For the most part, your diet seems pretty solid. You’re eating eggs on a regular basis. You’ve got, like, six ways to make really good cauliflower. That subtle humming reverberating through the house is just your chest freezer full of half a grass-fed cow. Leafy green vegetables are staples, sweet potatoes appear post-workout, and you’re first in line to buy fresh wild salmon when in season (plus extra for the chest freezer). All your bases are covered, right? Maybe not. From all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve spotted a few consistent blind spots in the diets of the Primal community. In today’s article, I will reveal the 10 Primal foods you probably need to eat more often. After each entry, I’ll tell you the easiest (and tastiest) way I’ve found to integrate said food into your diet; no excuses.
Let’s get to it:
Beef (and other ruminant) liver is often called nature’s multivitamin, and for good reason. It provides about a week’s worth of pre-formed vitamin A (retinol) and copper while being perhaps the best source of B-vitamins in town. Only problem? That’s a lot of vitamin A and copper. You can’t, or at least shouldn’t eat it too often. A quarter pound, maybe a half pound per week is just about enough. Any more is probably a bit much. This focus on beef liver also keeps a lot of people from eating what is in many respects a separate yet equal liver: chicken. Lower in vitamin A (but still a fantastic source) and copper, chicken liver can be consumed more regularly than beef liver. Plus, chicken liver is even higher in folate than and about equal in zinc to beef liver.
Another benefit of chicken liver is that it’s relatively mild. Even the liver-averse who’ve tried and failed to enjoy beef or lamb liver often find they can eat chicken liver. Just make sure to choose pastured when available and select the darkest (bordering on burgundy) livers you can find; avoid pale livers.
How to do it: Chicken liver is great sautéed quickly with ginger, shallots, and garlic with a splash of rich chicken stock (reduced to a syrup) and a dash of lemon juice. Salt and pepper to taste.
Selenium is a tricky mineral. We need it, but its presence in food depends entirely on its presence in the soil, and there’s kind of a worldwide shortage of soil selenium. So even if the USDA claims lamb liver is rich in selenium, if that animal was grazing on selenium-deficient soil, the liver’s not a reliable source. That’s the thing about Brazil nuts: they hail from a notoriously selenium-replete region. Just a couple nuts provide more than enough selenium.
However, some are scared off by the phytic acid. Others worry about the linoleic acid. Or maybe it’s the radiation, or the mold, or the excessive amounts of selenium. The risks are overblown. Besides, you’re not eating these nuts for the calories. You’re eating one, two, maybe three at a time for the selenium. If you’re looking to maximize your nutrition, these are essential nuts.
How to do it: Eat a small handful a couple times a week, or 1-3 each day. Store in the freezer. Grab Brazil nuts in the shell if possible.
Small oily fish
Small oily fish — sardines, small mackerel, smelts, anchovies — cover just about every Primal base. To wit:
- They’re low on the food chain, meaning they’re a more sustainable source of calories and have had less time and inclination to accumulate marine toxins and heavy metals.
- They can be consumed whole, meaning they provide calcium (bones), ample micronutrients (fish offal and heads), and all sorts of fermenting goodness (whatever the fish ate, probably algae or something, which makes them vegan I think).
- They’re a great source of omega-3s, which we all need even if we’re eating low omega-6. Furthermore, said omega-3s are more stable when consumed in the whole package (the fish).
- They’re cheap, at least for now. Don’t wait until the foodies latch on and the price jumps.
Eat them, guys.
How to do it: Salt, pepper, lemon juice, fresh herbs (I like tarragon and/or oregano), olive oil, hot grill, one/two/three minutes a side depending on size.
It’s a sweetener, yes. It comes from sugar cane, sure. With less sugar than either white sugar, brown sugar, regular molasses, or dark molasses, but far more minerals and electrolytes, this isn’t your mama’s sugar. It’s your great grandpappy’s sugar, the stuff he’d pour slow over his grits or steel-cut oats or cream of wheat or [insert regional porridge]. See, sugar cane is a plant with roots that stretch six meters down into the soil to extract nutrients. It puts hair on your chest, stuffs potassium into your serum, shoves magnesium past your cellular membranes, and makes a killer barbecue sauce. Eating just a couple tablespoons of blackstrap molasses gives you more than twice the potassium of a banana, more calcium than a cup of raw spinach, and almost 100 mg of magnesium. Blackstrap’s got so much potassium that it’s caused hyperkalemia. So don’t go crazy with it. A tablespoon goes a long way.
How to do it: A tablespoon taken straight if brave, mixed with the milk (animal/coconut/almond) of your choice if not. I also use it on the rare occasion I make my energy drink for extreme physical pursuits, which contains raw honey, coconut water, sea salt, and blackstrap molasses.
Extra virgin olive oil
Even though I tried to reassure you folks years ago, some people are still convinced extra virgin olive oil is terrible for cooking, oxidizes as soon as you open the bottle, and contains too many polyunsaturated fats to be good for you. As much as I love coconut oil, macadamia nut oil, grass-fed butter/ghee, and all the others fats the mainstream maligns, I always return to a good bottle of EVOO. Just because it’s a darling of the conventional health community doesn’t mean it’s overrated. It’s not. So here goes:
Olive oil is remarkably stable in the presence of heat.
Olive oil is primarily monounsaturated fat. You can confirm this by sticking your bottle in the fridge. See how it solidifies after half a day? That’s the MUFAs.
Extra virgin olive oil doesn’t oxidize as quickly as you think. And you know how the expensive bottle you just bought burns the back of your throat? That’s not rancidity; those are polyphenols (a good thing!), and they protect the oil from oxidizing.
How to do it: Toss with salads, pour into and drink from teaspoons (slurp to really taste it), use for light to medium sautéing. I’ve even fried thin cut yukon gold potatoes in extra virgin olive oil (the California EVOO from Trader Joe’s, to be exact) and they were great. Didn’t even smoke.
I’m a sucker for blackberries (and really great meaty strawberries), but blueberries aren’t far behind. And in a head to head to head competition, blueberries win out on health benefits. I’ve seen Kaiser Permanente posters that basically amount to close-ups of moisture-flecked blueberries. Everyone agrees these guys are healthy. They’re so good for us that people often use blueberries as a measuring stick for a food’s healthfulness. “Ten times as many antioxidants as blueberries!” the ad for the superfood du jour cries out. Yeah, blueberries can:
- Improve blood pressure and arterial stiffness in postmenopausal women with hypertension.
- Increase anti-cancer natural killer cell count and reduce arterial stiffness in both sedentary men and women.
- Induce anti-inflammatory effects in endothelial cells.
And even if they weren’t so good for us, even if they were just neutral sources of a few calories of fructose and glucose, they are dang delicious. There’s nothing quite like a taut berry exploding between your teeth, coating your tongue with tangy-sweet nectary explosions. ‘Tis the season here in the US, so go get you some.
How to do it: Fresh and in season is best. If you go to farmer’s markets, hit the stands as the market closes for last minute deals. Some stands also give “jam berries” for cut-rate prices. Frozen blueberries are also great and there’s actually interesting research suggesting that the ice crystals in frozen blueberries rupture cell walls and make the anthocyanins more bioavailable.
Oysters have a long and storied reputation as potent aphrodisiacs, and there’s something to it. Oysters are the richest source of zinc, a mineral that humans need to make testosterone. If you’re deficient in zinc, eating zinc-rich foods (like oysters) will boost your testosterone level. Red meat is also a good source of zinc, but there’s something special about a half dozen of briny oysters served with lemon. Every time I hit the farmer’s market and the oyster guy’s there, I eat a tray and it just energizes me. Is that peer-reviewed? Nah. But so what.
How to do it: Oyster stew, schmoyster stew. Pop ’em open and eat raw. Trader Joe’s also carries a great smoked oyster in BPA free packaging.
Two shellfish on the list, Sisson? What’s the deal here? Is it really necessary?
Yes, and here’s why.
Mussels are one of the better sources of manganese, a mineral that helps oppose iron overload and figures prominently in the production of a vital endogenous antioxidant that protects against the kind of oxidative stress that leads to diabetic complications (whew!). Most people get manganese through whole grain intake, but our pre-agricultural coastal-living ancestors likely obtained their manganese through shellfish consumption. I suggest we do the same. Since you’re probably not eating grains, you should probably eat mussels because you only need an ounce of them, cooked, to hit your daily requirements.
How to do it: I know it can be disappointing when you pay twenty bucks for a bag of beautiful black shells only to end up with shriveled little teaspoons of chewy meat, but they are worth the few minutes it takes to cook the properly. Here’s what to do:
- Get some aromatics (garlic, shallots, onoins, leeks, that kinda smelly-in-a-good-way vegetable) and cook until soft in olive oil or butter in a pot.
- Add a splash of broth, white wine, coconut milk, hard cider, an orange juice/lemon juice mix, or even just water. Not too much, maybe a quarter cup per pound, as mussels naturally expel a lot of liquid.
- Bring to a boil, add mussels, and cover.
- Once the mussels start to open, give it another minute or so. Enjoy (and drink the liquid!).
I’m keeping this general because the genre is so broad and not everyone can eat or enjoy dairy or kraut or natto. But everyone can enjoy something. Me? My favorite is a good bowl of grass-fed, full-fat yogurt, possibly littered with blueberries, blackberries, nuts, and sometimes a drizzle of raw honey. I’ll also drink kefir from time to time. When I get around to it, I’ll whip up a batch of sauerkraut and have enough for a few weeks until it runs out and I drag my feet for another few months. If I’m ever in an Asian market, I’ll pick up a jar of kimchi. I also grab natto whenever I see it. My point is I’ve always got something fermented in my fridge, ready to be eaten. Probiotics, even my own, don’t replace them. Why?
Especially when they’re homemade, fermented foods are rich sources of diverse and often unknown strains of probiotics. No batch is the same, so nothing else can replicate it but that specific batch. Some would say that makes it inherently risky, but as long as you’re thriving on the stuff, I’m not worried. Heck, I even like the idea of playing God and creating your own unique strain via natural selection over thousands of generations.
Iodine is a Primal bugaboo. Most of you are using fancy pink sea salts without added iodine and avoiding processed food made with standard iodized salt. All good moves, but you still need that iodine. I’m not saying you’re going to suffer from regressive cretinism, but what about your thyroid hormone production? What about the IQ of your gestating child? Sea vegetables, like kelp (kombu) or wakame, are the best sources of iodine in the world. The Japanese eat a ton, so much that their gut bacteria have learned to efficiently digest the otherwise hardy seaweed polysaccharides. Not everyone should eat that much. We should, however, be eating some.
How to do it: Anytime you make broth, add a slab of dried kombu. The iodine and other sea minerals will leach into the liquid.
As I said earlier, these are the dietary blindspots I’m seeing out there. It’s not true for everyone, and your standard Primal way of eating is usually quite complete, but I’d guess that almost everyone out there could use a little more of something from the list.
But let’s hear from you folks: Am I right? Was I wrong? What are the food you see Primal people forgetting to eat?
Thanks for reading, everyone.
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