Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
27 Oct

Potatoes: Part Deux

Last week, I made the case that potatoes aren’t nearly as bad as some people make them out to be. They’re carby, sure, but lean, active people who can tolerate carbs are way better off eating potatoes than grains, and even for low-carbers, a potato makes for a good, gluten-free cheat meal. Their place in your diet depends on the metabolic context. In my so-called “final word,” I said there isn’t one, at least not ordained from above. You have to figure out for yourself whether or not they fit into your diet. You might even say you have to go with your gut on this one (in more ways than one, as you’ll see).

So: potatoes. Just what are we to make of them? They are lumpy, white things that appear mostly harmless. They are, some would say, non-toxic sources of essentially pure starch. But actually, there’s more to the potato than glucose. First, the standout numbers for a standard white potato, baked, just the flesh (skin removed), 200 grams worth (which is a decent sized Russet):

Carbs: 43 g
Fiber: 3 g
Protein: 4 g
Fat: 0.2 g
Vitamin C: 20 mg
Magnesium: 50 mg
Potassium: 782 mg
Copper: 0.43 mg

That’s actually pretty decent. It’s certainly more interesting than rice. It contains very little phytate, so the minerals will be plenty absorbable. The carbs are almost all starch, meaning they’re perfect for replenishing glycogen stores after a workout. It’s a solid tuber, and a better, more nutritious starch source than are grains.

I also promised to discuss the secondary concerns people have with potato consumption. More specifically, I’m going to get into the potentially toxic glycoalkaloid content, the intestinal permeability issue, and the anecdotal reports of joint pain and inflammation.

Potatoes, being the reproductive organs of potato plants, have “passive” defenses against predators. They are stem tubers. They can’t run or bare teeth, so they chill underground to stay safe and employ toxic chemical defenders. For a group of smart, tool-wielding apes like ourselves, that first line of defense is easy enough: dig ‘em up. The second is a bit more difficult to circumvent: the toxic glycoalkaloids are in the potato itself. If we plan on eating the potato, we plan on eating the glycoalkaloids, too.

The glycoalkaloids most prevalent in potatoes are alpha-solanine and alpha-chocanine, which the plants use to repel pests. Most of the glycoalkaloids are luckily concentrated in the skin of the potato, forcing less refined pests to eat through the toxic stuff to get to the good stuff. We have the luxury of employing peelers (pinky in the air, no doubt) to avoid most of the glycoalkaloids (which are not reduced through cooking; you have to physically remove them). This is probably why traditional potato-eating cultures peel the potatoes they eat, unless you count the urbanized Quechua migrant eating cheesy tater skins at the Chili’s in Lima. And, as commenter Anand points out in Don’s excellent post, our ancestors would have definitely removed the charred skins after roasting tubers directly in the hot coals. These days, the most common potatoes, like Russets, also tend to have the lowest amount of glycoalkaloids (see Stephan’s chart); this is no accident, instead being the product of generations of careful agricultural selection by farmers. Throughout history, then, humans have tended to avoid the bulk of potato glycoalkaloids, either unwittingly, by peeling potato skins, or by selecting the low-glycoalkaloid varieties that didn’t provoke stomachaches, digestive issues, or inflammation and sold well at the market.

But glycoalkaloids remain. Are they harmful? Certainly, but the devil lies in the details. High dose glycoalkaloids are clearly harmful, but most peeled normal potatoes do not contain high doses of glycoalkaloids (again, I refer to Stephan’s chart). Most studies showing harm used supra-physiological doses of pure glycoalkaloids; one of the only studies to show harm using physiological doses that you’d normally get from eating potatoes used intestinally permeable rats with a genetic proclivity toward inflammatory bowel disease. This is a useful study, though, because it tells us that potatoes might be a danger for humans with leaky guts or existing inflammatory bowel disease. I’m sure you know someone in that position. It may even be you, or a loved one. How common is leaky gut? It’s difficult to know for certain, but I think looking at how many people still eat wheat, grains, sugar, and vegetable oil as a significant portion of their diet can give us a pretty good idea.

The Paleo Diet newsletter on nightshades pointed out a couple studies showing increased inflammation markers upon potato feeding, but one altered multiple dietary factors simultaneously (not just potatoes) and the other used potato chips. Was it the rancid seed oil the chips were fried in, or the potatoes? Was it the wheat bread or the potatoes? These tell us very little about the effects of whole, untarnished potatoes on inflammation.

I can also see potato glycoalkaloids being problematic in the context of the inflammatory standard American diet (rich in gluten, omega 6, and sugar). This is similar to the persuasive argument that casein is only problematic once gluten has perforated the gut lining and allowed entry. Do potatoes pose an issue for people with intact guts? As it stands now, there is very little published evidence that potato gycoalkaloids cause problems in metabolically health individuals without compromised guts, but there are anecdotal accounts.

Like my own. I avoid grains, vegetable oils, and excessive sugar, and I’m pretty darn healthy, but I have found that eating potatoes on a regular basis, especially potatoes with the skin, seems to lead to joint pain in my feet and ankles (of all places). So I don’t eat them on a regular basis. This doesn’t happen when I eat other starchy foods, like yams or squash. Only with white potatoes. That said, I still eat the odd spud – though I prefer Yukon golds, red potatoes, fingerlings, or any of the strange farmers’ market varieties. I’ve heard from people who get crippling joint pain from a single potato meal, though, so I’m not sure what to say about potatoes for everyone.

If you feel up to it, head out to the store and try some potatoes. The basic Russets are good, but dozens of varieties exist. Grocery stores should carry Yukon golds, red potatoes, fingerlings, and maybe a couple boutique varieties, but the real interesting ones are found at farmers’ markets. At the local Santa Monica market, there’s a whole stand devoted to potatoes of all kinds. They’ve probably got a dozen varieties, and it’s always changing. Purple potatoes, half yellow/half purple potatoes called Laker potatoes (hey, it is LA), tiny little red ones the size of gumballs, multicolored gnarled ones that look like an old crone’s rheumatic claw – these guys are committed to their tuberous artistry. Even for someone who doesn’t eat a ton of potatoes (I, honestly, don’t train hard enough anymore to require a lot of glycogen repletion), I find myself generally picking a handful or two up when I’m there. I’m rarely disappointed.

Always store your potatoes in a cool, dark area. Avoid light exposure, which can turn them green and increase the glycoalkaloid density. Cut off any sprouts or stems; better yet, just toss ‘em altogether if they sprout. You don’t want to take the risk, and they’re cheap enough to sacrifice. For heavy lifters and highly active exercisers who want to incorporate potatoes, it makes sense to bake a bunch at once and store them in the fridge for easy post-workout consumption. They’ll stay good in the fridge for about a week and a half. For PBers interested in trying a carb refeed, potatoes are a great choice.

Other bloggers have put up some incredible series on potatoes. By and large, they agree that humans have a long and storied history with potatoes and other tubers, and I find it difficult to argue. Reading their thoughts has made me reevaluate my own views on potatoes. I highly suggest reading both series.

Don’s Primal Potatoes series, in which he makes a strong argument for the tuber’s prevalence in our ancestral diets (especially when game was lean), even making the case that tubers gave us an advantage in the hunt: Primal Potatoes

Stephan’s Potatoes and Human Health series, in which he goes into more detail on the glycoalkaloid concerns (short version: very little evidence that normal levels of potato glycoalkaloids poise a problem for healthy humans) and discusses several traditional cultures that fared well on high-potato diets: Parts 1, 2, 3.

A Few Additional Thoughts on Potatoes

It is impossible to argue with your own personal anecdotal evidence. Anecdotes won’t stand up to peer review, but I find it difficult (and unwise) to discount a barrage of them.

If you’re overweight, avoid potatoes for the carb count and because you’re probably still fairly inflamed, and potatoes might aggravate your condition.

If you’re sensitive to nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant are the common ones) and have experienced negative effects from consuming them in the past, be wary of potatoes. Potatoes are also nightshades.

If you have a known autoimmune disease, a leaky gut, or are especially sensitive to dairy, grains, eggs, or nuts, avoid potatoes until it clears up.

If you insist on “cheating” with wheat, avoid potatoes to minimize any collateral damage to your gut.

If you need an affordable source of whole food calories, consider potatoes.

If you’re having trouble recovering from workouts on a very low-carb diet, try adding some post workout potatoes for the glycogen. Your muscles, having been drained of glycogen, will be insulin sensitive and most of your dietary glucose will go to good use.

If you’re stalling on weight loss as you near your goal, try carb refeeds with potatoes to restore leptin and jumpstart the leaning out process.

If potatoes give you fits, don’t eat them. You’re not missing much beyond a cheap source of calories that converts to glucose almost instantly. If lots of people you trust on other matters are reporting problems with potatoes, be mindful, be wary, and always pay close attention to how they affect you.

Thanks for reading and let me know what you think in the comment board. Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great summary, very nuanced! Thanks.

    pieter d wrote on October 27th, 2010
    • Can you talk more about, “leaky gut”? I am confused about the opposing research. Thanks

      me2 wrote on October 27th, 2010
    • I see in the news where the head of the Washington State Potato Council will be eating 20 potatoes a day for two months. I guess we’ll find out about any bad effects with such an extreme potato diet! Maybe we can have a spud or two every so often without guilt.

      Trudy wrote on October 27th, 2010
  2. I don’t know Mark. The primal diet is so good on its own I don’t see why cheat with a potato?!. If, I want to cheat I do it with steak and oyster rockefeller topper. Hey wait that’s primal. All kidding aside potatos like grains I think raise glucose levels fast and can lead to falling off the wagon into starch madness. But, if potatos are your thing…. I for one never really liked the pasty, bland things anyway. I have found much better things to sop up my butter and cream with.

    primal tree top wrote on October 27th, 2010
    • Great post, Mark.

      We eat potatoes occasionally, always organic and always peeled. They help stretch our Primal budget. It would be nice if we could afford to eat our fill of steak or grass fed ground beef every night, but we can’t, so occasionally we add white and/or sweet potatoes, usually cooked in butter, to round out our meals, and ease the budget. Haven’t noticed any ill effects, but we’ll pay more attention, just in case.

      suzan wrote on October 27th, 2010
  3. So if you eat red/purple/fancy potatoes, should those all be peeled as well? It seems easy enough to avoid the skins on the bigger potatoes like russet and yukon gold, but the smaller potatoes are usually served with the skins still on.

    I still won’t eat them very often, but I’m just curious as to what to do with the smaller spuds.

    Hannah wrote on October 27th, 2010
    • “the smaller potatoes are usually served with the skins still on.”

      They are in US, and that was a big surprise for me when I first saw it. Potato eating cultures always peel potatoes before cooking. It is a very boring process, especially if you have to serve a lot of potatoes. I think Americans decided not do that. Why waste time? Time is money.

      Sergey wrote on October 27th, 2010
      • wow you’re always so quick in with first cmmneot . you’re right, hasselbacks are great. how were they done in the class? there seems to be so many different twists on these, but they’re all good!

        Elfianti wrote on June 7th, 2012
    • I was just thinking the same thing…

      Mike wrote on October 27th, 2010
  4. Whatever works for you I guess. I cut out rice and replaced them with sweet potatoes and never looked back :I

    Jzoe wrote on October 27th, 2010
  5. What about saponins?

    Sarah wrote on October 27th, 2010
  6. Good info Mark, thanks!

    Ahmed Serag wrote on October 27th, 2010
  7. The chart lists Snowden potatoes has having a very high glycoalkaloid level – I couldn’t find much on them, but one sentence on Wikipedia says that they’re often used for potato chips. That might explain why potato chips create digestive issues.

    Rachel wrote on October 27th, 2010
  8. How about a dissertation like this on sweet potatoes?

    Dave, RN wrote on October 27th, 2010
  9. I added potatoes back in small amounts after having been on PB for 9 months, and I find I’m tolerating them much better now than pre-PB. Still not at my goal weight, so I don’t do it every day (or even every week) but it makes a nice change, and I’m tolerating them MUCH better than the rice I also recently tried again. I eat Yukon Golds from the farmers market and I don’t peel them. So far, so good.

    pj wrote on October 27th, 2010
  10. you’re on a roll again, Mark! It’s great to be back to the well thought out and information-laden articles. For a while there all of the recipe posts and grok-picnic posts were getting old.

    winthorp wrote on October 27th, 2010
  11. Potatoes are delicious with tons of butter and sour cream! But they are not a part of my diet at the moment. They have been a lifesaver when out though. Case in point, we went to a big pizza franchise that caters to kids. Pizza, Pasta, and crazy other junk. If it were not for the salad bar and baked potato I would have not survived. So I am thankful it is a gluten free alternative when necessary.

    PrimalStyle-Real.Yummy.Food wrote on October 27th, 2010
  12. I haven’t had any in a long time, but i think one good-sized one would be okay in a stew with plenty of bison, elk, vegetables, and arrowroot.

    mike wrote on October 27th, 2010
  13. I dearly miss the Middle Earth metaphor from the initial treatise on taters. :-(

    The Primal Palette wrote on October 27th, 2010
  14. It is interesting to see many recommendations these days to remove the peel of potatoes, many fruits etc. This after years of people telling me that the peels had all of the nutrients, so I should make sure to eat them.

    I suppose it is a trade off in many instances of losing some nutrients in order to avoid the toxins.

    Would you say that in general the Primal lifestyle avoids peels on most or all foods, or is this a gross over generalization??

    Rodney wrote on October 27th, 2010
  15. Mark-

    What this, and Stephan’s article lack, are thoughts & analysis on sweet potatoes, specifically. Personally, I have done my own analysis comparing the white russet potato versus the sweet potato and yam, and the SP is the superior choice for “health” when comparing Glycemic Load, Vitamins, and Inflammation (I’d post a link to my blog post, but the comments section won’t allow url’s). I know sweet potatoes are technically potatoes and could be lumped into this article, but I think they are different enough to deserve their own paragraph.

    Aside from that, I have found that sweet potatoes (and yams on occasion for variety) make for an excellent CHO/fuel source during periods of heavy exercise. Hell, I even use them for pre-race meals, and have had fantastic results with them! In summary, I agree with your (changing) viewpoint.

    Thanks for posting!

    ps- This article was much better than the previous one. When you said “stay with me here…”, I already had a “glazed over” look 😉

    Ryan Denner wrote on October 27th, 2010
  16. Excellent summary Mark! That one is a keeper for future referal!

    Jamie wrote on October 27th, 2010
  17. Geez, first rice, now potatoes…what’s next? corn is okay too? Kidding. It’s good to know I don’t have to change my recipe for curry chicken (with potatoes, over rice of course)…totally primal :P. I have to watch it though because I’m fat but my skinny family members can enjoy!!

    katie wrote on October 27th, 2010
  18. Nice Mark.

    My perspective is that potatoes are an excellent food to cycle into the diet for nutrition and diversity’s sake. I first eliminated them (~6 months), then added them back in to my diet after I reached a healthy equilibrium. I now find them a nice addition every week or two, or incorporated into a post-workout meal.

    Michael wrote on October 27th, 2010
  19. Another thing to put bacon, butter and cream on that won’t inflame my gut?! Yay!! My kiddos won’t mind a change from yucca (casava) and sweet potatoes… Woohoo.

    Thanks for the update Mark. I’m down almost 30 lbs 157-128 lbs since this summer and as I approach my ideal (well, my vanity weight) of 125 lbs and really upping the anti with my workouts I’m glad to know I can add this to the mix at least for my ‘feast’ day which is followed by my ‘famine’ day!

    What’s next Mark… pasta from non-grains??

    Malika Duke wrote on October 27th, 2010
  20. I Too would like to know if sweet potatoes fall into the “peel the skin” category.

    Tommy7 wrote on October 27th, 2010
  21. Michael Pollan Has some interesting potato tidbits in “The Botany Of Desire”. The one that really gets me is that Monsanto’s “NewLeaf” is not considered a food by the FDA, but a pesticide. They are being discontinued because McDonald’s has just stopped buying most of the crop.

    David B wrote on October 27th, 2010
  22. Bummer, I have always eaten the skins of potatoes and sweet potatoes as they have the most overall nutritious aspect of it.

    I really wonder what the prop/con of doing this is. I’ve never felt bad after eating a potato skin so I am curious as to what the actual effects may be.

    Eric wrote on October 27th, 2010
  23. Hi Mark,
    Please give us your advice on sweet- potatoes/yams skin. I always ate the skins thinking they were healthy. Any help at all would be most welcome.

    marc wrote on October 27th, 2010
  24. Hi Mark and all primals!
    In Sweden potatoes are being consumed in large amounts, and always has been. It’s one of the most common foods in diet, historically. Tell your grandpa that you’re on a paleo, non potato diet, and they’ll likely wack you with their walking stick for being such a fool.
    Therefor I kinda like to see you ease up your position on this matter, even though I won’t go on a potatofrenzy just because of this.
    I do have one question though. What’s the difference between an ordinary potato and a sweet potato or a yam? It seems that it’s been allright to indulge on sweet potatoes every once in a while, but not on regular potatoes. How come?

    Patriq wrote on October 27th, 2010
    • How would potatoes be historical when they came to Europe after the americas were “discovered”? The earliest they would appear was 1500’s and that’s dubious because people were wary of them.

      melli wrote on October 27th, 2010
      • By historical I meant that they’ve been a big staple for us during a couple of hundred years. We’ve had it in the country since around 1600 though.
        Historically perhaps wasn’t the best word to use. How about traditionally?
        And any answer to my question would be welcome.

        Patriq wrote on October 27th, 2010
      • Potatoes are a huge staple food in many North European countries. In Sweden and Norway potatoes are eaten in huge quantities, but always peeled (after boiling). The potato saved many families from starvation in Scandinavia for hundreds of years. (The first potatoes in Norway were grown in 1757)

        Havard wrote on October 28th, 2010
        • The fact that they have been eaten in quantity does not mean we should eat them. One of the main reasons to eat paleo is to avoid the diseases of civilization. All of North European countries have plenty of diseases of civilization.

          The reason it became popular in those countries is it grows well in a cool climate and has a high yield per the planted area.

          Don Wiss wrote on October 28th, 2010
  25. Speaking of potatoes… Dinner tonight is Round Steak, Broccoli and Sweet Potato smothered in butter or coconut oil!

    Primal Toad wrote on October 27th, 2010
  26. Great post Mark. When I started on paleo/primal I was leery of any carb heavy foods but have learned to embrace, not fear the potato as an integral paleo food.

    One suggestion: It looks like there is a lot of questions regarding the potato’s relation to the sweet potato, which are very different – not even the same biological family. Mark, I am sure a post discussing the differences between the two would be helpful for the readership.

    Michael wrote on October 27th, 2010
  27. Hey Mark! I was wondering what you thought of Cassava, since it is literally toxic unless heated (it produces arsenic as a defense mechanism). Are they still primal?

    Kris wrote on October 27th, 2010
  28. Hey Mark,
    I want to thank you for changing my life for the better. I’ve been trying to convert my parents to The Primal Blueprint eating plan, but you know how that goes. I have a question that I’ve been pondering for quite some time now, and no, it’s not about potatoes. I was wondering if you’ve ever talked to Tony Horton about your eating strategy, because I know he’s into the whole “vegan thng”. I don’t mean to stir the pot, but he recommended your book on Facebook when it first came out, which is the reason why I was introduced to your knowledge in the first place. I just want to know if you’ve talked about it with him.

    Dillon Cole wrote on October 27th, 2010
    • @Dillon, Tony is one of my best friends. Over the past 24 years that we’ve known each other we’ve debated this diet thing a lot and have agreed to disagree in minor nuances of all this. We both agree that veggies and some fruits, certain nuts, etc should be the basis of the diet and that avoiding simple sugars is critical. OTOH, I eat everything that moves (animals). He does get a fair amount of quality protein from non-vegan sources (eggs, fish on occasion, protein powders, etc) and some from vegan-friendly (primal-unfriendly) things like legumes and whole grains. He also trains like a fiend almost every day – I do as little as possible to still stay fit.

      Mark Sisson wrote on October 28th, 2010
  29. Well…certainly interesting…especially the part about IBD…have stayed away from potatoes, rice and grains for quite awhile, and decided to slice a few tiny cooked ones into my scrambled eggs, along with diced cooked onions and bacon…the variety helps once in awhile with an anti-fungal diet…excuse me….lifestyle. Yum! Now…excuse me, I must take my sexy brussels sprouts out of the steamer.

    Cj wrote on October 27th, 2010
  30. Anyone else bring up the potato only guy from washington? To “prove” the health benefits of potatoes he is eating only potatoes for 2 months. Apparently he’s a month into it and totally sick of them. for more info here’s a news link on it:

    Carl O. wrote on October 27th, 2010
  31. “director of the US-based Washington State Potato Commission Chris Voigt has pledged to eat nothing but potatoes (with no toppings) for two months” – googled “eat only potatoes”. It might be interesting to see how he fares after the two months.
    Thanks for the info about the feet and ankles aching. I kept thinking something grainy unknowingly snuck into my diet.

    KC wrote on October 27th, 2010
  32. I’m glad to see you pointed out that potatoes are stem tubers. As far as I know they are the only stem tuber that we eat. The tubers are pretty close to the surface. When I’ve passed potato fields I see that the farmer has mounded dirt around the plant. Being at or near the surface requires more anti-nutrients than a root tuber that is far under the surface.

    I think potatoes (and rice) are an okay cheat food when eating out. Often you won’t have much choice and you do want to fill up. At home I see no reason to eat them. You have complete control over the ingredients available in your kitchen and there are more paleo alternatives readily available.

    Don Wiss wrote on October 27th, 2010
  33. At the farmer’s market the other day I was asking the farmer where I buy my eggs what he feeds his pigs and whether he gives them the food he can’t sell. He replied that he gives most of what he can’t sell to the chickens. Except the potatoes. Neither the chickens or pigs will touch them. It is the only thing he grows that they won’t eat.

    Back when Neanderthin was the only paleo diet book available, one of the rules we followed was the food had to be edible raw. Cooking was okay, but it had to pass the raw edibility test.

    Don Wiss wrote on October 27th, 2010
    • I used to have a few chickens. They wouldn’t eat potato, oranges, asparagus. They loved cooked greens, watermelon, tomato.

      Jim Sutton wrote on October 28th, 2010
    • that means nothing you dumbass

      Goof wrote on March 27th, 2012
  34. I am going to interpret this post as a subliminal message to go get a super-sized fries.

    thanks Mark!

    debbie_downer wrote on October 27th, 2010
    • now THAT is funny!!!!

      Clint White wrote on October 27th, 2010
    • fries would be cooked in rancid oil, pro oxidant. i still might do it ONCE in a while

      DThalman wrote on October 27th, 2010
  35. Interesting blog post. I’ve recently reintroduced potatoes into my diet after being primal for over 3 months. For one thing, I was getting too thin and for another, I needed more energy at times. I far prefer the sweet potatoes, but there are some good potato recipes too.

    Sam Cree wrote on October 27th, 2010
  36. Can you eat sweet potatoes raw?

    Sam Cree wrote on October 27th, 2010
  37. Thanks for the info Mark. Being Irish I always thought potatoes were part of my genes. However, I feel better without eating them, so maybe I am reprogramming my genes.

    hiker wrote on October 27th, 2010
    • As I recall, the Irish ate all those potatoes because England took all the good farming land and forced the Irish Catholic peasants to live on the stuff that would grow nothing but potatoes. So when the potatoes failed (as monocropping ain’t too great for any soil), the resulting famine was devastating.

      MamaGrok wrote on November 1st, 2010
  38. A couple of years ago, after almost 15 years of suffering from dermatitis, I attended a newly opened local clinic specialising in skin conditions. The practitioner I saw analysed my diet and suggested removing all nightshades (incl potatoes, which at the time I consumed almost every day) from my diet. Within 3 months, my skin had almost completely cleared (~98%) and has stayed clear since. It is quite obvious to me that I have a sensitivity to these plants, but it is not the same for everyone.

    I guess I’ll add them to the list of Elmo’s ‘sometimes foods’!

    Dan W wrote on October 27th, 2010
  39. I don’t care for potato at all.

    i prefer taro (the big type) & yam or sweet potato & fermented rice & some fruit as my carb. taro seems very carby. so have to be a little careful.
    anyway whatever works for you. cheers,

    PHK wrote on October 28th, 2010

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