What If Everything You ‘Know’ About Nutrition Is Wrong?

Unless you are part of the Primal/Paleo movement I suspect you’re about to have your belief system seriously challenged, maybe even shattered for good.

So if you aren’t genuinely open-minded to the thought that everything you know about nutrition could be wrong, you may want to avoid reading all together.

In fact you may want to consider hiring a Life Coach!

After kicking off my Paleo Experiment that has morphed into a Primal Experiment I thought it would be cool to pick the brains of the man that is in the vanguard of the movement, Mark Sisson who runs the popular and highly informative Marks Daily Apple website.

It’s a longish post and I hope you’ll find it fascinating. You may agree with Mark, or you may disagree, but it will certainly get you thinking and I’d value your feedback.

The Primal Blueprint – An Interview With Mark Sisson

In a paragraph or two, what is the Primal Blueprint?

Two million years of evolution has led us to where we now each possess the DNA recipe (genes) to build a perfect, healthy, happy human form.

Unfortunately, many of us have, over the years, mismanaged those genes, turning the wrong gene “switches” on or off based on poor diet, exercise or other behaviors we have chosen.

The Primal Blueprint is a lifestyle “roadmap” intended to get you back on the track to rebuild that lean, fit, strong, healthy, productive, loving person that you know lurks inside you by optimizing gene expression.

It combines clues from evolutionary biology and research from modern genetic science to identify those very real signals we can send our genes (through what we eat, how we exercise, how much sun or sleep we get, etc) to direct expression towards boosting immune function, burning more body fat and building more muscle, while decreasing inflammation and lowering risk for disease.

It’s the easiest way to optimize body composition, energy, libido, and productivity.

What got you into it?

I was tired and frustrated from trying to do everything right according to the Conventional Wisdom, but getting mediocre results. I was an elite marathoner (2:18) and triathlete (4th at Hawaii Ironman), so I could race fast, but I was constantly sick or injured, had osteoarthritis in my feet, tendonitis in my hips, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and seasonal allergies.

I was a wreck from trying to be healthy and fit! When I retired from competition 20 years ago, I vowed to find all the ways I could become lean, strong, fit, fast AND healthy with the least amount of pain, suffering, sacrifice, calorie-counting and all those other negative words we associate with being fit and healthy.

I’ve spent the last decade showing people how easy it can be to achieve those health and fitness goals while totally enjoying what you eat, how you exercise and how you live the rest of your life. That’s what the Primal Blueprint is all about.

There seems to be a lot of confusion between Paleo and Primal, what are the main differences?

The biggest difference is that Paleo is historically “only” a diet, while Primal encompasses all aspects of how we live in accordance with our hunter-gatherer genes.

Primal certainly focuses on the eating strategy as well (I call it a kinder, gentler Paleo), but also looks at exercise protocols from the perspective of optimizing gene expression with specific movements like sprinting and doing full-range-of-motion and bodyweight exercises, while eschewing the whole “chronic cardio” movement as not only a waste of time, but likely harmful to your health in the long run.

Primal also encompasses other lifestyle factors like sleep patterns, play and sun exposure as essential to maximizing health and fitness.

Primal ‘allows’ the use of certain dairy products, but surely Grok wouldn’t have had access to these, would he?

Tims Note: Grok is the name given to the character on the right that epitomizes the primal lifestyle. You can read more here.

No he wouldn’t, and that’s where the “kinder, gentler Paleo” moniker comes in. I tried to make Primal accessible to the largest number of people possible. If you really want to go “full Primal” you stay away from dairy, but not everyone has that kind of resolve.

Moreover, the evidence against dairy for some people isn’t as overwhelmingly damning as it is for grains. For starters, everyone is born with the ability to digest lactose, otherwise we couldn’t live on breast milk.

The fact that some of us lose that enzyme later in life and become lactose intolerant does predispose some people to problems with dairy, and I recommend that those folks not mess with that fact.

But many others might find that a little raw dairy now and then (not that pasteurized, homogenized crap) poses no problem. Of course, it’s up to each individual to experiment.

There are some foods Grok might not have encountered that might still add value or pleasure to a modern diet. I’m not a fan of milk at all, but I love heavy whipping cream and butter, and there seems to be little evidence that those forms of fat-rich foods have a negative impact on most people.

I like a little cheese once in a while, or some chocolate or a glass of wine, none of which were available to Grok on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean those choices are going to cause any damage to my health if consumed within reason.

You say in the book that there’s no need to drink excessive water as we have an inbuilt mechanism that tells us to drink when necessary, ie we get thirsty, but I thought being thirsty meant we were already dehydrated and should have drunk earlier, is that wrong?

Wrong again. That’s another myth. Being thirsty means we should drink a bit of water (or equivalent) if some is handy, but it certainly doesn’t mean we are already dehydrated.

I think we tend to over hydrate because we have been led to believe it’s healthy. It may not be. For two million plus years of evolution, our ancestors went without a tap or a bottle of Evian hanging at their side all the time. They weren’t near a river or lake all the time. They didn’t even have a cup to hold water if they found some.

Our hydration regulation mechanism (primarily via the kidneys) works very well to keep us adequately hydrated most of the time. Ironically, it’s grain-based diets that increase the need for hydration a bit. Still, most people get all the water they need from veggies and fruits and a glass or two of water during the day.

How do you suggest using the plan if someone’s priority is just to lose weight? And as a follow up to that, is it advisable for somebody that may be 150 or more pounds over weight just to dive in?

We have had thousands of people just dive in and get fantastic results. Most of them start with a desire to lose weight, but soon find that, in addition to losing weight effortlessly, their skin clears up, they have more energy, they sleep better and just regain a zest for life.

Some of the best results seem to come from the people with the most weight to lose. Even if you don’t exercise that much, you’ll get great results. Remember that 80% of your body composition results from how you eat.

Is the exercise regime you suggest a minimum, a maximum or just an ideal?

I think it’s an ideal. One sprint workout a week, two bodyweight routines a week and you fill the rest of your active time with play, rest or what we call “moving around at a low level of aerobic activity” (walking, hiking, puttering in the garden, playing with your kids, or even an occasional 5k race, etc).

That’s the “prescription” although we talk about the random or fractal nature of exercise and how you can benefit from an unstructured program as long as you get intuitively when it’s time to rest.

Sure, you can do more if you want, but realize that there may be diminishing returns or even consequences from doing too much. I’m all about efficiency: how can I get the most benefit for the least pain, suffering and sacrifice?

I have been amazed by the amount of scientific research you point to in the book that supports the Primal Blueprint. Do you get frustrated that more people aren’t aware of this?

It’s probably my biggest frustration. This evidence has been accumulating for decades now, yet very little of it makes it into the mainstream media. Public health policy still favors the lipid hypothesis, the fear of fat and cholesterol and the use of drugs over simple lifestyle changes.

I think the notion that we should all eat 6-11 servings of grains a day is bordering on criminal in the face of all the evidence that suggests we would be far better off eating zero grains and MORE meat, fish fowl, eggs, nuts and seeds.

The fear of saturated fat keeps us from enjoying some of nature’s best foods and one of our most important nutrients.

One of the common themes among people I talk to that have spent any length of time on the PB is massive energy gains. Do you think this is because people were really energy deprived previously and this takes them to ‘normal’ levels, or that they were normal and the PB actually elevates that to a higher level?

They were deprived and now are normal. Humans were designed to derive most of our energy from stored body fat. That’s the reason we have that capability in the first place.

Grok was lucky to get 80 grams of carbs a day locked in a tough, fibrous matrix. Fat and protein ruled the day then.

Unfortunately, with agriculture’s introduction 10,000 years ago came an unlimited supply of cheap carbohydrate calories. The reliance on a regular refeeding of carbs literally programs one’s genes to upregulate sugar-burning and down-regulate fat burning.

That’s why so many people feel they have to eat a meal every three hours; blood glucose drops after a carb-heavy meal (as insulin drives it into fat and muscle cells) and hunger for more sets in. Insulin resistance keeps fat locked in fat cells and prevents more glucose from getting into muscle cells, so many people frequently feel hungry all the time AND lethargic all the time.

Conversely, when one programs one’s genes to selectively burn mostly stored body fat (by eating a high-fat diet and exercising appropriately), a few things happen.

You never – or rarely – get low blood sugar, even if you skip one or more meals. The steady-state energy from burning fats is a much more reliable and continuous source.

You don’t get as ravenously hungry as before, so it takes less food to satisfy you.

You don’t have to exercise nearly as much to maintain low body fat and lean muscle. Ultimately, people experience a new sense of energy they never had before.

My old trainer back in the UK says it’s more or less impossible to do triathlons without carb loading, do you agree?

I used to think so, too. Now I can point to lots of triathletes who have trained to more efficiently burn body fat on a lower carb training regimen and intuitively know where the redline is. They race as well or better now than they did when they carbo-loaded all the time, especially since they have dropped a few pounds of body fat, but kept the muscle.

They do use carb gels during the actual events, but keep the carbs low during training. You’re going to see more and more endurance athletes using Primal training in the future. Why spend $8,000 to take 3 pounds off your bike when you can take 6 off your body and race faster for free?

I’m not sure if you saw Jamie Olivers Food Revolution, but if you did, do you see that as a valuable stepping stone away from high processed junk food, or just the embedding of conventional wisdom?

A little of both. Clearly, we have a long way to go in teaching kids and their parents how to eat, but I’m not convinced Jaime is on the right track. Eliminating junk food, but still sticking with grains, for instance, isn’t my idea of optimal health. He’s certainly a great communicator, though.

You talk about intermittent fasting how does that help and what length of time do you see as the ideal?

I think IF (intermittent fasting) is a great tool for weight loss once you have adapted to the Primal eating style, say three weeks into it. When you can skip a meal with zero effect on mood, blood sugar or energy and burn off a few hundred extra calories, why not take advantage?

There’s great research that IF can speed up repair of damaged cells, too. I use IF all the time when I’m traveling and find myself skipping a meal as a result of a wacky schedule.

I don’t go more than two skipped meals, mostly because I like to eat and I don’t need to lose body fat (I stay at 8%). I wouldn’t go days without eating as some fasting programs do. A skipped meal or two once or twice a week is fine for most people.

You mention in the book that people will see a difference in days rather than weeks or months, yet I must confess I felt worse to begin with and it’s only as I come toward the end of the second week that I am returning to normal. Isn’t this going to vary from person to person?

Sure. Most people do notice an effect soon. Usually it’s a belt notch or two. Remember, when you spend your life depending on a fresh supply of carbs every three hours and you convert to fat-burning, you go through a transition.

Your brain still expects sugar every few hours, but it takes three weeks for the gene “reprogramming” to fully kick in. You hadn’t yet as of the second week. I guarantee that everyone who does this right will come out of the third week feeling fantastic and ready to change for good. We see increased energy and consistent weight loss of a few pounds a week indefinitely in most people until they hit their optimum body composition.

I know you’re not big on goals, preferring to have fun and incidentally I love your take on that, but do you have any goals or if you prefer, dreams, of where you’d like to see the whole Primal movement go?

My mission is to help 10,000,000 people see how they can regain total control of their health and fitness by fully understanding how their body was designed to work – and then let them make that choice (or not) from a place of knowing the pros and cons of each decision.

Note: If you like Marks take or are just intrigued by such radical thinking, you’ll love the book The Primal Blueprint. (al)

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So what do you think, can we have got it so badly wrong for so long?

Let me know in the comments.