My approach to eating has changed drastically since I began experimenting with my diet and observing the effect the food I eat has on my mental and physical well being. To my surprise, and as I alluded in my previous post, I find that it not only matters what you eat, but how you cook it. Cooking is an amazing human invention, and scientists theorize that our ability to exogenously digest our food is what provided our species with the nutrition necessary to form our big, sexy brains (in addition to consuming seafood). [Interesting fact: fungi are also capable of exogenous digestion – they excrete digestive fluids into the soil around themselves and absorb the broken down nutrients. They really are closer to animals than plants in a lot of ways.]
I learned to cook “slow” while I researched the SCD and GAPS diets. I discovered that long-simmered meat and vegetables are easiest to digest, fermented vegetables and dairy are easy to prepare and boost microbiome health substantially, and that it is actually very easy to take fresh ingredients from the refrigerator, add heat and fat, and have a simple meal as a result with minimal planning. These are only the broad strokes of everything I learned on my journey, and I’d like to share about ten of the most interesting things I learned with you. They’re not all strictly food-related, and some may even surprise you.
Ten Things I Learned While Eating For Gut Health
- How to make bone broth
Bone broth is incredibly nutrient and electrolyte dense. During a cleanse, your body becomes very dehydrated because it’s trying to flush all the dislodged toxins and waste matter from dead microbes out of your body. The fat soluble waste passes through your colon, and the water soluble toxins secrete through mucous membranes, sweat glands, and the renal system (i.e. you sweat and pee them out). Bone broth was instrumental in replenishing my fluids (I heavily salted each cup for extra hydrating power) and providing my damaged gut lining with the nutrients I needed to repair and rebuild my insides.
It’s really easy to make: add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (ACV), a couple cloves of garlic, and vegetable scraps from your freezer to a soup bone or scrap bones, cover with water, bring to a boil, and then simmer as long as you can, up to 48 hours! Make sure to check your pot periodically and add water as needed. I generally start mine after dinner and take it off the stove after breakfast.
- How to make fermented dairy at home
Of course, you don’t have to use animal milk, but the coconut milk based yogurt I made does not hold a candle to what I make with whole, minimally processed, non-homogenized cow’s milk. I source mine from the co-op right now, but I’d love to eventually purchase a jersey cow share, which is the only way to acquire raw milk in the light of Indiana’s ignorant laws about pasteurization.
When you are eating SCD or GAPS, you’re not allowed to have any sugar other than fructose (fruit) and glucose (honey), and I’ve eliminated even those for now [which means I’m in a ketogenic phase of my diet (Note: I began this article in April and have since added back fruit, because I am not robbing myself of in-season yumminess; I’ll likely do keto again next year in Jan-Feb)]. Homemade yogurt is good for you, and even highly encouraged because it helps populate your gut with friendly bacteria. The hitch is: all dairy you consume must be fermented a minimum of 24 hours. That means absolutely no commercially prepared yogurt. GAPS allows commercially prepared kefir in later stages, but I’ve yet to try it for myself.
I do however ferment cow’s milk and separate it into cream cheese and whey. The cream cheese I blend with lemon juice and herbs and spread on vegetables, (eat with fruit for breakfast), or add to chicken or fish as a condiment. It’s a welcome treat when I have it available. The whey I use to ferment vegetables, which last much longer than the cream cheese. The goal is to eat some kind of ferment with every meal. I’ll admit I’m not quite there yet, although the last batch of sauerkraut was the best I’ve ever made, so I’ve been better about eating it. Next I want to try to ferment gingered carrots from a recipe in Nourishing Traditions.*
To make SCD-legal yogurt: combine your milk of choice with starter (I use a couple tablespoons of plain yogurt from a local dairy, but you can buy starter if you prefer) and keep it at 100° F for 24 hours or longer. I use my crock pot as a water bath, while some people use an Instant Pot, a yogurt maker, or their oven either with the door cracked or a high wattage bulb installed temporarily. If you forget about it and let if ferment longer than 24 hours, so much the better!
To separate whey from cream cheese: place a strainer over a large mixing bowl, line it with cheesecloth or a clean towel, and pour the yogurt into the strainer. Let it drip for a while, then gather the cheesecloth into a little packet and squeeze. The more whey you squeeze from the cloth, the dryer your cheese will be. You can always stir whey back into the cream cheese portion if you want a creamier consistency.
This process was way easier than I thought it would be, and I can’t believe now how intimidated I was at first by fermenting dairy. Really, once you add the good bugs back into milk, it’s not going to go rancid like ultra-pasteurized milk does. The beneficial bacteria outcompete the bad guys and keep everything in check.
- How to ferment vegetables
This is also a lot easier than I have anticipated. All you need are ¼ cup whey, 1 tablespoon of salt, and a head of cabbage, although you can add other things like caraway seeds, carrots, spices, etc. as you like. It’s a good idea to find a recipe to follow so you know the ideal temperature for the fermentation process, whether or not to “burp” the jar, and how long to let the veggies ferment and then age.
A simple sauerkraut recipe: shred a head of cabbage, reserving the outside leaves. Salt and pound the shreds for 10 minutes to release the juices, and place them in a jar with the whey starter (or double the salt if you don’t have whey, but whey is easy – you should make it), and seal it off with the leaves on top. Press all the veggie matter underneath the liquid level with a weight or by inserting a small jar. Let the cabbage ferment for three days, then move to your cellar (if available) or top shelf of the refrigerator to age it. I let this let batch age two weeks and the flavor is so mellow and pleasant. It’s a lot better than store-bought kraut, plus it’s cheaper! I learned this technique from Nourishing Traditions.
- How to buy local and cook all the things from fresh
When I was first beginning to revolutionize my way of eating (that may sound dramatic, but it’s not an understatement), I had one simple goal for the summer of 2017: eat as much food from fresh as possible. I started going to farmers’ markets and buying a wide variety of vegetables – some I had no idea how to prepare and would research after bringing them home. This was an amazing learning experience for me, and one I would recommend. I have yet to completely figure out eggplant and artichoke, but I’m a master at zucchini noodles, roasted beets, and pumpkin puree.
After I got my vegetable intake high, local, and fresh, I turned my attention to eating better quality meat. I found chicken that is certified humane and sustainable from the co-op, along with wild-caught fish, and meat from a local farm. I was pleased with how easy it was to find sustainably and humanely raised animal products, but then I realized that meat is expensive. I took the same adventurous approach to cooking meat as I did with vegetables: buy a cheap cut, take it home, and see what happens. I made a beef bourguignon with stew meat that was pretty tasty, discovered that I like liver, decided pork jowl tastes just as good as bacon, and found a recipe for oxtail that is dynamite. My standby protein source is to put a whole chicken (less expensive and more sustainable than buying pieces) in the crockpot, and I have an easy recipe for that, too (see below).
- Crock pots are magic and cooking with cast iron is the shiz-nit.
Do I actually need to persuade you of the convenience and joys of crock pot cooking? Slow cooking meat is wonderful, because you can buy cheap cuts and simmer them for hours until they fall off the bone. For example, when I made oxtail recently, I left that baby on high for nearly 12 hours. It melted into the broth for a velvety, hearty stew.
Easy crock pot chicken: first, trim four carrots and place them in the bottom of the crock pot (when I buy organic carrots I don’t bother peeling them). Next, remove the giblets from inside the chicken, rinse the bird and pat dry (make sure you thank her for giving her life to improve your health), and stuff the cavity with a lemon, halved, a couple cloves of garlic, and a sprig of whatever fresh herb you have on hand. Straddle the carrots with your sacrificed chicken friend, and turn the crock pot on low for 4-6 hours (or 2-3 on high), although mine goes for 8 hours while I’m at work, and it’s fine. It just falls apart. Make sure you save the drippings! Cook them down and use as a gravy, add to your next batch of bone broth, or use as a base for soup or a casserole. Waste not, friends. Save those bones and giblets, too, of course.
Cast iron might be a harder sell. It’s heavy, takes maintenance, and you can’t stick it in the dishwasher, but hear me out. It’s timeless – cast iron never breaks, but you might have to scrape some rust off if you let it sit for years. It adds nutrition to your meal in the form of… you guessed it: iron! It cooks evenly and a well-seasoned cast iron skillet is really a pleasure to cook in.
Caring for cast iron is easier than you think: scrub it clean with a stiff bristled brush and season it regularly by heating it to smoking, rubbing a neutral oil on it, and letting it cool. Make sure your hood is on and stand back, because you don’t want to breathe the smoke from the oil. You can use soap on your skillet if you want, just plan to season it before the next use. If you bought a new skillet, it’s already seasoned and ready to go. If you buy a secondhand skillet, scrub all the rust and grime off of it and then season it 5-10 times before cooking with it.
My dirty little secret: sometimes (often), when I make bacon in the morning, I’ll leave the grease in the pan all day and then fry my dinner in it. Hey, our grandmothers used to keep bacon grease on the stove all the time. I’m just simplifying things a bit by skipping the storage jar.
- How to reduce household waste
Buying local, supporting the co-op, and reducing waste seem to go hand-in-hand. I buy beans, nuts, flours, spices, herbs, tea, and salt in bulk using jars from home, and I generally remember to bring my own bags now (when I don’t, I opt for paper). I take my trash and recycling out about every other week or less, which is a huge reduction considering my previous average-American-consumer habits.
I try to buy little plastic, and I always reuse glass jars. It’s handy to have jars hanging around when you want to send soup, sauce, or some other treat home with a friend, because you don’t have to worry about your “nice” (if you can have nice things) containers getting lost.
I don’t know why it took me so long to start composting. It’s very easy and second nature, now. I save my bones, organs, and vegetable scraps in the freezer for broth. All other food waste goes in a big bowl on my counter, which I should empty more often. I drilled some holes in a couple of trash cans, and I dump the food scraps in there with some yard waste. To turn, I transfer the compost to the other bin.
- How to detoxify my body
The best way to battle die-off symptoms, which can be quite devastating in the early stages, as I mentioned previously, is to take efforts to help your body detoxify. This includes soaking in baths, drinking cleansing teas, and taking supplements. It’s also important to move your body. The blood in your extremities is moved by your skeletal muscles, so if you’re very sedentary your blood flow will also be low. Your liver can only clean blood that’s circulating, so help it out.
I take a detox bath at least once a week (during the first week of GAPS intro I took one ever day), by adding a cup of one of the following in rotation: epsom salt, pink Himalayan salt, baking soda, ACV, half-and-half baking soda and epsom salt, and ginger (powdered, 2 T). Bentonite clay is also good, but it’s not available at the co-op, and I haven’t made it to Good Earth yet, although a friend did gift me a vial of Dr. Teal’s detox bath, which has clay, ginger, and epsom salt in it. [Update: I’ve been to Good Earth now. It’s amazing in there. Also, I’ve settled on alternating between epsom salt and ginger baths semi-weekly. I still haven’t remembered to pick up clay.]
In addition to drinking warm, salted broth, hot water with lemon is also a great way to replenish fluids and electrolytes. It’s especially helpful to take it first thing in the morning. Ginger tea is my go-to drink when I’m experiencing die-off, because in addition to detoxifying, it also settles my stomach. Grated fresh ginger in hot water is easy-peasy, and it tastes a whole lot better than dried ginger.
As far as supplements, I make my own cocktail, because I can’t find a multivitamin that satisfies my needs. I look like a grandma with my weekly pill organizer, swallowing a out a half dozen of tablets and capsules each morning. I do notice I difference if I slack off, though, so I consider it worth the effort. I take milk thistle for liver support, potassium for muscle cramps, magnesium for regularity (both are electrolytes which is important to combat dehydration), and B-vitamins for energy every day. I also rotate between the following antioxidants: vitamin A from cod liver oil, vitamin E, vitamin C, and vitamin D (taken every day between Fall and Spring equinox). If I feel a cold coming on I add zinc (a cofactor necessary for immune system efficiency) and L-lysine (an antiviral). [Note: I’ve since added a probiotic and black cohosh for hormone balance.]
Any way you move your body is fine with me. Have a dance party with your cat, ride your bike, work in the yard, play with your kid, kayak, swim… you get the picture. The most important aspect, in my opinion, is that you choose an activity you enjoy. I used to run when I was cross-training for derby, and while I did eventually learn to enjoy it, my hips just are not built for running. They are long and low, and the high-impact nature of running makes them ache. This made running an unsustainable practice for me.
Most of my exercise now comes in the form of riding my bike around town, hiking, camping, working in the yard and garden, and practicing yoga. My yoga practice is a priority in my life, and I have a well-established home practice. I shoot for three full practices a week (full =75-90 min), with two of those being solitary and one in a studio. I also do 10-20 minutes of asana practice every morning as a part of my daily meditation practice. Since I started focusing on detox, I’ve incorporated more twists and binds which wring your liver out like a dish rag.
- How to have a social life without consuming carbs
This was actually one of the most challenging parts of my transition to a cleaner lifestyle. We live in a drinking culture, to the point where people are sometimes uncomfortable if you opt for coffee or tea instead of wine or beer. To be honest, I’m still navigating this challenge and learning what it’s like to be sober. [At the moment I’ve been clean and sober for 10 days. I’m kinda digging it, but I’m still in the closet about my sobriety, which I hear is not uncommon. I’m still not sure if this is an experiment of a life change. As I mentioned earlier, I have a fondness for bourbon and bowls.]
As far as eating out goes, I never go to a new restaurant hungry unless I’m familiar with the menu. Some of the best options for me are Thai food (no rice, not egg roll), burgers without the bun and a side salad instead of fries, and barbecue with no sauce and a side of green beans. In Indianapolis, some of my favorite menus are at Nook and Pure. If I’m feeling up to hosting, I’ll usually avoid the whole kerfuffle and have people over to my house for dinner.
Another good option is to find activities to do with friends that aren’t food or drink centered, such as going to music shows, bowling, skating, singing karaoke, riding bikes and exploring the city together, or hosting a game night.
- How to throw a meal together effortlessly
I’ve already alluded to this skill above, but to reiterate: eating from fresh is easier than people make it out to be. The most time-consuming part is chopping vegetables. I like food prep, though. The kitchen has become my happy place, and this is something I only realized recently when I was cleaning my house and heard myself thinking, “Just get through with this chore and then you can get in the kitchen.” [Aside: I’m trying to learn to enjoy cleaning, but it’s more difficult. I remind myself that cleaning my house is an act of love and care. I think about the family that built my house, the two sisters who originally occupied it, the small family that lived out their lives there after the sisters, and I dedicate the care I give my home to their memories, my future self, and future homeowners, whoever they may be. This is all to say: it’s an effort for me not to resent housework!]
Back on topic, here is how I throw a meal together with minimal effort and planning:
- Stock my fridge with in-season produce and eggs and keep an assortment of oils and fats on hand.
- Cook and prep protein choices ahead of time. I put a whole chicken in the crock pot about every other week, keep salmon filets in the freezer (they take about 20 min in the oven at 425° F), and mix things up with different cuts of beef periodically. To prepare beans, I soak them overnight, ferment them with ¼ cup of whey for three days, and then rinse them very well and boil them soft. Nuts are soaked according to the chart in this book (generally 8 hours) and dried in the oven on the lowest setting for 4-8 hours, checking every 2 hours. I already explained how I make yogurt above.
- Look in my crisper and pull out the oldest vegetable, pick a protein, and add some fat. Some combinations I like:
- Spaghetti squash with an egg beat in, formed into pancake-like blobs, and fried in ghee to make “squashbrowns” (pictured above)
- Shredded chicken breast with a homemade dressing mixed in (mayonnaise or chimichurri sauce) over romaine with parmesan cheese and sunflower seeds
- Homemade mayo is easier than you think: put one egg and 1 T ACV in the blender, start it, and drizzle in a cup of quality olive oil; add some ground mustard, salt, or anything else you want, to taste
- Seasonal veggie salad: pre-cooked beans, cucumber, red onion, celery or whatever you have on hand, cut into similar sized pieces, plus some minced herbs (I tend to go for parsley); dress with high quality olive oil and either lemon juice or ACV, salt to taste.
- Sautéed garlic, onion, zucchini and summer squash with eggs over easy (pictured)
- Bacon and kale, fried in the bacon grease, topped with cheese or toasted walnuts (pictured)
- Cream cheese and strawberries (pictured)
- Meatballs or burger patties and steamed broccoli or mashed cauliflower (steam florets until soft, add ghee, mash it up)
10. That GAPS and vegetarianism/veganism are indeed mutually exclusive
I had vegetarian ambitions when I started eating SCD, which meant I was subsisting largely on beans and nuts. Unfortunately the phytic acid in these foods built up in my system to the point of sensitivity (soaking helps remove phytic acid). This is ultimately what led me to the GAPS intro diet, and I learned that animal products are very healing to the lining of your gut. If your intestines are damaged, the best way to repair them is to offer yourself the building blocks they require in an easily accessible form, i.e. well-cooked meat and broth. Therefore, it’s impossible to do the GAPS intro diet as a vegetarian. The best I could manage was humane-itarianism. Happily, my goal of supporting the local economy and buying sustainably and humanely raised meat go hand-in-hand.
I have one more essay in this series to write. It’s basically about how my love of cooking developed slowly, and how I realized when reading Ikigai, that the fact that I lose track of time in the kitchen means cooking is a “flow” activity for me.
Photos are original to me, all copyrights reserved
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