, the bad reputation that gluten has is not unwarranted. If you're not ready to completely eliminate grains, I encourage you to try ditching wheat. After 30 days with no wheat, you should notice marked differences in sleep patterns, digestion, energy and mental clarity.

For someone who is interested in exploring Paleo, but not ready to to make a full switch, what are some easy food substitutions to make?

Vegetables are my favorite imposters! Zucchini can be julienned to make shockingly tasty noodles. (Tip: After julienning, sprinkle generously with salt and place in a colander to "sweat." This step removes extra moisture and prevents the noodles from getting mush.) Cauliflower is an awesome rice substitute; just grate it in a food processor then cook on the stovetop or roast in the oven, then use it under your favorite stir-fry or Thai curry.

Another really helful substitute is a product called coconut aminos. It tastes remarkably like soy sauce, but is made from coconut, so it's paleo-friendly. I have complete instructions for zucchini noodles and cauliflower rice on my website.

How do you approach meal planning and shopping today?

I usually do one big shopping trip every week; my cart looks like I'm feeding an army! But I like to do what I call a Weekly Cookup so we always have paleo-friendly food ready to go so we can resist the lure of take-out.

I usually make a big batch of Silky Gingered Zucchini Soup with homemade bone broth. That's an easy way to eat vegetables every day! I'll roast a big hunk of meat - whole chicken or a pork shoulder - so we can eat it with veggies or on top of a salad. I like meatballs a lot, so I'll cook up a double batch that can be served on top of zucchini noodles, diced and made into hash with sweet potatoes, or eaten cold on a picnic.

I have a month of free meal plans, shopping lists, and step-by-step instructions on my site for anyone who wants to try a month of Paleo without having to figure out all the details themselves.

What's one of your favorite, go-to Paleo recipes?

My most popular recipe is definitely my Chocole Chili. It's rich, comforting, and satisfies even the most die-hard "chili must have beans" devotee.

In sixth-grade English, our class read a story about a Native American tribe in the Southwest. I've forgotten all but one fascinating detail of that story: the family ate meat cooked with chocolate. Thanks to my dad's rule that we must at least try everything once, I ate a lot of weird stuff as a kid - raw lamb in kibbeh, chicken livers, capers - but this was something I simply couldn't fathom. Chocolate! With meat! Now, I'm a sucker for anything that's sweetly savory, and every time I reach for the cocoa, I smile at the memory of 11-year-old me. This chili is spicy but not hot. Reminiscent of mole, the flavors are rich, mellow and deep.

Chocolate Chili from Well Fed

Paleo diets

Prep 20 min | Cook 2-3 hours | Serves 6-8 | Whole30 compliant


2 tablespoons coconut oil

2 medium onions, diced (about 2 cups)

4 cloves garlic, minced (about 4 teaspoons)

2 pounds ground beef

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons ground cumin

1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon salt

1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste

1 can (14.5 ounces) fire-roasted, chopped tomatoes

2 cups chicken or beef broth

1 cup water


Heat a large, deep pot over medium-high heat, then add the coconut oil. When the oil is melted, add onions, stir with a wooden spoon and cook until they're translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and as soon as it's fragrant, about 30 seconds, crumble the ground meat into the pan with your hands, mixing with the wooden spoon to combine. Continue to cook the meat, stirring often, until it's no longer pink.

In a small bowl, crush the oregano between your palms to release its flavor, then add the chili powder, cumin, cocoa, allspice, and salt. Combine with a fork, then add to the pot, stirring like you mean it. Add tomato paste and stir until combined, about 2 minutes.

Add the tomatoes with their juice, beef broth, and water to the pot. Stir well. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so the chili enjoys a gentle simmer. Simmer uncovered for at least two hours. Do not skimp on the simmer! Serve in deep bowls with big spoons.

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