Jo Whitton Talks About her Cookbooks, the GAPS Diet & Family Nutrition

06.12.18 Eat, Learn Blog SumoSalad

“Go whole food! Whole food is what we should be eating, it’s what our bodies were designed to eat”

We talked to author, blogger and podcaster Jo Whitton about her cookbooks, the GAPS diet and her advice on family nutrition.  Hi Jo, would you like to introduce yourself?

Almost ten years ago I started a blog called Quirky Cooking to share my recipes for healthy, allergy-friendly cooking. I had struggled all my life with food intolerances and health issues related to food. As I got older they got worse and my kids were having health issues and food intolerances too, so I began to research and learn about how to change our diet to improve our health. The more I understood about the power of food, the more I wanted share what I was learning.

About five years ago my journey altered to become more about gut health because of health issues in my family. My son Isaac was diagnosed with severe OCD and anxiety, and I realised that poor gut health was at the foundation of all our health issues – both mental and physical. Focusing on our gut health improved the health of all our family, and also changed the direction of my blog and business.

You’re extremely prolific, tell us about your blog?

I began the blog to share my recipes because I enjoyed developing healthier, allergy-friendly versions of our family favourites. Friends would ask for recipes, so I decided to put them on a blog. I discovered there were a lot of people out there struggling with food, trying to eat healthier, reduce sugars, trying to go gluten free or dairy free, or they had to avoid different foods because of reactions, so the blog grew really quickly. I would do meal plans to help them and would take requests to tweak recipes and then share them online. Facebook really took off around the time I started the blog so it grew quickly. It’s now more than a blog, it’s a vibrant community and has grown into a thriving business, which I never expected!

And what about your book and podcasts?

I released my first cookbook, Quirky Cooking, four and half years ago and that one has sold about 86,000 copies. I produced the second cookbook, Life-Changing Food, in collaboration with my friend Fouad Kassab who is a whole food chef and food writer, and it was released a couple of years ago and is now on its 4th print run. We’re now working on the next cookbook, which will be focused on gut healing recipes and information for healing with food.

We have a community that’s really close knit, a really big community on social media, and we also travel and visit our community with our cooking demonstrations and health seminars all over Australia and sometimes overseas.

Fouad and I host a podcast called A Quirky Journey, and also have an online program to help people improve their gut health, based on the GAPS diet.


You’re an advocate of the GAPS diet, what is it?

GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome or Gut and Physiology Syndrome, and is a protocol that was developed by a neurologist in the UK about twenty years ago. I first heard about it when researching the connection between gut and brain health, and with my son’s mental health issues I knew I desperately needed to work on his gut health. It was recommended to me by several different people as a way to reestablish a healthy microbiome, to heal the lining of a leaky gut, and to reduce inflammation. Gut dysbiosis, leaky gut, and inflammation are all foundational to any chronic illness, including psychological illnesses, and the GAPS protocol addresses all of these.

What does the GAPS diet involve?

The first step is to really reduce the starches, especially refined starches, in your diet and to replace them with nutrient dense, easy to digest foods – mostly vegetables, meats, meat stocks, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds – simple whole foods. It really focuses in on traditional, healing foods. Some people work backwards, which is what we did – we started with the most variety that the GAPS diet recommends and then worked backwards until we were ready to go right back to a very basic meat and veggies diet. That’s pretty much all we were having for a couple of weeks – meat and non-starchy veggies and meat stocks made with them. Soups, stews, that kind of thing at first. Then we slowly began adding in things like egg yolks, egg whites, avocado, sauerkraut, herbs, nuts and seeds… so it’s basically like an elimination diet where you slowly add foods in as you can tolerate them.

You focus on the healing foods like meat stocks, animal fats, eggs, non-starchy veggies, and fermented foods, and then little by little you can add more and more in. For people who are reacting to foods and have a very limited diet, they will find they can start adding those foods back in as their gut heals. I was reacting badly to dairy all my life and after a year on the GAPS diet I could eat dairy.

GAPS appears very extreme and difficult, how do you get started?

Actually I thought that too when I first looked into it, I felt very overwhelmed at first. Then as I got my head around it I realised how much simpler it is than the way I had been eating. I had been focusing on taking out all the foods we couldn’t have and tweaking recipes so that we could still enjoy our favourite foods – pizza, spaghetti, lasagne, breads, cakes, biscuits, desserts – all those things you want to keep in your diet because that’s how you’ve always eaten. I was in the kitchen all the time trying to make replacements for everything. But when you change your mindset to eating very simply, and you think about what traditional diets look like, you realise all we really need is basic whole foods built on mostly veggies, eggs and meat, with maybe some fruit and yoghurt for sweets. There’s really no need for all the breads and desserts and ‘extra’ stuff, except for now and then as a treat. So I actually found it easier to cook this way – lots of one pot meals, slow cooking, ‘chuck-it-in-the-oven-and-walk-away’ meals… super simple food. My pantry, fridge and freezer were completely simplified, my cooking was simplified, and the only thing that took time was chopping so many veggies! Once I stopped trying to replace everything and just stuck to basic whole foods, it became very easy. For a fair while we just didn’t have the bread, biscuits, cakes, and fancy dishes… later we added a little bit back in now and then (made from whole food, nutrient-dense ingredients), but we try to keep them to a minimum.

Is it hard to maintain?

No, not at all. At first my kids were upset about having to go without bread, but within a couple of weeks we were all seeing benefits and they began saying to me, “Mum, we’re so glad we’re doing this, we feel so much better and the food is delicious!”, and they stuck with it for the full two years. Now and then we had to be a little bit flexible but mostly we stuck to it really carefully because we were determined to heal. Even now, 4 years later, we eat mostly GAPS food just with a bit of potato, rice and sweet potato in there now and then, maybe a few other ‘treat’ foods when out and about, but we still really focus on the whole food aspect of GAPS. I believe this is where we went wrong when we were so unwell – we thought we were eating well, but the refined foods and high sugar foods had crept into our diet, and our health deteriorated because of them.

How do you eat out on such a restrictive diet?

Most of the time I have no problem eating out. When I was only a couple of months into GAPS I travelled in the UK for a couple of weeks and I had no problem the whole time. When you go to a restaurant or cafe, just pick things that are basically meat and veggie dishes, and tell them to leave off the gravy or sauces if there are ingredients you can’t have. Or ask to swap the bread for another egg or roast veggies, or add some salad instead of the starchy veggies. I’ve never had a restaurant say no to my requests, so the eating out was never a problem for me. I think for the kids the hardest part was the peer pressure – my son would go to soccer and his friends would have pizza afterwards and my son would just be sitting there eating nothing which is hard for a teenage boy. So I always tried to plan ahead as much as possible and if I knew they were going to be in a situation where there was food they couldn’t eat, I would make them something to take that was similar to what the others were eating. I would make a GAPS version of pizza or muffins or cakes if they were going to a party – things they could take and share with other kids too. It’s always delicious food and we have never had any kids turning up their noses at our food, in fact they always said “that’s so delicious I wish we ate like this at home!”. So it wasn’t a problem in that way. Some diets are restrictive and yucky, but GAPS is a little bit restrictive at first but still delicious, so you can handle it!

DO you have any tips for engaging kids with healthy eating at home?

I started doing this probably 15 years ago, changing our families diet, and it was a slow process. It wasn’t an overnight, hardcore, swap everything immediately kind of thing. It was swapping things out slowly, little by little. So adding more veg into bolognese sauce, changing the pasta from white wheat pasta to spelt pasta, then gluten free pasta, and I would mix in some zucchini ‘noodles’, and then finally swapped them over to veggie noodles. I always made sure I kept plenty of flavour in there, which is a cornerstone of my recipes! I think when you use good, wholesome ingredients you can’t go wrong. Swap out the ‘filler foods’ for more veggies as much as possible.

For most people you have to take it slow, especially with kids, and do the swaps little by little – unless you’ve got a child that’s really sick and you have to go hardcore – then you’ll have a couple of weeks of hell and then things will improve! I see it quite often in my GAPS groups where people have really sick kids and they absolutely cannot eat some things anymore because it makes them so ill, and they start working on healing the gut and it’s a big change to their diet. The kids will throw tantrums at first wanting the foods they usually eat, but within two weeks they’re begging for vegetables and soup and it’s amazing to see the change!

Finally If you had to give one piece of food advice to our customers, what would it be?

Go whole food! Whole food is what we should be eating, it’s what our bodies were designed to eat, and our diet has gotten so far away from that people don’t even know what whole food is anymore. When I say ‘whole food’ I’m talking about food with a cellular structure, food that is from the earth or from an animal, not food that’s made in a factory and bought in a packet. There are very few whole foods in packets, it’s mostly things that have been fractionalised or refined in some way, and every time you refine something or process it, each step takes it further away from a whole food and makes it harder for your body to recognise and know how to use. The whole premise behind GAPS and any other healing diet is to eat food that is in its original form, and is really easy to digest and high in nutrients, so that your body can use these foods to heal naturally.

If you want to find out more about Jo, the GAPS diet, or her cookbooks visit Jo’s blog Quirky Cooking here: https://www.quirkycooking.com.au/

You can join the Quirky Cooking private group on Facebook which has over 30k private members. It’s a great place to go to learn and ask questions, find it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/quirkycooking

Jo also runs an online gut health program called Quirky Cooking for Gut Health. It includes videos, tutorials, meal plans and recipes, plus a support group with a GAPS practitioner, for a one-off subscription fee. SumoSalad customers can get $50 off now by using the code GUTHEALTH50 at checkout.  Find out more about that here https://gaps.quirkycooking.com.au/ 


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