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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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May 20, 2009

80/20 Principle

By Worker Bee
171 Comments

For anyone who’s ever adopted a new diet plan for weight loss or overall health, it’s a familiar nightmare. The backdrop varies (an all you can eat buffet, holiday party, dark and silent kitchen in the middle of the night), but the suspense is universal. The temptation, a mental struggle, the cautious scanning of the room. A subliminal background track climbs in crescendo. You give into the slightest slip, a minor indiscretion, really, and suddenly there you are, dropping through a trap door, plummeting down a dark, cavernous shoot, screaming in terror, only to fall into a sorry heap of shame at the fiery center of the earth (or other subconscious setting for doom or disgrace).

Though the vision itself is imaginary, the performance anxiety is often real. “Will I measure up?” “Can I hack it?” “How can I be that strict 100% of the time?” Questions (and doubts) abound for many as they contemplate a diet and lifestyle overhaul, including the Primal Blueprint. Perfectionism, the letter of the law, looms large in these moments.

We’ve tackled the angst-ridden questions, taken on the transition trials before, but there’s an overarching PB principle to be noted here. The Primal Blueprint, as we say, is all about Primal living. Living. Enjoying. Even chilling out. This is not a lab controlled experiment or a boot camp. No interns in white coats with clip boards will show up at your door or spy on you. No screaming sergeants will get in your face. As we’ve noted before – on a personal level, it’s your own process, your own journey. But even at the heart of its philosophy, the PB isn’t an austere all or nothing proposition. Enter the 80/20 principle….

We often say, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” And for good reason. The target of the PB is deep-seated: the long haul of a healthful life, not a brief stop off for cosmetic fixes. The necessary approach, then, is centered around sustainability. One hundred percent compliance with PB principles is ideal, sure, but consider it the ultimate representation – a consummate form rather than typical daily function. The PB is rooted in life, not just research, after all. A practical baseline is this: if you align your life with the PB principles 80% of the time, consider yourself on course.

However… Even though 100% compliance isn’t the exact everyday expectation, 100% commitment is the intention. While we concede that real life happens, the acknowledgement is a necessary reality check, not an easy excuse. PB living does require steady commitment, genuine effort and daily dedication. But the key here is personal commitment – a primal “lens” you develop and learn to view decisions through. Think of your PB transition and continuing evolution in terms of process-oriented goals rather than the rigid commandments of typical diet plans. Give your PB plan 100%, and understand it’s O.K. when daily life moderates the overall picture. An 80% end result will have you well on your way to success and sustainable health.

That said, some aspects of the Blueprint do call for consistent adherence in the interest of meaningful impact. Particular among these is avoidance of processed carbs. The fact is, the physiological effects of processed carbs simply are harsher and harder to recover from – especially when they’re a regular player in the body’s daily functioning. It’s not that your body can’t bounce back. It’s just an unnecessary detour in your progress – a diversion and interruption (albeit temporary) in the physiological homeostasis that maximizes hormonal balance, fat burning and energy consistency.

As you continue the Primal transition, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised. Taste buds have a strange way of adapting themselves. Once you’re off the physiological sugar roller coaster, the psychological habit has a way of falling by the wayside. You find recipes, workouts, stress management practices you genuinely enjoy. In fact, you miss them if you have to or choose to skip a day. You actually look forward to getting back to the routine. After learning/relearning how a good night’s sleep can make you feel, you’re now unwilling to go without it unnecessarily. Earnest perseverance facilitates compliance, which begins to come naturally. You see and feel the benefits. Going backward seems unrewarding.

Rest assured, in the course of the transition you’ll make the pieces fit comfortably into your own life. As a lifestyle and process-oriented plan, the PB inherently cultivates an internal compass.

PB living will become less about regimen and more about natural gravitation toward the lifestyle that offers vitality and balance. Eventually, the process will take on its own momentum and actually require less effort and thought over time.

The take home message is this. The PB is not a white knuckle ride. Loosen the grip, look for smart adjustments, absorb the overall vision and weave it into your life instead of nailing it over top your old habits.

And remember that the essence of the Blueprint (and its success) is found in the overall picture – your own encompassing and idiosyncratic embodiment – not the collection of minute details. (No checklists here.) It’s less about what you do at any one meal or single bout at the gym and more about what you do over the course of a given week or month. Think the spirit rather than letter of the law. Where full commitment and full life intersect – that’s the seat of the Primal success and the logic of its 80% principle.

How does the 80% principle play out in your Primal lifestyle? Share your thoughts and questions on the concept.

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171 Comments on "80/20 Principle"

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Holly
Holly
7 years 4 months ago

Greatly appreciate the 80/20 rule. Used it last night to celebrate a friend’s birthday actually. Question though, if avoiding processed carbs is to be adhered to all the time, what exactly does one eat during that 20%?

Rambodoc
7 years 4 months ago

The 80-20 principle is fine, but what we do in the 20% often is a leanness ball-breaker. In the sense that a wild binge that is self-excused as the 20% often undermines the discipline necessary to achieve consistent weight loss. I find I do better when I am strict with myself, even vigilanté like in my consciousness. When I relax my vigil, I tend to go overboard, gradually. This is rather like a stock market correction!

Adam Steer - Better Is Better
7 years 4 months ago
Drip, drip, drip is the sound of water falling on stone. One shot doesn’t do much, but over the course of years it will wear a groove in the stone! That’s how I often explain health and fitness to my clients. Each “better” decision you take is like a drop of water on the stone. If you make those better decisions often enough you’ll wear a new groove in your reality. I think it is important to play with the percentages when talking about something like 80/20 though. Sometimes, you need to be dialed in at 100% to get traction.… Read more »
marci
marci
7 years 4 months ago

Adam- excellent water -dripping- on- stone analogy! thanks for that…

Tobi
Tobi
7 years 4 months ago

So true!
Thanks for that! Sometimes life just doesn’t play by the PB rules, but it does become easier and also I find the people around you learn to respect your choices, if not even become curious and interested themselves.
The best thing about the PB is that it makes you feel incredible and its for life and not just another set of excercises, but a whole lifestyle

Primalchild
Primalchild
7 years 4 months ago
Processed sugar is my greatest enemy. It seems that whenever I indulge in it just a little, it’s like bashing my knee with a crowbar while I stride along the road of fat loss. It might take weeks before I start to see results again. But Adam is right. Persistence is the key. Keep at it, and eventually something in your mind and in your body will click and it will be smooth sailing from then on. For those of you who study Buddhism, it’s like a moment of enlightenment. I no longer crave cheesecake and ice cream. I crave… Read more »
marci
marci
7 years 4 months ago
As a former vegetarian (20 yrs!) my switch to the PB was something I had to consider deeply…now that I’ve committed to this lifestyle (yes, I eat local/farmers market meat now) it’s all about the long-term benefits. I’ve been keeping track in my journal to see how I’m doing & look forward to reviewing my thoughts a year from now (as well as the hoped-for weight loss & muscle tone!) Much progress has been made already-my daily workouts are more intense but shorter, my hungry horrors diiminished, and my mind is clear (no more brain fog!) all thanks in part… Read more »
Peggy
Peggy
7 years 4 months ago

I too am giving up vegetarian after 10+ years. My body must have been Needing that salmon & other protein goodies!

My vice is also dark, organic chocolate. And when I’m *really* bad, with a glass of red wine…

SerialSinner
SerialSinner
7 years 4 months ago

At the end it’s all about a happier life, right? Most of my 20% (and sometimes more) non-primal dietary side is due to beer consumption. Real beer I mean ( http://tinyurl.com/fvwgh ).

Embracing the 80/20 might allow me to gradually go from my current fear of beer-less doom and disgrace to, maybe, a painful couple of Michelobs ultra light a month. You never know.

On the other hand, the PB seems to be better for my health than other dietary habits in spite of my eventual fermented grain purees.

jpippenger
7 years 4 months ago
I had my 20% moment this weekend. When I had some beer. I only had beer, I didn’t consume any other form of carbs. I thought I got away with it, because the next morning I was a pound less, but Monday and Tuesday morning I gained, even though I ate perfectly. I didn’t return to my Saturday weight until this morning. I enjoy a good beer on occasion, but the more I follow the diet the more it seems a hassle to have that enjoyment. Following the lifestyle is truly changing my perspective. I looked at our school’s lunch… Read more »
gcb
gcb
7 years 4 months ago
My wife and I used to plan “cheat days” – days where we would willingly eat starchy carbs, sugary foods, etc. The problem was that we *were* planning – and even looking forward to – these forays into junk territory. We’d almost gorge ourselves on crap for a 24-hour period every month or so. Not healthy. As such, we’re trying to stay away from the whole concept of pre-planned cheating. We may “fall off the wagon” for one meal once a month or so, but it’s never pre-planned (and often is a result of circumstances – we’re somewhere where we… Read more »
Dave, RN
Dave, RN
7 years 4 months ago

I’m one of those all or nothing people. If I give myself an inch, I’ll take a mile. That being said, my discretion (sort of, since I think it’s primal) is whole, raw, unpasteurized milk, goats milk when I can get it. I’m fortunate enough to live in a state where it’s legal, and easy for me to get. And I believe 100% good for you with all those enzymes and beneficial bacteria!

Henry Miller
Henry Miller
7 years 4 months ago

I’m glad I knew this last week – my best friend’s son died (hit by a car – driver went around everyone else stopped to let him cross), and all week I ate only because I knew I needed something in my body. I didn’t want to think about anything – as soon as my brain turned I remembered Jack wasn’t climbing on my shoulders or some other such thing.

As time goes on you recover, and then you go back. Life happens.

Oh, and be careful out there.

Ecala
Ecala
7 years 4 months ago

OH Henry– that’s awful. I’m so sorry for your best friend.
Gah, the nerve of that awful driver. Makes me so mad 🙁 why is everyone in such a friggin hurry all the time??

Your post is a good reminder for everyone to slow down – me included.

Yum Yucky
7 years 4 months ago

I’m not exactly primal woman but the more I pay attention to you, your principles are beginning rub off on me. Keep it up!

timconradinc
timconradinc
7 years 4 months ago
For me, the 80/20 thing is a good idea. I’m not there, but it does two things. First, it means that I don’t have to be *perfect* all the time. A little indulgence now and then is an okay thing. Second, it can help you cope in the long run. These days, I’m more into the long run than the short term. I was watching a video with Gary Taubes last night. He talks about the quantity of food that we eat over a number of years. It’s a staggering quantity of food. Splurging here and there isn’t going to… Read more »
jpippenger
7 years 4 months ago

Right now, I use mini goals as my only “cheat” time. My first was to lose 20 lbs and once I met that I allowed myself to have beer one night. My next is to stay primal until Father’s Day. Once I achieve my ideal physique I will have to rethink when those days are going to happen, if they happen at all. I’m less and less attracted to “bad” food.

Donna
Donna
7 years 4 months ago

Once you get to that point of 100%, feeling healthy, looking good, it then becomes the lifestyle you want to keep for the rest of your life. Eating 100% primal just pays off! I will say, for my birthday i had cheesecake, guess what, it made me feel sick, after that, i decided it wasn’t worth eating and no longer want it. Now, i just want to eat what makes me feel good, it just makes sense!!!

Katelyn
7 years 4 months ago

I don’t believe in the 80/20. It’s like admitting defeat right away. I say do something 100%. Quit the wrong way cold turkey. I don’t want an “OK” diet or fitness. I want to optimally fit and optimally healthy. I am zero carb, I go to the gym for weightlifting 4 x a week no matter what. Don’t give up on yourself and “settle” for 80/20.

PrimalJAP
PrimalJAP
7 years 4 months ago

Question, how can you be zero carb unless all you eat is meat?

Katelyn
7 years 4 months ago

Yes, all I eat is meat and eggs.

Dan
Dan
7 years 4 months ago
I’m with timconradinc. I prefer to just eat primally during the weeks, and then either Friday or Saturday (or both days) eat whatever I want, usually out. As much variety as there is with the primal diet, there are some foods I love that it simply can’t provide: great sushi, a good Neapolitan pizza, cocktails, etc. That may sound super-indulgent, but even when I go out and eat whatever I want, I usually don’t consumer more than 2000 calories or so. This comes down not to choosing the healthiest possible food, but simply only eating when I’m hungry… I’ll sit… Read more »
MikeGP
MikeGP
7 years 4 months ago
Hey Dan, but in the post Mark clearly says, on that 20% your supposed to stay away from carbs….I havent jump to the PB because i like to enjoy a burger or a cheat meal once in a while…i cant see my self not eating another piece of bread EVER…I mean right now i do eat complex carbs, protein and fat, im fairly fit, i mean, i have a six pack and all, but i want to take my fitness to the next level, just not sure i can ban carbs for the rest of my life. “That said, some… Read more »
Dan
Dan
5 years 2 months ago

100% how I feel. I’m just starting, and I plan on doing as much primal as I can, but I simply don’t think that my entire diet and health will be ruined if once or twice a month I eat at a restaurant and have a small side of pasta or sushi with rice.

I have been a swimmer all my life and I ate enormous amounts of pasta to support that, but I’m going to try to cut out pasta as a meal and see what happens.

Dollface
Dollface
7 years 4 months ago

I definately like the 80/20 rule however I’m a little like Dave…if I give myself an inch, I’ll take a mile. I have to be pretty careful and not get distracted. I love how I feel too much to mess with it. In saying that I still love my 85% chocolate and I’m pretty good at limiting that.

Rob
Rob
7 years 4 months ago

Mark I’ve been eating strictly primal every day for about 3 months and the results are amazing. Not only the results but the lifestyle it carries with the habits are great. BUT the 80/20 thing? Why are you giving more obese Americans an excuse to stray away from what(in the long run) is going to be best. I’m sure you’re aware of how much we spend on health care each year due to obesity. The best way to lead is by example, strict or not. I’m sure YOU don’t do the 80/20…why encourage others?

Greg at Live Fit
7 years 4 months ago

The 80/20 rule applies to all parts of life. Take baby steps and make progress before you go after the whole enchilada.

AaronBlaisdell
7 years 4 months ago
“PB living does require steady commitment, genuine effort and daily dedication.” This is only because the current dietary options most of us face at the supermarket, restaurant, etc. is so for out of balance with what our more remote ancestors ate. The difficulties in this diet are diametrically opposite to those of all other diets. In all other diets the difficulty in sticking to them is that they leave you hungry or malnutritioned. The Primal Diet is the opposite. Hunger melts away. Well being is restored. The difficulty is in finding the foods that do this in our market of… Read more »
jack
jack
7 years 4 months ago

I think 80/20 is a good idea, but it’s a slippery slope. My challenge is getting out of the “cheat” mindset and developing a way of life. By implying that you have a “cheat” it means you are doing something restrictive which generally will not last.

I think the point is not to beat yourself up. It’s a journey and there are bound to be pitfalls.

Miriam
Miriam
7 years 4 months ago

I have found since going primal I don’t need to cheat or have a % of bad foods as since cutting out the carbs and eating just beef, chicken, fish, eggs and vegetables with generous amounts of butter, coconut oil and nut oils I am nourished and honestly don’t crave the crap (raisin bread was my weakness, I used to be able to eat a whole loaf, now I would rather just eat the lashings of butter I would put on it). I do have my good vices though which are 85% organic dark chocolate and preservative-free red wine.

Diana Renata
7 years 4 months ago
Thanks for this article. Very timely. I used to really enjoy my planned cheats. Lately they’ve only been disappointments. They don’t bring the same satisfaction they used to, and in some cases were downright dreadful. I never felt worse than I did after eating a big chocolate chip cookie the other day. I can’t even get remotely excited about sweets anymore. I went out to dinner at TGIFridays tonight, and I didn’t even think twice about skipping the bread stick, and going without dessert. I think the 80/20 theory is fantastic, and it really takes the pressure off to be… Read more »
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Tracy
Tracy
7 years 4 months ago
Diana, I had the exact same experience this evening. Well, the feeling was the same but my vice is not the cookie but rather ice cream! I have been very strict about my primal eating habits the last three months or so but this evening I had the strongest craving for ice cream. So…I went out and bought some Breyers, ate a bowl and promptly threw the rest in the garbage. I felt no satisfaction from my indulgence but rather grave disappointment in myself. I don’t think ill be having any more ice cream in the near future.
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jpippenger
7 years 4 months ago

While I pretty much have to abide by not taking a cheat except in a very rare instance. I think the 80/20 principal is a good one to keep in mind, because too many people have the habit of giving up if they fail one time. The goal should be for 100%, but keep in mind that even if you achieve primal 80% of the time you are still successful and hopefully that will be enough to keep you on track and moving closer to that 100 mark.

Alex
Alex
7 years 4 months ago
It really is more about not beating yourself up than “cheating.” When life throws you pizza – and you eat it – you just say “okay, that’s my 20%” and move on. And I have found, like Tracy and Diana and a few others that once I got fully into the Primal mode 1) I don’t crave the sugar and processed carb stuff I used to and 2) they aren’t as good as I remember. Too sweet, not tasty, and make me feel awful the next day (or for a few days!!). Now I generally take a small nibble if… Read more »
warren
warren
7 years 4 months ago

last night i made dinner for my girlfriend. b/c she’s used to starch i made a quinoa/black bean salad to go with our grilled scallops, steak and asparagus. i also made a sorbet out of coconut milk, pineapple and a bit of honey. i guess this the way i go 80/20. it was a high-carb meal by P.B. standards but still unrefined, whole foods. today i’ll ratchet it back down and lead into an IF for 20 hrs or more. i like the idea of wiggle room esp, since i wiggle a lot less these days!

Mary
Mary
3 years 7 months ago

Lucky girlfriend.

Katelyn
7 years 4 months ago

Grains are gross.

SerialSinner
SerialSinner
7 years 4 months ago

Lisa you call for skepticism and I think that’s a great. I do, however, think that there is a lot of evidence supporting the PB.

On the other hand, you make the following claims:

– Claiming they ate no type of grains or starches is nonsense and very unlikely
– In fact we evolved from even 11,000 years ago at a very fast pace and continue to do so.

I haven’t found any evidence supporting them. Do you have any?

Anna
Anna
7 years 4 months ago
I personally try not to feel guilty, because I think it just leads to more problems like binging and staying off track. I refuse to give up any food permanently, because it’s a recipe for failure and guilt. I think about how much better my diet is now, and I don’t consider 85% chocolate a bad thing at all. And if I indulge, you bet it’s going to be a fatty croissant, not something unenjoyable like brown rice or black beans. I make the rare indulgences count! Not sure about people who used to be obese, but personally my body… Read more »
rob
rob
7 years 4 months ago

re: “fatty croissant” I have been wondering lately if one must indulge in breads that things like croissants aren’t the way to go? If you look (in nutritiondata.com) at the N6:N3 ratio of a Butter Croissant 3:1 and French Bread 16:1 it makes one wonder if grains could be a reasonable cheat provided they are supplemented with a healthy serving of animal fat.

Christoph Dollis
7 years 4 months ago

Mark, I just pre-ordered your book.

Thanks a bunch for your wonderful blog. It’s been inspiring to me, even if my application of your principles has been more like 10/90.

I will work on reversing those numbers.

Cheers all,

Christoph

Christoph Dollis
7 years 4 months ago
Of course we’re not exactly the same as humans 5,000 years ago. That’s one of the reasons why natives (and I’m part North American native) have more diabetes, heart disease, and even alcoholism than caucasions: They’ve had only a couple hundred years to adjust to a high grain-and-sugar-based carbohydrate diet, whereas Europeans, Asians, etc., have had several thousand years. Regardless, the MAJORITY of genes in any of the above populations are from the Paleolithic. It’s still a healthier diet overall for most everybody. But, yes, a Chinese man will probably do better on a rice-based diet than will, say, an… Read more »
Christoph Dollis
7 years 4 months ago
Oh, and further to the humans evolving thing. Duh. Yes. We are. There’s lots of cross-genes too, with air travel, etc., so people of different geographic origin are getting together more than ever before. Further, lots of people are dying young due to their diets. So, natural selection being what it is, those people are passing their genes along less for 2 reasons: 1. Early death 2. Sexual selection — obesity and ill health not being as attractive as their counterparts I’m certain that there is evolution going on with those people who can tolerate a fast food, high sugar,… Read more »
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Trinkwasser
Trinkwasser
7 years 3 months ago
Agree with a lot of this. Mark is an idealist, that’s what we pay him for! Grok would probably have been more of an opportunist. I have this picture of him scarfing down a McDonalds because it was there, then barfing it back up and going in search of some real food. I tend to stay on plan most of the time but for example I just followed my fish and sea vegetables with some 85% chocolate and a cup of coffee, yesterday I had a glass of red wine with my organic beef sausages and asparagus. Sometimes I eat… Read more »
Trinkwasser
Trinkwasser
7 years 3 months ago

Oh yeah, about the evolution thing, since Ancel Keys I believe we have all been placed in a giant Eugenics experiment where only the carb tolerant shall survive.

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[…] overboard in trying to over-accommodate the primal menu when we share meals (I try to explain the 80% idea). Many tend to look at it as “a Diet” (capital D – like weight watchers) rather than […]

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[…] new here, you may want to subscribe to my weekly newsletter. Thanks for visiting!Since our original 80/20 post a few weeks ago, I’ve gotten a slew of questions and comments from readers. Many tell me how much […]

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[…] The 80/20 Principle, Revisited […]

Beck
Beck
6 years 11 months ago
I crave protein a lot even if there are awesome breads or cakes around (which I love). I’d like to know if anyone has the same problem as me. Once you start it’s tough to stop. If I don’t “need” cake, I’ll skip it. However, if I have one tiny piece, I find that I’ll want more. Or some other carb. Same with red wine. If I have more than 1-2 glasses I want other processed carbs. Odd. I thought it was alcohol impairing my judgement (LOL) but no I think it is driven by my insulin reaction. Thoughts?
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[…] to eat (drink) what they’re going to eat (drink), and the “Primal Blueprint” understands that. I’m not a fan of diets, much less strict ones. I don’t mind being told to do […]

Jodie
6 years 9 months ago
Wow! I’m glad someone else goes by the 80/20 rule….. I try to get my clients to understand this principle by seeing the big picture of sticking to the 80/20 whole heartedly!!! No slacking or it’s the 70/30, or 60/40 rule.You just have to stick to your guns and hold on, it’s not easy. If it was, every one would be thin and in perfect shape.Sit down figure out what 80% of your meals would be and make them your good ones, now allow yourself 20% of slack for those times to be human and live a little. Then get… Read more »
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6 years 8 months ago

[…] or having an occasional cheat here and there is still an amazing feat. Mark Sisson’s 80/20 principle is a great one to go by. You should be striving to be 100% strict during this primal challenge; […]

Alexey
Alexey
6 years 5 months ago
The way I look at 80/20 is not exactly to just have a cheat day when I eat whatever I want. Instead 80/20 is part of my daily life, I try to follow the diet as close as possible (don’t eat potatoes, rice, pasta, processed food, etc) but I do still have one piece of sprouted whole grain bread with my lunch and maybe 1 small scoop of steel cut oatmeal for breakfast (i lift weights in the gym and don’t get the required energy just from protein and vegetable alone, i try to listen to my body). Sometimes, a… Read more »
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[…] or trying a sample of a pasta dish at a family or friends party, etc. This is where the 80/20 rule comes into play. But, for me, the more primal I am, the more I enjoy […]

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6 years 4 months ago

[…] check out: Guide to Eating Dirty, Part I and Part II from the Whole Nine Mark Sisson’s 80/20 Principle (read the comments section as well) Primal Blueprint 101 on Mark’s Daily […]

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[…] 80/20 Principle – Strive for perfection, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. […]

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