Ok. So the holiday countdown begins tomorrow with Halloween and it won’t let up until New Year’s Day! What’s a person committed to a low carb or Paleo lifestyle to do? Safely negotiating the dangerous waters of the holiday party and feasting season can be tricky, but as we told our patients for decades, it can–and should–be done! And so, we gave them tips and tricks for handling the holidays each year, because we believed (and still do) that enjoying the conviviality and richness of the season with friends is important to the human spirit–even, and perhaps most especially, for those who have adopted a given lifestyle to control weight and the myriad health issues related to metabolic imbalance.
Gathering together to feast and celebrate is essential to emotional well-being. And now, a book, authored by the Make it Paleo team of Hayley Mason and Bill Staley offers us delicious insights into how to do it!
Gather: The Art of Paleo Entertaining (Victory Belt 2013) takes us all on a culinary romp through the seasons, with step-by-step advice on shopping, planning, and executing a fun-filled, food-filled, Paleo-friendly year of entertaining. The authors take us from a Springtime Tea Party to a summer Night in Tuscany or Tropical Getaway to the autumn with the Thanksgiving Feast and on to a Winter Holiday meal that would seamlessly slip onto anyone’s Christmas dinner table. There’s even a New Year’s Eve Cocktail Party!
The photographs are luscious, the menus interesting, and the recipes obviously tasty.
If there is one criticism that I would have about this book (and it goes for most of the flood of paleo cookbooks that have arisen with the blossoming of the paleo movement) it would be the mistaken notion that because something is ‘natural’ and was possibly present in paleo times (sometimes a stretch) it is somehow nobler. That it is less metabolically harmful to use grape juice, maple syrup, honey, molasses, and dried fruits to sweeten than equivalent amounts of cane or beet sugar or corn syrup. Or, one might even add, than artificial sweeteners. And that’s simply not the case.
Let me hasten to say that many, if not most, of the recipes in Gather are well suited for both the paleo crowd and for those following a low carb diet to address metabolic issues. I heartily recommend this lovely book, but with one crucial caveat for the metabolically dysfunctional, overweight adult with insulin resistance: please read the ingredients lists with care and be alert that all that is currently dubbed paleo isn’t necessarily low carb… and some of it isn’t even necessarily paleo.
For instance, as it is coming up soon, let’s take the Thanksgiving Feast.
The authors have presented a beautiful meal, filled with traditional foods, attractively plated and clearly scrumptious; for the young, healthy, cross fit paleo devotee, it will be fine. However, the older, less fit, less active person still trying to corral metabolic syndrome must tread with some care. For that person, eating a thin sliver (one-tenth) of pie sweetened with 100 grams of simple sugar–albeit in the form of maple syrup, molasses, and dates–may be tolerable as a 10-gram treat after a meal of roast turkey, mashed cauliflower, and green vegetables with few, if any, additional sugar/starch grams. But that’s not what comes before.
In addition to that tasty pecan pie, the Thanksgiving Feast includes: Cranberry Relish, Poached Pear Salad, Lemon Green Beans with Shallots, Apple Veal Stuffing, and, of course, Stuffed Turkey. Let’s look at how much carb is in the meal preceding that pie. Fortunately, the recipes in this particular feast are all scaled to feed 10 people, so it make the per-serving carb math easy.
Take the Poached Pear Salad. Along with fresh mixed greens and gorgonzola cheese with a simple balsamic dressing (no carb issues with any of this) it is made with spiced pecans and poached pears. The pecans, in their native state, aren’t problematic, but here, they are sweetened with 1/4 cup maple syrup (52 g) and served along with the 4 pears (72 g) that are poached in 3 cups of grape juice (of which they will surely absorb at least some portion of the 66 g of sugar contained therein). That’s at minimum 12 to 15 grams of sugar/starch in each of the 10 servings, just in the salad.
The Lemon Green Beans with Shallots are a dream come true and there is nothing a low-carb dieter would need to do but enjoy them!
In the center of the plate, this Stuffed Turkey sounds fantastic, rubbed with a compounded mixture of duck fat, rosemary, thyme, salt, and pepper. (Disclaimer: Damn-near anything with duck fat in it rings my chimes!) But this is a stuffed bird, and the stuffing, though grain free, is still pretty weighty in the carb department.
The Apple Veal Stuffing for the turkey is filled with mushrooms, onions, veal, spices and herbs–all good low-carb players. But then it gets some nuttiness from 6-1/2 ounces of chestnuts (52 g) and some sweetness from 3 Granny Smith apples (60 g) and 8 ounces of dried cranberries (which could be as low as 20 g for unsweetened dried cranberries, but as high as 160+ g, if sweetened somehow, which they may be). All of which means that each serving will weigh in at least with 11 grams of sugar/starch carb just from the apples and chestnuts and unsweetened cranberries, but could go as high as 22 g if the cranberries were sweetened with grape juice, which they often are commercially.
While we’re on the subject of cranberries, there is also a Cranberry Relish made with 3 pounds of fresh cranberries, which of themselves are pretty low in carb at 2 effective grams per ounce. But their natural tartness needs something to sweeten it, which in this case is Medjool dates. 3 cups of them. For a total of 300+ grams of added non-fiber carb, for another 30+g per person.
Adding it all up, over and above the small amount of carb present in the nuts, green beans, and salad greens and the garlic and onions used to flavor, the paleo Thanksgiving meal could top 75 grams of effective carb per person.
And therein lies my concern.
So, my recommendation is that this is a beautiful, well-produced, cookbook, filled with lots of good recipes. I recommend it for many of its recipes. If you are young and healthy and living a paleo lifestyle, vowing to eschew grains and high fructose corn syrup and table sugar and modern pre-packaged foods, this book makes a wonderful addition to your paleo cookbook library.
But if eating low carb is your aim, I caution you to be a careful reader of ingredients and to substitute the concentrated sugar sources with something less provocative to your insulin regulatory system.
Remember, paleo humans didn’t have grape juice. They didn’t process sugar cane into molasses. They probably didn’t tap maple trees for sap, but that is less clear. Beyond occasionally stumbling into the honey tree, where they had to fend off angry bees to claim the sweet prize and the wild berries and less-sweet fruits they might gather in the late summer and dry (without added sugar) for use through the winter, early humans had no sources of concentrated sweetness.
Perhaps a better option for us all, paleo and low carber alike, would be to take a page from their ancient book and simply sweeten less, whether that be with ‘natural’ sweeteners, such as honey, molasses, and dried fruits, or with acceptable artificial sweeteners or low-calorie-carb-free natural alternatives, such as stevia.
However you approach this holiday season, make it a healthier, happier one, filled with many Gatherings to enjoy friends, family, fun, and lots of good food!