As a resident performance chef at Nike, sought-after specialist Mary Shenouda first fought through her own undiagnosed illness to discover the benefits of taking your health into your own hands and leaving no stone unturned.
Her clients include everyone from professional athletes to A-list actors and influential entrepreneurs—whether seeking to correct pre-existing conditions, figure out why they’re experiencing pain, or generally feeling off.
Shenouda and her Gut Reset and lifestyle program are meticulously curated to reduce inflammation and bring clients to peak performance levels—physically, mentally, and even sometimes—emotionally (sorry, did you think that tenth cup of coffee wasn’t giving you mood swings?)
Pairing her knowledge and understanding of wellness with her unique Egyptian culture, Shenouda develops dishes that embrace the healing benefits of various spices from her homeland. While she goes by The Paleo Chef, she realizes everyone’s body is different and helps find what she likes to refer to as “paleYOU”; in other words, finding the paleo lifestyle that works for your life.
Through use of her book or website, there’s no doubt she has a passion for helping people get healthy. Below she breaks it down. Because, hey, it’s 2022. If not now, when?
“Identify either pain points, symptoms, or goals, and then document: what are you doing right now? Before you do anything, we need to look at what’s happening right now. I’ll have clients do that for about a week.
From there, before we even test, I have everybody do my gut reset. I have a public one available to anyone that wants to do it, it’s called Ready? Reset. Go!
It’s a combination of things:
- Three days of a specific bone broth recipe I have
- Four days of foods that repeat
- It is a combination of fasting mimicking protocol, so it is calorie restrictive
- It is a dense nutrient type of diet. Some people will replace ProLon or programs like that with it. If you’re familiar with ProLon, that’s what it’s like—except it’s utilizing real foods
I do that before testing, because when you do testing, I want to get a clear view of what’s happening in your body without the impact of what you were eating prior. If you’re not really into health and wellness, and you’ve been eating burgers and pizza and eating every inflammatory food, of course, your test is going to show all these high markers. And I don’t want to see that. I want to know what’s happening to your body when things are a little bit calmed down.”
“The other component that’s super important is journaling. The journaling of every symptom they’re experiencing, because whether it’s comfortable or uncomfortable to them, it’s still a piece of information. We want to know: did you get a rash? A headache? What is your stool quality like? All that information from your gut reset is really interesting and allows us to see how your body responded to the reset.
There are clients who experience profound changes, anywhere from 10-15 pounds lost from inflammation, which I really want to emphasize, is inflammation. This is not a weight loss program; this is not a cleanse or a detox; this is just a reset for that information.
You have folks whose stool normalizes completely. People who have previous injuries, their injuries will flare up a little bit and then calm down; that’s, again, a piece of information for us to address.”
“Once that week is done, then we go to the functional medicine doctor or your primary care doctor and run labs.
You want to get your general comprehensive test, which shows your lipids; you want to get a pituitary function test to see what all your hormones are doing; and you want to get a full thyroid panel. It’s really important to say ‘full thyroid’ because usually they’ll just test TSH, and you want a more comprehensive look. Those are general panels that are run. Now, sometimes doctors ask, why do you need this unless there’s an issue? And this is where you have to discern, is this the doctor you want, or do you want to go to a functional medicine doctor?
I always want to get a nutrient panel to see where your nutrient levels are, and a food sensitivity panel to see what is creating inflammation in your body. Those tests are really great jumping off points, but those test results change as you address them. And those are ones you’re going to want to revisit.
If you address those things, and you still have symptoms that were bothering you in the beginning such as: fatigue, headaches, etc. then I want to look at your cortisol levels to see what your pattern of cortisol is, because then you can look at what’s happening at the time of day when it dips or it spikes.
GI map, which is a stool test, you want to look for parasites; you want to look for gluten sensitivity; and you want to look for any autoimmune markers. And then any other tests from there could be considered a little extra.”
“Because of the kind of world we live in, we wake up; we check our phone; we’re doing inputs instead of controlling our day; we hold a lot of stress in our body; we forget to breathe; we don’t drink enough water. All of those things should be adjusted first before you start spending money on anything else, because what if it’s as simple as, I just need to go outside in the morning, and I feel so much better?
When you wake up in the morning, I really recommend the first thing you do is open a window. It’s the whole exposure to vitamin D—the fresh air hitting your body—that’s the science side. And from a spiritual side, it’s like, you woke up. There’s a cartoon I really love; it’s this little cartoon character getting up and stretching, looking at the sun, and he goes, ‘Again?’ And the sun goes, ‘Again.’ And so just the act of opening the window, getting some fresh air to hit your cells as a way to say, I’m alive.
Then, doing some deep breath gratitude. I’m talking a few minutes of stretching.
And then I like sitting in front of red-light therapy; I think it’s really important. I think that’s something that’ll become more and more mainstream.”
REST AND DIGEST
“Throughout the day, making sure you’re getting some walking in. I like walking in the morning because I get it out of the way, and I’ll lift later.
Make it a point to sit down when you eat—sometimes we’re on the go. Sitting down, taking some breaths, again, getting your nervous system to go from, go, go, go, to rest and digest.
I call them micro-vacations. If you don’t get to take real vacations very often, sometimes, again, stepping outside for a breather and just resetting the system. Those are really low, low barrier to entry changes.”
SLEEP IS NUMBER ONE
“Sleep is huge. Sleep is the number one medicine. Aim for eight hours. Some people can function on a little less. Some people are blessed with sleeping with more than that. Optimize your bedtime routine in order to have the bets in your favor.
Tips and Tricks:
- No caffeine after 1 or 2 PM. Some people, when they cut out coffee, realize they don’t actually need the coffee in the morning. It is a process—some people hate me during this process.
- Let darkness be darkness. Don’t have all these lights on before you go to bed. Limit screen time. I prefer an hour before bed. Try to be reasonable, half an hour before bed, if possible.
- Having a breath-work routine or a journal routine; you train your body to think, okay, we’re getting ready for bed.
- Make sure the room is cool. A weighted blanket is really helpful with that.
- Using an air purifier at night. I joke that I’m basically recreating the womb at night—a weighted blanket with the air going.”
BREAKFAST: TO FAST OR NOT TO FAST
“I don’t think you should eat a meal within an hour of waking up. Let your organs and your body wake up.
Don’t drink coffee within an hour of waking up. Your cortisol is higher in the morning because that’s what helps you wake up. So then you’re going to compound something, that induces this stress response. Just chill.
In the morning, herbal tea, maybe a small piece of fruit if you feel like you need something.
What I would say to eating breakfast is, your body needs some sort of fuel source in the morning. And that fuel source could be a full meal, or it could be something that’s fat-based or protein-based to keep your cognitive function going. I don’t think anybody needs brunch in the morning every single day, if that makes sense. But it varies from person to person.”
EXPERIMENTING WITH OMITTING & LIMITING: FOODS TO AVOID
“If I were to choose something for everyone to experiment removing, [it would be] dairy and gluten, and limiting sugar and caffeine.
I think everyone should eliminate dairy on the regular basis because it seems to be a common culprit for symptoms that people think they have to live with, like IBS, congestion, or headaches. Experiment with removing it for a couple of weeks to a month, just to see what happens.
Experiment with removing processed foods in general.
Limit sugar-sweetened drinks. Take a look at all the drinks you grab, even the ones you buy, is there added sugar? Reduce that.
Even as a celiac and as a paleo chef, I hesitate to say gluten, because gluten is a problem for a lot of people, but gluten is also not a problem for a lot of people. It’s one of those, where it depends [from person to person]. Experiment with it.”
DIFFERENT KINDS OF SWEET
“When I say sugar, I don’t mean fruit. I don’t know why people are all mad at fruit suddenly. Eat your apples; eat your blueberries. It’s okay.
I think agave is one of the greatest marketing things of all time. Agave is terrible, and it just has to do with the density of that fructose in there; it’s just highly processed.
My preferred sweeteners for my clients and myself are honey and maple syrup, and even some cane sugar. Because it’s not really the sugar that’s the problem, it’s how much of it we consume. Eat less of it.
Stevia and monk fruit? I hate them with such a passion. One, they don’t taste good, and they ruin the taste of anything that they go into. Two, if you’re eating something that tastes sweet, then you never train your palate to appreciate the natural sweetness in food. If you cut it out completely, then you are like, wow, I didn’t know eggplant was sweet. We’re always dumping monk fruit and stevia. Also, for some people, it triggers their auto-immune response, for some people, those sugar alternates can trigger a leaky gut. Now, some people get really mad at me. They’re like, how dare you say that, I’m a diabetic, etc. Respect that. I understand, but why do you need something that tastes sweet? is the question I ask back.
There are some performance benefits within honey and performance benefits within maple.”
SUBSTITUTING: HOW TO STILL EAT YOUR GO-TO’S
“I think most people think their options are limited. If you want pasta, you can use Jovial cassava pasta and boom, there’s your replacement. If you want burgers, Coco Bakes in Santa Monica makes an amazing paleo burger bun, and then there’s your burger.
Google is your best friend on the substitute recipe. For what I do, I’m focusing on whole foods. And so, I want to show them how to make Shakshouka—an egg dish that has all these fresh ingredients, or how to properly roast salmon with coconut butter. It’s all whole foods and all of those recipes are either on my Instagram or in my gut reset.”
COFFEE: THE MINIMUM EFFECTIVE DOSE
“With my athletes, we use minimal effective dose. I wean them off coffee. They don’t have caffeine, except for the game days. On game days, they have the equivalent to two or three coffee beans. And it’s like, ‘boom’ on them because we found their minimal effective dose.
With my product, Phat Fudge, it’s a ketogenic, tahini, performance fudge. People who have it are like, ‘How much caffeine is in this?’ It’s one coffee bean, but it’s actually the combination of the other spices that I put in there with the magnesium and the potassium. And so, you think you need all this caffeine when you actually don’t.
When someone says, I’ve been having a lot of anxiety; I can’t sleep; I have insomnia, but I only have one cup of coffee a day. Yeah, you’re having it every day. So when we wean them off of it, they sleep so great. So limiting, omitting caffeine. If you don’t have it completely out of your diet, at least not after noon or 1 PM.
A lot of people, they’ll just do a packet of the Phat Fudge in the morning, and they feel like they’re on freaking fire. You could maybe experiment first by blending it into your coffee. I made it a squeeze pop, but some people blend it in their coffee. And that could make a difference. And then maybe experiment with just a packet of Phat Fudge and no coffee, and see how you feel.
Now, if you have coffee every single day, and you’re going to cut it out; I would say wean off of it. Go half, quarter, and even down to where you’re just doing a shot of just regular coffee as you wean off. That way I’m not sabotaging your work days as you go through detox symptoms.”
“Limit alcohol. Because of gluten, my clients don’t do beer. We limit wine. If you’re going to drink, I prefer liquor. In moderation and straight up. Not really into cocktails because that’s where you’re doing all the added sugars.
With scotch, it’s made from grains, [but] there’s something about the distillation process of scotch and whiskeys that removes those proteins, so [someone with celiac] doesn’t have a reaction to it—whereas [they] would have a reaction to the other stuff.
Wine is really high in sugar. The sulfates seem to really bother a lot of people and get some congestion and headaches. Most people don’t know this, if you’re celiac, a lot of wine cross-contaminates with gluten, so they might have an auto-immune response without realizing it.
In the paleo world, tequila and vodka are the kindest ones. And if you’re against all those things, there’s hard kombucha. I love, I love Wild Tonic Jun Kombucha. It’s so tasty; it tastes like a Shandy.
But if you’re having a night out, I don’t want somebody stressing out over that, those little tiny details. It’s more of ‘what do I know will make them feel less shitty the next morning?’
There’s a place for alcohol to live in somebody’s lifestyle that’s still optimized and healthy. But you can’t drink every single day and think that all those other habits we talked about are going to counterbalance that.”
TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
“I’m a big fan of soft tissue work for maintenance and injury repair. Big fan of sauna. Love acupuncture.
I think the statistic in Finland is that each household has one and a half to two saunas. It’s just a part of the culture to do saunas and ice baths. And they’re really healthy people. And we’re over here calling other people out for wanting to take a 15-minute break.
[But] Doing red light therapy or getting some morning fresh air and hydrating and eating right, I think should be done before you start spending a bunch of money going to saunas all the time, or doing ice baths all the time, or getting physio soft tissue work all the time. You can’t skip the step of having a really good baseline routine, and think just seeing a massage therapist is going to counterbalance poor choices prior to that.”
“I love HigherDOSE. It’s a sauna blanket that you can do at home. I love the blanket also because I travel with athletes, so we have a sauna on the go.
Tonal [at-home gym] is really cool. It’s attached to your wall, bolted down and it has every attachment that you would have in a gym. Barbell, everything. It’s smart technology, so it automatically adjusts the weight as if you have a full gym in your house. And it’s got instructors and all of this stuff. It definitely isn’t something for every home user, but it is middle of the road—it’s $3,000, but how much is your membership fee? How much is your personal trainer? When you look at it that way, 10-15 personal trainer sessions would have paid for most of this at-home gym.
The Oura Ring is a tracker for every cycle of your sleep, your base metabolic rate, so if you and I were to wear the same ring and go on a walk—the same distance—it would show a different calorie output because it’s adjusted to you. It helps predict if you’re getting sick; your heart rate variability; your body temperature; all those things. That’s another piece of technology that I use with my clients. It’s almost like having a little coach tracking what’s happening.”
BENEATH THE SURFACE
“The connection between gut and emotion and emotion and gut is huge. I was on a panel [for Nike] with all these performance experts, and they are all about movement. I was the only one with nutrition, and the panel moderator asked me, ‘What’s the most common nutrient deficiency you see among a lot of your athletes?’ And without even thinking, I said, ‘I know you want me to tell you it’s like vitamin D or iron and magnesium, but the most common deficiency I see among all my clients is compassion, physical touch and connection. And it doesn’t matter what I’m feeding them, if we don’t have those things in lock, they’re not going to be able to perform optimally.’ Then I realized that I didn’t really answer the question and got all woo-woo on them, so I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ And then I looked in the audience, and people burst into tears.
You can eat right all you want, but if you’re stuck in a loop—a stress loop, a trauma loop, a sadness loop, a negatively fueled competitive loop, your gut is going to respond in that way.”
IN SUM: WELLNESS IS FOR EVERYONE
“I would want to encourage everyone to take a look at The Gut Reset page. I want people to know that it’s not just athletes and entertainers that can dial in their diet. What I do for my clients is customized. I do special tonics for them. If I’m working with a team, every athlete has their own pre-game drink. That’s how detailed I get, so when I do say, ‘Hey, mix your pomegranate juice with your cherry juice with water as a baseline substitute’, that it’s not on a whim. It’s like, here’s the most generalized format of something that we have some of the greatest athletes and entertainers in the world doing.
Wellness can be accessible, and it takes just a few tweaks now, and then next quarter another few tweaks, and you just keep building upon it. It shouldn’t be so overwhelming.”
CHECK OUT MARY SHENOUDA
The Paleo Chef & IG @PALEOCHEF
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for clarity.