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Good Food For Thought

Nashvillians of all stripes are embracing alternative diets—including many in the food world—meaning there are now plenty of places to eat out, while still sticking to your commitment.

Written By:  Trisha Boyer

Photographers:  Danielle Atkins

With the calorie-laden holidays behind us, many are looking toward the New Year as an opportunity for renewed wellness. Whether the goal is shedding unwanted pounds or overall healthier eating, the first step is finding a diet that best meets your needs. Nashvillians are navigating their health in a number of ways these days—but it’s those working in the food industry (chefs, food writers, and nutritionists) constantly surrounded by temtations, who are inspiring and enabling others in town to not only stick to a healthy diet, but also to turn it into a sustainable lifestyle.

For Nashville blogger and cookbook author Caitlin Weeks, it took many years to discover what was right for her body. She attended her first Weight Watchers meeting at age six, yo-yo dieted her way through high school, and, by the time she graduated from college, her weight climbed to 240 pounds. She was devastated, but also determined to make a permanent lifestyle change going forward. 

“I moved to San Francisco, where I was working as a personal trainer and also training for a marathon, so I became hostage to my diet and exercise routine,” she explains. “I thought I was eating healthy—five low-fat, complex-carbohydrate meals planned out daily—but I was on an emotional rollercoaster. My blood sugar was all over the place, and my life was dominated by my eating schedule.”

She was later diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack the thyroid. After consulting with a holistic nutritionist, she switched to a whole food, Paleolithic diet to reduce inflammation and heal her body. Today, she uses her skills as a certified nutrition consultant and personal trainer in managing her website, grassfedgirl.com.

A Paleolithic (paleo) diet is restricted to foods that were available in pre-agricultural days. It emphasizes lean meats (ideally, grass-fed), fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, while eliminating gluten, grains, beans, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, iodized salt, most vegetable oils, and white potatoes.

Weeks explains that a common misconception about paleo is that it’s a low-carbohydrate diet, like a Ketogenic (keto) diet, which restricts carbs and centers primarily around meat and green vegetables with the addition of plenty of healthy fats such as butter, coconut oil, olive oil, heavy cream, and cheese

“[On paleo] you’re not eating grains or processed foods, so you’re naturally reducing your carbohydrate intake,” she says, “but you’re still getting carbs, through nutrient-rich fruits and root vegetables.” 

For her husband, Nabil Boumrar, a professional chef who grew up in Algeria, “paleo” wasn’t a term he heard in his childhood, but it was how he ate throughout most of his life.

“My mother cooked for me and my eight siblings, using whatever we found at the farmers markets,” he explains. “We didn’t have a Costco. We relied on spices and whatever was local and in season to make all of our meals. If we had bread or rice, it was on the side and not a part of the main dish.” 

The couple collaborated on a cookbook, Mediterranean Paleo Cooking, that makes small tweaks to the healthful dishes Boumrar grew up eating to make them compatible with a paleo diet.

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Beth Sachan, vice president of marketing for Goo Goo Cluster and author of the popular blog, Eat. Drink. Smile., spends her weeks surrounded by food. Last year, feeling a little sluggish after the indulgences of the season, she decided to give Whole30 a try.

“I’m not really a diet person; I actually don’t even own a scale,” Sachan says. “But the concept sounded interesting. I try to limit carbohydrates and sugar in general, and I felt like it was the only time of year my schedule would allow me to commit to the full month of clean eating.” 

If paleo is more of a long-term guide, Whole30 is a structured agenda that doesn’t allow for deviation during the 30-day “reset.” Everything on Whole30 is acceptable on a paleo diet (except for white potatoes, which were just recently added to the list of approved Whole30 foods), but it doesn’t work in reverse. One major difference is that Whole30 eliminates all sugars (some natural sweeteners are paleo-approved), and you aren’t supposed to combine Whole30 ingredients to create binge-worthy treats, like cookies or muffins. Alcohol is also strictly forbidden (but by some accounts, certain alcoholic beverages can be part of a paleo lifestyle).  Whole30 is as much about understanding your eating habits as it is getting rid of foods that may cause inflammation.

Sachan says the diet opened her eyes to just how much sugar is in everything we eat. 

“You really have to pay attention to every single ingredient when you’re cooking,” she says. “The key to making it work for me was to prep everything ahead of time to make sure I had all of the approved ingredients for whatever I was making.” 

For the occasional meal out, she looked for places that offered simple meats, vegetable sides, and salads. One of her favorite discoveries was at Butchertown Hall, which offered a salad that was Whole30 compliant—from greens to dressing.

“Many restaurants have salads that are fine to eat—but it's the dressing that will get you,” Sachan says. “I just mixed up a simple oil-vinegar dressing on the weekends and put it in a small storage container to keep in my purse.”

Josh Habiger, chef at Bastion, tried Whole30 early last year, and, when he realized he was falling back to some of his old eating habits, decided it was time to start again.

“The results aren't physical. I don’t want to drop a bunch a pounds. I’m working out more and using my body in a more physical way, so it’s nice to feel spry and limber,” he says. “As I'm getting older, I realize I get one body, and I might need to make up for all those years of not thinking about it.”

The Bastion menu naturally leans on meats and vegetables. “We’re also happy to accommodate special dietary requests,” he says. “When people make a reservation, we ask about restrictions and look at that list the day before so we should have ample time to prepare.”

Aside from the Whole30-approved Larabars he keeps stashed in his console, Habiger has also found a few places to eat when he doesn’t have time to prep meals at home. 

“Even though we’re happy to take special requests at Bastion, I still hate to make those requests myself,” he says. “But I actually ate at Sperry’s for the first time, and a steak, plus a trip the salad bar, works. You can substitute lettuce wraps for taco shells at bartaco [in 12 South], too.”

Even the staff meal at Bastion is Whole30 compliant while he’s on the diet. “I figure it’s good for [the staff] to give it a try, too,” he says.

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For chef and restaurateur Maneet Chauhan, a hectic schedule managing her restaurants, television appearances, and caring for her family makes a diet that excludes certain foods next to impossible. Instead, she started making small changes to her eating habits and, with the help of the MyFitnessPal app, now records everything she eats throughout the day. 

“The one thing I made sure of is that I do not restrict my diet. I could never do Atkins, paleo, or anything like that,” she says. “I am eating and drinking everything I used to—but now it’s in small portions.”

She says that, in the process, her overall appetite has lessened, and the app has also made her more conscious of what she consumes.

“When I’m not eating junk, I feel a lot more energetic,” she adds.

While meat plays a dominate role in many current diet trends, Sal Avila, a chef at the newly opened Kuchnia & Keller in Germantown, found that eating a primarily vegetarian diet has literally changed his life.

After trying everything from meds and massage to acupuncture and yoga in attempt to manage his chronic pain, the next step was “to just completely replace my entire spine,” he says.

He explains that, as he became more aware of what was going in his body, he started caring for it better—not just physically, but mentally and spiritually, as well.

The diet is not without its obstacles, since, as a chef, he does have to taste dishes that contain animal protein almost daily. But he sees a bigger challenge posed by a society that promotes meat consumption at every turn. 

“Every commercial you see on TV is for another 17-pound cheeseburger or some mountain of fried chicken,” he says. “The restaurant scene here in Nashville is very meat-friendly, too. I think there are a lot of places with good vegetable options, but not enough focus on veggies the way I would like to see.”

Living with a plant-based diet has also made him think more deeply about the sustainability of our Western diet. He describes the trends he’s discovered as “heartbreaking.”

“I absolutely will keep this lifestyle,” he says. “I can’t call it a diet. It is a lifestyle, and I have never felt better.”

Weeks echoes Avila’s sentiment that what we eat is an overall lifestyle choice.

“Thinking of the food choices as a lifestyle rather than a diet is the first step to making lasting change,” she says. “The second step is recognizing that nutrient dense foods such as meat, veggies and healthy fats will give you sustained energy, focus and improved digestion that will make the healthy choices worthwhile.”

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