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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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November 17, 2009

Is the Primal Blueprint a Type of Asceticism?

By Mark Sisson
59 Comments

Last week, MDA member Bobbylight posed a pretty poignant question in the forum: is the Primal Blueprint an ascetic lifestyle? As you’ll see from the actual post, he basically answered his own question (he agrees that the PB, by definition, is not asceticism, but his particular brand of the PB has gradually morphed into a kind of personal journey away from material pleasures; a “food as fuel” mode of asceticism), but the concept of asceticism gives me a jumping off point for a larger issue that needs addressing.

First, I’d like to review the differences between asceticism and eating in accordance with evolutionary biology. As it’s generally practiced across multiple disciplines and belief systems, asceticism refers to the complete and utter refutation of “worldly pleasures” to achieve spiritual and physical enrichment. Cleansing the mind along with the body. Regarding the pursuit of pleasure as somehow unnatural or impure, as if giving in to our animal urges is something to be ashamed of. It promotes permanent abstention from material desires with the hope that they will permanently atrophy and dissipate, like some little-used muscle or organ withers and dies. If the fate of the appendix is any indication of this idea’s validity, though, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Pleasure is here to stay. In fact, I’d argue that our relentless pursuit of pleasure is actually completely natural, deep-seated, and immutable. The basic human condition is desire. Without that pursuit of pleasure, we may not have made it this far. Without that constant, nagging desire to feel good, to taste good things and enjoy the warmth and intimacy of a sexual companion, to sit bundled up in front of a roaring fire licking marrow from sticky fingers, we lose the desire to survive – because what use is living if you’re not going to enjoy it on some basic level? Why get up in the morning without something to look forward to? It may be that thriving is actually necessary for surviving after all.

What do we crave, once we’ve transcended the artifice of refined sugar and whole grain addiction? Once we’ve spent a few weeks eating clean, Primal foods and cleansed our palate, most of us don’t even want the Twinkies or the Wonder Bread or the pizza anymore; we want the fat, the grease, and the gristle. We want fresh veggies sautéed in butter and salads drenched in olive oil and vinegar. We crave chicken with the skin, and we might just eat an entire pack of bacon to finish off an IF (if you put it in front of us). Some of us want nothing but the animal, while others sample the entire pantheon of flora and fauna. Above all, though, we all suddenly want nothing but real, whole foods once we get off the Neolithic faux-food. And when we get it, it tastes good.

Damn good.

Doesn’t that make you wonder? Might that not-so-subtle positive interplay between taste bud and food stuff be by design? I mean, sex feels good because it promotes procreation. The sun feels good to convince us to stay outside long enough to make vitamin D, an essential prohormone for life. Conversely, direct flame applied to our skin hurts like hell because it’s damaging our body and threatening our health, and we get sunburns to let us know we’ve gotten a bit too much sunlight. Wouldn’t it follow that the things that taste good actually are good for us, that the things we could conceivably come across and eat raw in nature are in fact suitable for consumption? I’d say so, yes.

I can already hear the fingers typing furiously.

“What about candy? Candy tastes good, so doesn’t that mean it’s good for us?”

For one, consumption of refined sugar and excess fructose beyond evolutionarily-realistic amounts is proven to be harmful. Tooth decay, insulin resistance, small and dense LDL formation – all that and more can be directly attributed to sugar intake. We all know that. But we also know that candies are clusters of pure sugar, half glucose and half fructose (a bit more fructose than glucose if made with HFCS), that appeared only recently on the menu. Crystallized sugar appeared on the scene around 5,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt, but until Columbus realized sugar cane flourished in the Americas and established a profitable slave-based industry, refined sugar in all forms was cost-prohibitive for anyone that wasn’t rich. Now? Now it’s cheap. It’s actually cost effective for companies to stick sugar and especially HFCS in anything and everything. Breads, salad dressings, condiments, sauces – pretty much everything on shelves and in packages contains a form of sugar. Some estimates peg our yearly intake of the stuff at over a hundred pounds each. Each, per year! That’s terrifying (especially when you realize that it’s an average, and that there are a significant number of people that minimize sugar intake, like us – somewhere, someone is eating two hundred pounds a year!), and it far exceeds what we could have mustered in Grok’s day.

A better question would be, “What about the sweet flavor? Why are we drawn to the sweet flavor if it signifies danger?”

That’s just it; in and of itself, it doesn’t necessarily mean bad things to come. In days of yore, sweet things were difficult to come by. Honey meant receiving bee stings and climbing tall trees, and, while there’s no way of knowing exactly how sweet or bitter seasonal fruit in the Paleolithic was or was not, we do know that today’s fruits are selectively bred for increased sugar content. Yesterday’s fruits were sweet (they had to be to enable seed dispersion), and sweet meant nutrients, but that sweetness was naturally selected for, rather than forced and sped up by man’s hands. Simple logic indicates that a fruit actively bred for sweetness will trend sweeter than the fruit left alone. The data certainly suggests as much.

Then there’s the fact that fruit used to be seasonal. Northern European Grok wasn’t shivering by fjords waiting for the latest shipment of Amazonian bananas (fun fact: here’s what a wild banana actually looks like – a far cry from the perfect peel-able fruit that we’re able to produce) by dug-out canoe. If he was lucky, he might nab a bushel or two of berries and apples in season and then gorge on them. But an apple a day? No, that wasn’t possible for Grok year round. Tropical or temperate Grok probably had more access to fruit, but they still weren’t as sweet. And wherever he was, Grok was not drinking Jamba juice or chugging a liter of orange juice in a single sitting. If he lucked out on a sweet fruit, he was eating the entire thing.

We may be drawn to the sweet flavor, but that’s because it was such a rare, quick source of cheap energy for our ancestors (and possibly a bit of a holdover from our extremely distant days as arboreal frugivores about 4 million years ago). Besides, what better time to fatten up than with a dose of sugar right before winter? The fact remains that, historically, the fruit we rarely ate was less abundant, and it contained less sugar than modern fruits. Our attraction to sweet flavors is not a free pass to subsist on bananas and figs. It’s merely a cue for Grok to snap up all the fruit and honey he can carry, because this might be the last time he sees any for a long, long time.

Meat, however, was abundant. Man had yet to encroach upon and severely disrupt local ecologies, and game was not relegated to a preserve or a national forest. Our brains grew big and hogged our metabolic output thanks to meat, which represented a new, denser source of energy for Grok. Neanderthals were our closest ancestors, and they were completely carnivorous, while many Homo sapien cultures were essentially pure meat eaters. Meat was the foundation for man’s emergence as conscious, cunning, brilliant, adaptable, preeminent predator. We depended on meat, which explains why we have such a visceral reaction to it.

The dog salivates at the whiff of a meaty bone, the cat seeks out the sunny patch so it can synthesize Vitamin D in its fur, and the plant strains toward the nourishing sunlight. Organisms are pleasure seekers, and we are no different. We’ve just the ability (or curse) to rationalize and analyze our behavior, sometimes to our detriment. When we start using some arbitrary moral system to condemn and regulate our very natures, we deny our humanity. That is a very, very bad thing. I dunno about you, but I like being human. I like my big brain, and my compassion, and my conscience, and my consciousness. I can appreciate the fact that I drool a little when I smell a steak seared in butter even as I sit down to read the paper with my meal. We represent the union between animal urge and reason. The former keeps us alive and well, while the latter makes us human. The Primal Blueprint simply recognizes those urges, rationalizes them with an examination of the clinical and anthropological evidence, and offers a stable (yet malleable) foundation for people to follow. We satisfy our cravings, blood and grease dripping from our chins, content that this time (like most, actually) our basest urges are the purest and most righteous.

Jack LaLanne got it half right when he said, “If man made it, don’t eat it,” but I think he dropped the ball with “If it tastes good, spit it out.” I say embrace worldly pleasures that nourish our bodies and minds. Pastured meat, relations with a loved one, a bowl of wild berries, a day of play with some pals, a healthy serving of sunshine – these are true worldly pleasures that we derive from the natural world and to which we are drawn by our natural, animalistic urges. These are urges that promote healthful, vibrant living and true happiness, and I think the ascetic does himself a disservice in denying them. We are animals – thinking, feeling, loving, free animals – and we shouldn’t ignore or bury that fact for inconsequential ideologies or self-imposed limitations.

As William Blake wrote, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Grok took that road, and perhaps we should, too.

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59 Comments on "Is the Primal Blueprint a Type of Asceticism?"

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Martin
6 years 10 months ago

Mark, recently the posts have taken a rather philosophical turn and I’m loving it.

Grok
6 years 10 months ago

Yes, this is a nice philosophical post. The primal blueprint does make simple pleasures better.

I’ve almost completely abandon fruit. Took a long time, but frankly I enjoy the way vegetables make me feel overall. Fruit only makes my blood sugar happy (or sad?).

Martin
6 years 10 months ago

So have I; fruit honestly has become too sweet for my taste anyway.

Fruit for a Steak is a trade I would make any day.

Shauna
6 years 10 months ago

Veggies taste amazing once the bad stuff is out of your system. Growing up on Doritos and Dr. Pepper, it’s like an alternate universe upon reflection. Then, you realize how calm your mind (and stomach) are and how great your butt looks and you think “This is exactly the way it’s supposed to be.”

rachel
rachel
2 years 3 months ago

hi Mark, what if I don’t want to loose weight as I’m very thin? I’m afraid not eating any grains might cause me loosing weight? please let me know your opinion. thanks, Rachel

Aaron Blaisdell
6 years 10 months ago
Very well-stated point! 3 responses: 1) It is not likely accurate to describe natural selection as a blind process working to preserve “the species.” It is even arguable to say it operates to preserve “the individual,” as Dawkins has so eloquently championed the view that NS operates blindly to preserve “the genes.” 2) We crave candy and other sugary treats because these are what ethologists call Supernormal Stimuli. Other animals show preferences for stimuli with parameters outside of the ecological context, such as the grey-lag goose mother who prefers to roll a huge, densely speckled artificial egg back to her… Read more »
Aaron Blaisdell
6 years 10 months ago

Point 2 is incomplete. I meant to end by saying that now that Man has such control over his domain, he is gravitating towards the creation of more and greater supernormal stimuli: candy, cakes, boob jobs, etc.

stephanie vincent
6 years 10 months ago
I agree with you completly…however… For a person who has struggled with using food as an emotional escape, it is important to thinking of food as more of a fuel than a ssource of pleasure. The truth is i first cut out sugars and grains before I ever found PB. By doing so I quickly realized that eliminating sugards and grains all but took away my ability to emotionally eat. So although I am reaping the benfits of PB living, I am actually motivated to stick to it for more than just the health benefits. PB eating is my abstinence.… Read more »
Ash
Ash
6 years 10 months ago
There is a more postive view of asceticism that I think primal eating falls into – giving up things that are pleasurable in order to pursue an even greater pleasure or joy. Like the original Epicurian hedonism which actually bordered on ascetism – he urged his followers not to eat too richly because it could lead to dissatisfaction later, and they would often fast to make their eating that much more enjoyable. I think true ascetism, whether religious or otherwise, is more hedonistic than not. It’s not about giving up pleasure, it’s about pursuing the greatest pleasure, which generally means… Read more »
NorthernMonkeyGirl
6 years 10 months ago

Very good points Aaron, i know of the concept of number 2 but hadn’t really thought about us in that way.

Also – my fave quote ever!:

“We satisfy our cravings, blood and grease dripping from our chins, content that this time (like most, actually) our basest urges are the purest and most righteous.”

Katt
Katt
6 years 10 months ago

Excellent post, Mark.

“These are urges that promote healthful, vibrant living and true happiness, and I think the ascetic does himself a disservice in denying them.”

I couldn’t agree more. I have never understood why some people feel the need to escape humanity and life.

emmcubed
emmcubed
6 years 10 months ago

My God, what an inspiring post, Mark. Anyone who quotes Blake AND promotes a lifestyle that equates thirty pounds less on my frame is doubly all right in my book.

TaydaTot
TaydaTot
6 years 10 months ago
“When we start using some arbitrary moral system to condemn and regulate our very natures, we deny our humanity.” When we accept and follow social contracts we deny our humanity. When someone pisses me off I want to harass them, punch them in the face or worse. It is a natural affect. Sublimating our “primal urges” is done all the time but it is part of our civility. “These are urges that promote healthful, vibrant living and true happiness, and I think the ascetic does himself a disservice in denying them.” Asceticism would be futile if we lived in “perfect”… Read more »
Rafi Bar-Lev
6 years 10 months ago

Awesome post Mark. I love how you give meat credit for our brains as well. 😛

-Rafi

Simon Bar Sinister
Simon Bar Sinister
6 years 10 months ago

like my man Siddartha says:
I know how think, how to wait, and how to fast

Greg
Greg
6 years 10 months ago

Great post, Mark! Once I stopped eating them I quickly lost my taste for all things grains and sweet. I now crave Salmon and spinach when I’m hungry. My mom is so proud 🙂

SerialSinner
SerialSinner
6 years 10 months ago
“As William Blake wrote, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Grok took that road, and perhaps we should, too.” Yes! Great, refreshing post. Many of us were raised with the axiom that we are above nature, that we are not animals and that the more we repress our animal nature, the better people we will become. I couldn’t disagree more. We can learn a lot by exploring and accepting our animal nature. Take fields like evolutionary psychology for example, which is making extremely useful discoveries about why we are the way we are in terms of… Read more »
Huw
6 years 10 months ago
This is, as ever, an excellent post and an excellent topic, and I think that it might be clearer to look at it from the points of view of ‘gratification’ and ‘pleasure’, and to realise that humans very easily confuse the two. We have been endowed with the mental capacity to make that distinction, to realise that eating a doughnut provides gratification whereas not eating it and subsequently looking trimmer and feeling better gives true pleasure – a month later! Just as we can lose the taste for sugar, I think we can lose the taste/urge for gratification and replace… Read more »
Del Mar Mel
Del Mar Mel
6 years 10 months ago
to deny oneself pleasure in life would also rob one of appreciating the beauty of life. Is the gift of life not something to be cherished and appreciated? To eschew impure, laboratory created “food” products is, in my mind, a spiritual pursuit in the sense that you are respecting the proverbial temple that is your body, while appreciating the truly nourishing foods that Mother Nature provides us with. As a female who has had her share of body image/ food/ exercise addict issues over the course of time (and what woman hasn’t at some point?), I can definitely relate to… Read more »
bobbylight
bobbylight
6 years 10 months ago
I feel famous….anyway, I brought up this point partially because I am a religious studies major in college right now. I am quite interested in Eastern Religions stemming from Hinduism (Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism). Anyway, Buddhism preaches the middle way between asceticism and material excess, but the way we live today is a lot closer to material excess than asceticism (and just for an example the ascetics used to live off of basically no food at all and just wither away and die). But denying oneself certain pleasures can actually improve someone’s life due to the introspection it can cause. Buddhist… Read more »
Shine
6 years 10 months ago

Great post. I see the PB as the ultimate endeavor in enjoying and reveling in our physical bodies. Excluding “Neolithic faux-food” (I love that phrase, by the way) is not done in an effort to *deny* pleasure, but in an effort to achieve the ultimate pleasure of vibrant health.

Del Mar Mel
Del Mar Mel
6 years 10 months ago

Well said, Shine!

Juan
Juan
6 years 10 months ago

Mark, what a great post. And very timely.
Some nice augmentations with the comments, too. Thanks, all.

IronDisciple
6 years 10 months ago
I think for me Primal living IS a form of asceticism. Granted natural pleasure is a good thing and is responsible for our species’ continued existance, but the problem is UNnatural pleasure. Sexual desire is a good thing, perversion is not. Desire for delicious food is a good thing, cramming your face with doughnuts to satisfy that desire is not. I’m not demanding anyone ELSE take this philosophy to heart, but what separates us from animals is our ability to regulate our base instincts and not be a slave to them. Am I an ascetic in the strictest sense of… Read more »
Alex
Alex
6 years 10 months ago

Mark, I like the post, but I feel there’s some contradiction in the “meat” part. Indeed, meat tastes really good. BUT only cooked meat. Raw meat does not taste good and it is difficult to chew with our human teeth. I presume our ancestors did not eat much meat before they started using fire, which was not very long ago by evolutional standards. So my point is that meat is also something relatively new to humans, we maybe just a bit more accustomed to eating meat than grains. Thanks.

pieter d
pieter d
6 years 10 months ago

Google Richard Wrangham and ‘catching fire’ for an interesting view on the use of fire!!

Neiloy
Neiloy
6 years 10 months ago

Alex, I disagree. I LOVE the taste of raw meat and only wish that I had access to enough high quality meat to eat it raw more often.

Squirrel Jo
Squirrel Jo
6 years 10 months ago
A wonderful post that has elicited some great responses. Well said ironDisciple! And as always, a thought provoking response from Serial Sinner. I can really identify with Stephanie Vincent, the Primal Blueprint is by far the easiest way to be healthy because of abstaining from the very things I am addicted to. Before going on PB I knew my diet ought to be mainly veg, fruit and protein… but by not abstaining from grains and sugars, they formed the basis of every meal although I knew they shouldn’t. But that’s the joy with eating the PB way, we find pleasure… Read more »
Simon Fellows
Simon Fellows
6 years 10 months ago

..i will wager thats the first time the supposed Blake quote has been used to refer to a healthful lifestyle !

Juan
Juan
6 years 10 months ago
Alex, your comment about our (humans) eating less meat until we started cooking it is a rather unique reinterpretation of the archaeological, biological, and logical evidence. Why do you think Grok killed all the magafauna following the Ice Age, anyway? Just to get at all that yummy cold grass and sour cranberries under their hooves? 🙂 I agree with Neiloy that raw meat can taste perfectly good, once you get used to it. It is just as likely that we have desensitized our taste buds to the true taste meat by our cooking of it, rather than our having never… Read more »
dr. pierre debs
dr. pierre debs
6 years 10 months ago

The more “spiritual” and philosophical this website becomes, the less I enjoy and trust it. I´d rather it be kept to hard facts and evidence-based scientific reasoning. It is difficult as it is to scientifically determine how “Grok” fed his/herself; adding the “supernatural” or spiritual only makes it worse.

Joel M
Joel M
6 years 10 months ago

Mark, and anybody else that might know, just a quick question. I searched your site and couldn’t find an answer. Is organic greek yogurt a good primal food? The ingredients are: Grade A pasteurized milk, cream, pectin and active cultures. I can see how it wouldn’t be because of the pasteurized milk but i had to ask. Thanks!

glorth2
glorth2
6 years 10 months ago

Good post. I try to incorporate “quality of life” into my diet decisions. I neither want birthday cake nor McDonald’s every day but I’ll be damned if I’m never going to eat mashed potatoes or have a beer again because of someone’s philosophy.

chazglen
6 years 10 months ago
A couple of years ago, I was on a mission trip to Africa. On one of the days, we drove out to visit with the Masaai, a tribe of people who still live like their ancient ancestors from the dawn of time. They are completely aware of all the modern ‘conveniences’ (especially regarding food) but have chosen to live apart from them, seeing the destructive effect is has on life – both body and soul. Their diet has no sugar and mostly consists of meat, blood, yoghurt… and… they DO eat corn since, unlike their ancient ancestors, they have discovered… Read more »
Sandy Sommer, RKC
6 years 10 months ago

I would argue that the PB is completely non ascetic. Assuming that I’m not denying myself worldly pleasure by being healthy, feeling better, looking better and having tons mor energy that is.

And if you’re curious, I’ve had pastured pig, bacon from pastured pig with no nitrates, grass fed stuffed flank steak, many farm fresh eggs, some pastured chicken and a bunch of salad, some cod liver and butter oil, some venison for good measure.

Oh and a few pieces of fruit and a smiggen of red wine.

Pretty nice week so far!

Paleo Addict
6 years 10 months ago

I for one have been using fruit to help me through my caffeine addiction. I found that eating some strawberries or other high sugar content fruit when I start to get a withdrawal headache. Has anyone else had that experience?

Maybe its the energy boost that it gives me until my next meal that is helping out.

Great post Mark!

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Simon Fellows
Simon Fellows
6 years 10 months ago

ref Maasai…To the gent who says the Maasai lives as they’ve done since the dawn of time he’s a little bit off on that one actually and quite dramatically so if you factor in milk drinking.
Also they have big alcohol problems.
Dunno how long he spent with them but suggests from posting that he only saw what was presented i.e. not how they live on a day to day basis.

Sorry for the pedantry

chazglen
6 years 10 months ago
Well, the problem with pedantry is it gets people focused on an individual tree rather than looking at the forest. No, I didn’t spend very long… about three weeks, but it was long enough for me to see that many Maasai HAVE wandered into the 21st century and adopted the lifestyle. Alcohol is one… but to those who still live in the villages, and farm, and herd, and walk incredible distances, there is a marked physical difference. They are tight and lean, even into old age. To those who have NOT adapted and given in to current trends in eating… Read more »
Rahul
6 years 10 months ago
Hey Mark, Long time lurker here. Couldn’t help commenting on this one as I kind of disagree with your perception of asceticism. I believe it is not in considering material things or the pursuit of pleasure to be inferior, impure or fake but in recognizing that these are impermanent sources of pleasure, or sort of quick fixes. Rather it is just a recognition of the fact that an excessive ATTCHMENT to material things as a source of pleasure can lead to a lot of pain, selfishness, envy and a host of other negative emotions. One should also of course recognize… Read more »
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joe
joe
6 years 4 months ago

“We may be drawn to the sweet flavor, but that’s because it was such a rare, quick source of cheap energy for our ancestors”

NO-we are drawn to sweets because sweet is the first thing we ever eat-sweet milk.

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Jay Mazzotta
4 years 7 months ago

What’s up, can any body assist me how to download this video tutorial from this site, I have watched and listen it here but desire to download it.

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jason rayleigh
2 years 10 months ago

just came across this post.. if anyone ever had the slightest illusion that paleo was about missing out on anything, check out the photos for the excellent upcoming PrimalCon vacation – totally luxury! Paleo is more about reaping the rewards of being in touch with our true selves. people (ascetics, indians who don’t eat meat) who don’t get the relationship between rewards and survival will die out eventually through natural attrition, and the superior pleasure-seekers amongst us will rise to the top! 😀

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