My Czech Interview

Remember when Dave and I went to Prague in November for the release of the Czech version of Well Fed — a.k.a., Dobře živeni? The book has been selling very well in the Czech Republic — it even made this Top 5 list on one of the most popular sites in the Czech Republic. (It Starts With Food is on the list, too. How cool is that?!)

While I was in Prague, I was interviewed by an journalist from the Magazin DNES, which is sort of the Czech version of the American Parade magazine. The story finally ran during the first week of January, and we’ve got the hot-off-the-presses translation below.

A few things to keep in mind:

1. My conversation with the journalist was in English, which she then translated into Czech. The article was published in Czech and was then translated back to English for me. Which means the Q&A below is the result of a convoluted, inter-continental game of telephone.

2. I am not responsible for the citrus fruit in the photos. The (very sweet) photographer didn’t speak much English and was very committed to the lemons. I acquiesced.

 

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It could be this year’s inspiration. Melissa Joulwan is a forty-six-year-old American, who struggled with weight loss her entire life. Five years ago she tried out the paleo diet and finally managed to lose weight. She has since become an expert on the topic and published a cookbook. Now she has come to the Czech Republic to promote her book Well Fed.

Walking around Prague, did you notice if there are more or less overweight people here than in the United States?
I’d say that you Czechs are pretty fit. You don’t see so many extremes here—those morbidly obese people—like in the United States. But then again, I’d say that there are a greater percentage of Americans who are in very good shape. Whenever I see someone desperately struggling with their weight, I feel sorry for them. That’s because losing weight isn’t as hard as it seems to the person who is trying. I understand the hopelessness; I also spent a good deal of my life being somewhere between chubby and fat. Now, for the first time in my life, I am happy with my body.

What does that feel like?
Extremely relieving and liberating, but on the other hand there’s something completely obvious. To have a normal, healthy body is the most natural thing there is. I stopped thinking about it. Everything I like fits me; I could stop hiding myself in my clothes.

And this is all thanks to the paleo diet?
Yes. Paleo has changed my life.

Could you briefly explain what it’s all about?
Paleo is a type of diet that eliminates all grains, legumes, dairy products, sugar, and other unnaturally produced food.

There’s not much left to eat then.
That leaves all of the natural things that the human body has been used to for the millions of years it’s been evolving: meat, vegetables, fruit, eggs, nuts, and coconut and olive oil.

Why are these foods more natural than, say, rice, potatoes, or wheat?
Meat and vegetables have been around for millions of years, and the digestive system—the most complicated system in our bodies—knows how to work with them. It knows to take what it needs from them without causing any disruptions. Besides, all grains are new food that the human body has not gotten used to and that cause various infections and diseases.

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Grains have been around for thousands of years. How can they be a new kind of food
People began eating flour-based foods when agriculture was discovered, which was ten thousand years ago. The thing is, humans have been evolving for 2.6 million years, in what was back then known as the Paleolithic Era. That’s why sometimes the paleo diet is referred to as the caveman diet. While the digestive system hasn’t changed much since then, food has undergone a massive transformation. And the most radical changes have occurred over the past fifty years. The artificially processed, artificial products that you can buy in the store have almost nothing in common with what humans originally ate.

What advice would you give me for food shopping?
A simple rule. Always ask, “Does it come from an animal or a plant?” Everything else is unnatural.

Milk comes from cows, which are animals. You claim that dairy products are not natural for people. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
Milk is fine, but just for babies. We are the only creatures on this planet who drink milk as adults. Do you know what milk is for? It’s to provide babies with nutrients and to help them grow. What’s more, the enzyme that helps the body process milk naturally disappears from the body when we are about three years old. If you want to lose weight, you can’t really eat food that is so nutritious that it can turn infants into toddlers.

What about fat-free products?
Those are industrially processed and therefore unnatural for the human body.

Isn’t there calcium in milk, which is good for the bones?
There is, but the body can only acquire it from dairy products as long as it has the right enzymes. You can much more easily get calcium from meat or bone broth.

You seriously eat like this every day?
I eat paleo 95% of the time. I don’t have anything at home that’s not paleo. Of course, sometimes I have something that’s non-paleo, like a glass of prosecco, or I have a bite of the wonderful bread you have here in the Czech Republic. Even though it’s delicious, I can usually immediately tell that it was bad for my body.

How do you eat then?
The foundation of every meal is always protein, so meat or eggs. With that I always have some vegetables for fiber and vitamins, a little fruit for sugar, and a few nuts or a drop of oil for fat. Thanks to these kinds of balanced meals, I am never hungry and don’t have any cravings. It keeps me going until lunch, when I eat again following the same formula. Back when I did office work, I’d simply bring food with me. That’s the only way you can know what you’re really eating.

Isn’t it time-consuming to always be cooking something?
I’ve learned to work with it. Once a week my husband and I make a big trip to the store, and then I spend two hours getting food ready for the entire week. I prepare sort of fresh, ready-to-cook food that I leave in the fridge for the next few days and then just use it as a base for my meals every day.

It still seems too monotonous to me.
I agree, and that’s actually how my cookbook came about. I come from a family where meals were the most important part of the day. While still sitting at breakfast, we’d already be talking about what we’d be having for lunch. Mom’s Italian and Dad’s Lebanese, so when we were kids we always had freshly cooked lunch and dinner. Whenever we ate somewhere in a restaurant with my parents, we would analyze how the food we got could have been cooked differently. When I came to the realization that I want to follow the paleo diet forever, I tried to find ways to have delicacies within the bounds of possibility. It really can be done.

In America your book has met with enormous success. In the Czech Republic the paleo diet hasn’t really taken off yet. What’s it like in the United States?
Everyone around me eats paleo. There’s no one in my circle of friends who still chows down on pasta or bread. It Starts with Food, a book I drew from in creating my own cookbook, has been a New York Times top-ten bestseller for three years now. It’s not as if most of America eats like this, but it is a significant trend. It also helps that a lot of people are turning away from consuming gluten, which most grains contain, and therefore paleo is a good match for them.

What’s so bad about sugar besides the fact that it makes you fat?
God, where do I start? Sugar, the artificially processed kind, acts like a poison in the body. At least in the amounts we consume. Sugar is added to practically everything today, like ham and vegetable salads. The body doesn’t know how to process that much sugar, and besides being stored as fat, it also disrupts cells in the body and causes many diseases. On top of that, it’s addictive.

People are addicted to sugar?
There’s no doubt about it. When you eat a candy bar, your blood sugar levels rise immediately and you get a fast boost of energy. If you don’t use it, which is pretty common with our sedentary lifestyle, it gets stored as fat. When your body needs energy, it takes it from sugars because it knows how to get it quicker than from fats, which take longer to break down. When you eat food rich in sugar, which means all pasta, rice, potatoes, and of course sweets, your energy levels fluctuate greatly. When you stop eating sugar, your body is forced to make energy from fat. Besides beginning to lose weight naturally, all of a sudden your energy won’t be in imbalance, and you won’t have bad moods and daily lows. You’ll end up sleeping much better.

Alright, so where would low-fat yogurt fit in?
You mean that industrially processed thing full of sugar that the commercials claim will help you lose weight? That’s absolute nonsense. Low-fat foods have been artificially stripped of natural fats, and to make them taste good, sugar is added. The only thing that happens when you eat them is that you feel the need to eat more because they don’t fill you up. All of the latest research on how food works confirms that the recommendation for people wanting to live a healthy life to avoid fat but to keep sugar in their diet was a great scientific mistake.

What happens when people stop eating sugar?
Many people describe the first days as being full of headaches, sadness, and a burning desire to eat something sweet. Basically, detox symptoms. Many people even have dreams about sugar, like for example that they are eating their favorite chocolate or candy. Once they get past this point, which takes four to seven days, they have absolutely no need to eat sweet food.

You experienced the same thing?
I recall it well. Once we had a conference at work, and chocolate muffins were sitting on the table. At the time, I had already read It Starts with Food and had just started the Whole30 cleansing program, which is a thirty-day introduction to the paleo diet. I couldn’t concentrate on anything; I was hypnotized by the muffins. Everyone else was just taking them and eating them, and I was just watching them, how easy it was for them. A year later we had the same annual conference again, and there were the same chocolate muffins on the table. I didn’t notice them at all. It was as if they weren’t there. I was completely free.

It still seems to me that all of these diets are just attempts to get around this simple rule of losing weight, that is to lower your input and increase your output. Fat has many more calories than pasta, after all.
Well, calories are important, but they are not the most important. If you limit your diet to five thousand kilojoules per day, you’ll certainly lose weight, but you’ll still be hungry. You can then count on giving up sooner or later because being hungry or having a strong craving for something is simply unbearable. It’s a much surer bet to eat food that won’t make you want to eat more food, but instead that fills you up naturally. These are foods that do not contain any sugar, such as meat, eggs, nuts, and vegetables. When your diet is made up of these foods, you will gain what naturally thin people have: complete control over what you eat. You control food, not the other way around.

In the book there is picture of you in the DOX gallery in Prague. Do you have a special relationship with this place?
I have a special relationship with all of Prague. I loved it from the first minute I was here for the first time, which was four years ago. My husband and I felt great immediately, and we wanted to live here. Also my grandmother was Slovak, so this part of the world is near to me. Thanks to the fact that my book is so successful, we can afford to live wherever we want. I write and think up recipes, and my husband takes pictures of them and does the graphic design of the books. That is something we can do anywhere, even from Prague. I hope it works out for us and that we can live here for at least a few years.

 

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Comments

  • Lisa says:

    I think this article is a GREAT explanation of paleo/Whole 30 eating. Easy to understand and succinct, yet thorough. Good job!

  • Jana says:

    This is an excellent summary of paleo, Whole30 and why we should eat this way. Way to go!

  • Lissa says:

    I really liked the article, but I find it a little bit weird that the journalist has never heard about paleo before. And I know what I’m talking about since I am from Slovakia (just 4 hours away from Prague east) 😉 A person must live in a bubble never to hear about paleo (or crossfit – I have a feeling they go hand in hand in Central Europe). Or maybe I live in a bubble where everyone knows the weird “diet” I’m on. 😉 I’ve been happily eating paleo these last three years and I’ve even managed to convince my mom to give it a try (and she never looked back). And of couse I have both of yours cookbooks and they are AMAZING!!!! So hopefully this article will help spread the word, more people will go paleo and I’ll be able to buy coconut aminos or sugarless fish sauce here in Slovakia (or Czech republic)! 🙂

    • The journalist was actually VERY familiar with paleo and the Whole30 — she was just asking questions that way to make it easy for readers who were unfamiliar to learn about it.

      My great grandmother is from Slovakia!

  • Gabi says:

    Hi Melissa,
    Great article and i’m so glad you are spreading your word to Europe. I’m actually slovak living in CA and I talked my sister & her hubby into paleo. they live in Slovakia. THey both love it and leaned out nicely. Keep up the good work. Will be buyng the WF2 shortly. I make your Chocolate CHili every other week 🙂 Gabi

    • I’m excited to see paleo making some headway in Central Europe. Seems difficult with all the delicious beer and dumplings, but then again, there’s always pork, potatoes, and cabbage… YAY! Glad you’re enjoying the Chocolate Chili!

  • Great interview Melissa!
    I love us Europeans, we are so blunt when it comes to the questions we ask! No tip toeing around anything! Haha!
    But seriously, 46??? 36 more like!! 🙂

  • Nice work, and I ADORE the blunt questioning!

  • Jen Sinkler says:

    I’m with Jen, the questions are hilariously blunt, and you handled them all beautifully, of course.:)

  • Nika says:

    Ahoj! That is so exciting! Congratulations! 🙂 I have always experienced Czech and Slovak people as very open to health and food trends, especially our generation (Millenials) is eager to learn about new lifestyles. So happy for you Melissa, you deserve the success 🙂

  • Bethany says:

    Just found this interview – SO funny. Such a great interview on two levels, first: because the sceptical questioner really leads you straight to the gist of things & second: because of my own experience in this culture. I can totally picture the shock to the average Czech woman if you told her she shouldn’t eat yogurt and bread any more! Ha! I thought Americans were obsessed with baked and dairy products until I moved here – have you seen their yogurt aisles at the supermarket?

    • Are you Czech? You live in the CZ? We’re moving in 2017 — can’t wait!

      • Bethany says:

        I’m not Czech… no Czech person can pronounce my first name properly, not even my husband :-). But I took my husband’s Czech last name because I wanted a foreign last name… Ha! I’ve lived here for eight years and have a Czech man and a Czech baby to prove it. When you get to Prague, we’ll have to meet up. I live in the Jiriho z Podebrad neighborhood – aka, the best neighborhood. It’s so funny, when I saw your picture at DOX (LOVE that rooftop seating area with the huge plastic sofas) and the description under it saying, “I hope to live there some day,” I thought about writing you and saying, “You can do it! It’s so easy. Just buy a plane ticket. It’s getting AWAY from here that’s not so easy.” 😀