Melissa Joulwan is an entrepreneur who runs the Well Fed website, advising people on paleo diets that actually make sense and, most importantly, are actually delicious.
Her focus is on making delicious meals that conform to a healthy diet, meals that anyone would be happy to eat. This is the key she’s found to truly sticking with a life-improving diet. She spreads her gospel on her website and social media regularly, helping improve the lives of countless individuals out there.
How did your parents’ abilities in cooking influence your own career path?
I’m from a melting pot family: Lebanese on Dad’s side, Italian and Slovak on Mom’s. From the time I could shove food into my mouth, I ate kibbeh and eggplant parmesan, and while Mom taught me to cook pancakes on weekend mornings, I picked up my dad’s tricks for making baba ghanoush at dinner.
My grandfather owned the Garfield, one of those shiny chrome diners, where you could sit at the counter, sip on a bottomless cup of coffee, and wisecrack with the waitresses and other regulars. My dad ran the Country Squire Restaurant, a combination coffee shop, formal dining room, and motel.
I studied advertising in college and worked for about 20 years in PR, marketing, and copywriting—but I guess it was inevitable that I would eventual combine my love for writing and sharing stories with food.
What inspired you to switch to paleo eating?
As a kid, I was a chubby nerd. After a broken ankle and vicious playground taunts, I stuck with reading, practicing the piano, and roller-skating to the library. I don’t know how many gym classes I missed because I was “sick” or “forgot” my gym clothes. I do know that my P.E. attendance put my otherwise stellar grade point average in jeopardy. Even though I avoided sports, I secretly admired the athletic kids; they walked taller than the rest of us.
When I was in tenth grade, my dad took me to Annapolis to see the Navy band play a concert, and for about three weeks, I was determined to get in shape so that I could apply to the Naval Academy. I abandoned that dream because I was incapable of doing pushups and situps, and I was too embarrassed and overwhelmed to ask for help.
For most of my life, I was haunted by a deep desire to be different than I was. To be thin. To feel confident. To break the cycle of thinking of food—and my behavior—as “good” or “bad.” I joined Weight Watchers and eventually became a Lifetime Member with a weight loss of more than 50 pounds.
I joined a CrossFit gym and learned to love being intimidated by my workouts. I developed a deep affection for lifting barbells. But despite my successes, it was still my habit to celebrate and to grieve and to stress out and to relax with food. Although I worked out regularly, I didn’t feel as strong, inside or out, as I wanted. I had insomnia, allergies, and stomach aches. My body didn’t feel like it belonged to me.
In 2008, I learned I had a nodule on my thyroid. The risk of cancer was high, so I had the nodule surgically removed, and the doctor hoped that the remaining half of my thyroid would continue to function. It held on for a few months but then stopped working. That was a very difficult time. It was like constantly having a case of the blues; I was sluggish, foggy-headed, and desperately worried about re-gaining all the weight that I’d worked so hard to lose.
Then I found the Whole30 and its unique approach to paleo. It was surprisingly easy for me to give up grains, despite my deep affection for toast, but saying goodbye to my standard breakfast of blueberries with milk almost pushed me to the edge. I did not approach the paleo rules with an open heart.
But I committed. I followed the eating guidelines. I made it a project to get eight hours of sleep every night. I worked with my doctor to try to find the right doses for my thyroid hormones. I was on track with my nutrition, but my training was all wrong for a girl with no thyroid. The constant physical stress of my sometimes twice-a-day workouts and beat-the-clock CrossFit—without restorative activities like yoga, meditation, and walking to balance it out—took its toll. I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue.
So I started over…again.
My routine now includes daily meditation, gentle yoga classes, walking, strength training, and occasional sprints. What’s never wavered is my commitment to and affection for my paleo diet. I’ve been through a lot of self-experimentation in the last half decade to get back to optimal health. The solid foundation provided by the paleo diet makes it possible to measure other health and quality of life markers and tinker with them. After five years, I’m more convinced than ever that this is the healthiest way for me to feed my body and mind—and it is sustainable in a way that no other “diet” has ever been.
How has your life changed since you focused your diet on paleo nutrition?
Personally, I’ve never felt so peaceful about how and what I eat. Professionally, paleo inspired me to write my cookbooks Well Fed and Well Fed 2, which has helped me realize my dream of being a full-time writer. Now I spend my days playing in the kitchen, writing, playing the piano, and doing all of my favorite physical activities. It’s literally a dream come true.
What distinguishes a recipe that people love to eat from something that’s just so-so?
Fancy, fussy recipes seem to get a lot of attention, but the recipes that are most popular on my site are the ones that are loaded with flavor, are easy to make, and are comforting on an emotional, as well as nutritional, level.
I mean, you can buy special ingredients and follow a more complicated recipe to make a special occasion dish, like this Chicken Bastila, it’s sweet, salty, chewy, crunchy, and satisfying. The most popular recipes on my web site are my homemade mayo and my Chocolate Chili because they’re ridiculously delicious and they feel like home.
Do you have any strategies that help you keep up such an active blogging and social media presence?
I honestly try to limit my social media exposure—twice a day, I check in to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to respond to comments and share something I think will be useful to my followers.
My blog has a fairly standard rhythm now, too: On Thursdays, I share my “Five Paleo Dinners To Cook Next Week” post and send my newsletter, and on Monday/Tuesday, I usually post a new recipe or an article about motivation, books, yoga, meditation, or something in the news that catches my fancy. I believe that the things I do away from the computer—walking, meditation, reading, music—fill the creative well and give me interesting things to write about.
The computer and social media are awesome tools for connecting with people, but I try to make sure their useful to me, rather than a distraction or entertainment.