The paleo diet is the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, which in recent years has gained global popularity as the way to eat yourself to sustainable health.
No processed sugars and preservatives, no grains, no legumes and no factory-farmed meats, paleo is all about eating as naturally as possible.
With this in mind, you might be a little shocked to learn that a paleo revolution is taking traction in the city of MSG and sugar-laden just about everything – Bangkok.
Leading this revolution is Robbie Verspui, a guy who once weighed 140 kg and grew up on a diet of white bread, margarine, milk and chocolate. Looking at his lean 6 ft. 7 frame now, however, you’d be forgiven for wanting to throw away your Mama noodles in exchange for a few organic lamb chops and sweet potatoes.
It was this dramatic health transformation that compelled Robbie to become a paleo disciple, spreading the word to the masses and delivering delicious paleo meals in the big Mango on a daily basis.
I decided to find out more about the Paleo Robbie initiative by visiting their stall at the Bangkok Farmers’ Market in K-Village (Sukhumvit 26) last weekend.
I arrived to find Robbie’s brother Erik munching on a leg of lamb, surrounded by a handful of interested people waiting in turn to ask questions about their meal service. In fact, I was forced to eat two organic chicken salads before getting the opportunity to chat to Robbie. As I sat there chewing on my lettuce, it got me thinking.. This paleo in Bangkok thing could really take off!
Welcome to The Thailand Life Robbie. Before we talk about paleo, can you tell us how you ended up living in Thailand?
Thanks. I was already an expat for several years before I came to Thailand. I was getting sicker and sicker working an office job. I was on medication for high blood pressure, and my doctor prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs, although I never took any of those.
My attempts to fix my health were all futile. I tried eating more soy, more whole grains, more of everything that is conventionally considered to be healthy for you. If anything it just made it worse. Meanwhile my brother in Thailand was also working in an office and running a triathlon after being inert for 10 years.
He was sending me information about the paleo diet over the course of a few months and I read it all. I acted impulsive one day and quit my job, sold my condo and moved to Phuket . I chose Phuket for several reasons. My brother already worked for GE in Thailand, and as part of my new health experiment I wanted lots of sunshine, lots of coconuts, lots of seafood, beaches and great weather.
What made you start Paleo Robbie here in Bangkok?
It just happened really. I was talking to a group of my friends how unhealthy eating in Thailand actually is. A lot of expats come here and think Thai food is incredibly healthy, but when you know what is actually in the food you realize it really isn't.
Basically in order to eat healthy you'll have to prepare each meal yourself and be very picky about what you buy from the supermarkets. It just ends up as a very time consuming effort that none of us really want to do make. I tried ordering healthy(iest) options from companies like FoodbyPhone Chefsxp, but it's pricey and often you still don't know what they put in.
So I offered to cook for a group of friends and they started referring their friends and their friends and it just got out of hand really. Now we're serving to a 100 Bangkokkians a day.
Can you tell us what exactly is and isn’t considered paleo?
To tell you exactly would be a bit time consuming, but it's easy to sum it up roughly. The Paleo Diet limits itself to eating Vegetables, wild or pastured meat, wild fish, nuts, fruits and nut oils.
All things not OK are grains, legumes, food colorings, artificial preservatives, artificial flavouring, unhealthy animals stuffed with growth hormones and power feed etc.
When you look at this summation you'll realize that most of the things that are not OK to eat are all products that came after the advent of agriculture and/or the industrial revolution. Basically we reverted back to eating the same way people did 10,000 years ago, the Paleolithic era. And thus it's name, which sometimes can be a bit misleading.
How is following the paleo diet different to following other diets such as the Atkins diet?
I'm not too familiar with other diets, but I would just like to state that the Paleo Diet isn't actually a diet. It's more of a lifestyle. I never tell people to eat 50grams of this, 70 of that etc.
You simply eat foods that are healthy for your body in order to be active and live happily without being plagued by modern diseases. Atkins as far as I know is simply a low carbohydrate diet designed to make you lose weight.
Although eating paleo will almost certainly make you lose weight, this is not the main goal. It's simply a by-product of being a healthy individual. If you carry around some flab anywhere on your body, then you're not in optimal shape.
Most people are under the impression that Thai food is pretty healthy, I mean, the majority of Thais are pretty slim, right? What unhealthy ingredients should we be aware of when buying food in Thailand?
Well let's first admit that it isn't very hard to be much healthier than the average American and now also European. In the West we consume only 5% of our calories from vegetables nowadays and a whopping 18% from sugar, another 18% from refined vegetable oils, 24% from grains.
This is partially because we've stopped making our own food and started to buy more and more ready-made food, fast food, sodas etc. Thailand is just lacking behind in this process, but Starbucks, cake shops etc. are popping up rapidly everywhere around Bangkok.
Thai food itself can be quite healthy. Coconut milk, coconut oil, fresh seafood, lots of herbs and so on are in principle all very nutritious. The problem nowadays is simply the usage of large amount of sugar in any dish, the ubiquitous adding of MSG to bring out flavors, the fact that commercially grown crops in Thailand are literally drenched in pesticides and every single shrimp you'll eat is farmed under very questionable circumstances.
I don't mean to ruin your appetite, but you pretty much should be concerned with a lot of what you're eating and thought was healthy. Except coconut milk, which you thought was bad for you. That actually turns out to be the best thing you've been eating.
Rice is a staple part of the Thai diet, and something pretty hard for expats to avoid. Why is rice bad for us and what can we eat instead?
There are two problems with rice. One is that unrefined rice carries a lot of anti nutrients. When you eat brown rice you're consuming a large amount of phytate or phytin to be precise. Phytin binds itself to minerals and renders them useless for our body. The bran also has a trypsin inhibitor, which is a digestive enzyme that helps us to absorb proteins.
White rice doesn't have these issues of anti nutrients, but the nutritional profile is very bleak. It's basically just 80gr of carbs per 100grams and very little of anything else. Both refined and unrefined spike your insulin a lot. Which is one of the reasons you get fat and also a cause for a lot of modern diseases.
How do Thais react when you tell them rice is a no-no?
They just look at me as if I'm another crazy farang in Thailand. And I don't blame them. Rice has been promoted as a healthy food for a long time and it's a whole lot better than eating wheat. Yet if 4 years ago you tried to convince me that whole wheat bread is bad for you I would have said you were crazy as well.
Most of us break a huge sweat trying to seek out good bread in Thailand, but the paleo diet says gluten is evil. Does that mean cakes and biscuits are out too?
Anything with gluten is out. That doesn't mean you entirely have to give up on Cakes and Biscuits. There are many ways to make cakes with substituting flour for almond flour for example. Your cakes won't exactly be the same, but I ate some pancakes that we're trying out for our new a la carte menu and they were pretty damn good!
Even though the paleo diet encouraged eating fruit, it also says we should be cautious of eating too many sweet fruits. Can you elaborate on this, and can you give us some examples of healthy desserts and snacks we can replace our non-paleo vices with?
Simply said not all fruits were created equal. More so, because a lot of the fruit that we have nowadays is a result of human intervention. We've constantly made the bananas more sweet by selection and if you compare the wild banana with the banana we have now they are nothing alike.
The wild variety is brown and filled with seeds. And bitter. That we've altered the taste of the bananas doesn't mean anything by itself. But the problem with bananas now is simply that it is very high in sugar content. Something you would want to avoid if you live a sedentary life style or if you are not completely lean yet.
If you truly must eat some nice desserts, then there are a lot of options. Basically anything beats an Oreo cookie in terms of it being good for you.
You can make muffins, cookies, paleo nutella etc out of things like coconut flower, almond flower, raw forest honey and so on. That doesn't mean these things are great for you, but they are an amazing alternative to the chemical and gluten containing snacks you'd buy in the supermarket.
When I spoke to you at the Farmer’s market, you said that organic in Thailand doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it does, particularly where free-range eggs are concerned. How can we ensure we are buying real organic produce?
If I buy organic in the supermarket and it's baby spinach from the US, that sort of defeats the purpose of it being organic. By the time it has arrived, bought and eaten the nutrient profile has greatly diminished.
Furthermore other organic products can easily circumvent certain legislation by using another kind of herbicide instead of pesticide etc. Which really doesn't make a difference in the end.
With eggs in particular I think it's best if you simply Google Free-Range Chickens. You'll see that they can dodge the legislation once again by putting 1 million chickens together in a barn, but not in individual cages. That means they still can't move, but are now allowed to be labelled free-range.
What I consider free-range is where chickens walk outside in a large area and can feed themselves a little by eating a worm or two etc.
There are so many dodgy practises that the label organic is by itself starting to lose value. Yet don't be discouraged, if you visited the farmers market you saw that there are plenty of vendors who truly do offer ‘real' organic produce.
The best way to support this is by simply buying from shops that you know are legit. A lot of the vendors take pride in what they produce and will gladly inform you about it. So simply ask. The movement is quite new in Bangkok and could certainly use a lot of support.
Do you import your meat and fish, and if so, does that not mean it has to be preserved using non-organic methods?
We only serve meat and fish that is raised without the use of synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics. Unfortunately that seems nearly impossible to do in Thailand. So therefore we're forced to import our meat, even though we prefer not to.
All our meat comes from New Zealand which offers true pasture raised animals which taste great. For that very reason we only buy frozen which is one of the best ways to preserve food. I'd assume freezing would be considered organic.
The paleo diet pretty much eliminates conventional carbs, which most likely scares people into thinking they’ll be hungry all the time. This is a concern for those who need to fuel for particular sports. How can we get our carbs on the paleo diet?
If anything carbs make you hungry rather than satisfy you. Protein and fat are much more satisfying than carbs. But the paleo diet isn't particularly low carbs. You can still eat potatoes, fruits etc. If you are an endurance athlete and you feel that you absolutely need carbohydrates for optimal performance I'm sure you can eat a lot of yams, potatoes, and maybe even white rice.
But we're talking about a serious athlete here. Not someone who goes to the track once a week. For almost everyone it's better to set an upper limit of roughly 150gr of carbs a day. Which you'll see is nearly impossible to get to, unless you're a banana monster.
One thing that most expats reading this will be wondering is where the paleo diet stands on alcohol. Is beer out? Can we still drink wine?
Beer is out. Wine… well should be out. Alcohol by no means is considered healthy. Not even among us crazy paleo lot. However, in small amounts, if it helps your social life then go for it. You'll be doing yourself more harm trying to stress over not drinking alcohol than just drinking a glass of red wine. Or two.
As a rule of thumb I'd stick to wine and straight up shots. Don't start drinking crazy cocktails and beer thinking some alcohol is OK, because it's not the alcohol in them that's the problem. As one of my favorite paleo authors Robb Wolf said: “Drink enough to improve your sex life, but not so much that it decreases performance” I think that's a legit rule of thumb to go by”.
How much is the Paleo Robbie meal service and how do we get our daily meals?
Our meals are currently priced at 399 Baht. You can simply send us an email or a facebook message saying that you're interested to try. We offer a 3-day trial to anyone who is interested in eating paleo or simply having healthy and tasty food delivered to their homes or office.
399 Baht is roughly what one would pay for a decent main course in a restaurant, but for those used to 30 Baht pad Thai, this will seem very expensive. How do you explain the high price of the meals?
399 isn't cheap and unfortunately food isn't cheap. Value for money we're probably one of the best. Our ingredient costs are high, because of what we are serving.
Note that we offer a full meal of 300gr+ of pasture fed meat per dish and another whopping pile(yes a pile really) of vegetables to go with it. In a restaurant you'll order a main course, and a starter, and an expensive glass of water, and you'll get to add a 17% bonus at the end, which always ends up making it more expensive than you thought it would be.
How often do you truly go out to eat in a restaurant for 399 baht in the end and you're completely satisfied?
But yes it's more expensive than rice and noodles. I cannot compete with that unfortunately. Every single ingredient in the meal is nutritionally dense.
You have a wholesale foods list with some extremely tempting stuff on there, including Belgian chocolate. Can you tell us more about this side of your business?
It's the same business really. I love chocolate, still do. Dark chocolate isn't bad for you at all. Eat small amounts of it daily and you'll be fine. Cacao is actually great for you. The cured meats from conventionally raised cattle isn't very good for you, but it certainly isn't the worst. These items should all be considered as an occasional indulgence in limited amounts.
I always recommend going 80-20 on this if that's what makes it work for you. As long as you keep your paws of the gluten and things like high corn fructose syrup and artificial flavourings etc.
Paleo Robbie is largely aimed at expats, however, I’m quite sure there are many Thais who would like to eat more healthily but are restricted by cost and knowledge. Do you have plans to offer some form of paleo education, or plans to source cheaper, local organic produce so that paleo becomes accessible for average income Thais?
Actually all of our produce is local. Organic simply isn't cheaper than this. We're already getting great deals compared to super market prices. I'm afraid that if you were to buy all the ingredients of a meal in the supermarket you would end up spending nearly the same amount. The only way to change this is to decrease demand for non organic items.
I've already started giving talks to those who are interested. I would love the opportunity to speak on schools in Bangkok about food in general.
Children who grow up nowadays are so far removed from the food production chain. They simply grow up not knowing where their food comes from. All they see is what ends up on the shelves in the supermarket or what is sold by bakery shops, fast food chains etc.
If we can educate our children on food practises and diet in general we could avoid our the struggle of the next generation with modern diseases such as parkinsons, alzheimers, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers etc.
Can you give us a typical example of a three-course Paleo Robbie meal plan?
A typical meal is build around an ample amount of protein, a large serving of vegetables and a lot of herbs and spices to flavor. It would really be best to check out our menu as we've made it incredibly varied to accommodate nearly everyone's wishes.
The idea is to put 300-400gr of meat or fish per meal and follow that with a heap of vegetables and berries with some nuts in there. This will fill you up even if you are a big individual. Personally I'm considered a giant and I live a very active lifestyle, yet I can only eat 3 of these meals a day.
Have you considered a takeaway service for those who don’t want to commit to a monthly meal plan but would like to eat more healthily a few days a week?
You can already eat a few days a week with us. We require a minimum of 20 meals per month and you can fill that in any way you want to. You could order 1 meal during the week and take the weekends off etc. However, we do require a monthly commitment in order to efficiently source our food.
We are trying to become a non wasting kitchen. We want to use every last bit of the vegetables and we never want to throw vegetables away because the customers didn't order it. Which is a huge problems restaurants have to deal with. Often they throw away 30-40% of their produce and that shows in your bill at the end as well.
Are there plans for expansion into other areas of Thailand?
There are simply no plans. We just want to focus on maintaining the quality of the food and we believe we'll grow quickly if we're able to do just that. We'll see where it ends up taking us.
Where can people find out more about Paleo Robbie and sign up for the meal plan?
Thank you for giving us an insight into the world of Paleo Robbie. I wish you the best of luck for the future.
Thanks a lot!
So, what do you think? Are you tempted to go paleo?