Everything You Always Wanted to Ask…But Were Afraid to Know
All About Grok
Primal Blueprint Compare and Contrast with Popular Diets
All About Grok
You say we haven’t evolved much in the past 10,000 years, yet I’ve read that evolution has accelerated in recent history. Can you explain this discrepancy?
It appears from all the research that, yes, based on sheer population numbers and dynamics, there have been more mutations (what scientists call genetic drift) in the human race over the past several thousand years. But the fact that there are thousands of traceable SNP (single nucleotide polymorphisms – small mutations within the population) differences within our population doesn’t mean we are “evolving” in the sense of moving in a better direction vis a vis either health or natural selection. When any animal population goes from a few thousand to six and a half-billion as we have, the range of small genetic differences will be significant. These differences are simply an artifact of an exploding population – not natural selection or even functional adaptations.
Part of what we are dealing with here is a semantic issue: how is the term “evolved” best used in the context of the Primal Blueprint? On the one hand, evolution does mean “the changes seen in the inherited traits from one generation to the next” – pretty simple. On the other hand, most anthropologists discuss evolution in the more Darwinian context of “favorable heritable traits that become more common in successive generations of a population while unfavorable traits are selected out”. I look at evolution in terms of how natural selection acted on our ancestors to favor the strong and healthy and weed out the sick. Many of these selective pressures are gone today; no one in the developed world dies of starvation and people who might have died in the old days are kept alive through medical intervention (no offense intended. I’m glad me and my knee have lived to see more Ultimate Frisbee matches!). It follows that anyone who is able to reach reproductive maturity (regardless of health, genetic flaws, grade point average, juvenile arrest record, etc.) and procreate has “successfully” exploited the environment. This is important, for it means that any and almost all products of random mutation or genetic drift are incorporated into the genome without penalty – and passed on to the next generation.
Scientists are indeed showing that there is more genetic diversity now than ever before. What they are measuring are simple SNP’s and gene variants and then calling that “accelerated evolution”. These SNP’s add up to thousands of differences between races or geographically isolated populations. I see it as a natural effect of having millions of people on earth (and now billions) who have allowed short-term non-lethal mutations to be passed on to their progeny.
Many reports on the subject suggest that more harmful SNP’s are appearing than beneficial ones. As a result, we have a litany of documented SNPs that predict greater risk for certain diseases. You can even spend $3,000 and have a test that identifies all your risky SNPs. But having these slight genetic mutations doesn’t guarantee that the possessor will get that particular disease. I argue that adhering to the same type of diet and lifestyle (environment) that surrounded the original design process of Grok – the prototypical pre-agricultural human – will almost always significantly reduce the disease risk of the offending SNP. It’s all about reprogramming our genes.
Finally, the concept of epigenetics has not been discussed enough in most recent papers on the topic of evolution. What we might find, in terms of gene expression, is that our maladaptive agriculture-based diet not only promotes a higher birthrate and allows an individual to attain reproductive status regardless of “fitness”, but also actually influences outcomes of future generations. You could argue that we are in a mid-adaptation phase in our evolution to withstand processed carbohydrate intake, but since we haven’t fully adapted, we still suffer from the ill effects (some are affected far more than others, but all are in some way affected negatively). I suppose we could wait another 1,000 generations to see if we fully adapt to overemphasizing sugars and grains, but I don’t have the time or patience. I say, when in doubt, consult the Primal Blueprint!
I understand the basics of how genes direct our cellular function, but can you provide a bit more scientific detail – in layman’s terms?
P.T. Sailorman expressed the concept well in layman’s terms when he said, “I yam what I yam and that’s all’s what I am.” What he meant was that each of the 50 or 60 trillion cells in your body contains within its nucleus a complete set of DNA instructions to build a working human being. A strand of DNA, with it’s three billion sets of base pairs, is so long (try six feet contained inside a microscopic sized cell) it needs to be folded thousands of times – and that folding results in the familiar twenty six pairs of chromosomes you find in the nucleus of each cell. Your DNA (and the specific genes located on the DNA) acts like a recipe; change the ingredients and you will change the result. Add more sugar, reduce salt, sprinkle a different spice here and there or cook at a lower temperature and you will still get a cake or a casserole, but the taste and quality will vary. The same is essentially true for our DNA or gene recipes: you will still wind up with a functional human being (and not a sparrow or a spider) in our case, but our genes are still very much subject to the signals they gets from environmental influences. Provide the wrong signals and a healthy person becomes sick. A normal weight person becomes obese. It’s all about the signals we give our DNA.
One accepted definition of a gene is “any subset of DNA that provides the informational code for a functional molecule (usually a protein or enzyme).” The cells in our bodies use these different proteins for various functions (as detailed in the text), but only a small fraction of the total number of genes are actually active. For example, muscle cells contain copies of all our genes, but only use those limited “few” genes that specialize in the business of being muscle cells. The same goes for nerve cells, pancreas cells and so on.
As a point of clarification, genes themselves don’t actually make these proteins. Genes simply provide the instructions for exactly how (and how much) to make these proteins based on the influence of external chemical or environmental signals acting directly upon the genes. The proteins are actually “built” by a series of other biochemicals (RNA and others) that assemble individual amino acids into proteins outside of the nucleus of the cell, using a template they built by copying the gene. Scientists refer to the activation of genes as “gene expression”, that familiar favored term throughout the book. Since there are over 100,000 different proteins in our bodies, scientists long believed that the human genome must obviously contain a minimum of 100,000 genes. Ironically, recent investigations like the Human Genome Project have narrowed that number down to fewer than 20,000 genes. This means that genes don’t always have a single protein “job” they perform.
Depending on environmental influences, some genes make several (or several hundred) different versions of proteins. It’s not just whether these genes are turned on or off by certain signals, but also which specific protein they are prompted (I say “programmed”) by their signals to make. It makes the whole signaling process even more important. The beauty is that much of the signaling process is under your control and command. You just have to be able to identify those signals that cause the right genes to express themselves in a direction of health, and turn off (or more accurately, suppress) those genes that might otherwise be signaled to store fat, compromise the immune system or increase inflammation.
How do I reconcile the evolutionary rationale with my religious beliefs?
Regarding the debate between evolutionary science and various religious faiths, I’d like to step aside and present the well-supported position that evolution does not require that you suspend belief in a creator. Prominent evolutionary scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky was a devout Catholic and spent a career communicating the notion that “the evolutionary doctrine does not clash with religious faith. [This happens] only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean.”
What’s up with the name Grok? And Korg?
The literal definition of the term grok is: “to understand intuitively or by empathy, establish rapport with, empathize or communicate sympathetically with…so thoroughly that the observer becomes part of the observed.” As popular novelist and science fiction writer Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) would say in the context of quantum theory, grokking is “the intermingling of intelligence that necessarily affects both the observer and the observed.” Combine the profound meaning with the fact that “Grok” sounds primal and cool and you have a perfect name for our prehistoric role model!
Korg is the brand name for the original music synthesizer. The Korg Corporation of Japan is one the world’s leading manufacturers of synthesizers, musical instruments and tuners. To synthesize is to “combine so as to form a new, complex product”. The term “synthetic” means “resulting from synthesis rather than occurring naturally; especially a product (as a drug or plastic) of chemical synthesis”. Korg clearly lives a synthetic life and is the antithesis, and literal opposite (spell it backwards), of Grok!
For more on Grok read The Definitive Guide to Grok.
What would you say about the common phenomenon of respected scientific studies delivering opposing conclusions?
For argument’s sake, we’ll give a “scientific study” the benefit of the doubt and assume the protocol and conclusions were accurate and not untowardly influenced by those hoping for an economically favorable conclusion (News flash: Studies commissioned by Evian water reveal that eight glasses of water per day will improve your health!). The problem with many otherwise reasonable studies is that they take a short-term conclusion and extrapolate it into a long-term lifestyle recommendation. In particular, the media is guilty of taking provocative sound bite material out of context in the interest of advancing a story.
Science is the catalyst to gain a deeper understanding of human health, nutrition, medicine and athletic performance. While I do not wish to denigrate or minimize the impact of scientific study, I strongly caution our flawed method of interpreting data and conclusions from studies. Statements like, “regular exercise prevents heart disease”; “milk helps strengthen bones”; “saturated fat causes heart attacks”; “Powerade increases endurance” might sell magazines or products off the shelf, but they are so far out of context that they have little relevance as a diet or lifestyle suggestion. To help you navigate through the barrage of scientific studies/health recommendations you will be exposed to over the course of your lifetime, here are a few of my critical thinking tips:
Who commissioned/funded/conducted the study? – Skeptic that I am, I always look for conflict of interest and often invalidate any material presented by biased parties. If a study is presented in the context of selling a product, again we have to shake a few grains of salt onto the pages of the abstract.
What were the parameters of the study? – In the athletic world, I’ve been exposed to numerous studies that test training methods on untrained or moderately subjects over a short-time period. Results obtained with such parameters may not apply in any way – and in fact are often contraindicated – for an experienced athlete over an extended time period. Instead, I prefer to review commentary and case studies of real athletes – top professionals, amateurs or even youth – to determine what methods lead to the best success for athletes in similar circumstances.
Were there confounding variables? – In many studies, it’s almost impossible to isolate one variable and truly determine whether too much or too little of it has any effect on the outcome. The most harmful example of this happens in vitamin studies where millions of dollars are spent to determine whether one or two vitamins alone have an impact on health. Since vitamins always work synergistically with other vitamins, minerals, enzymes and co-factors, some studies will, in my opinion, provide misleading data. Imagine a study in which people ate only fat for three months and developed nutrient deficiencies and severe loss of energy and muscle mass. Without factoring in the lack of other macronutrients, and not knowing any better, you might be inclined to conclude that “fat is shown to be harmful”.
What is the real-life relevance to me? – An eight week study that suggests eating eight small meals a day will promote weight loss might meet all the validity requirements, but who cares? Who wants to, or can logistically handle, eating eight meals a day? Sure, this is an extreme hypothetical example, but many study premises have very little relevance or practical application to our daily lives.
How does the duration of the study relate to long-term lifestyle guidance? – As mentioned previously, you can achieve amazing results over short time periods: lose mucho weight with extreme calorie restriction, slash cholesterol levels by avoiding all animal foods, or get fit extensive high intensity exercise. These exciting results leave you with a “now what?” conundrum. After the experiment period is over, now what? You face risk factors like a rebound/rebellion effect, fatigue from excessive stress and the body’s homeostasis reaction (e.g. – producing more cholesterol naturally in reaction to dietary restriction) factors that swing the pendulum back the other way. The best studies, like the Framingham Study or the Nurses Health Study, are ones that track real life subjects making natural lifestyle choices over many years – not college kids making a quick $360 to drink sugary sports drinks and pedal their butts off for an hour four times a week for a couple of months.
Apply the “evolutionary rationale”
Evolutionary fitness guru Art DeVany said it best: “I pay close attention to the scientific literature on nutrition and exercise, but I use evolutionary reasoning to interpret this literature because it is full of contradictions.” I say, when in doubt just ask yourself, “What Would Grok Do?”
What about eating insulin-balanced meals, such as enjoying some salmon and brown rice? Doesn’t that eliminate the health concern of insulin spikes and sugar crashes?
Eating insulin-balanced meals (combining carbohydrates with protein or fats, which are slower burning fuels) is the premise of the Zone diet and many copycats. While buttering your bread or eating salmon with rice will indeed mitigate an insulin spike, processed carbohydrate ingestion will still increase the total glycemic load on your body and result in an undesirable insulin release. It will just happen over a slightly longer period of time. A little brown rice now and then won’t derail you, but you are going to be better off eating only the incidental carbohydrates contained in Primal Blueprint foods. Salmon and steamed veggies are a much better meal choice. In fact, it’s not a stretch to consider that you might be better off not eating slow burning foods along with your carbs. When insulin enters the bloodstream, it’s acts as a gateway hormone, driving glucose into muscle tissue for storage as glycogen, amino acids into muscle tissue for building (this is why bodybuilders like to trigger an insulin response through supplements, drugs and weird dietary habits) and fatty acids into fat cells. After these desired processes are complete, excess macronutrients will be transported from the bloodstream to storage in fat cells.
If you reduce the overall, cumulative insulin load of your diet (regardless of how or what foods you combine carbs with), you will stimulate the mobilization of free fatty acids from fat cells into the bloodstream for use as energy, a process driven by glucagon, the hormone that has the opposite effect of insulin.
Why do you seem to downplay the health benefits of fiber in the Primal Blueprint?
I’ve often said that dietary fiber is over-hyped by the media. Truth be told, we don’t really need that much beyond what we get from eating vegetables and a few fruits each day. People get themselves into trouble when they eat processed foods, throw off their body’s digestive systems and then try to fix the problem with whole grains and fiber supplements. A natural, whole foods diet just doesn’t require “whole grains,” despite all the hoopla. Grok and his entourage did just fine without Metamucil, All-Bran or multigrain cereal for breakfast. Adequate water and plenty of exercise can also help keep the pipes running. Apples, pears, berries, eggplants, artichokes, and all manner of raw and cooked greens are all excellent higher fiber options. Dried figs, yams, and a number of cooked legumes rate among the highest in fiber (10-19 grams per serving—with varied serving size) for non-grains, but (as you know) I don’t recommend these foods as regular MDA fare because of their high carb content.
Konstantin Monastyrsky, author of the book Fiber Menace, goes into extensive detail about the potential dangers of consuming excess fiber and the numerous misconceptions we have about the wide ranging benefits of dietary fiber. Generally speaking, getting gung-ho on fiber intake will lead to the consumption of excess carbohydrates (carbs are the only food that contain fiber). The Harvard School of Public Health refutes claims that fiber helps prevent colon cancer or diabetes. The common belief that fiber minimizes the blood sugar impact of carbohydrates because it extends digestion time is true, but the impact is minimal and diverts the focus away from the key variable of limiting the total carbohydrate intake/insulin load of your diet.
The Centers for Disease Control says fiber does not reduce breast cancer risk, while the American Heart Association says that fiber supplements cause “reduced mineral absorption and a myriad of gastrointestinal disturbances”, factors that can increase risk of cardiovascular disease. The Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University refutes the idea the fiber curbs appetite. Indeed, Monastyrsky argues that “fiber stimulates appetite, extends digestion, expands stomach capacity, raises the threshold of satiety, and makes you much hungrier the next time around.”
Regarding the lauded “clean pipes” benefits of fiber, Monastyrsky cites research that fiber doesn’t impact transit time or improve constipation. However, many consider excessive fiber intake to be a leading cause of chronic constipation, hemorrhoids, diverticulosis, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.
Are diet sodas better to consume than regular sodas since they have no effect on insulin levels?
Nice try. Research indicates that after consuming artificial sweeteners, which are 80-200 times sweeter than sugar, the appetite center in your brain is tricked into craving sweet foods. It’s as if your brain thinks you filled up on sweet calories, but realizes you actually didn’t and then forces you to make good on your teaser. Furthermore, some artificial sweeteners have been found to have a toxic and potentially carcinogenic effect on many body systems. They are simply as far away from Grok as you can ever get. I would even go so far as to say that I’d drink a Coke over a Diet Coke if I was forced to choose between the two at spearpoint. Then again, maybe I’d do neither, and just turn and run using my primal sprint speed…On a serious note, it’s pretty darn difficult to get through life without being exposed to sweetened food and beverages. Many forward-thinking companies use natural sweeteners in their products, such as stevia extract or honey derivatives. Visit MarksDailyApple.com for an in-depth look at which sweeteners are the least objectionable and which are truly dangerous.
If I’m in heavy training with low body fat, can I enjoy a more liberal version of the Primal Blueprint diet without worrying?
The Primal Blueprint is “one size fits all” because we all share the same biochemistry (otherwise we would be dead or be another species). The big difference between us is simply the manner in which we respond to environmental stimulus such as diet, exercise and lifestyle factors. If you are a serious athlete without concerns about excess body fat (competitive bodybuilder, triathlete or a growing high school kid practicing soccer for six hours a week), including moderate amounts of the most nutritious sources of complex carbohydrates in your diet and balancing insulin production at meals is probably fine.
Heavy training involves depleting and having to restore muscle glycogen levels regularly, something that is not relevant to the general population. However, keep in mind that your muscles and liver only store a maximum of between 400 and 600 grams of glycogen. Any additional carbohydrate consumed beyond what you store as glycogen or burn gets converted into fat. Hence, a lifestyle with high caloric demands is not a license to inhale anything in your path. Heavy energy expenditure requires more dietary antioxidants (to counter the free radical damage from excessive oxygen processing), vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that assist with muscle function, growth and repair. Eating indiscriminate amounts of sugar and processed carbs will inhibit you from receiving the nutritional benefits of eating even more plant and animal foods to fuel your major efforts.
Instead of asking my permission to loosen the strings a little, I would instead have you guide your decisions by how your diet, exercise and lifestyle choices make you feel. Maybe a nightly ice cream habit won’t pack on the spare tire if you are super active, but if you feel sluggish and bloated afterwards, is it worth the small measure of instant gratification to ingest a food that does not nourish your body? Similarly, conducting Chronic Cardio workouts will bring you exhilaration and ego satisfaction (and a load of short-term, feel-good endorphins), but upon reflection may not be worth the delayed onset fatigue, muscle soreness, sugar depletion and injury risk.
Since I have spent much my life passionately pursuing elevated and highly specific athletic goals, I can’t discourage any enthusiast in going for the gold, but I do want to clarify the big picture issues at hand. Competitive athletes must take extreme measures to protect their health as they pursue their goals. Such measures includeoptimal eating, sleep and stress management and customized stretching, strengthening and health care to prevent and treat injuries. If you have further interest in the topic, please read my publication Training and Racing Duathlons, available to download for free at masterformula.com.
Cortisol has been referred to repeatedly in conjunction with both diet and exercise. Why is this hormone so important to health and fitness?
Cortisol is the major catabolic hormone secreted by the adrenals in response to stress. For Grok and his simple life, stress arose almost exclusively from life or death situations – starvation, trauma or “flight or fight” encounters with predators. Cortisol was a godsend for Grok on these occasions, shutting down all growth processes to divert resources to more immediate needs. Hans Seyle, the father of modern stress research, identified stress as having three components: stimulus, perception and response. The brain perceives external stimulus (a bear in the wildnerness, a traffic jam or the sound system cranking up at the beginning of Spinning class), and responds by telling the adrenals to release cortisol into the bloodstream.
This cortisol spike accelerates gluconeogenesis, stripping protein from muscles and converting it into quick-energy glucose in the liver. Cortisol also shuts down the immune system (why waste resources identifying something that might make you sick in a few weeks when you might not survive the next few hours?), shuts down reproductive hormones like testosterone (heavily stressed athletes like Tour de France cyclists constantly battle this issue; that’s why doping to artificially raise testosterone is so effective), and decreases the uptake of calcium by bones (to allow for more calcium to be used in cellular communication). Cortisol also increases insulin resistance, slows down fat-burning processes and promotes the storage of fat, just in case the “situation” might last a long while. All of these drastic measures make sense in the context of survival – for humans as well as other animals – when a true emergency arises once in a great while.
The problem with the fight of flight mechanism is that our adrenals can’t distinguish between a life threatening emergency and modern stressors that are not life threatening – bills, traffic jams, insufficient sleep, emotional conflict, clueless customer service reps, poor dietary habits (yep, too many carbs can elicit a stress response) or sustained workouts at moderate to high intensity levels. Since the hectic pace of the modern world and our poor lifestyle choices combine to produce unrelenting stress, our brain signals the adrenals to pump out too much cortisol too often. This is where the fallout occurs in the form of a suppressed immune system, muscle wasting, decreases in bone density, increases in insulin resistance, increases in fat storage, fuzzy thinking, depression, etc. If excessive cortisol production becomes a lifestyle habit, you pave the way for serious disease.
To be clear, adequate cortisol is essential to our daily functioning. It plays a huge role in the regulation of blood pressure and cardiovascular function, the metabolism of carbs, protein and fat, kidney function (“adrenals” is Latin for next to renal), immune system function and brain function (hence the correlation between being under stress and poor concentration/cognition). When you do intense strength training sessions or sprint workouts, give a presentation in the conference room, meet your match.com date for the first time at the bar, or face a four-footer on the 18th hole to win the match, cortisol is coursing through your veins, putting you “on edge” in a state of hyper-arousal just like it did for Grok.
The cortisol effect can be leveraged to your advantage for peak performance, alertness and brain function at times when you really need to be at your best. However, you must take great care to ensure that the stress is intermittent and balanced with extensive recovery and stress-moderating behaviors. This is essentially the net effect of the Primal Blueprint behavior laws: to help you lead a healthy, happy, stress-balanced life. Notice I didn’t say stress-free, for that would be totally unprimal and unhealthy. We need stress and we need cortisol to experience peak performance and achieve our goals, provided it is not chronic stress and always in optimal balance for good health.
You talk about the benefits of elevated Human Growth Hormone and testosterone levels from exercise. How is that different than taking anti-aging hormone supplements?
The difference between stimulating the natural release of balanced amounts of HGH or testosterone into your system versus injecting substances into your body is that the latter strategy can set off a cascade of potentially undesirable hormonal events. When you elect to “supplement” your existing intricate, self-regulating and balanced endocrine feed-back system with a dose of a single important hormone like HGH, the normal function of other critical hormones can become unbalanced. While it’s clear that taking anabolic steroids can produce quick and impressive results, they also bring potential undesirable side effects and long-term adverse health consequences. Unless you are in your 60s and experiencing severe hormone deficiencies, naturally stimulating a balanced rise in some hormones or a drop in others is the absolute best way to go.
I’m enjoying my transition to Primal Blueprint eating, but I’m having a heck of a time getting buy-in from my kids. How can I deal with this daily meal time battle?
Even if you don’t have any kids, you were once one yourself, so see if any of this still resonates today – it could explain where some of your unhealthy eating habits came from and provide an understanding of how to change them. Many parents with high ambitions for healthy family eating struggle with kids who just don’t seem to want to get with the program. This disconnect can lead to frustration and negative emotions that compromise respect and cooperation in the relationship, not to mention the development of eating disorders or other unhealthy habits carried into adult life (know anyone from a big family who had to compete at the table and still eats lightning fast?).
When it comes to socializing children about eating, it’s important to eliminate all emotional, critical and disciplinary messages about their bodies or eating habits. Eating is a personal pleasure of physical nourishment and emotional satisfaction owned entirely by the individual (many therapists say the same about hairstyle, clothes, jewelry, even – gulp – tattoos, within certain reasonable boundaries).
You should not mandate, bribe, incentivize or reward kids to consume certain foods or criticize them for eating others and expect success. These strategies will disconnect them from their natural enjoyment of eating. Even the widespread and seemingly innocuous praising of a child for eating certain foods or cleaning their plate can contribute to mild or severe eating disorders as they grow older.
The essence of healthy family eating is to create a winning environment: offer abundant nutritious choices, eliminate unhealthy options from the home and model healthy habits. You can’t force or manipulate your kid to eat broccoli, but you can put it on her plate (and enthusiastically enjoy it off your own plate) and deny indulgences if she chooses to eschew healthy offerings at that meal. As one pediatrician told me when discussing the challenging of presenting healthy meals to unwilling children, “don’t worry, your kid will not starve.”
Before kids are socialized with potentially harmful psycho-emotional messages about eating, they demonstrate a remarkable innate ability to eat healthy, balanced diets. The work of Dr. Clara Davis in the 1930’s, highlighted in the popular “Dr. Spock” baby books, indicates that children, when presented with a variety of healthy foods (interestingly, her food lineup was quite aligned with the Primal Blueprint), demonstrate wildly varying food preferences but are able intuitively to consume the ideal amount of calories and balance of nutrients to function optimally.
While you must refrain from manipulation to achieve healthy eating habits, you have the power, and the privilege, of choosing what foods make it into the family grocery cart and cupboards. Treats are enjoyable part of life and family tradition, but you can certainly insist on having berries and cream for dessert instead of cookies, or using organic chocolate and trans-fat free graham crackers for the family camping trip. Bring your children into the process by allowing them to choose which healthy foods they prefer from the incredibly vast Primal Blueprint selection. Have them assist with meal preparation and educate them about healthy nutrition concepts. Establish in clear terms what your boundaries are for family dietary habits, but always frame it positively instead of being authoritarian. No soda “because I said so” is a less effective strategy in our junk-food pervasive modern culture than explaining the metabolic effects of consuming hazardous foods, the rationale for choosing healthy options and finally the matter-of-fact family rule against consuming certain foods in the home that stands proudly next to seat belts in the car, lights out at 9pm, homework before video games and so forth.
As kids get older and have more freedom, your ability to influence their dietary intake will steadily decline. When the morning carpool horn honks and they venture out into the big bad world with enough change scrounged up to illuminate a soda vending machine (conveniently located on 98 percent of U.S. high school campuses!), you are powerless to intervene. Alas, you can take comfort knowing that the modeling of healthy dietary habits in your own life has an exponentially greater impact than the sum total of all the lectures you deliver and rules you enforce during their upbringing. While peer influence may take the lead in the horse race for a few years, it’s a safe bet that parental influence will have the most lasting and profound impact on your children’s eating habits for the rest of their lives.
Why are you so negative about the use of prescription drugs like those mentioned in Ken Korg’s story?
Let’s get one thing straight. Some prescription drugs can work incredibly well. What a scientific achievement it is to pop a pill and experience a rapid and sometimes profound or life-saving response in the biochemistry and metabolic function of your body! When your life is in danger from a high fever or rapidly spreading infection, drugs should be properly lauded as perhaps the greatest advancement in history for human health and longevity. Unfortunately, this glowing endorsement represents only a tiny fraction of the role drugs play in society. The overwhelming majority of drug use, drug research and drug profits is part of a monster that is, in my opinion, decimating the health of the human race.
Simply put, prescription and over-the-counter drugs mess with one of the great miracles of nature: your body’s complex mechanisms that support homeostasis. Drugs very effectively override the natural gene-controlled healing process, usually to generate a short-term band aid solution to the symptoms (not the cause) of your problem. At the same time, they almost always deliver side effects (sometimes quite unpleasant) and can compromise the resilience of your natural healing process. For example, the ibuprofen-popping athlete will immediately experience relief from inflamed tissues, allowing him to continue with his training. The workout under the influence of pain-relief agents now allows the athlete to create even more inflammation that he might otherwise be deterred from by pain or diminished mobility. The net effect is often a prolonged recovery from the original injury. While I aim to avoid pain as much as the next guy, the truth is we should welcome pain signals from our body (as well fatigue, inflammation and the like) and make consequent adjustments to our lifestyle to naturally correct these conditions.
In my opinion, all foreign substances, from serious prescription medication to the seemingly benign aspirin/Advil/Tylenol products should be used only in case of emergency. At MarksDailyApple.com, I write extensively about the drawbacks of prescription drugs in pursuit of good health, including poor safety protocols for the testing and marketing of new drugs and an absurdly under-funded Food and Drug Administration (the supposed watchdog over the booming pharmaceutical industry). Donald Light, Professor of Comparative Health Policy at New Jersey’s University of Medicine and Dentistry, summarizes the increasingly risky state of pharmaceutical testing and review in the U.S. by reframing the industry’s rhetoric in what he believes are more accurate terms: “Based on our current system, the designation of ‘safe and effective’ on today’s new drugs could be replaced with, ‘apparently safe based on incomplete information, and more effective than a placebo.’” For an eye-opening education, visit www.worstpills.org, a national non-profit that examines the many risks and, often, few benefits of some of the world’s most successful medications.
Primal Blueprint Compare and Contrast With Popular Diets
Eating strategy is a very crowded, confusing and controversial topic. An interesting discussion arose when the New England Journal of Medicine released a comprehensive comparative study in 2008 of three popular diets: low-fat, Mediterranean and low-carb. Among three hundred people over two years (one of the longest and most compliant in recent history), subjects eating a Primal Blueprint-style low carb, low insulin diet lost more weight, experienced a greater reduction in the dangerous C-reactive protein (an inflammation marker and heart disease precursor in the bloodstream), lowered their triglycerides, raised their HDL cholesterol and dropped their A1C (a measure of how badly excess blood sugar is interfering with their health) more than people on the other diets (Mediterranean was a close second). Furthermore, the low fat and Mediterranean dieters were restricted in the amount of calories they ate, while the low carb eaters were not. In fact, subjects could eat all they wanted of the low-carb foods. Most of the mainstream health and medical community would have predicted the low-fat group would have won hands down, but it was not to be. That this study’s findings are aligned with the Primal Blueprint philosophy is an impressive and validating parallel conclusion, particularly since the study had no attachment to any evolutionary justification or theory.
The various dietary theories and rationales that sell books and products might not necessarily be harmful, but they should be recognized as gimmicks when they are in conflict with the basic fundamentals of science and evolution. For example, a recommendation to not eat red meat due to blood type defies the reality that we homo sapiens originated from a small gene pool in Africa and have thrived and evolved eating a variety of natural foods like meat for two million years. Some folks might have consumed only meat for days or weeks on end, or only fruit and green vegetables, or hundreds of other random combinations based on environmental opportunities. Our genes are adept at assimilating the proper nutrients from our diet in a random pattern.
Vegetarians often obsess about getting all their essential amino acids by combining rice and beans or dairy and grains (a la breakfast cereal) at a single meal. The truth is that you don’t need to achieve all your nutrient needs at every single meal; your intake of the various essential amino acids can occur days or longer apart – and your body will still build and repair muscle tissue (unless you exclude critical foods like low-fat fanatics or vegetarians; then you will struggle – as I will discuss shortly). Dissecting the biological process any further or narrower leads us away from common sense and into confusion, gimmick, and dogma.
That said, I think it’s also important to appreciate the positive and well-intentioned message of many diet authors and experts. There are few – if any – published diets out there that are worse than the average American’s unstructured, habitual consumption of processed foods. The lack of awareness demonstrated by the masses is far worse than someone who is scoring well in most areas but could be better served to reduce grain intake further or increase fats. As I will discuss at length in the conclusion, I think the Primal Blueprint is one giant step for mankind ahead of the other leading diets – even the Paleo Diet, which is probably the most similar. Furthermore, due to its simplicity and lack of regimentation or deprivation, the Primal Blueprint eating style scores ahead of the others in the critical areas of enjoyment and ease of long term compliance. Finally, none of the other popular diets I’ll critique here explore so thoroughly the relationship between what you eat and how you exercise and engage in other supportive healthy lifestyle habits.
Dr. Robert Atkins is the pioneer of low-carb diets, having first published his material in 1972 with great popularity, and controversy. Flying in the face of the government-promoted Conventional Wisdom of low fat, high carb diets, Atkins weathered the criticism and developed a brand that thrived for decades. The Atkins diet has serious flaws but his central premise of low carb eating deserves credit as being revolutionary. It has only been since his death in 2003 that the Atkins diet has enjoyed increasing medical acceptance and as an effective weight-loss technique.
While Atkins laudably restricts processed carbs like sugar, breads, pasta, cereal and starchy vegetables, the plan stumbles with its sometimes draconian restriction on total carbohydrate intake. The Atkins recommendation to consume only twenty net grams (i.e. digestible grams, so you exclude fiber and sugar alcohol) of carbohydrates per day (this is for the first two weeks of the diet, with allowances to gradually increase daily intake for long-term maintenance – but still advocating well under one hundred grams per day) greatly compromises the participant’s intake of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet: fruits and vegetables.
Weight loss success on the Atkins diet is well chronicled, but experts believe that the diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies, likely from inadequate fruit and vegetable intake and perhaps also from the indiscriminate intake and lack of quality distinction among protein and fat foods (including the license to enjoy fried foods and other offensive dietary choices). For example, consider the anecdote in Chapter 4 that the potential carcinogens in cooked meat can be effectively countered by sufficient consumption of antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables (that are unwisely limited in the Atkins plan).
Low Fat Diets (Ornish, MacDougall, Pritikin)
As respected research accumulates pointing to Metabolic Syndrome as the main heart disease culprit instead of fat intake, fewer and fewer doctors and scientists are hanging onto the dated position supporting low fat diets. Long-term restriction of dietary fat (over twice as calorically dense as protein or carbs) means you are going to obtain most of your calories from carbohydrates. A low fat, high carb diet (or even “moderate” carb by today’s out-of-whack norms) can lead to dramatically increased insulin output, insulin resistance in muscles, increased triglyceride manufacture and storage in fat cells, increased vascular inflammation and peripheral oxidative damage, potential atherosclerotic events, neuropathies, retinopathies and more. These are potential risks that you may or may not manifest, but are present because the human genome is perfectly positioned and perfectly adapted to accomplish all those disease benchmarks in the name of homeostasis.
Dr. Dean Ornish, who arguably is today’s most prominent low-fat promoter, having taken the torch from the late Nathan Pritikin, advocates a plant-based diet emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and soy products in their natural forms. Ornish also admirably includes sensible recommendations for moderate aerobic exercise and stress management techniques. As I alluded to at the beginning of this section, switching from typical processed food diet to one centered around plants will produce excellent health benefits. From there I object to the disciplined restriction of fat for these reasons: fat is generally healthy and necessary, excessive reliance on carbs leads to high insulin production, reduced satiety leads to appetite swings and a high risk of binging and program attrition over time, and nutritionally concentrated foods like egg yolks, animal flesh, nuts, seeds and avocados are restricted in favor of low nutritional value carbs like grains.
If you have been influenced to modify your lifestyle by Dr. Ornish’s devoted work, congratulations. From this desirable launching point, I would simply encourage you to replace more and more of your grains and carbs with bigger servings of vegetables and regular selections of natural animal flesh.
Metabolic and Blood Typing Diets
Humans share 99.9% of the same human genome. The other .1% of genetic variation would be your height, body type (ecto endo, mesomorph), eyes, skin color, and a few of those SNPs we discussed earlier. The important thing is that our metabolic machinery works the same way for just about everyone. We burn and store fat the same way, we build muscle and fight microbes the same way – it’s only the degree to which we do those successfully that can be ever-so-slightly impacted by our unique family genes.
Nevertheless, a succession of diet books have enjoyed recent popularity based on the scientifically weak premise that those with an infinitesimally small genetic difference represented by blood type (or a so called “metabolic type” based on blood type) require different eating styles. For example, the premise of Eat Right For Your Type is that the four main blood groups (Type O, A, B and AB) react differently to food and carry disparate recommendations (Type A blood should be vegetarian, Type O should be carnivore, Type B should emphasize dairy, etc.).
The premise metabolic typing diets is that we have distinctive metabolisms (based on our ancestral heritage; indeed blood type is believed to be a good indicator of certain genetic heritage attributes) that are best served by a corresponding nutrition profile of “protein type” (high protein and fat, low carb), “carb type” (dominant carbs, moderate protein, low fat) or “mixed type”.
Unfortunately for the proponents of these diets, there is respected evidence that we diverged in blood types millions of years ago, invalidating the premise entirely that Type O blood represents a descent from hunter-gatherers, Type A from agriculture humans and Type B from herding nomads. Because the last 200 years have seen so much mixing of races and ancestries, blood type heritability is now no different from hair color. You may as well eat according to your hair or eye color – seriously!
There are, indeed, other individual factors that influence our nutritional needs and sensitivities, but I’d argue that these don’t have anything to do with where great-, great-, great-, great- (and so on) grandpa came from. Ultimately, personal preference (within the evolutionary proven guidelines detailed in the Primal Blueprint) far outweighs any blood type concern when it comes to compliance and overall dietary satisfaction. If you descended from Eskimos but dig tropical fruit, hate fish and love turkey, knock yourself out – you’ll be just fine.
Loren Cordain’s Paleo diet is perhaps the most closely related to the Primal Blueprint and based on the similar evolutionary science, but there are still some interpretational differences. We both like higher protein and a fairly copious amount of green leafy vegetables as a base, but Cordain continues to harbor a fear of saturated fats. He still adheres to the failed Conventional Wisdom that saturated fats raise cholesterol and may cause heart disease, so he eschews butter and coconut oil (two of my favorites whose health benefits are supported by extensive research) as well as some of the most tasty forms of meat.
In addition, one of my (and Grok’s) favorite foods – eggs – are on Cordain’s limit list because he believes they, too, can raise cholesterol. Of course, we know that foods that contain cholesterol have been shown not to have an effect on raising blood cholesterol levels. On the other hand, he recommends canola as a good form of Omega 3’s when most canolas are deodorized – a process that actually removes Omega 3’s. Oddly, in an apparent attempt to appeal to the masses, he allows diet sodas to be consumed, whereas I believe them to be as harmful – or even more so – than the common sugary variety.
Backing up a step further, I’ll assert that the most significant difference between the Paleo Diet and the Primal Blueprint is that one is a diet and the other is a way of life. Aside from the minor objections listed previously, the science and the recommendations of the Paleo Diet are generally sound. However, I believe it’s far more effective to adopt a holistic approach to pursuing a healthy, fit, happy lifestyle instead of isolate your focus on a specific issue – even one as important as diet. As I’ve mentioned previously, a disregard for even a single Primal Blueprint lifestyle law (say, getting adequate sleep or avoiding stupid mistakes) can render your devoted eating or exercise efforts virtually worthless.
South Beach Diet
The South Beach diet admirably highlights the importance of controlling insulin levels for weight loss and protection against heart disease. Processed carbs are restricted and emphasis is placed on fruits, vegetables and meats. Unfortunately, there are several holes that arouse my objections. The three-phase diet is regimented and restrictive, leading to potential attrition and extra meal planning stress. After the extremely low carb initial two week phase, author Dr. Arthur Agatston allows the gradual reintroduction of bread, potatoes, rice and pasta into the diet in limited amounts. As you know by now, I see no reason to promote consumption of these foods at all – even in moderation and even favoring the whole grain varieties as Agatston suggests.
I also believe that Agatston over-emphasizes (and misinterprets – in the opinion of some experts) the glycemic index. Instead, I prefer to focus on total insulin load in the diet; hence my rationale for avoiding all grains. Some other nit picks I have are the blanket restriction of saturated fats (I have no problem with saturated fats, particularly when you eat natural animal products with nutrients concentrated in fatty tissue – such as egg yolk or chicken skin); the overemphasis on dairy products (I’ve already discussed at length my feelings about dairy in Chapter 4; they are okay in moderation but by no means should be a centerpiece of the diet); the under emphasis on omega-3 fatty acids, fruits and vegetables; and the token attention given to exercise (little guidance is offered except to say that twenty minutes per day is sufficient).
I am the first to admit that a plant-based diet is a healthy diet. Vegetables and fruits sit firmly at the base of the Primal Blueprint food pyramid. I also strongly validate the vegetarian philosophy that eating mass market animal flesh is both inhumane and unhealthy. Those animals are treated poorly, exist in unsanitary, unnatural, sedentary pens and are plied with hormones, pesticides and antibiotics. They obtain the bulk of their calories from – gulp – grains, which they are not naturally meant to consume either. The result is a far less nutritious version of the animals that our ancestors ate.
Unfortunately, eschewing meat entirely flies in the face of human evolution. Prehistoric human’s quest for more animal foods was one of the key factors in the progression of humanity. Despite the fact that brain growth and development is extremely costly with respect to energy consumption (the primitive and modern human brain both require about 400 kilocalories a day), early humans nevertheless kept growing smarter. It is simply not possible for our prehistoric ancestors to have been vegetarian because they would not have been able to obtain and consume sufficient calories and nutrients to survive on the plant foods that were available of the time. In fact, no race, nation or society has ever existed solely on plant food since man became man.
Today eating a vegetarian diet nearly always results in an excessive consumption of starchy carbohydrates in order to obtain sufficient daily calories. This eating style can put you at risk for the numerous problems detailed in the grains chapter, including excess body fat, Metabolic Syndrome, nutrient deficiencies and hormone irregularities. If, as a vegetarian, you followed the Primal Blueprint and avoided processed carbohydrates like grains and sugars, avoided whole grains, and cut back on legumes, you would be left to obtain most all of your calories from fruits, vegetables, nut and seeds (and perhaps dairy if you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian). It’s certainly possible for the devoted vegetarian to remain healthy and well-nourished, but chances of nutrient deficiencies and lack of compliance (e.g. – addressing hunger and caloric deficits with quick energy sweets) are high, especially if you do even a moderate amount of exercise that stimulates increased caloric demand.
To gain and maintain muscle mass – a key factor in minimizing the aging process -adequate protein consumption is essential for everyone – men, women, children and elderly alike. Fats are essential as well – you simply can’t live without them. On the other hand, carbs provide glucose that serves as short-term fuel for muscles, but it doesn’t do a thing to build or maintain them. In fact, there is no actual requirement for carbs in the human diet.
Instead of rejecting animal products because of the horrors of commercial production, I believe it’s a better option to consider an adequate amount of natural animal products, such as wild fish, eggs or free range land animals. The booming organic industry avails numerous options in most urban areas and well as convenient internet resources that ship organic animal products to your door. If you choose to stand resolute and avoid animal products at some level – from lacto-ovo vegetarian to full-on vegan – you must be extremely diligent to ensure that you obtain a sufficient balance of nutrients from eating large amounts of an extensive variety of plants and take a comprehensive multivitamin/mineral supplement with special attention to B12 that is unavailable from plant sources.
The central premise of Dr. Sears’ Zone diet is to achieve “moderate” insulin balance, but he provides no context to quantify what moderate means except to assure us that eating meals of a 40% carbs, 30% protein, 30 % fat ratio will somehow keep you in perfect balance. For an idea that is the basis of his business empire, I would prefer some evolutionary or scientific support. With 40/30/30 as the guiding factor in your food choices, fat unfortunately gets compromised. The Zone urges you to limit servings of such powerhouse foods as almonds, avocados and even meat (Sears says to choose the leanest cuts only) – simply for the sake of nailing that 30 percent target. Well, I guess if you are eating a diet of forty percent carbs you might have to limit your fat intake because all that insulin will cause you to store it!
Besides the obvious scientific/evolutionary flaws of the seemingly random “zone”, it’s a real chore to come anywhere near your 40/30/30 target at each and every meal. I’ve read volumes of nutrition texts and can recite the caloric value of many foods by memory, but I sure as heck am not inclined to whip out a calculator at the buffet line of a dinner party to make sure my numbers check out. Contrary to the laissez faire, intermittent and often sporadic meal timing in the Primal Blueprint, the Zone goes so far as to set out specific time and frequency intervals for eating. For example, eat five times a day. Eat within an hour after getting up. Eat dinner within two and a half hours of the prescribed afternoon snack (an element that creates a nice little income stream for the Zone brand via the synthetic Zone Energy Bar and related Zone snack products and meal replacements).
The more structure mandated, the more confusion and temptation there is when a dieter gets off track. I strongly reject this approach (even if proponents can claim proven health benefits) in favor of doing what’s sustainable. Experience has taught me that the fewer and more simple the guidelines, the greater chance of success by the participant. Furthermore, when you eat Primal Blueprint style, your fat burning efficiency leads to less hunger and less need to eat in a structured fashion to sustain energy.
Primal Blueprint (Pre-emptive strike…because it’s my book!)
Vegetarians will have objections to my emphasis on meat, but these objections are almost entirely countered (saving the philosophical ones, which involve a personal belief system and not a dietary quality debate) by emphasizing natural animal products and consuming meat with abundant high antioxidant foods like fruits and vegetables. This is a critical point, because I believe it counters any of the research suggesting that meats and high fat diets are unhealthy. In my opinion, adverse study conclusions likely result from participants eating overcooked or heavily processed meat laden with nitrites and other toxins; consuming high fat foods in conjunction with moderate to high carb diets (so insulin drives the fat into storage); consuming trans and hydrogenated fats (troublemakers who get the whole class blamed for their bad behavior); and obtaining insufficient high antioxidant foods like fresh organic produce.
Some dieticians argue that the avoidance of whole grains and legumes compromises nutrient intake, since these foods have long occupied a position at the base of the food pyramid. We know already that grains and legumes stress the insulin response system and are far inferior sources of vitamins and minerals – particularly on a per calorie “bang for your buck” basis – than plants and animals. Refer to the fiber question in this chapter for details on why the incidental amounts offered in fruits and vegetables are plenty for a healthy diet and why grain consumption can present health risks associated with excess fiber consumption. The phytates in grains are known to bind with minerals and prevent their absorption. The gluten, lectin and other agents compromise immune function for a great many humans, both on a noticeable allergic level and a more insidious sub-clinical level as I discussed in my own experience. Recommending that you should consume grains as a nutrient source is like suggesting that roofing nails are a great source of dietary iron. They certainly are, but there are much more effective ways to get your nutrition.
Those in the low-fat camp will shudder at the ample amounts of fat provided by the consumption of animal meats, olive oil, nuts, butter and avocados. However, we know that heart disease is related more to the insulin and inflammatory elements of your diet than it is to fat intake. The continued popularity of the sentiment that too much fat is bad for you simply blows my mind. It’s time to separate once and for all good fats from bad. Fortunately, the health dangers of trans and partially hydrogenated fats in most vegetable oils are now well accepted, as are the health benefits of consuming omega-3 fats.
We’re getting there, but we need to also recognize that saturated fat is not evil either. The connection between saturated fat consumption and poor health is likely related to two things: the consequences of consuming a lot of saturated fat with generally promoted (read: high to very high) carb intake (you’ll get fat) and to the toxins contained in unhealthy commercial animals – such as the hormones, pesticides, antibiotics and high omega-6/low omega-3 ratios in grain fed animals.
Dr. Ron Rosedale, author of the Rosedale Diet and acclaimed for reversing Type II Diabetes, obesity and heart disease through diet, says, “a high complex-carbohydrate, low-saturated-fat diet is an absolute oxymoron. A high-complex-carbohydrate diet is nothing but a high-glucose diet, or a high-sugar diet. Your body is just going to store it as saturated fat (since we have very limited glycogen stores in muscle and liver), and the body makes it into saturated fat quite readily.”
While carbohydrates are widely believed and promoted to be essential to a healthy diet, there is no requirement for carbohydrates in the human diet, and there is certainly no conclusive proof that we need anything more than very moderate amounts recommended by the Primal Blueprint.
The Biggest Losers
“Who will be the biggest loser this week?” – goes the tag line of the popular boot camp weight loss competition television program. The answer is definitely the public. The credibility of someone like Dr. Agatston, a Florida cardiologist, is strained when he suggests you can lose up to thirteen pounds in the initial two week phase. As I discussed in detail in Chapter 3, this “Biggest Loser” mentality is severely flawed and at a minimum an egregious abuse of Agatston’s position of influence as a medical professional and best-selling author. Alas, these are the claims that sell books to a willing public, and the major diet players are virtually forced to position their work in this light to light up the cash registers. People with flawed mentalities resulting from manipulative advertising and other cultural forces would be best advised to work on their heads before turning attention to their nutrient ratios!
The patients who lose thirteen pounds in two weeks on the Atkins Diet or South Beach Diet are essentially depleting their muscle tissue, water retention level and some body fat on their extreme endeavor. And they are setting themselves up for a profound rebound effect as the human organism’s survival instinct will likely stimulate over-consumption of quick energy foods and a bout with lingering fatigue in the aftermath of such an ordeal. After the pilot DeLeo lost forty pounds in his thirteen days in the Sierra (how’s that for a diet “success” story?), he endured a recovery period of minimal activity, chronic fatigue, frequent napping, lingering physical and psychological pain and weakness, and overall extensive downtime for many months.
We are all familiar with the massive number of dieters who gain most or all of the weight back. You may have heard the oft-reported government survey figure that 97% of dieters gain the weight back within five years. More amusing is a recent study from Dr. Traci Mann, a UCLA psychology professor, who tracked the long term success rate of participants in thirty one popular diets. The study reported that 41% of participants gained back more weight than they lost within one year. While Mann admitted the number seemed “depressing” she also revealed that “we have strong reasons to feel that this number under-represents the true number of participants who gained back more weight than they lost.” Among them, people dropping out of contact due to embarrassment and people crash-dieting right before the study period ended to save face!
What a complete mess we are in. We need to take a step back and adjust our collective mentality to approach the subject of healthy eating with a fresh perspective. There is no reason why any of us should suffer from excessive body fat, emotional stress or disappointment on the subject of eating. I am advocating a variable, intuitive eating style that includes a tremendous variety of delicious foods and minimal (from one point of view anyway!) restrictions. Furthermore, I am not irresponsibly selling the Primal Blueprint eating style as the end all secret to good health and longevity. The other Primal Blueprint laws go hand in hand with eating style to produce best results. Ignoring them is recipe for failure. For example, an extreme endurance athlete immersed in a stressful training program (burning carbs for hours on end every day) will flat out crash and burn eating Primal Blueprint style. For such an athlete, we must first address the issue of sensible training methods before turning our attention to dietary habits.