Healthy, Moving, Modern Humans — Not Cavemen

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For the last few years, Mark Sisson has been a central figure in the growing movement of individuals who reject the politicized conventional wisdom on food and exercise, and instead have embraced a lifestyle that puts the "real" back into their world.

The main thrust behind the paleo or primal lifestyle is that we humans are hunter-gatherers, and our genes are partial to real food just like our ancestors. We have not evolved to adapt to the heavily processed, sugary, high-carbohydrate, grain-loaded, corn oil-crazed garbage diet of the modern era. Oftentimes, those of us who reject this conventional diet negatively refer to it as the Standard American Diet (SAD). The effects of this food have been devastating on all of human health, and not only in America. Everywhere the SAD is embraced, people are suffering all of the same afflictions associated with modern western civilization: obesity, diabetes, inflammation, autoimmune disorders, gluten intolerance, heart disease, cancer, ambiguous mental disorders (such as depression and anxiety), and dubious behavioral disorders.

In 2009, Mark Sisson released his book that promotes his principles of food and diet, as well as all the aspects of living that make us whole, healthy, and happy. Sisson’s Primal Blueprint: Reprogram Your Genes for Effortless Weight Loss, Vibrant Health, and Boundless Energy, is based on the enormous amount of material Mark has made available on his superb and informing website, Mark’s Daily Apple, since 2006. His message, in short, is eat real food, move around a lot, don’t overtrain to gain, and get some sun without gobs of Coppertone SPF 85 covering your body and blocking that healthy — and necessary — Vitamin D.

Anti-State and Pro-Person

There are a few Kings of Paleo who have won international notoriety. Among the most well-know are Loren Cordain, PhD, founder of the Paleo Diet, and Dr. Michael R. Eades, MD, the prolific author of numerous books and proprietor of an outstanding website. Then there’s Mark Sisson. Mark Sisson is a lean, blonde surfer-looking guy who, at fifty-something years old, can turn conventional wisdom on its ear. He is unique in that he is not a doctor or a PhD, but rather a former world-class athlete who has lived, obsessed, and lost from his many years of following The Conventional Wisdom. As he puts it, his book:

Represents the culmination of my primal philosophy, which has taken shape over the past 20 years through extensive research and life experience. I am not a scientist or doctor; I’m an athlete, a coach, and a student on a lifelong quest for exceptional health, happiness, and peak performance. I have an insatiable curiosity about what we need to do to achieve such goals and a growing mistrust of the answers that have been heaped upon us by the traditional pillars of health "wisdom" (Big Pharma, Big Agra, the AMA, the FDA, and other government agencies), the health and fitness profiteers glorified by Madison Avenue, and even the know-it-all multilevel marketer next door.

That paragraph doesn’t need a MasterCard jingle alongside it to be
deemed priceless. In addition, Sisson clearly affirms his lack of
ties to any government agency or special interests that will force-feed
and filter his message. He’s just a regular guy who stands alone and
passes on his immense knowledge from his years of research, practical
application, and commitment to truth. In fact, the book’s premise
is to show you how to take control of your health and fitness
through food and activity by making educated decisions based on relevant
and clear-cut information. That’s what makes him so unique and special
in an industry — health and fitness — that misinforms, shills for
special interests, and consistently trots out one moneymaking gimmick
after another.

Mark Sisson is the first person that I am aware of who used and promoted the "primal" label. Primal and paleo are often used interchangeably by various whole food enthusiasts, but there are major differences between strict primal or strict paleo, or even general low-carb diets, such as diverging views on oils, grains, and saturated fat. Those are distinctions I don’t really care about for purposes of this review. Readers can do their own research to judge the merits of various food worldviews. What I care about is adopting — and teaching — the habit of learning about, selecting, and eating only natural, whole, real foods that we, as humans, were meant to consume.

If you are a person who desires to cut corners in the short-term, slim down for your sister’s wedding, or make a New Year’s or "Summer Beach" resolution, don’t read this book. It is not for you. This book is about lifestyle, not fad diet. The book recommends suitable activity that you can maintain without devoting tons of your free time or becoming an exercise addict. The book stresses the tenets of engaging life and health over time, not going from beer-and-bread gut to buff in sixty days, or looking thin for a one-night party or a series of wedding photographs.

What I like most about Sisson’s book is that he can engage the average, curious reader where other authors have been less successful. For those who are interested in the more complex science of food, Dr. Eades and others have written phenomenal books for food and nutrition hobbyists. I love to read all of those books, but I know that most of my non-hobbyist friends will not stay interested long enough for the information to be absorbed and the good habits integrated into their lives. That is why I recommend Primal Blueprint to everyone who wishes to engage my knowledge on the topic of food and diet. Mark’s style is for the layman. He takes science and pares it down to simple and intuitive principles for living. He offers no gimmicks, no promises, no regimens, and he doesn’t offer to provide you with expensive and ridiculous meal plans. Again, the premise of Primal Blueprint is putting the responsibility for your health into your hands, and teaching you how to win control over your life in spite of the numerous sources of conventional wisdom that are consistently shilling for big politics, special interests, and the establishment.

Practice, Not Perfection

A unique perspective from Sisson, that he advocates before his introduction, is his "80% Rule." I like this inclusion because I’ve always lived by a similar standard. This refers to his belief that you avoid failure by not striving for total perfection. In other words, forget the strict regimen, and instead, as he states, "build momentum toward becoming even more compliant, with less effort, as time proceeds." After all, can you think of anything that leads to more "failures" and discouragement in peoples’ lives than diet and/or exercise programs? Most people always fail at diet and exercise because they set painstaking regimens that can’t be easily adhered to, and this results in disillusionment, and eventually, the person walks away and often goes on a binge in the opposite direction.

Don’t get me wrong — Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint doesn’t allow for "occasionally" ingesting toxic foods, or being self-destructive twenty percent of the time. Instead, he tries to lure the reader into dropping the obsessive, regimented mentality of most short-term "diets" while making the best decisions possible within the constraints of your current conditions. In essence, the Sisson eating philosophy takes into account that people have "real-world concerns" and they need to strive for obtainable goals.

Challenging the Establishment

Early on in Primal Blueprint, Sisson sets the pace for his dissent when he introduces his framework for challenging the conventional wisdom. He attacks and counters the traditional folly on grains, cholesterol, fiber, saturated animal fat, cardio training, strength training, sunlight, Big Pharma’s poison, results-oriented goals, and most importantly, meal habits. He points out that the establishment view, which suggests that our genes determine our destiny and we just have to buy into the results, is pure fabrication. This perspective, in fact, supports the large and wealthy pharmaceutical and medical interests that claim you need its products/services to be healthy and whole. Thus the excuse mongering is a win-win for the powerful and wealthy establishment-based industries, and it is the equivalent of surrender for you, the individual.

The Sisson approach is that although some of us may have shortcomings or genetic tendencies, in the end it is we, as individuals, who make the lifestyle choices that determine our outcome. In a sense, he is staunchly denying the victimology that is promoted by the Conventional Wisdomists, and in its place he provides a program for what he calls "controlling how your genes express themselves in constantly rebuilding, repairing, and renewing your cells." In Sisson’s view, it is almost impossible, for most people, to be,

…lean, fit, energetic, and healthy following Conventional Wisdom." Instead, we succumb to the forces of consumerism designed to placate our pain with silly shortcuts, comforts, conveniences, and indulgences.

…A huge percentage of all doctor visits today are a direct consequence of lifestyle choices that are misaligned with the environmental and survival conditions that shaped our primal genetic makeup.

All of the erroneous information handed down by the Conventional Wisdomists over the years has led to, as Sisson describes it, "one giant step backward for mankind." Only lifestyle modifications at the individual level can turn the momentum around in your favor.

It’s the Insulin, Stupid

In the chapter "Primal Blueprint Eating Philosophy," Sisson gathers up quite a few stones and heaves them at the establishment’s hypotheses on some of the nagging issues of our time, like insulin, cholesterol, and macro nutrients. Here is where I come across one of the few quibbles I have with this book, and it’s a relatively minor one. I think he should have turned the "calories in, calories out" concept on its ear. The problem for most people is the regimen mentality, especially concerning calories. Since we already know that body composition is more sophisticated than "calories in, calories out" (see Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories), the system of counting calories — in meals, with pedometers, etc. — is, and has always been, a recipe for failure for almost everyone. This is one area I wish that Sisson would attack with more fervor. However, Sisson does emphasize that an eating program in the style of Primal Blueprint, with an 80% rule, will successfully optimize your end results.

The rest of the chapter is where Sisson really shines in his ability to make tedious biochemical particulars easily understood, and dare I say — exciting. Until people understand what it is that insulin does to their bodies, and how processed carbohydrates drive insulin production, they cannot possibly make informed decisions on food choices. Sisson does a marvelous job of simplifying some complicated concepts on the issue. Another big hitting point for Sisson is the vilification of cholesterol by the establishment hacks that do the bidding for Big Pharma and the medical establishment while they nurture your sickness to keep their industries in high demand.

He calls attention to one of the great scams of our lifetimes — the lipid hypothesis of heart disease. Along with that he discusses the irrelevance of total cholesterol numbers, and how the Lords of conventional wisdom have used that as a diagnostic tool for disease and, of course, the need for pharmaceutical drugs. Sisson includes several pages of important and easily understood material about cholesterol and its breakdown between HDL, LDL, and types of LDL. It’s important that people understand how the medical establishment has come to demonize cholesterol and categorize otherwise healthy Americans as "sick" based on a numbers game — a game where the acceptable cholesterol numbers keep being lowered in order to get more people in the "sick" category, and therefore produce new patients for Big Pharma’s very profitable statin drugs.

A Couple of Real Pyramids to Live By

The Primal Blueprint food pyramid, unlike the government’s fraudulent apparatus, is not influenced by food subsidies, profiteering politics, special interests, or payoffs from powerful players in the food industry. You won’t see a primal pyramid recommending 6—11 servings daily of bread, pasta, and cereal. Low-fat diets that emphasize grains have made people fat, and not just here in America. In Sisson’s view, vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, fowl, and eggs should sit at the bottom portion of the food pyramid. He includes a primer on fats and oils — I especially note his wicked defense of healthy-yet-demonized fats and oils (coconut oil, unprocessed palm oil, lard, tallow, butter, etc.) that became politically unpopular because of the drive to promote the subsidized oils (think corn and soybean) that are heavily refined and genetically engineered. In keeping with the 80% Rule, even dark chocolate — with 70% or more cocoa — and alcohol make the grade when consumed moderately, in Sisson’s primal world.

Sisson also gives his version of the primal fitness pyramid. Mark thinks people should spend most of their exercise time moving frequently, and at a slow pace. That is to be punctuated with moments of short intense efforts (intervals) and full-body functional strength sessions. Primal fitness has the goal of avoiding overtraining, or as Sisson often calls it, chronic cardio. This advice comes from a guy who was a pre-med student and a world-class endurance athlete. Sisson was a top five finisher in the 1980 US National Marathon Championships, and he won a qualifying spot for the 1980 US Olympic Trials, that is, until illness and injury took a toll on his athletic career.

Since he discovered that too much exercise is detrimental rather than beneficial, he has worked hard to convince others that chronic cardio or endurance sports lead to sickness, burnout, hormone problems, injuries, and the acceleration of aging and disease. I often note that professional endurance athletes often look like aging skeletons at a young age. Most triathletes and marathoners look aged beyond their years, and even my favorite athlete, Tour de France cycling champ Lance Armstrong, looked like an old man at the young age of thirty-four.

Your Doctor and Personal Trainer Are Making You Fat

Early in the book, Sisson states in his book that his goal is to "expose much of the lucrative health and fitness industry as ethically and scientifically bankrupt." He follows that with his sage advice on a non-gimmicky fitness approach and some intense coaching on how to take total control over the food choices you make. Mark Sisson calls himself "non-political," but his message is unmistakably libertarian.

Adding my own two cents, I’d prefer to get a bit nastier than Sisson and make the statement that the majority of the mainstream mob of medical doctors, so-called nutritionists, dieticians, health experts, and personal trainers are know-nothing, conventionalist hacks with a paper degree who lack any real passion or knowledge of the topics for which they claim expertise. My burning question has always been this: what makes a medical doctor — even if he is a great doctor — an automatic "expert" on food and nutrition, let alone exercise? Answer: nothing at all. People make the mistake of automatically granting expertise to their (often overweight) family medical doctor who had very little in the way of basic nutrition training way back in those medical school days. Unless an MD has a burning passion for deeper knowledge on food and nutrition science, or has actually gone into the field professionally, he’s not sitting around reading the food and nutrition science journals and following the hot and debated issues of the day. So, in my mind, you need to forget your family doctor’s uninformed, pharmaceutical-influenced advice and learn to control your own destiny through a process of self-education.

Burning question number two: look around you at any gym, and tell me about all of the overweight, pudgy, or big-gut personal trainers you see training other people at $60+ per hour? Every day I see "personal trainers" doing the following: 1) sitting at their laptop and shouting out to their clients as they do a routine 2) lazily plopping down on benches and drinking huge, sugar-loaded coffees while they yell out useless instructions to a paying client, and 3) having clients do a zillion sets and reps of deep-knee bends or working with sitting machine exercises like leg extensions or useless abductor/adductor movements. When you realize how easily and quickly one can get a paper certificate to "certify" himself/herself as a "trainer," then you realize why the industry is such a joke.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most of the personal training industry exists to keep out potential competitors — who don’t have paper certificates — while it hoodwinks its uninformed subjects with lots of undelivered promises and ill-informed instruction at exorbitant prices.

On the Eve of Destruction?

To wrap up, Sisson makes some of his strongest — and best — statements in the book’s conclusion.

Stepping back for a moment to grab a wide-angle view of the wide angles in the buffet line at a Vegas casino, it’s evident how ridiculously out of control this situation has become. No offense, but Americans look like one giant yard of fattened cattle ready for slaughter, complete with a significant percentage of "downers" (a term for sick cattle that can’t stand up; they are dragged with forklifts to slaughter).

Sisson’s scrutiny is more than welcome here. He brings up one of my favorite topics, time preferences, which play a huge role in obesity, food choices, and selecting a fitness program. Of course, I have found that it is always very politically incorrect to associate time preferences with behavioral choices because people take those criticisms personally and tend to get defensive. Sisson points out:

Today, peak physical and intellectual performance and self-discipline are no longer requirements for survival. Man has become self-indulgent and has reverted to behaviors that provide short-term gratification.

Therefore, it follows that Sisson’s Primal Blueprint lays out a plan for humans who live in the modern world to revert to some of the habits and characteristics of our primal ancestors. Otherwise, the populace will become sicker and fatter, creating more permanent patients for Big Pharma and Big Medicine.

We know that bookstores are loaded with an abundance of "health" and "fitness" books that offer up one tediously conventional bit of useless wisdom after another. Just walk into a Borders or Barnes & Noble and look up front near the entrance doors. You’ll see piles of books, all with fluffy names and great covers plastered with beautiful people who call out to you as you walk by. These books sell, but they are rarely read. It’s just like the plethora of treadmills, Nordic Track skiers, Bowflex machines, and assorted home ellipticals that have come to make for handy clothes hangers in the home until they eventually sell for one-third price on Craigslist. Primal Blueprint won’t provide a convenient spot to hang yesterday’s sweater — it exists to be read. And then read again.

All said and done, I have not come across a single book that is so readable, so comprehensive, and so full of bona fide information, along with the presentation of an entire foundation for finally succeeding at food and fitness. Sisson is interesting, engaging, and fun. He plays Frisbee and runs the beach in five-fingered shoes. His writing pops out at the reader who needs a little coaxing, and it can hold the attention of the experienced primalist who needs a little brushing up or extra motivation. Compare that with the boring and unappealing Dean Ornish, with his fatty and inflamed face, who advocates a low-fat, vegetarian, pro-soy diet and sells the conventional lipid hypothesis of heart disease. Sisson’s book, because of its variety, exceptional detail, readability, unconventional writing, and irreverence, is the single best book available on the subject of changing your life and health through diet and exercise. As hard as I looked for faults, I found very few points to criticize. Well, I can think of one bone of contention — he emphasizes a few too many sentences with exclamation points (!), and that could be tamed a bit.

I like Sisson’s model primal human, Grok, and how he uses Grok as a symbol for model living. Grok lives in the modern world but reverts to the best habits of his ancestors in order that he may mimic some of those fight-or-flight survival tactics that made Grok so adaptive and healthy. I just don’t fancy the mainstream media and its fascination with the use of the "caveman" term when writing about the primal or paleo real-food, real-fitness lifestyle. It gets a bit tedious and obnoxious. Sisson wisely avoids that comparison.

Get primal, get paleo — or whatever you want to call it. Just start to critically assess the received opinion that has made you a pawn for large, wealthy food and medical interests that use government to keep you in their vicious circle of bad food and enduring illness. Sisson notes that his book can be "the centerpiece of a vibrant community of people connected by the Internet and committed to living their lives to the fullest potential, challenging the status quo, and trying something old." Amen.

If you finish Sisson’s book and are not completely motivated to have a "processed food throwing-out party" and hit the ground running toward a more vibrant life of real food and real fitness, then there’s probably not much in life that can motivate you.

Mark Sisson has a tremendous, limited-time offer for Karen DeCoster readers. Buy his book, The Primal Blueprint, on Amazon.com within the next 24 hours and you’ll get a ton of freebies. Read all the details here.

Karen DeCoster, CPA, [send her mail] has a Master of Arts in Economics, and is an accounting/finance professional in the health care industry in Detroit. She recently wrote "Primal Life: A Journey of Diet and Health." She is also starting up a new website/blog on "Real food, real fitness, real health …. Plus a lot of wine and dogs." She combines grazing and gorging with intermittent fasting, and her HDL is 115 on a high-fat diet. Where’s my coconut oil?, and don’t forget the bacon grease. Her weight is 110 with bodyfat under 15%. She loves to cook and create in the kitchen. She makes chips from Kale, thinks eggplant is dessert, and likes Buffalo jerky or rib steak for breakfast. She loves cross-fit, boxing, deadlifting, kettlebell training, cycling, and bodyweight fitness. She often overtrains because she foolishly ignores Sisson’s advice. People say she bounces off walls, and it must be true. Or is it ADHD? Where’s the meds? Her website is at Karendecoster.com.

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