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...Tell Me More
It’s Friday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here. I’ll continue to publish these each Friday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!
My story starts with a girl, two actually, to be accurate, and also a beloved uncle. The ladies are my daughter and my wife. After years trying to start a family, my wife and I were fortunate to adopt our daughter from foster care in 2011. At that time, and for most of my adult life, I had been morbidly obese between 250 and 300 lbs at 5 foot 9. I’d like to say that becoming a parent, as amazing and life-changing as it was every single day, was enough to lead to dramatic changes to my daily eating and exercise habits, it wasn’t. I felt an increased need to be healthy to contribute more on a daily basis to my wife and daughter, yet still things went on as before. I was in a health netherworld of no major illnesses but not what I would describe as vitality of any sort. I certainly was not thriving. I was living what I understand now was a diminished life, both physically and mentally.
But more changes in my life, beyond becoming a parent, were in store. My uncle who was my dad growing up developed dementia and my wife and I became his sole caregivers in December of 2012. He also had diabetes as did his mom who lost a leg and eventually her life to diabetic complications. Taking care of him, having two full time jobs, and raising our daughter took every ounce of our time. If anything I was gaining weight at this time, profoundly saddened at my uncle’s condition but just trying to stay afloat. So I limped along, becoming in many ways more diminished. Did I see my future in my uncle? Yes. Did I know what to do? No.
In May of 2013 I attended a trade fair that happens once a year. I hadn’t worn a particular jacket since the previous year. It was now around three to four inches too small, it did not fit over my increasing belly. I was also beginning to not even fit into XXL shirts anymore. A few days after the jacket not fitting I was at a concert. I looked around and I was one of the biggest, maybe the biggest person there. It just felt absurd. But even more than that it felt, with a tremendous force, was unacceptable. At my core I felt it was no longer an option for me to be unhealthy, for me to burden my wife and child with a husband and father suffering from dementia. Especially to burden my daughter who would be in her early 20s, just starting life, when I reached the same age at which my uncle developed dementia. I also felt hopeful and certain I would succeed. Everything had built to a point where I had changed inside. Whatever alchemy had occurred to lead to that moment, at that concert I felt hopeful not hopeless, I knew I “had this.”
Because when I looked around I not only saw that I was one of the biggest people there, but for those people I saw which were at a healthy weight, I knew they did not have any ability that I did not possess to understand nutrition and live a healthy life. I had accomplished many things in my life, except being physically healthy. But I knew this time would be different. And my many successes besides my weight gave me confidence that I would be successful. With motivation I knew anything was possible.
The day after the concert I started my weight loss journey the old fashioned way, I turned to the Internet and Twitter. I had one key thought running through my head: it wasn’t just me. When I looked around, the communities I lived in seemed to be getting bigger, sicker, and less healthy. I thought how could that be if what I was being told was the way to health was true? I also started with a key personal observation. My wife thought I was an emotional eater. But I knew I was just always hungry. My reality was of constantly being hungry. And what struck me most was the hunger I would experience within just a couple of hours of eating a huge fast food meal.
My first Internet search was something like “Why am I so hungry so soon after eating a large fast food meal?” I quickly came upon discussions of insulin, its key role as one of the most important hormones, fat storage versus fat burning, blood sugar and hunger. Having my family history of diabetes and having blood work indicating it was a likely outcome in my near future, this information fully captured my attention. I then acted. I stopped buying bread and pasta. I also cut fast food cold turkey. I stopped buying potato chips and candy bars. Potato chips were particularly hard as they were not only my favorites, but my most addictive snack. I could easily consume a five ounce bag in one sitting. In fact, it was very hard, often impossible, for me not to consume the entire bag in one sitting, feeling guilty with every crunch.
I didn’t have a fully coherent plan at this point and hadn’t yet even heard the terms Paleo and Primal. Having diabetes on my mind though, I was determined to stay away from starches. I even thought “gluten intolerance” was made up at the time and people eliminating wheat were hypochondriacs. But I knew diabetes was real and within a week or two I saw dramatic reductions in my appetite. Because my motivation for myself and my family, and yes my fear for my future, were so high any cravings I experienced I just powered through. In my particular journey, giving up my daily staples wasn’t as hard as I thought. Whatever combination of motivation, physiology, and happenstance were responsible, I am grateful for that. Of course it is one thing to decide not to eat something but I then had to figure out what TO eat.
It might be helpful at this point to point out some of the health issues I was dealing with at this time, in the summer of 2013. I could barely fit in to XXL shirts anymore and some were too small. My waist was 48 inches. I had severe sleep apnea and severe, daily allergies. I took allergy medicine daily and had to miss work at least five days a year when the allergies were overwhelming. I had back pain and debilitating cramping that often occurred after eating a carb heavy meal. I could walk without pain and play doubles tennis without pain but could not run more than ten seconds.
As happens with Internet and Twitter searches, they led to links and videos and I happened upon a YouTube video of Professor Tim Noakes. Professor Noakes is a prominent South African scientist, who also had a health crisis and is now a low-carb, high-fat advocate. He was discussing his personal story and a man I had never heard of, Ancel Keys. He was referencing the six and seven country studies. Something called the diet-heart hypothesis. I remember these two slides being displayed. One was an almost perfect curve of six countries showing a correlation between saturated fat consumed and rates of heart disease. The second slide was the twenty-two countries he had data for that showed no correlation whatsoever. I was lucky enough to have had enough science education that the idea that correlation does not prove causation was second nature to me. So too were the concepts of confirmation bias and cherry picking data.
That video was a “gateway” to finding many other resources that most reading this are no doubt very familiar with: Gary Taubes, Dr. Perlmutter, Tom Naughton, and eventually Paleo, Primal, and Mark’s Daily Apple. I started to have a coherent vision of what had gone so wrong the last 40 years for my family, for America, for global society. I remember another key search I did: Why is going grain free good? A novel concept to me at the time beyond their impact on glucose. I think that search, in fact, led me to MDA. It was the humorous article Mark had written on answering questions from friends on why you are grain free. The sandwich discussion was just brilliant. The information in that article correlated with so many other articles and what I was experiencing in my own life.
What really cemented my intellectual journey was the elegance of everything I was finding out. I had always been fascinated by evolution, spending my baby sitting money on every book the late Stephen Jay Gould published. The central concept I was coming across was that human beings thrived when they eat a diet that their genes had been selected for. It just fit, it felt right. And I was shocked that literally every dietary “truth” I had been told, every nugget of conventional wisdom so confidently told to me by every doctor I had ever talked to, was wrong.
This intellectual journey took many months and continues every single day. I don’t think I came across the MDA article on grains until late 2013. By that time I had continued not having a single fast food meal, no junk food snacks, no bread, and no pasta. I was also attempting a couch to 5K program or C25K, in the Texas summer heat. Growing up, I had been known as “Cherry” Diamond during every Presidential fitness run I attempted. I had never been able to run. In retrospect this was probably very much impacted by my life situation growing up. I grew up in Los Angeles and was thankfully extremely active. But I was completely disconnected from any home food tradition whatsoever. I was an only child in a single parent household. My mom herself had never been taught to cook. I grew up on boxed cereals and TV dinners. It is, sadly, no exaggeration that the closest I had to a home-cooked meal growing up was hamburger helper. My body developed on school lunches, junk food, and fast food. Any cooking that happened in the house, I was responsible for. Thankfully omelets were one of, okay my only, specialty. But my daily food intake was not good, to say the least.
My body did the best it could under the circumstances, but apparently running was asking too much of it for as long as I could remember. Nonetheless, even though still in the 270s, in late summer of 2013 I was determined to become a “runner.” I made two extremely helpful decisions. I bought a very good pair of running shoes and I decided to repeat days and weeks as often as I needed to on the C25K program. If it took me six months to complete the program instead of eight weeks, that was fine with me.
At first it wasn’t much fun. And I had a calf injury from tennis that had me restart from the beginning. But by the beginning of 2014 running was almost becoming fun. Actually it WAS fun. I had gotten down to the 230s by this time and I was feeling incredible. Movement at work had become a joy. People were giving me compliments all the time on how good I looked. Now I was still a 5’9” 230 pound guy. But hey, I wasn’t a 5’9” 290-300 pound guy. I was really pushing my wife (who also needed to lose weight and get healthy), letting her know how great this was. Especially how I was no longer hungry. At the time I was pushing her too hard.
Nonetheless she started her own low-carb/high-fat journey at the beginning of 2014. Like me, she had to be ready and motivated. I think it was because we had visited her father over the holidays and all he could talk about was how good I looked. I think my getting healthier had brought out all the unspoken fears he had for the health of both of us. Whatever the combination of reasons, I am so happy my wife has embarked on this journey as well. And she has been equally successful. She is enjoying the most vibrant health of her life, has dropped over 50 lbs and over 10 dress sizes since the beginning of 2014.
And things were just continuing to get better and better for me. I completed my first 5K February 1, 2014. At around 38 minutes I met my goal, which was to run from start to finish. A couple of months later I ran my second 5K and my time was 31 minutes. I was starting to use MDA more and shifted into more of a “Primal Fitness” regime. I still ran and walked but I did more strength exercises and started to sprint in the summer of 2014. I also started listening to MDA podcasts and heard one from Darryl Edwards on Primal Play with Brad at Tulum. One day recently I was at a park and saw a bar in a playground just about the perfect height for a pull up. Never in my life had I been able to come close to doing a pull up. I thought what the heck, what would Darryl do? And getting my chin over the bar was one of the best feelings of my life.
So what does my health and life look like now? I am in the high 170s, a weight I haven’t been since high school or below, and I hope to lose another 10 to 15 lbs. My sleep apnea and allergies are completely gone. I haven’t had to take an allergy medicine in months. I haven’t gotten sick once, in over a year. My back pain went away completely after I gave up my last grain, corn. I have sustained mental energy. My relationships are better. I feel more joyful. I feel centered and solid in ways I never even knew existed before this journey started. My daughter is thriving on a no gluten, high fat way of eating. When I look at my wife and see her health and vibrancy it feels me with joy.
Primal food has been a revelation in taste. Now food is not dominated by sweetness, and the artificial and chemical. There are an array of subtle flavors I savor now. We eat only whole foods, which was a much easier transition than I expected. We made them the only things in our pantry and there are just as many quick and easy whole food options as there were for processed foods. The per ounce price of high quality whole foods is often less than low quality processed foods, and they are much more filling. Going Primal has also reinvigorated our cooking as we use new ingredients like collagen and bone marrow. And I have just two words for everyone that’s lactose tolerant: heavy cream. A total revelation for a former skim milk drinker. We’ve found good sources for high quality lard and tallow. Those, along with coconut oil and butter, have become our home cooking oils. We eat out much less because it is extremely hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t cook with industrial vegetable oil and we definitely notice when they have been used. There are tremendous Paleo, Primal, and gluten free recipe resources everywhere you turn. People are eager to share in our communities.
I’ve come to enjoy the differences in various grass fed butters, and the richness, textures and notes of flavor of high quality cheeses. 85% dark chocolate has so many more layers and enjoyment than the sugar dominated chocolate I used to have. For us it isn’t about 80/20 as we enjoy the food so much and feel lousy eating processed foods and grains, especially anything with gluten. So there is no deprivation, and beyond that, foods actually taste better without grains. I’ve never enjoyed burgers more than without the bun. If it is a good burger, why would I want a bun to get in the way? Grains, and this is no rationalization at all, are among the least tasty foods I’ve ever known. Grass fed meatballs and excellent sauce? Sign me up. We have taken to heart the saying “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.” We seem to do OK with potatoes and cooked beans, so we have both here and there. I also seem to do well on unmodified potato starch, and as far as I can tell my microbes like it. Recently I haven’t felt hungry at breakfast so I’ve skipped it sometimes. But I’m letting my body be the guide.
One mainstay has become good quality grass fed ground beef. It is cheaper than steaks, easier for our daughter to eat, and can be prepared in endless ways. We also can mix some liver in to where you can’t really taste it, which also helps with our daughter. I got that tip from Chris Kresser. There are a variety of good quality flours of all kinds available at most of our local stores for the occasional baking. To get a nice bread like coating on say a pork chop or chicken thigh, we crush chicharrones.
My fitness routine is always evolving. But it does not involve a gym at present or during my weight loss. I’ve found body weight exercises to be very fulfilling and enjoy the compound nature of the exercises. I do have a kettlebell and I am installing a pull up bar. But mostly I do pushups, sit ups, burpees, planks, squats, etc. Recently inspired by the concept of play I’ve been having my daughter help in fitness. She is around 30 lbs, so she’s excellent to lift and otherwise engage in play/exercise. We both enjoy the interaction. Games in the backyard are play, bonding and fitness combined. I still run but find that I do just as well with a week or two off as when I was running three times a week. I’ve been sprinting, but even when being cautious it is definitely more challenging than running in terms of not pulling something. So I am easing into it now. After having a big body all of my life I want to be on the lean side and as functionally strong as possible. I hope to be climbing trees with my daughter when she is old enough to be climbing. That would be strong for me.
Although this isn’t a fitness routine, I have been using a stand up desk at work the past few months. After a transition period it has been fantastic. It has helped with core strength and posture, but also increased productivity. The hints on MDA on how to use stand up desks for maximum benefit and minimum downside have been very helpful.
Friends and colleagues have had many questions. I have helped many and I am doing a presentation at work soon. I have had a few Internet articles written about me, and Sam Feltham of the Smash the Fat fame interviewed me.
Living in Austin now, my family and I family attended PaleoFx for the first time this past year. I’ve signed up for PrimalCon Oxnard. I am so excited to not only meet everyone and soak up everything I can, but to also spend a few days back in what will always be home. The Pacific was a huge part of my life growing up. Going back to play in her is just an added bonus to what I am sure will be an amazing adventure.
What does the future hold? First it was important for me to heal myself, for me to get healthy. Then I needed to help to bring health to my family. But that is not enough. Not nearly. My wife is an elementary school teacher and the food issues central and dear to the MDA community impact her on a daily basis. Too many children, and I was on governmental assistance growing up as well, are being fed food that impedes their mental and physical development. Full fat dairy is literally banned in most schools as unhealthy and chocolate skim milk is allowed. The consequences for students and teachers are not only devastating, but entirely preventable. I am determined to fight this good food fight for the rest of my life in as many ways as I can. However I can help to bring full fat dairy to schools, I will do.
One of my big fitness goals of 2015 is to run my first Spartan race. I just recently saw video of my first Spartan and thought, “I can do this, and it looks like fun.” Of course, I have been wrong before.
One of my heroes growing up was John Denver. I consider him to be a great American poet, who also happened to be a pop singer. One of my favorite songs is Rocky Mountain High. There is a line about being born in your 27th year, coming home to a place you’ve never been before. That is what this journey feels like to me now. I have not only healed myself from the cellular level up, but my body now has the food and inputs it needs to be the ecosystem it was meant to be. I feel at home from my center, out, by following The Primal Blueprint. It is something I never would have felt any other way and something I will be always grateful for. As profound as the health benefits have been, I feel they have been overshadowed by the opportunity for me to know a more authentic me with both my body and mind operating and interacting with the world in a truer and richer way.
I am also extremely humbled by this journey. I don’t feel like I did that much. I’ve come to realize I just got out of the way of my own body and accessed the gifts that my ancestors and the Earth gave to me. My bacteria and mitochondria healed me. I simply needed to give them and my genes an environment where they were not doing damage control 24/7, but were allowed to heal me and help me live my genetic potential. Have I found that food is by far the most powerful medicine we have? Yes I have. However I can help to have as many people claim their birthright of health, vitality, and joy, I want to do. Life is wonderful now and it is with deep gratitude I thank Mark and the entire global LCHF community every day.