Diana Rodgers devotes a lot of time to thinking about what people eat.
She lives on an organic farm in Carlisle managed by her husband, Andrew; the couple launched a community supported agriculture cooperative earlier this year. As a professional nutritionist, she consults with clients interested in losing weight or improving their strength and energy levels. As an adviser to several fitness centers in the area, she talks regularly with athletes and exercise buffs about how to maintain the ideal nutritional intake to meet their physical goals.
So perhaps it is only natural that she has written a cookbook with health and fitness in mind. Her debut effort, “Paleo Lunches and Breakfasts on the Go: The Solution to Gluten-Free Eating All Day Long with Delicious, Easy and Portable Primal Meals,” is being officially released Tuesday by Page Street Publishing.
Rodgers herself has subscribed to the Paleo diet — so named because it aims to mimic the eating habits that humans followed during the Paleolithic era — for about four years. As a child who was underweight and often sick, she was diagnosed with a lactose intolerance and told to avoid dairy products. Two decades later, at the age of 26, she received a different diagnosis: celiac disease, or gluten intolerance, and cutting out wheat helped abate her digestive problems, but also sapped her energy.
Only when she read “The Paleo Solution” by Robb Wolf did she find a dietary regimen that worked for her, in its emphasis on naturally raised meats, vegetables, and healthy fats, limiting dairy products, and eliminating grains, refined sugar, and processed foods.
“It made sense to me the moment I read it,” Rodgers recalled. “I understood right away that what most of us generally eat does not reflect what our bodies are adapted to eating. Three weeks on the Paleo diet changed my body and how I felt even more than going gluten-free had. I cut out all the processed gluten-free substitutes I’d been eating — gluten-free bread, pasta, cookies, beer — and focused on meat and veggies. I increased my intake of healthy fats and ate more protein.
“For the first time, I was able to go from breakfast to lunch without snacking. I lost the ‘baby belly’ that was left from my pregnancies, and my energy level went through the roof.”
Mathieu Lalonde, a biochemist and Harvard faculty member, is known as something of a firebrand on the nutritional lecture circuit. He’s a proponent of the Paleo diet, but isn’t afraid to call the reasoning many of its supporters use “ridiculous,” explaining that “this diet does work, but not because it’s how cave men ate.”
But Rodgers, Lalonde said, has what he calls “street cred.”’
“Diana has a nutritional therapy degree; she works on a farm; she’s raising a family,” he said. “As far as these types of books are concerned, she’s getting it right.”
And her new book is an essential resource, Lalonde said. “When you instruct people to cook a meal, you’re asking them to do something they normally put on the back burner; they’re used to eating at restaurants or grabbing premade meals from a store. Diana’s recipes are quick and easy; you can make them, pack them, and take them on the go.”
The plan to write a cookbook came about serendipitously last fall, when, as part of the Ancestral Health Society’s annual symposium, Rodgers hosted a Paleo-themed dinner in the large barn on the Clark Farm property that she and her husband have managed for a little more than a year. William Kiester, owner of Salem-based Page Street Publishing, heard about the event and called Rodgers the next morning to see whether she would consider writing a cookbook.
It turned out Rodgers was far more of an expert than Kiester even realized. Her interest in nutrition began when she worked in marketing for the Whole Foods Market company, and continued when she managed the farmstand at Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton. The questions from her customers about nutrients and vitamins inspired her to go back to school for a master’s in nutrition. Today she runs her own practice, Radiance Nutritional Therapy.
“When I talk to clients about trying a Paleo diet,” Rodgers said, “their first question is almost always ‘But what will I have for breakfast?’ Some people can’t imagine any way to start the day that doesn’t include bagels, muffins, cereal, or toast. And likewise, it can be hard to break the sandwich-and-chips habit for lunch.
“So when the publisher suggested a cookbook about Paleo lunch menus, I immediately said I would have to include breakfast as well.”
For her part, breakfast is easy, Rodgers said. She can gather pasture-raised eggs right outside her front door, and she frequently mixes in vegetables and herbs grown on her farm. In developing the recipes in her book, she put equal priority on tempting flavors and easy portability — resulting in recipes such as Cinnamon Beef in a Sweet Potato Pocket; Steak, Egg and Endive Salad; Curried Green Eggs and Ham; and Salmon and Zucchini Sliders.
Many followers of the Paleo diet strive for an 80/20 mix, meaning 80 percent of their intake follows the rules of Paleo eating and 20 percent is off the plan; for herself, Rodgers prefers 90/10, but she points out that one of the advantages of the Paleo diet is its lack of stringency, especially for fitness buffs. One of the pitfalls she sees with her clients is too much deprivation and what she terms “fat-phobia.”
“I see a lot of people simply not eating enough carbs,” she said. “If they’re doing tough workouts, they may need to eat some potatoes!”
Ed Latham of Essex is typical of her clients. He met Rodgers in 2011 through her consulting work at the CrossFit gym where he was a member. “Diana helped me better understand how my Paleo diet would need to be modified to support my energy needs, based on my workout program,” he said. “As a result of her advice, my energy level and quality of life have both skyrocketed.”
It all makes sense to Norwood psychiatrist Emily Deans, whose area of particular interest — and the topic of her own blog — is what she terms the “mismatch between the environment in which humans evolved and our current ultramodern environment.” This disjuncture, Deans believes, is at the root of many of the mental health issues for which her patients seek help, and she believes a Paleo diet can help resolve some of these issues.
“My overarching theory is that our bodies and brains do best in conditions for which they are evolved. Recipes like Diana’s help us rely less on grains and processed foods, and that’s something that can help a lot of people,” Deans said.
Rodgers, who has two young children, maintains a gluten-free household, but she tries not to be heavy-handed about what they eat outside the house. “We eat Paleo at home and the kids bring gluten-free lunches to school, but they also make their share of visits to Kimballs Ice Cream. I even let them buy school lunches once in a while, and they are free to eat whatever they are offered at friends’ houses,” she said.
And despite the limitations of living with food sensitivities, Rodgers said, as she enters her 40s she’s never felt better.
“I feel like I’m propelling into the next phase of my life. A lot of questions in my life are being answered. I have never felt stronger, healthier, or smarter. Forty is a big scary number to some women, but to me it’s been a gift. Living here at Clark Farm, writing cookbooks, consulting with nutrition clients — I just feel like it’s all what I was meant to do.”
Next up for Rodgers is a project even closer to home: a farm-to-table cookbook with a focus on sustainability and farm living, scheduled to be published in fall of 2014.
Rodgers will be taking part in two book-signing events on Saturday, starting with an event from 9 to 10 a.m. at the CrossFit Full Potential gym in Newburyport, and then from 4 to 6 p.m. at Clark Farm, 185 Concord St. in Carlisle, when tours of the property will also be available. She will also be at Green Meadows Farm in South Hamilton from 6 to 7 p.m. Aug. 27, and at Savenors Market, 92 Kirkland St. in Cambridge, on Sept. 19 from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
For more information on the book and related events, go to Rodgers’ website, www.radiancenutrition.com.