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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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April 20, 2009

Dear Mark: Primal Blueprint Superiority?

By Mark Sisson
47 Comments

Dear Mark,

If you’ll bear with me for 4 paragraphs, I’ll get to the question which is the purpose of this email!

My name is Greg, and I’ve followed your blog for a few months now. I’m grateful for the knowledge you’ve shared about nutrition. Thanks to you, I’ve eliminated virtually all white flour and processed sugar from my diet, and I’ve dramatically reduced my intake of carbs. I’m still relatively indiscriminate with fruits and dairy, so I wouldn’t say I’m a Blueprinter yet, but I’m significantly closer than when I first started reading your posts.

I came to your site with no “symptoms” from my previous lifestyle. I wasn’t carrying excess weight, my sugar intake wasn’t egregious, and I was a pretty fit 40-year old. Having said that, I was open to challenging my “default” food choices, and some of my fellow CrossFitters swore they saw performance gains after going Caveman (along with Paleo and Atkins).

My only reservation about the Blueprint was – and still is – the science. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the enormous lengths you’ve gone to base your system on above-board studies and peer reviewed literature. (I’m deeply impressed by the education you’ve amassed on your own.) It’s more that I wonder whether current science is sophisticated enough to unlock the potentially nuanced relationship between our bodies and our food. Yes, transfats are poison. And processed foods are certainly less nutritious/more harmful than whole foods. (Although no one seems to have a problem with supplements, which aren’t “whole”…)

But have we really unlocked the secret of how the body is “ideally” fueled? And is there only one answer? I don’t think so – but I do know that people thirst for the assurance that they are following “the one true way”. To me, that explains why certain diets attract cult/religious-like followings. For example, my wife works with people who swear by the blood-type diet. That’s absurd, right? But so is the literal narrative behind most religions – and that doesn’t stop people from having faith. As long as there’s no irrefutable way to isolate dietary choices from the myriad of other variables that affect a test population’s health, people will develop all sorts of (flawed) theories and support them with incomplete/misleading research. (I know how much that bugs you – since you love to tear apart poorly executed “academic” studies and papers.)

And this (finally!) brings me to my question: Why aren’t Italians all dying at 57? To be less cute: if the Blueprint is definitively superior to other modes of eating, why don’t we see populations that eat high levels of wheat-based carbs falling prey to illness and/or early death? We could single out Italians, Chinese (with their gluten), or many other long-thriving cultures that don’t eat Primal. My (totally unproven) hypothesis is that multiple foods interact with our system in ways we don’t fully comprehend. Maybe the dangers of that first plate of penne are counter-acted by the traditional second plate of animal protein. Or maybe it’s the salad, wine, olive oil, etc…

Anyway, I’m really interested in your reaction. (I’m not Italian, so don’t worry about insulting penne!) I find your Grok narrative/metaphor to be a very appealing and seemingly intuitive model for making food choices. But I can’t quite square that with counter-indicating models that don’t seem to be suffering from their “Grok ignorance”.

Thanks again for sharing your knowledge. I really appreciate the thoughtful and valuable contributions you make to this field of study.

Best regards,

Greg

Los Angeles, CA

______________________________________________________________

Greg,

1) There is no right answer – only choices. I just want to know the ramifications of my choices. That’s what drives me to look further.

2) Whether you eat Primally or Vegan, Mediterranean or SAD, you’ll still probably live a relatively long, relatively healthy life if you exercise. 80 years or 100. Who’s counting? The rest is more about nuances and small percentage changes in overall risk factors. Oh, and lean mass.

3) Italians may not eat as much pasta as you think (or as Italian Americans eat), they may eat more olive oil and healthy animal fats, they may walk more, they may handle stress better as a culture. Chinese don’t eat as much rice as you think. They eat a ton of vegetables and a fair amount of animal products. Having said that, they may both have a large percentage that react poorly to gluten, but who don’t report it. Who knows?

4) Anyone (including me) can find some research that supports their theory. Science is always full of holes. I love poking holes in other peoples’ science. Especially the China Study. Eat Right 4 was a neat concept that had no basis in reality after about 200 years ago. But it caught on with a bunch of people. Sometimes the scientists are so close to the method that they miss the big picture. Sadly, most of those who do the focused studies are not real visionaries. They are almost mutually exclusive concepts.

5) So MDA is my opportunity to put it all out there and see what people think. I may not be right (I think I am, though), but few people are in a position like me to combine solid experiences in endurance training, coaching, nutrition, research, drug-testing, supplement design and writing…and then synthesize those all into a world-view that makes pretty good sense in the context of evolution.

Take what you like from our posts, comment when you have a chance, disregard whatever doesn’t resonate with you, and tell your friends about MDA!!

Cheers,

Mark

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, readers. Hit me up with a comment in the board!

Further Reading:

Dear Mark: Don’t Call It a Diet

Dear Mark: Ketosis

Dear Mark: Pondering Protein

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47 Comments on "Dear Mark: Primal Blueprint Superiority?"

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Rick
Rick
7 years 5 months ago
To me, its not about surviving as much as it is about thriving. Although the two often go together. This is what makes the paleolithic diet so appealing to me. Giving my body what it needs to perform at its highest level, I really get to enjoy my life! Of course we all hear stories about someone’s grandfather who drank every day and lived to 98, but when I go to do my weekend warrior thing and run circles around my counterparts who are all flabby and lugging around beer/carb guts…I’m pretty sure I’m making the right choices. One of… Read more »
JD
JD
7 years 5 months ago

Just a thought. If you’ve watched Mario Battali cook on Food TV, there is much to Italian cuisine that isn’t pasta and red suace.

Geekay
7 years 5 months ago

Re the blood-type diet: I read about it briefly, and am not convinced. It may “work” because the people who adopt it are generally more diligent about their health. The same may apply to vegetarians. And any diet that focuses on whole foods is bound to be better than the S.A.D. pyramid and have beneficial results.

In the end, I still think the primal diet is the way to go, because it was designed by nature, not by some doctor with a pet theory.

Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later

Greg – intelligent letter. Personally, the thing I like about the Primal/Paleo way is that it cuts out the middle man – i.e. science – if you want it to. Sure, we look to science to validate/challenge our belief in the approach – but ultimately it is based on the principle that we are optimised based on history. If you accept natural selection as true and accept the analyses of ancient eating patterns as correct, then it makes sense that emulating them is optimal. Science is merely a luxury with which to explore what we already believe to be self-evident.

primalman
primalman
7 years 5 months ago
Greg that was a very nice letter. I don’t know how the primal diet will compare to other diets in the research in the long term. All I can say is that I did a single case study with myself and “black boxed” it just to see what would happen. The experiment was started about 2 years ago. I was already in very good shape but then I really leaned-out and got even stronger on the paleo/primal/weston price diet. I have no intention at this point of ever going back. The Italians do seem to be healthy, but I view… Read more »
dr john
dr john
7 years 5 months ago

I’ve been eating “primal”…one form or another…for over 5 years.
This is what I always hear:

“I can’t believe you are 55 years old”….

You want proof? You want science?

How about results!
Dr. John

Brad
Brad
7 years 5 months ago
I think if there was a heealthy eating for dummies book making things very simple it would say : Eat lots of veggies, good fats, and protein. Don’t eat proccessed food! If you look at all of the highly successful ways of life/eating they include the above. Now there are differing opinions on carb amounts and types but in general I think that covers it. Then ad daily activity, enjoy life, and maintain a possitive aditude and your all set. I often hear ” Brad thinks all his excersise, and the way he eats is going to make him live… Read more »
LivedinItaly
LivedinItaly
7 years 5 months ago
While I am from America, I lived in Italy for quite some time with my Italian family… therefore, I can say I was fully immersed as they are about as Italian as you get ;). JD and Mark’s #3 brought up good points – they don’t eat as much pasta as one may think. It isn’t the huge sized Olive Garden portions with the 4-inch thick garlic bread on the side. Yes, they eat pasta at many meals, but, relatively, very small portions. They walk… a lot. All of their food is bought and made fresh everyday. Dessert is generally… Read more »
Icarus
Icarus
7 years 5 months ago
Genetics may be a part of it. Before I started eating a paleo/primal type diet, I ate a typical western diet for most of my youth (about 18 years) and I was one of the healthiest people I knew. Of course, regular junk food intake may have been tempered by the fact that my family and I cooked most of our meals, even bread, ourselves, and ate copious amounts of fresh veggies, fruits, eggs, fish and olive oil. (Not to mention a daily helping of avocados, plain or in guacamole.) Still, all of that typically came with tons of pasta,… Read more »
Icarus
Icarus
7 years 5 months ago

Ooops: meant to add that GBP were only introduced 10-12K years ago as part of the Agricultural Revolution.

Dave, RN
Dave, RN
7 years 5 months ago
Greg, All I can say is that I ate the Standard American Diet until last year. If you ask, nobody would have said I was overweight. I love to cycle and could ride my bike 25-35 miles with no problem. And yet… I was developing blood sugar problems. My blood pressure has been in the 130’s over 90’s for years. Once I went paleo, my blood sugar problems vanished. Not only on a daily basis but when I had a glucose tolerance test done as well. My blood pressure dropped to 115ish over 68-74. I dropped 30 lbs. I have… Read more »
SerialSinner
7 years 5 months ago
I have been following MDA for quite a while now. It took Greg’s letter to encourage me to post a comment, but hey, better late than never. First off, congratulations Mark. I’m a Biologist and it’s very refreshing to see a Darwinian approach to nutrition. The guidelines make a lot of sense to me. I do think it’s important to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism though, and like Greg I have some issues with completely embracing the Primal diet as well. In general, the Primal diet assumes all early men shared the same ecosystem. I would think the red/meat… Read more »
Trinkwasser
Trinkwasser
7 years 5 months ago
IMO genetics are a big part of it. We have weird familial genetics where we have the lipids, blood pressure and blood glucose of obese people while remaining slim: some twisted version of the Thrifty Gene. When I was young I ate a mix of fresh meat and veg and as I now realise too many carbs, especially wheat. When I was older I became vegetarian (well what did I know, I was still young!) with every meal based on starchy carbs just like they tell you. I was told categorically that I was “not diabetic” based on fasting BG… Read more »
Jennifer
7 years 5 months ago
Long time no comment. . . . But I couldn’t help myself this time! A good read on the ‘perils’ of modern, industrial life is The Autoimmune Epidemic. I have rheumatoid arthritis, and my family has been hit by a tsunami of autoimmune disease in the past 20 years. I think we’re genetically susceptible to autoimmune problems, but I think the huge environmental, and particularly dietary changes over the past 20-30 years is what has tipped my family over the edge. To me, a ‘primal’ diet (and exercise) plan just makes sense! Our bodies certainly didn’t evolve on processed, sweetened,… Read more »
Marc Feel Good Eating
7 years 5 months ago
Great letter Greg. I lived in Italy when I was young. Now age (almost) 42, I’m still in touch with many of the friends of my family. 95% of those people are overweight. They still dress well and have that “Italian thing” going on 😉 lol, but they are for sure not the thin people I remember growing up. I’m sure many of them are also taking regular meds (bp, cholesterol etc) so while they might not be falling dead at 57, they are not all that much different then their american counterparts. Thanks for sharing how well the primal… Read more »
Hermann
Hermann
7 years 5 months ago

And what about the health conditions in the previous centuries? I think people were pretty healthy then. Correct me if I wrong. So you think the best way to eat is to eat like cavemans? Why isn’t enough to move back couple hundreds of years? Eating like the ancient greeks? Were there any diseases like today? Cancer, diabetes etc.

j d wilson
j d wilson
7 years 5 months ago
Notice you mentioned the China Study. I actually read most of the book which was given to me by a vegitarian (almost vegan) relative. The thing that initially irked me about the book is that (imho) it never delivered its promise of explaining the variance in chd or cancer from one province to another. The wildly confounded first study can be simply explained: Mao Tse Tung (sp?) was firmly in control. Anyone who wants to know what happened to people who gave Chairman Mao answers he didn’t like needs to read up on him. Wikipedia’s a good place to start.… Read more »
Ryan Denner
7 years 5 months ago
Great post Mark. Greg certainly brings up good points. I really appreciate the fact that you reference all these “scientific studies”, and poke holes in them. When I first read the china study, I was sold. Then I started reading your blog, and started realizing all the things wrong with the china “study”. Let’s just say all my friends know me as a caveman now. Someone did mention family history (the family blueprint – FB), which is very valid. However, the FB is really just a small part of the all encompassing primal blueprint. Our FB has been slightly modified… Read more »
Bryce
7 years 5 months ago
Great post, great questions, and great answers from Mark and all the commentors! One thing I’d add is that, in the famous China study which looked at the chinese diet, though they did eat plenty of Rice, they didn’t eat as much pasta/noodles as american ‘chinese food’ would lead you to believe. More importantly, they ate less sugar in a year than many Americans eat weekly. This lack of sugar, along with good animal fats, and unprocessed foods, is probably why they’re not dying at 57, I think. You can be “alright” on an italian/chinese style diet, and some can… Read more »
Mark Sisson
7 years 5 months ago
Trinkwasser’s last line is the essence of the PB: “The genes are still there but I am no longer expressing them (had a BG testing day Saturday and was nailed between 90 and 112 all day)” I suggest that we are all genetically predisposed to obeisty, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, cancer, etc when we send our genes the wrong signals. Yes, some are more predisposed to one or more of these conditions than others, but all that means is that when the red flag goes up in your family, you – more than most – need to start sending the… Read more »
riceball
riceball
7 years 5 months ago
to address on the chinese concern…since I am one. before recent years, china was relatively quite poor, and to be honest not a lot of people could even stay out of starvation. having food on their plate was already hard, let alone having “refined carbs” such as white flour, and good rice. back in the old days, people ate a lot more veggies, and cheap grains that are rich in fiber, such as corn and beans. People had a lot more physical activities compared to now a days. Therefore they also had more muscles to compensate the glucose they had… Read more »
riceball
riceball
7 years 5 months ago
oh…one more comment. in chinese, people call the ones who gets their big bellies in their 40s “fa fu”, which literally means “luck expansion”. But that didn’t happen often in the old days. especially people who were poor. hense the “luck” . and diabetes were said to be the “rich disease’ even some 30 years ago. but now, almost everyone “fa fu”, and diabetes finds almost most people who “fafu” a lot…rich or relatively poorer. I became more towards the idea that the reason people “fafu”, is not due to their slower metabolism, but their accumulated damage on their insulin… Read more »
Anna
7 years 5 months ago
Great letter & question, great response, great comments. I think 57 yo Italians do drop dead of CVD, just not as many do as in the US, so their statistics look better. The way I look at is they are “less sick” than we are, though I noticed that they eat a lot more salami and cheese than the CW’s proposed “Med Diet”. But the salami and cure ham is so much better than the shrink wrapped posers in US chain supermarkets. Little delis carve off slices of rustic cured ham from the bone, the pig skin covered with a… Read more »
Chris
Chris
7 years 5 months ago

agree with serialsinner…there is no one best diet for every one it’s just that primal/paleo is an elimination diet omitting the foods that cause the most problems to the most people(though I personally have problems with nightshades).

Human Evolution Speeding Up, Study Says:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/12/071211-human-evolution.html

yoork
7 years 5 months ago
I have to say, I did have the same questions as Greg when I picked up this blog. I am in good shape, not overweight at all (size 2), and in perfect health. I’ve never had any health issues whatsoever in my entire life. And, I’ve never been on a diet. In fact, my diet consisted almost purely of sugar, wheat and processed foods. So in one respect, I agree with the primal diet philosophy that it makes the most logical sense to me. I’ve also tried the primal diet, and whereas it makes me feel better in that I’m… Read more »
X LowFat
X LowFat
7 years 5 months ago
This being my very first comment on your site Mark, I would just firstly like to say how your site has really changed my life, well actually like a complete turnaround of what I had always believed in. I have been following your site on a daily basis and all the fantastic comments since November 2008 and really I am very hooked on all your info and many links that you provide to us readers. Greg’s letter is very interesting to read and for me personally, it aired many of the questions that I guess I had in the beginning.… Read more »
Greg at Live Fit
7 years 5 months ago

Greg’s letter is a fascinating case study that mirrors some of my questions regarding the Paleo diet. I think Mark hit the nail on the head though, in that many “diets” will get the job done. The most successful “diets” are not really diets at all, but rather lifestyle choices. Furthermore, they all share very common themes. Eating large quantities of vegetables, lean meat, and small amounts of processed foods, whatever their source.

Andrew
Andrew
7 years 5 months ago
Hi Mark, Another lurker here, inspired to write something. My first exposure to this paleo/primal/caveman was via your interview with Grant Petersen in his Rivendell Reader. Coincidentally, I was reading this only a few weeks after being diagnosed with autoimmune hypothyroidism, and had been on a reading frenzy trying to assimilate a lot of information and understand what was going on with my health. A lot of the things you were talking about with Grant started clanging like bells, especially since I’d recently had blood work done and had noticed that my blood glucose was at the high end of… Read more »
Katie
Katie
7 years 5 months ago
Perhaps this sounds like a strange way to come from this, but while I think the PB has a lot scientifically going for it, I doubt some people are psychologically able to deal with it even if they believe the science. I know from my own experience, I have tried to eat meat and fish, but they truly are not appealing in the least. And I’ve tried to cut out grains completely, but that backfires as I merely binge and purge a whole load more grains and sugary things I don’t even like, when the whole thing could have been… Read more »
Anne
Anne
7 years 5 months ago
I think Riceball’s explanation is right on. There’s a great scientific explanation in Gary Taubes’s wonderful book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories” (www.amazon.com/Good-Calories-Bad-Gary-Taubes/dp/1400040787). Taubes cites research by Ahrens, who thought it was due to a relative lack of calories compared to high levels of physical activity found in these (typically, in the past) impoverished populations. I can’t recommend this book highly enough — Taubes is an award-winning science writer who has basically gone back and examined the research on diet over the last 100 years and assessed its quality, validity, etc. The book gives you the ammo to refute all those… Read more »
Sarah
Sarah
7 years 5 months ago
Interestingly enough, my experience with starting the primal blueprint has been the opposite of Katie’s. As a binge purger, eating more primally and cutting out grains has finally allowed me to let go of the “OMG, those 50 extra calories will go straight to my thighs!” mentality. Before pb, even when I ate what I wanted I till I felt full, 2 hours or so after a normal (carb-based) meal I would immediately get headaches, and hunger pains, which usually lead to more snacking on fruit/grain based snacks and eventually a massive binge. But by switching to a more pb… Read more »
Katie
Katie
7 years 4 months ago
See, my problems are not generated by being hungry. I rarely binge when I’m hungry. And I can binge on anything: bread, cookies, donuts, deliciously salty cheese, scrambled eggs. It doesn’t matter what it is, because it never satisfies. And even knowing the science and my own experience, I have fewer problems when I say that having a piece of whole wheat toast is not going to hurt me. It’s the same reason that I smoke on occasion: the increased possibility of lung cancer or a rise in blood sugar/insulin and all that means, these are both preferable to the… Read more »
cobalteffect
cobalteffect
7 years 5 months ago
That’s a great letter, Greg. It echoes my own reservations about the PB exactly. I have eaten carbs as my primary food my whole life. A few months ago I started to read this blog – and a great one it is too, Mark! The arguments for the PB diet are compelling, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I never actually embraced the diet. It was only until I tried to explain the idea to someone else, that I realised I couldn’t recall reading any scientific facts to back up the PB. I do agree that science probably… Read more »
Marci
Marci
7 years 5 months ago
There’s so much great stuff here- from Greg’s letter to the various wise replies. Andrew- your comment above was really interesting for me to read. Like you, I’m a former vegetarian/ pescatarian (20 yrs!) and former chronic cardio-addict. My diet has slowly evolved from veggie junk food to a more whole-foods based diet. But my naturopath & her boyfriend, a personal trainer, finally convinced me (after years of houndng) to try the Paleo/Primal lifestyle. I’ve taken the 30 day Primal Blueprint challenge (I heart MDA!) I’ve been buying my produce & occasional raw milk dairy at local farmer’s markets for… Read more »
Donna
Donna
7 years 5 months ago

About grains, it really bothers me that it’s so promoted in that old food pyramid. I have a cousin that is a dietician and she was taught to believe in it and she thinks it’s healthy, i’m healthier than she is, that speaks in itself doesn’t it! I wish everyone would find MDA and know the truth how bad grains are for you and eating Primal is the healthy way to go!!!

60 in 3 - Health and Fitness
7 years 5 months ago

The big things make a big difference. Cut out candy, sodas and junk food and you’re going to be much healthier. Start exercising and being active in general and you’ll live longer. At that point, adding a few more or a few less apples a day will make some difference but it’s going to be pretty small.

All these cultures live a relatively healthy lifestyle. It may not be primal, but it’s also not McDonald’s central.

Gal

Tate
Tate
7 years 5 months ago
I live in Campania, Italy (Southern Italy) were they are famous for their pasta and pizza … which they eat a lot of including other various sweets. Not at all like the diet of Rome and further North. They, as a group, are short, fat, weak (I play Rugby, and have never played with/against such weak opponents), and die young. In fact, my neighbor died two months ago at 55 from complications to diabetes. The more traditional diet is plant and meat based, with a little pasta and sometimes some potatoes, but very few of them eat that way anymore.… Read more »
Andy
Andy
7 years 5 months ago
Just thought I should add some observations on my Chinese relatives. Calorie restriction: I calculated my average daily calories while staying in China: ~1200 (I ate as my family did too). And I wasn’t hungry. The only reason I can guess at for this is that the food’s ALWAYS the same. There isn’t any “Oh, feel like some Indian tonight?”. All meals are home-cooked, and they’re all the same flavor family. I mean, you CAN go to Pizza Hut or KFC if you want, but it’s generally viewed as a special treat (and it is–KFC’s a popular date place over… Read more »
Sonya
Sonya
7 years 5 months ago
Donna – It can make quite the argument when you come up against someone who has studied diet and nutrition! I try not to comment too much but the other day couldn’t help it as the topic of health and nutrition came up with a friend who is a fitness/Health professional. The conversation really revved up when I said that ‘basically most of what you believe in, my beliefs are the opposite.’ These people have gone to uni and studied for years for their degree so I can see why they stand their ground. I think that it is fantastic… Read more »
Mia
Mia
7 years 5 months ago

I’m so glad someone wrote that e-mail because I’d been wondering about the exact same things.

Christoph Dollis
7 years 5 months ago

Dr John, you’ve inspired me.

Once I get through my beers, I’m going to join you.

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[…] “Primal Blueprint Superiority?” Marks Daily […]

darya
7 years 5 months ago

Greg, excellent questions. The fact is science is very difficult to conduct and interpret, and hardly anyone who claims to know the answers knows what they are talking about. Stay skeptical.

Anne
Anne
7 years 5 months ago

Cobalteffect — if you’re looking for science to back up the PB, try Gary Taubes’s book (“Good Calories, Bad Calories”). It has all the detailed science you could ever wish for, written by an award-winning science writer of national reputation.

Trinkwasser
Trinkwasser
7 years 5 months ago
Wow what a fascinating thread! The observational stuff from Riceball et al. is interesting. Backs up a quote I can’t attribute “in the Third World the poor are thin and the rich are fat, in the West the poor are fat and the rich are thin” More quotes I can’t attribute: Genes load the gun, the environment pulls the trigger Our funky genes had obvious survival factor, in times of food shortage we could probably outsurvive nondiabetics, or as yet someone else wrote “we survive famines, but feasts kill us” and currently we’re stuck in energy stashing mode. It’s probably… Read more »
Gypsyrozbud
7 months 5 days ago

If you read any of Jeff Leach’s stuff, it appears that our gut microbiome has more to do with our health and that eating LOTS of plant matter is crucial to gut health….so if you consume 25 to 30 varieties of plants in a week, you should be good!

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