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Going Paleo at Cornucopia

Chef Lisa Virtue puts a healthy spin on classic American dishes at Nov. 5 event

Whenever a new diet enjoys a sudden surge in popularity — like the grain-free, protein-rich Paleo diet has over the past several years — it's often labelled as yet another flash-in-the-pan food trend.

But for natural chef Lisa Virtue, dismissing the Paleo diet as no more than a fleeting fad would deny the prehistoric eating habits of our ancestors dating back thousands of years.

"I find it kind of an ironic statement (to call the Paleo diet a fad) because it was the original diet we ate for two-and-a-half million years while we were evolving into the intelligent beings we are today," said Virtue. "If anything I think we've been devolving since we started consuming so many grains. We've actually become sicker in the past 10,000 years."

Virtue, who will be leading a cooking demo and workshop as part of the Cornucopia festival next month, first realized the benefits of a grain-free diet while attending a holistic culinary school in California, where she now teaches.

"The main point of a Paleo diet is to avoid grains and legumes because they are covered in a coating of phytic acid, which is a digestive inhibitor and actually blocks the absorption of minerals," she explained. "So if you eat too many grains that haven't been properly prepared, which most (grain) products in the stores have not been, then you could eventually develop a mineral deficiency. The Paleo diet avoids all that."

And while Virtue doesn't believe people have to cut grains out entirely, she suggests eating them in moderation and, more importantly, preparing them the correct way.

"If you do want to eat some grains ... they should really be soaked and/or sprouted beforehand to fight that phytic acid content," she said. At the Nov. 5 event, the Vancouver chef will be putting a healthy spin on a few culinary classics, like pasta made from rutabaga noodles, a kale Caesar salad with cashew dressing, a flax and pumpkin seed baguette and parsnip and carob brownies for dessert.

By divulging her cooking techniques, Virtue hopes to challenge the notion that a Paleo lifestyle is more effort than it's worth.

"It is a little bit of work, but I also think focusing that energy on your health can in itself contribute to your well-being," she said. "Sometimes cooking Paleo is even simpler (than cooking with grains), especially when you think of it from beginning to end. For instance, rutabaga noodles might seem like a lot to prepare, but when you compare it to the energy that goes into making wheat noodles, it's far less work."

Thanks to increasing popularity among mainstream eaters, CrossFitters and some big-name celebrity adherents, the Paleo diet — sometimes known as the Caveman or Stone-Age diet — has become one of the most-talked about food trends of the last several years, even topping Google's list of the most searched-for diets in 2013.

"I think people are more aware of the connection between what they eat and how they feel," said Virtue, who developed the Paleo-friendly menu at a new restaurant opening in Kitsilano next month called Papillion. "I think the awareness has been spreading because of the Internet and because people have actually healed themselves through a healthy diet. People know... they don't actually have to take medicine to feel great; they can just eat delicious, healthy food and feel that way."

Lithic: Primal Kitchen Lunch takes place from 12 to 1:30 p.m. at the Whistler Conference Centre. Tickets are $20 and available at