Primal Dissent — a Dialogue with Mark Sisson

For some time now, I have featured and commented on Mark Sisson’s immense output on food, fitness, and general living. Mark is the proprietor of Mark’s Daily Apple, a website dedicated to enjoying a lifestyle that appreciates modern conveniences while being inspired to eat how our ancestors ate in order to stay in synch with our natural physiology and maintain peak health.

However, Mark’s Daily Apple (also known as MDA) is not a conventional website about food and fitness — his expertise covers a wide range of lifestyle topics such as happiness, play, sleep, hormones, stress, interval training, mental conditioning, spontaneity, time management, toxic foods, primal recipes, and laying around the beach. The primal life, as Mark describes it, is made up of many factors that contribute to excellent health and overall quality of life, and Mark comments on all of it on a daily basis.

Mark has written what I consider to be the preeminent book on all such matters, The Primal Blueprint. He recently followed that up with The Primal Blueprint Cookbook, a high-quality effort full of convenient, intuitive recipes that offers many fabulous alternatives to restrictive, bland diets.

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I have conducted a dialogue-type interview with Mark, asking him to share his commentary on a hodgepodge of topics related to primal (or paleo *) life. This is not your conventional interview, but then again, Mark Sisson is not a conventional man. Accordingly, he refers to conventional wisdom — on food, health, and fitness lifestyles — as cognitive dissonance. So I have embarked upon a conversational exchange for the purpose of bringing to light some interesting views on the kind of stuff that may not get on the radar map of most folks.

  1. A trendy topic that is very misunderstood, as far as I am concerned, is the mainstream obsession with "calories in, calories out." The government’s lifestyle planners believe that posting calories on fast food menus is going to reduce obesity, and websites everywhere, like, provide tools for tracking calories for every daily activity, including watching TV and washing the dishes. The positive energy balance hypothesis suggests that the problem is that people eat too much and exercise too little, and therefore, burning more calories than you take in is the key to maintaining a healthy weight and body fat percentage. Trying to live by that credo is, and has been, a recipe for failure for Americans whose health and weight issues are becoming more pronounced. Counting calories is not the answer, but the constant emphasis on this simplistic view keeps people from focusing on what’s really important — the quality of the calories. Gary Taubes, in his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, did a good job of tackling this myth with the use of scientific evidence. What’s your take on this matter, and why does the medical establishment and fitness-nutrition industry continue to peddle this tripe?
  2. It’s unfortunate that we as a society have bought into this notion that it’s a simple equation involving gross calorie differences that can be accounted for with exercise calculators and diet wheels. It’s a reason so many of us continue to get more obese, diabetic, and arthritic. Yes, to a certain extent, in order to lose weight you have to burn off more body fat than you store and some of that has to do with eating too much. But it’s more a factor of eating the wrong things. The answer is found in what I refer to as the "context of calories." Macronutrients are used for more than just energy. Protein is primarily a structural component and secondarily a fuel. Fats can be structural as well as a fuel source. Carbohydrates in excess can raise the storage hormone insulin, predisposing excess calories from any source to be stored as fat. Some people can gain weight (store fat) on a high carb 2,000 calorie per day diet and yet lose weight (burn fat) on a 2,000 calories per day low-carb diet, all other things being equal. Why is that? Every bite you take is a hormonal experience. Depending on what you eat, how much, what time of day, under what prior conditions, a number of different metabolic consequences can ensue. It annoys me that in the face of so much good science to this effect, the medical and fitness establishments stick to the old calories-in vs. calories-out mantra.

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  3. I despise rigid routines and tracking my food or workouts. In August 2009, I was featured in the Sunday Detroit Free Press lifestyle section for the lunchtime primal-urban workout I do on weekdays, in downtown Detroit. It consists of purely spontaneous functional fitness, using my available environment, without any specific goals or measurements. The reporter was bewildered because I don’t track "repetitions, miles, minutes spent, calories burned or any other outside indicator of success." The emphasis on such nonsense boggles my mind. The common belief is that goals, measurements, and routines are necessary to keep one on track toward personal fitness improvement. This idea has people wasting their time trying to adhere to schedules and keep meaningless records, both of which are a deterrent to a regular fitness program. I argue that most people — aside from professional or competitive athletes — don’t know how to interpret the results of the routines they spend so much time measuring. Can you talk about primal life and how it views rigid routines and exhaustive progress measurements?
  4. Goals are nice to have once in a while, and I think the human brain is probably wired to check off a daily list of things accomplished (caught dinner — check; built a shelter — check; all family members safe — check. Grok feel good). But the danger is that we get more caught up in what will happen when we reach our goal (then, finally, I can feel better about my life) than we do in enjoying the experience or the process, which, after all, is what life is about. That’s the main reason I left the structured, stopwatch-and-mileage-oriented world of endurance training for my more sporadic and random exploits now. I remember often thinking during a 15-mile run how good it would feel when I stop. My epiphany came when I realized after several hundred endurance events in which I had competed, that at no point from the time the starter’s gun went off until the time I crossed the finish line, could I truly say "wow, isn’t this fun!"

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    Many people in gyms and on the roads have a similar Spartan approach, as if completing this onerous task or racking up x number of calories on the LED readout will somehow earn them the right to feel good about themselves for the rest of the day. Conversely, many people beat themselves up or feel guilty for skipping a workout or cutting their planned hour run back to 30 minutes. It’s crazy. I say life’s too short to struggle and suffer in the name of fitness and health. Why can’t this process be about joy, fun, pleasure, and satisfaction.

    I reframed my exercise experience so that my only reason for actually "training" these days is so 1) I can play hard, and 2) so I can play hard uninjured. My bodyweight workouts in the gym once or twice a week are usually quick, intense, intermittent, and unplanned until the last second. They involve as much real-world functional movement as possible (pushups, pullups, dips, squats, lunges, sprints, etc.). My goal here is to do as little as possible while still getting the intended benefits. On the other hand, I do try to find play time wherever I can: Ultimate (Frisbee) with friends, stand-up-paddling, hiking, snowboarding, etc. And I only do this for the purpose of having fun. Playtime (Primal Law #7) still counts as exercise or movement, yet it’s where I can apply all the strength and stamina I built in my brief "training" sessions.

  5. Expanding upon the above question, I want to ask you about the modern approach to playtime. Everywhere I go I see fabricated, structured amusements geared toward children, and they are often sold as "educational" or "mind-expanding." McDonald’s, Burger King, etc. use monstrous and ugly "gyms" to attract and retain their future clientele. Splash parks, water parks, plastic climbing "gyms" — these all strike me as bizarre forms of convenient and arranged activity, taking away any creative ability on the part of parents, and certainly, the kids themselves. Nowadays, huge malls have become centers of perpetual entertainment — much of which is sold as "educational" or "exercise" — where whole families hang out to find amusement and fend off boredom. I see kids becoming entertainment junkies who do not have the capacity for creative, spontaneous, healthy play using their natural surroundings and the things around them. Life Without Bread: Ho... Christian B. Allan, Wo... Best Price: $1.68 Buy New $6.58 (as of 10:46 UTC - Details)
  6. As a kid, all of my play was unstructured and instinctual, and we simply adapted to the available resources and environment, and we created impromptu activities. We built snow forts; played hide-and-seek at dusk in the woods; raced paddleboats on the lake; constructed skate boards from scratch; spent hours in the lagoon looking for turtles and snakes; and on and on. Even a schoolyard was a great place to hang out and play many games all summer long. What part of our culture has brought on this madness that stifles human individuality and pre-packages playtime as a one-size-fits-all experience? Do you think it is the desire for ultimate convenience that creates a market for dumbed-down play, or is laziness a big part of the problem?

    Part of it is simply the paranoia that pervades society now as we overly protect our kids. Somehow we’ve come to see our world as more dangerous than it was when we were kids; that maybe there are more perverts or child abductors lurking in the bushes; that the potential for broken bones or bloody noses has increased. I’m not sure there is actually any more danger now — in fact there’s probably less — but I see how parents coddle their kids, driving them a half mile to school when riding a bike or walking would be better for everyone, or arranging "play dates" across town instead of encouraging kids to explore every nook and cranny of their own neighborhood. Meanwhile, schools have dropped PE programs partly because of budgets and partly because of fear of being sued over a dodge ball game getting out of hand or the notion that being picked last will permanently scar a child. In this case, "no child left behind" means every child gets left behind.

    Of course, the advent of 500 TV channels and the video game has disincentivized kids to even want to venture outside at all. Who knows what the effects of these super-graphic fantasy worlds are on a young psyche. I think games like World of Warcraft are literally setting kids up for a lifetime of inactivity, lost sleep, and delusion about what’s real and what’s imaginary. Some gamers have made pathetic attempts to involve kids in activities (Wii comes to mind) but it’s still a far cry from the outdoor experience that kids’ genes crave. We even did a post recently on the effect that smells in the woods have on health and well-being. No amount of primary-color-infused playground equipment can possibly take the place of a natural setting.

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    The only answer is to get back to that concept of play that we lived by as kids. When the box that a refrigerator came in was more fun than any store-bought toy. It may even be too late for some kids today, but I see more and more adults embracing play and exercise creativity as a newfound freedom from the confines of the gym. A major focus of my Primal Blueprint program is to help people rediscover the positive hormonal experience that play and natural movement promote within.

  7. Nowadays, there are dozens of articles appearing in the mainstream press on the benefits of high-intensity, short duration interval training for the average person looking to get fit. This is something that many athletes have practiced for years, but most average folks have never been introduced to the concept. They’ve been conditioned to churn away for hours a week on cardio equipment in the gym while the machine displays the number of calories they have "burned." This has turned people toward excessive cardio as opposed to quality cardio. Most folks burn out and get bored, and they eventually become disillusioned with fitness because of the lack of results. Others plateau and they never really gain from all those hours spent exercising. Yet most non-athletes can’t conceive of high-intensity workouts, even though it can drastically shorten their time spent working out. It seems that most people aren’t interested in that method because they’ve become a slave to the slow, lazy technique where the workout really doesn’t seem like work, and accordingly, the results equal the output. How do you convince the average person seeking health and fitness results that interval exercise is a win-win framework, and their old program is not a long-term keeper?
  8. The first thing I do here is point to the science. Numerous studies going back a few decades consistently prove that high-intensity interval training once a week far outweighs traditional aerobic exercise in improving strength, speed, endurance, and other fitness measurements. Even if you discount the evolutionary evidence that we were born to sprint, why would you ignore science that shows you can get so much more benefit from so much less work?

    I coined a phrase a few years ago called "chronic cardio" to describe the no-man’s-land where people become slaves to their endurance workout, thinking they’re doing the right thing. They burn up the calories hoping that’s how they’ll lose weight, but in fact most of what they’re burning in these high-heart-rate workouts is glycogen (the stored form of carbohydrate) and not very much fat. Having read the Conventional Wisdom that says that carbohydrates are the preferred cardio fuel, they then go home and load up on more carbs — just so they’ll be able to go back and do it all over again the next day. We know that excess carbs get converted quite easily to stored body fat and that the brain will cause most of us to slightly overeat to make up for the deficit on the treadmill. The end result, and you see it all the time in the gyms, is people grinding it out on the machines year-in and year-out but never really losing body fat. Meanwhile, they’re also depressed at the lack of results, the repetition causes severe wear and tear on joints that otherwise would prefer a wide range of motion, and the metronomic heart beat resulting from the steady pace can have negative consequences over time (ironic since often the reason people often take this up is for "their health"). Old habits are hard to break, which makes it difficult to take an ailing runner or triathlete and convince him or her that s/he can be faster, fitter and healthier if s/he just cuts back on the garbage miles and does a little resistance training.

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  9. Over the couple of decades, a lot of freedom-minded people were turned on to Dr. Atkins and his nutritional approach. From the beginning, Atkins was not afraid to dissent from orthodox thought, and this immediately made him an outcast within the medical establishment. In spite of what is wrong with the Atkins approach, he stressed the evils of carbohydrates and processed foods in the Western diet, and he condemned the low-fat craze that was initiated by the medical-governmental-corporatist complex that would profit from the deception. Do you think he established some important groundwork for rejecting the modern Western diet and embracing the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that emphasizes a return to eating real, whole foods?
  10. Absolutely. Atkins was truly a pioneer, unafraid to state what was obvious to him from the research — that overconsumption of carbs was the primary driver of weight gain. He took a ton of grief for going against Conventional Wisdom despite a fair amount of success overall. All of us in the low-carb/primal/paleo world owe him a lot. In retrospect, I wonder what might have happened if, from the beginning, he had been a bit more lenient on the severe carb restriction in Phase 1 (which caused significant numbers to abandon the plan before they had adapted) and if had been slightly more restrictive on trans, hydrogenated, and O6 fats and processed foods.

  11. One myth that keeps people making excuses for their bad food choices is that junk food is cheap and real food — like vegetables and meat — is expensive. As one who shops for food several days a week, at various markets, and maintains a cost-per-meal mentality (I’m an accountant), I know that is a fallacy. Sure, some organic or free-range/cage-free foods can be pricey, but generally, real food is far less expensive than any junk food. Ten dollars worth of "salad supplies" buys me several heaping salads, along with the dressing — whether homemade or bought. As a really simple example, a large spaghetti squash, along with a jar of junk-free, Trader Joe’s organic marinara sauce, will get three or four "spaghetti" meals at the cost of less than $5, in total, for both items, plus fresh spices and a cheese topping. And $4 of ground sirloin makes two heaping (bun-free) burgers. Yet a tiny Arby’s roast beef "super" sandwich that fits in the palm of my (tiny) hand is $4, and a chemical-loaded Lean Cuisine "meal" costs almost the same amount. This fallacy of "it’s too expensive to eat well" is always presented as the reason for obesity, especially among the lower income classes. How should we counter this misinformation?
  12. In my mind, this is not so much a question of expense as it is of convenience. Most people are too caught up in the convenience of one-stop shopping at the big supermarkets. They see the prices in the organic or natural foods sections and are turned off because the stuff is twice what conventional foods are. As you have noted, however, when you have the time and inclination to shop farmers’ markets, CSAs, co-ops, and buy in bulk, real food can be cheaper than buying typical processed or supermarket fare. It becomes a simple issue of priority; if you have made the commitment to eat healthy and are willing to plan meals and do research on shopping, you can probably even save money eating Primally over what you’d spend eating the SAD.

    I also love to use the Starbuck’s analogy. Anyone who pays three to five bucks for a daily cup of coffee or tea has no business arguing that Primal eating is expensive.

  13. Let’s talk about the tendency to "over-carb" and overeat among weekend athletes and active sports/outdoor folks. I’ve done a lot of endurance sports — snowshoeing, xc skiing, and I’m an avid cyclist — and I’ll do these activities on low carb levels while eating fat, and also, I have no problems waking up to a 30+ mile cycling excursion on the weekend at the tail end of a 14- or 18-hour fast. Yet the endurance athlete’s handbook of conventional wisdom still stresses carb-loading and constant eating during activities. I’ll see people popping sugar-loaded gel shots during a one-hour bike ride or a short jog, and I’ll see folks in the gym eating trail mix and protein bars during short, moderate workouts, or worse yet, while walking on a treadmill or barely moving on an elliptical. Often, their personal trainers — most of whom are poorly informed on nutrition and performance — teach them these shoddy habits. Briefly tell us about primal concepts like going low-carb, eating fat, and engaging intermittent fasting, and how they can fuel an active, primal life.
  14. A major premise of the Primal Blueprint is that we humans have become well-adapted over millions of years to derive most of our energy from stored body fat, but that we have unwisely chosen to program our genes to depend on a constant resupplying of sugar (in the form of carbs) to fuel activity and to keep blood sugar levels stable. The USDA food pyramid, the Standard American Diet (SAD), and even the AMA, AHA and ADA all continue to support this dangerous notion, so most people still stray down this path to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis. A major goal of living Primally is to reprogram those genes to preferentially burn fats at rest and while exercising. The way we do that is to cut the carbs in our diet way back (easy to do if you eliminate most sugars and grain foods) and increase healthy fats. It takes about two to three weeks to transition for most non-athlete folks, during and after which they notice that they lose 23 pounds of body fat each week until they hit their ideal body composition. Most people find that energy levels increase and stabilize after that transition period, making it easier to be able to engage in low-level activity, but also to perform the occasional intense efforts like resistance training and sprinting. Once you realize that 80% of your body composition is determined by how you eat, you also get that you don’t need to do much exercise (timewise) to maximize your results. We are launching a new program soon called PBF (Primal Blueprint Fitness) in which we describe the few key workouts anyone can do to eventually achieve 95% of their genetic potential. And it’s not much: two bodyweight routines and one sprint session per week, interspersed with as much play and "moving around" as you can find time for.

    I spent a great portion of my life pursuing the "chronic cardio" path, where I’d rack up huge training miles and then have to consume 1,000 grams of carbs every day to be able to recover and do it all again the next day. That’s what I thought I had to do to race faster. I was certainly "race fit," but was a wreck inside: arthritis, tendonitis, chronic upper respiratory infections six or eight times a year, IBS, and a host of injuries. I couldn’t keep muscle on either. Once I retired from racing and cut my training back, I was amazed at how few carbs it took to get me through the day. I had more muscle, more energy, and even dropped a few more percent body fat. That was a huge revelation: you just don’t need all those carbs unless you insist on being a world-class endurance athlete. Once you reprogram your genes to preferentially burn stored body fat, everything you do drives you towards health and leanness. Even endurance athletes can benefit from this style of eating. It takes longer to adapt and there are a number of additional compromises, but it’s possible to race as well or better on a lower carb program.

  15. I am seeing a food revolution ahead of us, with you being among the leaders in supplying information and resources, and building a network of like-minded people. It seems that at least once a week, some mainstream publication or newspaper is publishing an article presenting ideas that are friendly to the paleo-primal lifestyle and question the old platitudes of the SAD (Standard American Diet). Little by little, people are catching on and learning the truth. Do you believe we are on the verge of a massive primal "revolution" where long-held myths and misinformation campaigns will be turned on their head?
  16. Absolutely. The whole Primal/Paleo/Evo (and low-carb) movement has been gathering steam for a few years now. With all that’s going on — and the occasional colorful characters we offer up — it can’t help but attract the attention of mainstream media now and then. I think the coolest part of all this is the melding of 21st century information technology with our low-tech "back to basics" lifestyle approach. Prior to the Internet it was very difficult to amass enough of this primal "collective conscious" to legitimately take on the medical establishment or Big Pharma, or to convince people that government health programs are a joke and that we’re each on our own. I love the "wiki" nature of MDA and similar sites where a person can offer up a novel theory or write a post that prompts instant discussion on the merits, or requires one to critically rethink the position. We’ve built a huge community of true individuals who have decided that the only route to health and happiness is through taking full responsibility for what they eat and how they view fitness, health, and longevity. Hundreds of bloggers, tens of thousands of commenters, and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of monthly readers have helped shape this life-way. We’ve brought in significant numbers of scientists, physicians, teachers, media, and other influential people who have embraced this direction and have begun endorsing it to the masses. I think we’ll see a major paradigm shift in the next few years.

* Mark Sisson describes The Primal Blueprint as a "set of simple instructions (the blueprint) that allows you to control how your genes express themselves in order to build the strongest, leanest, healthiest body possible, taking clues from evolutionary biology (that’s the primal part)." Sisson is consistent with his usage of "primal" while others often use the term "paleo" to mean essentially the same thing. Sisson points out some important differences between primal and paleo here.