Cooking Against the Grain: Danielle Walker

Best-selling author Danielle Walker helps you serve up some favorite comfort foods — free of grains, gluten, and dairy.

Danielle-Walker

Danielle Walker was 22 years old in 2007 when she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the colon. Over the next four years, she was hospitalized -multiple times, suffering from dangerously plummeting weight, malnutrition, and severe joint pain — along with side effects from multiple medications that weren’t working.

Faced with surgery or a lifetime of weekly drug treatments to prevent flare-ups, Walker researched alternatives on her own, specifically looking at whether dietary changes might help. For some people, she found, they do.

So despite her regular doctors’ objections, Walker worked with a naturopathic physician to overhaul her diet in 2011. By following an elimination diet, she eventually pinpointed the inflammatory triggers she needed to avoid. She noticed improvements immediately.

But while the discoveries offered hope, they also brought frustration: Walker struggled to find satisfying, tasty recipes. So she began experimenting in her own kitchen, aiming to re-create meals that were familiar and comforting. She logged the recipes on a blog she titled Against All Grain, and started a Facebook page where she could share them with family. Walker had no idea there was such a great demand for what she was doing.

In just 15 months, she went from 200 Facebook fans to 50,000, and was working on her first of two Against All Grain cookbooks — both New York Times bestsellers today.

Now eight years postdiagnosis, Walker feels better than ever and is committed to helping others — those with digestion issues or food sensitivities — find hope and promise for good health through nutrition, too.

Experience Life What was the “aha” moment when you knew you had to try alternative methods to get well?

Danielle Walker | It was when my doctor explained that if the immunosuppressant didn’t work, the next step would be surgery to resect a portion of my colon. I knew my body wouldn’t function the way it was supposed to after that, and there was no guarantee the surgery would actually help my condition. I was concerned it might come with a lifetime supply of complications. So I decided to try dietary changes first — and I’m glad I did.

I was concerned it might come with a lifetime supply of complications. So I decided to try dietary changes first — and I’m glad I did.

People often write to me with regret saying, “I had the surgery 10 years ago and didn’t feel better until I switched my diet and started following your recipes.”

Things are changing, though. Someone recently told me their gastroenterologist  at Cedars-Sinai recommended my book to them — that’s so exciting because I went years without knowing whether diet could help, even though I had asked. To hear that someone in that field is recommending dietary changes is encouraging.

EL | You follow a paleo-type diet, yet you advise people to figure out what works for them. Why is that so important?

DW | I come at it from a personal standpoint. When I found the Specific Carbohydrate Diet [SCD, which calls for eliminating grains, added sugars, starches, and processed foods], I was sick and desperate. I got Elaine Gottschall’s book Breaking the Vicious Cycle and followed it word for word. It became my dietary bible: I didn’t veer.

But I still noticed symptoms here and there, and I wondered why I wasn’t getting to 100 percent. I had to dig deep and review exactly what I was eating every day. I noticed that some things recommended in the book — like consuming dairy and legumes — were causing my symptoms.

So I created a nuanced approach based on the SCD and paleo plans. For example, I eliminated dairy completely for a while, but now I can enjoy goat cheese; I still can’t tolerate cream or milk. There are other paleo advocates who add things like rice back in if their bodies can tolerate it. Listening and responding to what your body is telling you — along with ensuring you’re getting proper nutrition — is essential to long-term healthy-eating success.

EL | How challenging was it to stick with the changes?

DW | It was difficult at first, and I went back and forth so many times. Switching everything you know about food, cooking, and health is hard. You go through a process of feeling sorry for yourself, of grieving a loss.

Over time, I realized I could replace all the things I loved with food that wouldn’t hurt my body, tasted just as good, and still offered the memories and emotional ties I had from my past, like comfort foods during the holidays.

EL | Why did you start blogging?

DW | I fell into it in late 2011. I’d just left my job to be a stay-at-home mom, and my husband encouraged me to start it as a way to catalog the recipes I was creating and share them with my family.

I kept it going because so many people seemed to need the information. This was before grain-free and paleo diets were popular, so there weren’t many blogs or cookbooks on those topics yet.

I also felt that most of the recipes out there weren’t very reliable. I was ready to throw up my hands and say, “I can’t do this because the food tastes awful!” I didn’t want others to have that experience.

I wanted to create recipes that mimicked the flavors, tastes, and textures of “normal” food so people wouldn’t feel deprived and could sustain eating this way. I hope I’ve created options that make them say, “OK, I can do this. It’s helping me feel well, and I can stick with it for life.”

EL | What are your top tips for grocery shopping?

DW | Regardless of your diet, go to the grocery store with a plan — whether it’s for one meal or a week’s worth. If you don’t, you’ll end up buying lots of things you don’t need or know how to use, or you’ll grab items like frozen pizzas or cereal because you don’t know what else to get.

I include a grocery list along with meal plans in Meals Made Simple to help readers plan what to buy and how to divide food across multiple meals. This minimizes waste, and saves time and money.

EL | What do you say to people who think they are “too busy to cook”?

DW | Cooking real food from scratch is more time consuming than some people might be used to. That’s why many of my recipes include information on doubling things up in the crockpot and on turning leftovers into completely different meals.

One thing you can do is make something and freeze it in portions so you have a healthy lunch, or quick dinner, on hand.

Another thing is to set aside a Saturday with friends, have each person prepare a few recipes, and then divide and swap them. You end up with a variety of meals, and you’ve spent time with friends, which is always fun!

WEB EXTRA!

Blackened Salmon With Mango-Avocado Salsa

Blackened-Fish-With-Mango-Salsa

Author: Danielle Walker — AgainstAllGrain.com

Serves: 4-6

Prep Time: 20 mins

Cook Time: 20 mins Total Time: 40 mins

Ingredients:

  • 1½ to 2 pounds wild salmon fillets, boneless and skin on
  • 3 teaspoons melted grassfed butter
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 1½ tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp oregano
  • ½ tsp cumin
  • ½ tsp chili powder
  • ½ tsp cracked pepper
  • ¼ tsp thyme
  • ¼ tsp cayenne

Mango Salsa

  • 1 large ripe mango, seeded, peeled and diced
  • 1 large avocado, seeded and diced
  • ¼ cup diced grape tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons diced red onion
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt

Instructions:

  1. Slice the salmon evenly into 4 to 6 smaller fillets.
  2. Combine the butter and all of the spices in a bowl. Rub all over both sides of the salmon. Leave at room temperature while the grill heats.
  3. Preheat a grill to medium-high heat.
  4. Meanwhile, combine the salsa ingredients together in a bowl and store in the refrigerator while the fish cooks.
  5. Sear the salmon, skinless side down first. Close the grill lid. Cook 1-3 minutes on the first side, depending on how thick the fillets are. (Try not to move them until you are going to flip them over to help keep them in one piece.)
  6. Using tongs and a metal spatula in the other hand, carefully turn the fish over, so that the skin side is down, and reduce the heat to medium. For charcoal grills, finish cooking over indirect heat furthest from the coals.
  7. Close the grill lid and finish cooking for another 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets.
  8. Salmon should be just barely opaque and will start to flake along the center of the fillet when done.
  9. Serve hot with the mango-avocado salsa spooned over it.

This recipe and image was reposted with permission from Danielle Walker.

WEB EXTRA!

Zucchini Ribbon Salad

Zucchini-Ribbon-Salad

Author: Danielle Walker — AgainstAllGrain.com

Serves: 2-4

Ingredients:

  • zest and juice of 1 medium lemon
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chopped dill
  • sea salt
  • 4 cups zucchini peels (from about 4 medium zucchini squash)
  • ½ cup cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 avocado, diced

Instructions:

  1. Whisk together the lemon juice, Dijon mustard, and vinegar until combined. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly, until the vinaigrette is smooth and thick. Stir in the chopped dill, lemon zest and a pinch of salt. Set aside.
  2. Toss the zucchini peels, tomatoes, and avocado in a bowl. Drizzle with 1/4 cup of the dressing.
  3. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before serving.

This recipe and image was reposted with permission from Danielle Walker.

Heidi Wachter is Experience Life’s staff writer.

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