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Setting the Record Straight

We love it that the Primal Blueprint [7] is garnering more public attention. We love it that research supporting the PB is becoming more common, more visible, more talked about. And we love it that people are jumping in the game [8], reading studies [9], asking questions [10], configuring their own Primal practices (and in doing so remaking their health!). The inevitable by-product of all this exposure, however, is an occasional misunderstanding, the every-so-often confusion about the Primal approach and what it actually suggests. These misinterpretations often find their way into our inboxes (We truly do welcome all comments and questions [11]!), or we catch wind of them through the health blogosphere network. The remarks go something like this.

While I believe whole foods and exercise are great, I really don’t believe that it makes any sense in modern society to try to emulate exactly what cavemen did. Cavemen evolved to live long enough to reproduce and make new cavekids – they didn’t live into their eighties or nineties, which is my goal. They didn’t have indoor plumbing, either, which I’m pretty darn attached to.

Or this…

My most immediate thought is this: Though the Paleo or Primal agenda is very much in vogue right now, and with some good merit and utility behind it, I struggle with it as a concept, inasmuch as the concept itself suggests that the last 100,000 years or so of advancement in intelligence, business, agriculture, science, and technology are all for naught.

Whoa, Nelly! Hold the phone. Can we call a time out here? We know, we know…. The “Primal” name. The comical remarks from time to time about “going caveman”…. And, yes, there’s Grok [12] himself – our fictitious but beloved icon. We get it. The fact remains, however, that some people are REALLY missing the point on a few levels here. Once and for all, let’s set the record straight.

The Primal Blueprint doesn’t require cave dwelling…

First thing’s first. Despite the Grok logo, we’re not advocating running through the streets in skins with spears. (Although if you’re into that kind of thing, far be it from us to rain on your parade.) Grok, in all his hairy, disheveled glory provides a good illustration of the PB principle, but he’s admittedly for fun as much as demonstration. In the name of literalness we could lose Grok, but – truth be told – we’d miss the guy. (And the t-shirts would make zero sense.) We’re not about dressing up as cavepeople or living their exact lifestyles. You won’t find us beating drums or spending our weekends creating cave art (although that would be cool, wouldn’t it?). We’re all literate, showered (most of the time), and fully dressed (except Mark when he really gets into an Ultimate Frisbee [13] game). We live in furnished houses, use toilets, drive cars, attend cultural events and occasionally take in a movie. We even use computers! (Did people miss that this is a blog? How primordial could our lifestyles really be?)

In other words, the Primal Blueprint doesn’t suggest that you live like a caveman/woman in every sense or forgo all modern conveniences, technology and medical treatment. Grok’s life was hard stuff. We’re no suckers for the naturalistic fallacy. We like our pillow top mattresses, thank you very much.

The Agricultural Revolution hasn’t revolutionized basic biochemistry…

What the Primal Blueprint DOES suggest is that we simply have some vital things to learn from our primal ancestors when it comes to health. Despite our Must-See T.V. and designer shades, we’re not all that different from Grok and company when you get down to the bones of it (or genetic code of it actually). As products of the same evolution – and same genetic lines – we’re cut from the same cloth. Grok’s people evolved in adaptation to the environment. Seeds, nuts, fruits, grasses, leaves and pastured meat were in. Cheetahs, yes. Cheetos, no. Our biology hasn’t changed all that much in the evolutionary blip of 10,000 years since the Agricultural Revolution. Sure, our societies have advanced, our cultures have blossomed, our technological invention has exploded, our fashion sense has improved. (We like these developments and won’t argue for a second that we don’t benefit from them.) But our basic biochemical responses pretty much work the same. Glucose, insulin, adrenaline, epinephrine, glycogen, etc. All still present and accounted for.

In other words, Grok had it right (by necessity) in the food department [14]. Likewise, in the fitness department, he was also spot on (again, by basic evolutionary adaptation). However, in the “I just broke my leg” department [15], we moderns win it hands down. In the “It’s freezing rain, and some shelter and soup sure would be nice” scenario, again Grok’s got nothing on us.

Primeval actuary tables aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.

And speaking of shelter and injury, there’s ye olde misconception about life expectancy. Grok, to set the record straight, didn’t have the lifespan of a fruit fly or die as the salmon do the moment they do their part in procreation. Though the commonly known and repeated lifespan stat revolves around the 30s, the overall picture is much more complex and varied. First off, there’s the “science” behind those conjectures. According to many scientists, including Henry Oliver Lancaster’s seminal epidemiological study, Expectations of Life [16], modern assumptions about early humans’ brief lifespan are based on little hard evidence but the backward “extrapolation” from contemporary groups, who he says cannot and do not serve as accurate comparison models because of significant changes in population density, disease introduction and spread, etc. And then there’s the issue of how the deed happens. Grok and his forefathers didn’t succumb to diabetes-related complications or heart disease. As Lancaster and others in the relevant fields suggest, although the average life expectancy of early humans was about 33 years of age, they generally died as a result of trauma (accident or warfare), predator attacks, natural disasters, starvation/exposure to the elements, etc. Life in Grok’s day required healthfulness up until that day. People couldn’t live for years sick or debilitated. The tribe couldn’t logistically provide long-term care for someone who couldn’t pull his/her weight, and they didn’t have the tools to offer much assistance anyway. As a result, people generally died in the peak or near peak of health (if they made it beyond infancy). Their problem wasn’t their genes. Given modern medical care, relative freedom from attack and famine, and the generally easier lifestyle of our times, the average Grok could have lived much longer. A fortunate few did in their day.

Going Primal means emulating the best of caveman nutrition, exercise and stress relief in the comfort of your own millennium.

Here’s the take home message. The PB is ultimately about reconciling our primeval genes with modern circumstances. You can optimize health by choosing biologically appropriate food and activities within a 21st century context. And, mind you, it’s a continuum. For optimum fitness, you needn’t lift or hurl boulders like our ancestors. Crossfit workouts do quite nicely. You get the same bodyweight exercise with full range of motion. On the continuum, gym machines might not provide all the same full body benefits, but they’re a respectable substitute and obviously better than couch potato mode. Grass-fed meat is better than CAFO [17] (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), but CAFO meat still provides better nutrition than a vegan diet. Rice is preferable to wheat, but the most biologically appropriate diet includes neither. Like we said, it’s a continuum based on evolutionary principles and the physiology we inherited. To our benefit, we have the luxury of knowing how our genes respond to certain things and the price we pay (long and short term) for coloring outside the primal lines.

Still have questions? Heard other misconceptions about the Primal approach? Send ‘em on, and share your thoughts.