Talking Paleo Diet with Tony Federico


Tony Federico is a Jacksonville resident, cookbook author, and host of  Paleo Magazine Radio, a show that focuses on the paleo diet with a special emphasis on average people who have adopted the paleo diet to help with weight or health issues

1. Can you tell us about your background?

Tony Federico ~ head shot

I graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor's degree from their college of Exercise and Sports Science. After school I worked in Gainesville as a personal trainer which gave me exposure to a pretty diverse clientele. I split my time between a continuing care retirement community, which was for people 50 years of age and up, and a regular gym - Gainesville Health and Fitness, which is one of the top gyms in the country. This let me see both ends of the physical fitness spectrum and it made it very clear to me how important lifestyle was across a person's lifespan. I could look at someone who was 80 and tell right away if they took care of themselves, or not. The difference would be things like: are you in a wheelchair? Are you on tons of medication? Are you able to function on your own or do you require assistance? That early experience made it abundantly clear to me how important taking care of yourself is if you want to have a high quality of life for many, many years. 

While my education was primarily focused on exercise science it didn't get as much into the practical aspects of how people need to apply general lifestyle factors to their health. That's where I did my own self education. I read a lot of books, talked to a lot of people and had the experience of having a lot of different clients and getting to see what works across thousands of different individuals. With that experience I could get a handle on what needs to be done and found that the basics seem to work the best. Basic movements, things like squats, lunges, pushups and pull-ups and then basic food, which to me means eating whole foods - fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts and things like that. What I found is that the better quality food people ate, the better their results. It just so happens that this is what was being advocated by the paleo diet. 

2. What is a paleo diet?

I was first exposed to that term when a client of mine gave me a copy of Loren Cordain's book "The Paleo Diet." It made sense immediately. It was an "aha!" moment that encapsulated what I'd seen on a practical level and it was something that clicked with my own leanings. I'm very interested in science and biology, they were always my favorite subjects in school, and I excelled in them because it always just made sense. I clearly believe in evolution. We haven't stopped evolving but we need to take into account evolutionary pressures and how they factored into where we are today. That means we're better suited to eating the foods we've been eating for over a million years. It creates a context for why we should be eating in a particular way that is lacking from the "fad diets." Which is why I don't think paleo is a fad because that would mean that human development is a fad, and it's clearly not. Paleo incorporates an understanding of history, biology and ecology that represent core scientific principles that have been researched for a long time. It's not just a bunch of paleo bloggers, although the bloggers have furthered the awareness of the Paleo Diet. There's hard science that's been done for a long time that backs up these ideas - it just wasn't necessarily translated into a practical prescription until recently.

From an anthropological perspective, when we look at what cavemen actually ate, we can tell they ate a lot of wild game. Primitive stone tools were used to break apart bones to give access to things like the fatty marrow. We could say that they were eating “nose to tail,” to use a term from today. The modern paleo diet is often associated with bacon eating Crossfitters. Is that bad? No, it's leaps and bounds above what people get on the standard American diet, but neither is it truly representative of what cavemen were really eating. That's where a lot of criticism of the modern paleo diet has come from.

The modern iteration of the paleo diet isn't so much about exactly what actual cavemen ate, it is about eating real, unprocessed food. We know that cavemen weren't eating processed anything. They didn't eat refined sugars, grains, artificial colors, preservatives, flavor enhancers and so forth. Once you take away what our early ancestors didn't eat in any form, what we're left with is eating fruits and vegetables, meat products, nuts, berries and that sort of stuff. When it comes to meat, that ideally means eating all across the animal, including organ meats. It's not about eating just lean meat, which is a misinterpretation of what the paleo diet should be about. As long as you're eating food you can recognize by sight, I'd say that's the simplest test for whether or not you should eat something. Then recognizing that grains, dairy products, and industrial seed oils such as canola and corn oil are all relatively recent additions in terms of our evolution. They've mostly come about in the last 10,000 years since the agricultural revolution. That means that we should think about limiting these items and exploring our own individual tolerance for them. Dairy is probably one area where some people can do well with it while others can't handle it. You can complicate things when you get into the nitty gritty but it can be as simple as eating only what you recognize or things without an ingredients label. If it needs an ingredients label then it's probably not paleo.

3. When you got Loren Cordain's Paleo Diet book and your "aha!" moment, were you already eating in a mostly paleo way?

It was close. The biggest difference is that I was eating a lot of whole grains like Ezekiel bread or really hearty crackers. I was eating lots of fruit and some meat. I had gone through a phase where I was toying with veganism or vegetarianism as being the optimal diet but it never really worked for me. I liked meat and animal products too much to do that whole heartedly. So, although I might have had a vegan meal from time to time and thought it was optimal from some perspective - especially after learning about the conditions of factory farmed animals - I was never able to stick to it. So, my diet was close to the Paleo Diet when I came across it. By eliminating the grain products I was eating I was able to make a seamless transition. I wasn't drinking sodas, eating candy and those sorts of things anyway. I'd been in the fitness industry for a while and I'd been exploring and refining my own fitness for a long time. Once I read Loren Cordain's book I started to do a lot more research about the paleo movement, reading books like The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson and The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf. All of that reading really crystallized what I'd been leaning towards and gave me some tweaks that I was able to implement. 

4. Did you notice any difference when you eliminated the grains from your diet?

The biggest change I noticed was that the food cravings, which I'd fought for a long time, started to dissipate. I didn't feel like I had to fight with myself to control my eating. I initially lost a lot of weight as well but since then I've gained it back, and then some, which was probably a good thing because in many ways I was underweight. Sometimes a paleo diet is advertised as a weight loss diet and you can lose weight with it but it's really not about weight loss as much as it is about being a healthy way of eating. If you eat healthy and you're overweight then over time you will also lose weight but it's a consequence of eating healthy, which is the goal. 

5. Is it typical to fight the cravings for someone new to a paleo diet who is giving up grains and breads?

I think it absolutely is. Dr. Hamilton Stapell is an Assistant Professor of History and has given a talk on some of the obstacles to the paleo movement going mainstream. One of those obstacles is that we live in a neolithic culture. By that I mean the central elements of many of our traditions include things like a birthday cake, bread in our religious traditions and the deep role that grains play in our culture. Asking people to stop eating grains or telling them the things they've been doing are bad can feel like an insult to them. 

But, looking at the nutritional science of the past 50 years, there's been a big push to say that cholesterol is bad, fat is bad, eggs are bad, and red meat is bad. So, what's left? That leaves whole grains and a low fat, high carbohydrate diet. Is that correct? I don't personally think so. I think the motivation behind the push was based on the fact that grains are highly profitable and there are a lot of companies making a lot money selling refined grain products. If you look at the old food pyramid, 6 to 11 servings of grains was recommended, which is an obscene amount. If you think of what that amount of grain looks like it's hard to believe anyone would even be able to eat that, let alone should they be eating that. 

So eliminating grains is definitely difficult for people. But it's difficult in the same way that it's difficult to give up any addictive substance. There's a biochemical dependence that gets developed. Grain products taste good - they could very well be stimulating some reward centers in the brain, especially when combined with refined oils, salt, artificial flavors and sugar. When you can eat some of those snack pastries with 350 calories and immediately after feel like you want another one, and another one, it shows that they're devoid of nutrition and are just not satisfying. They tell your brain that you need to keep eating, which causes insulin levels in the body to spike and do all sorts of crazy stuff. If you tell someone to stop eating all that, they're going to have a hard time for a while but if they get through that detox period they're probably going to feel, like I did, at peace for the first time in a long time. If they keep eating healthily for a long time and win over some of their friends and family members, it becomes a lot easier because they're not always fighting other people's skepticism.

6. How long is the detox typically and what are some strategies to get through it?

Everyone likes to say "everything in moderation" but if you look at someone who's a long time cigarette smoker, is going from 2 packs a day to 1 pack a day the best way to detox? It might work for some people but I think the best way is to just stop and give yourself an opportunity to experience what it's like not to have a certain substance - in this case, bread products, refined sugary beverages and so forth. Give yourself an opportunity to experience what it's like without these things. Give your brain an opportunity to function without being constantly overwhelmed by these substances. It's hard at first because it's like turning the volume down after being at a rock concert where the speakers are at their max and all of a sudden everything becomes quiet. At first it can seem almost too quiet. For someone who's been eating processed foods for a long time, a piece of fruit might taste bland. But after you give your body some time to re-sensitize you'll be able to start tasting the more nuanced flavors in real food. 

When you switch to real foods it will probably take a few weeks to notice the first big differences but your body will continue to adjust over the years. There's nothing nutritionally necessary about processed foods. Nobody needs to eat a couple of slices of bread every day. All the nutrition found in grain is also found in other food. Human beings didn't eat grains for a million years. It's only in the last 10,000 years that humans ate grains with any sort of prominence in our diet. When people tell me then need bread, I tell them, "no, you want to eat bread." There's a difference. Give yourself a couple of weeks and see what happens. For me it meant having a lot less food cravings. Other things happened for me too. I had suffered from restless leg syndrome for years and that just disappeared. What's 14 days to try something that could possibly have a profound, positive impact on your health?

7. What are some of the best resources for someone who wants to try out a paleo diet?

There are a million books out there. It depends on what someone's inclination is. Whole30 is a strict interpretation of paleo that works for some people and provides a one month challenge. There are meal plans and a book so that you can follow along with the challenge. Almost all the paleo books come with a 30 day meal plan. There are a lot of blogs and social media groups as well that are helpful in providing support while you're trying a paleo diet out. There's no shortage of resources, but the first thing that needs to happen is to have a desire to try something different. Paleo has a lot of appeal if someone is tired of fad diets and is looking for a lifestyle because it's something for the long term. It's not inherently low carb or super high protein. You can tailor a paleo diet to your needs. No other diet is that flexible. It represents the way humans have been eating for most of our existence. Inuits eat mostly an animal based diet in terms of seal, salmon and whale. Tropical hunter-gatherers will eat many more plant products because that's what the environment provides. Both groups are extraordinarily healthy in comparison to city dwelling humans and are free of Western diseases, such as diabetes. Human beings are omnivores and are designed to eat a wide variety of foods, but it's a wide variety of food, not food products.

8. Can you tell us about your work with Paleo Magazine?

Paleo Magazine is the only print magazine completely dedicated to the paleo lifestyle. It focuses on sleep, nutrition, exercise, family, cooking and all aspects of modern life. Paleo Magazine takes a holistic approach to the paleo lifestyle. It's available at Whole Foods or online. If you're interested in paleo, or even just exercise, or clean eating, it's a great resource. Paleo Magazine Radio is the podcast I do in conjunction with Paleo Magazine. We have had the opportunity to bring on some really interesting guests. Sometimes they're researchers or cookbook authors. We also have everyday people, which is one of our unique aspects. The everyday stories can be inspiring to listeners. It's one thing for someone making a living with a paleo diet to be successful with it but it's another thing to hear from someone just going through their regular job with a family and who can still be successful in transforming their life.

9. Do you have a culinary background?

I've always been into food. I was a chubby kid who liked food. I'd make myself bacon and eggs for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and just explore in the kitchen. My mom would catch me in the fridge digging through things. When I was about 3 years old my mom caught me drinking a jar of bacon grease. At the time it horrified her but maybe it was an early paleo thing to do. 

When I was a teenager I got myself grounded for a few months so I stayed in the house watching The Food Network and cooking. That got me going and it went from there. I've always felt comfortable in the kitchen preparing things. There's a certain self-efficacy and confidence that comes from being able to prepare your own food and that really appeals to me.

10. What's been the most popular recipe on your website?

It's funny, but a lot of times there are things that are popular because of the title. I put out a recipe called Paleo Cookie Dough. It's just a combination of some nut butter, cocoa nibs, nuts, and a few other things. I think it's something that the average person on the street may find a little gross, but if you're following a paleo diet and your taste buds have sensitized to not eating a lot of sugar and artificial flavors, it actually tastes a lot like cookie dough. That, and I think the title appealed to a lot of people. On a lot of the paleo blogs there are paleo-fied versions of non-paleo foods - things like paleo bread for instance. I think that's funny because it's really the antithesis of paleo, but I guess it speaks to there being a longing to still have some of these foods. If you're eating a pretty solid paleo style diet and once in a while you take the time to go out and get some nut flours and ingredients to make a paleo bread I don't think that is bad from a health perspective. Those types of recipes tend to be popular. Anything with bacon too. I think it's just something everyone loves. It feels sort of wrong but it's also kind of right.

Tony Federico - Paleo Cookie Dough

Paleo Cookie Dough. Photo courtesy Tony Federico.

11. A lot of people, when they hear Paleo Diet and bacon in the same sentence they think, something that fatty and salty can't possibly be good for you. Is it?

You can see some bacon fatigue going on. Bacon has had its moment in popular culture. It was hip and cool. There was this time when the popularity of bacon surged and it happened to coincide with the growth in popularity of paleo eating. It's a meat product. It can be done well, from a pastured pig. There's a lot of good quality bacon out there. Is bacon necessary? Absolutely not. Is it a fairly innocuous food? I think so. The reason is that pork tends to have a high percentage of monounsaturated fat, which is the same type of fat found in things like avocados and olive oils. If you look at the fatty acid breakdown of pork fat and the fatty acid breakdown of olive oil, which is the standard of "heart healthy eating" they're actually much more similar than they are different. So, when someone advocates for a Mediterranean style diet because it uses olive oil then bashes someone for eating pig products or bacon because of the fat, it just means they don't understand the science. From a purely chemical perspective pig fat and olive oil are kissing cousins, so I don't think the health concerns are warranted. If you look at things from an animal welfare perspective there's plenty of irresponsibly produced pork products, but that can apply to chicken or any other animal product.

Bacon is a really tasty food and can be good for you so long as it's not your daily staple, eaten in exclusion; although I'd bet a bacon diet would be better for you than a bagel diet.

12. How do restaurants fit into paleo eating?

There are tons of paleo friendly restaurants, but you sometimes have to be creative or a bit demanding as a customer. Any steak house, for example, will have a steak, potato and side of broccoli, which is a great paleo meal. If you want an alcoholic beverage, just add some red wine. For more day-to-day fare, Jimmy John's has a lettuce wrapped sandwich called the unwich. Moe's and Chipotle both have Burrito Bowls. I don't think eating rice is the greatest nutritional sin you can commit, so if your options are more limited, rice is still gluten free. Sushi is pretty awesome and it's not something that will mess most people up. 

The menus of Asian restaurants rife with meat and vegetable options. Most Mexican restaurants are similar, offering meat and vegetables. Just omit the tortillas. Barbecue places are easy - just be mindful of the sauces and veer towards the mustard based condiments because they're typically devoid of the high fructose corn syrups. Breakfast restaurants are great for eggs and bacon. Just leave out the toast. I even went to Panera with my wife and they have a "hidden menu" that lets you order a steak and eggs breakfast bowl. It's eggs, roast beef, avocado and tomato. And that's at Panera Bread! Panera seems like a gluten filled Hellscape to someone who's really deep into a paleo diet but even there you can find some eggs, beef and avocado and still accompany friends or family and have an enjoyable meal with a cup of coffee.

I don't think you have to, nor should you, sacrifice your social life, to eat healthy. Being the person who says no all the time to social opportunities isn't healthy. Our social well being is critical to our overall well being. Maybe in the early stages of adopting the paleo lifestyle you may eat more at home to better control what you eat and to learn what your body can tolerate and what it can't. That's a great time to get into the kitchen to polish your culinary skills and develop some staple meals in your toolkit. Once you get a good baseline then it's time to go out and explore and enjoy that time with friends and family. You want to continue cultivating a full and rich social life at the same time you're filling yourself with nutrient dense, whole food.

Panera Bread - Power Breakfast Egg Bowl with Steak

Panera Breads Power Breakfast Egg Bowl with Steak. Photo courtesy of Panera Bread.

13. Can you introduce your cookbook? How did you meet your co-author, James Phelan?

I had a publisher contact me asking if I was interested in doing a paleo grilling book. I'm a firm believer that if opportunity knocks it's a pretty good idea to answer.

They wanted to include a chef who had paleo leanings to beef up the kitchen credentials so I went on a hunt to find someone local. A client of mine had ordered food from J. William Culinary, the business that Jay Phelan operates. She told me that Jay had paleo options on his website and suggested I give him a call. So, that's what I did. We met up at Mojo's on Beach Blvd. for some barbecue and talked about it. It went from there.

The book is about paleo grilling, which seemed like a no-brainer to me. In my view, grilling in general is paleo grilling, people just don't call it that. The thing that differentiates it is the encouragement to eat more grass fed rather than grain fed meats. It's about looking at the quality of your meats before you grill. It may meaning forgoing that box of preformed beef patties from Walmart and buying a whole sirloin or a whole piece of chuck, getting a meat grinder and grinding your own hamburger. It's easy! There are also plenty of local and mail order suppliers of grass fed meat. 

The emphasis of the book is on using really good quality meats first and foremost. The same applies to any vegetables that are used. Then it's about going through the process of cooking in a relatively rustic way. You can even cook with real wood. It makes things a little less predictable and requires a little more skill as far as getting the temperature just right but that's part of the process too. Every animal's a little different and every fire can be a little different. 

The big thing after that is doing away with the bread and buns. Hamburgers are lettuce wrapped. Our potato salad recipes use sweet potatoes, which is in line with a lot of paleo thinking, even though I don't personally have any issue using standard white potatoes either. There are some recipes that are a little more extravagant but there are also a lot of simple, straightforward recipes. 

JWilliam Culinary - Paleo Ropa Vieja

Paleo Ropa Vieja from J. William Culinary. Photo courtesy Jay Phelan.

14. How did you split responsibilities in creating the cookbook?

We shared the task of selecting the recipes that went into the cookbook. There were definitely personal favorite recipes that we each wanted to include and some that were more jointly selected. I have a writing background so my role was doing that first pass of writing and editing and putting the structure of the book together. Jay brought a lot in terms of the culinary side of things - things I wouldn't have thought of. I'm always looking at things from the perspective of easy, quick and healthy. If I see a recipe I want it to click with me that I can make it right away. Jay was looking at the recipes to see how he can make them taste best. His work in fine dining establishments has learned a more sophisticated process of developing flavors. The end result is a really good balance between those two elements - simplicity and sophistication - while retaining the paleo principles of no gluten, no refined seed oils, and no refined sugars. We did use a few sweeteners like coconut nectars, maple syrup, and a little honey, because there are certain things that demand a little sweetness. But when you need sweetness you want to use the best things possible and in limited quantities. 

There are some people who would have health concerns with grilling and we aren't expecting people to eat food from the grill for every single meal. But human beings have been cooking meat for nearly as long as we've been hunting meat. Cavemen definitely weren't using a sous vide; they were throwing their meat directly on the fire. There are specific steps we recommend like using acidic marinades, avoiding flare ups, and making sure your meat is positioned so that when fat drips onto the coals you don't get combustible elements back onto the meat. 

For the most part it's just really tasty food that you're going to be able to serve people at a party and they're not going to know it's paleo - they're just going to see it as good food.

15. What's the final title of the cookbook?

"Paleo Grilling - A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking With Fire." It'll be ready for the summer of 2014. The up front work has been done and the final manuscript has been submitted but there's still some tweaking over the next few months. 

16. How did you end up in Jacksonville?

My wife actually found a job in Jacksonville and I followed her here. I'm now the Assistant Director of Fitness and Aquatics at the Deerwood Country Club and I do some other private, personal training on the side. I have a good base of clients and it gives me the flexibility to work on other projects and get the word out about eating better and moving more.

17. Are you taking on personal training clients?

Currently I'm pretty booked up, which is a great thing. If someone is really interested they can track me down on my website. I'm always happy to talk to people when I can.

18. How are you fitting into Jacksonville?

I really love it here. I've enjoyed the opportunities I've had to get out to the beach and into nature, instead of spending so much time in traffic. People I've met have been great, and welcoming. Traditionally I've done a lot of my work online and through social media but I'd love to take the opportunity of being in Jacksonville to find ways to interact more with the local community. That may involve doing things with local gyms or restaurants or people who are interested in the paleo lifestyle. 

19. How can people follow your work if they want to learn more?

The best way is through Paleo Magazine and Paleo Magazine Radio. I also have a website at FitnessInAnEvolutionaryDirection.com (or LiveCaveman.com), and I am also active on Facebook and Instagram.


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