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Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
19 Sep

The Primal Blueprint Refresher – A Dramatic Reading

brightideasEven the advanced among us could use a Primal refresher now and then. Even the diehards could stand to bone up on the material. We’ve all been caught with our pants around our ankles when someone asks about “our weird diet.” Well, no longer. Today, you’re taking a short refresher on the Primal Blueprint. All the burning questions, little details, and inquiries people are likely to throw your way make an appearance. To switch things up, I thought it might be fun to turn it into a dialogue between two fictional characters.

Be nice, now. I’m no playwright. This isn’t trying to be “Waiting for Godot” or “Death of a Salesman” or anything like that. I’m just having fun here. Plus, since the following lines are based on bits of conversation that I’ve actually witnessed and participated in, it might actually be helpful if you find yourself in a similar situation.

SETTING: Your typical 2013 start-up tech office. Absent are the cubicle matrices of the mid 1990s, replaced by tasteful but comfortable high-end furniture, exposed brick, murals by local graffiti artists, communal desks, combination foosball/ping-pong tables, and troughs of snacks and drinks.

AT RISE: PRIMAL GUY and COWORKER are huddled around the espresso machine, the hiss of steam and the aroma of single origin Guatemalan beans heavy in the air. PRIMAL GUY wears Vibram Fivefingers on his feet and quiet confidence on his demeanor. He is fit and muscular, with a sturdy torso and sturdier legs. COWORKER is mostly thin except for a noticeable paunch. As he waits for the beans to finish, his foot taps impatiently. He seems nervous about nothing in particular, and somehow everything.

TIME: 10 AM, Pacific.

COWORKER: Man, this needs to finish like YESTERDAY. I can’t even keep my eyes open at my desk, and I just had a coffee like an hour ago.

(COWORKER smacks the lagging espresso machine, impatient.)

PRIMAL GUY: Here, have mine. I can wait.

COWORKER: Thanks, dude. I don’t know how you do it. I almost never see you drinking coffee. Where do you get your energy?

PRIMAL GUY: Well, what’s a typical breakfast look like for you?

COWORKER: That’s the thing that gets me. You’d think a big bowl of cereal, tall glass of orange juice and a granola bar or two would keep me full for more than an hour and give me plenty of energy, but it doesn’t. I’m starving and dragging by mid morning.

(COWORKER adds a half-cup of skim milk to his espresso, followed by a liberal dose of agave syrup. PRIMAL GUY wonders if he should start by saying something about the fructose.)

PRIMAL GUY: That’s because you’re basically eating pure sugar. Where’s the fat? The protein? And if that’s a typical breakfast? You’re trying to create lasting energy out of a fleeting, transient source of energy. Sugar burns and then you need more of it.

COWORKER: Uhhh, fat and protein? Are you crazy? What’s that look like – what do you eat for breakfast?

PRIMAL GUY: Either steak and eggs or bacon and eggs or steak and bacon and eggs, usually with a bowl of berries.

(This sends COWORKER reeling in obvious disbelief.)

COWORKER: Whaa? Man, I’d love to eat steak and eggs every morning, but my family’s got a history of heart disease and you know what they say…

PRIMAL GUY: I know what they say, but it’s wrong. Saturated fat is actually a benign, even healthy source of fat that’s never been conclusively linked to heart disease. It’s the most stable kind, practically impervious to the oxidative damage that’s responsible for most heart disease. As for eggs? In the vast majority of people, dietary cholesterol from eggs does not increase blood cholesterol. Heck, it even improves cholesterol in some folks, increasing “good cholesterol” more than “bad cholesterol.”

COWORKER: “Good cholesterol”? There is such a thing? I thought all cholesterol was bad.

PRIMAL GUY: The old model of the arteries getting clogged up with cholesterol like what happens to your pipes when you dump fat down the drain is wrong. Cholesterol isn’t a monolithic entity. HDL is “good” and LDL is “bad,” but even that’s too simplistic. It’s not bad. It’s necessary for optimal health! We make important hormones like testosterone out of cholesterol, and our body uses HDL and LDL particles to deliver nutrients. In fact, when it comes to overall mortality – you know, dying and stuff – cholesterol around 180-220 looks to be ideal.

COWORKER: Okay, so even if fat and cholesterol aren’t necessarily bad for you, that doesn’t mean you should actively seek it out.

PRIMAL GUY: Actually, you know how you asked how I never quite need coffee? It’s because I’m fat-adapted. Thanks to my high-fat diet, I have the metabolic flexibility to tap into my stored body fat whenever I need to. See, we store body fat because it’s a fantastic energy source. It burns clean and we can store upwards of tens of thousands of calories worth. I’m reasonably lean with fairly low body fat and I still have over 50,000 calories worth on my body. Meanwhile, I can only store about 500 grams of sugar in the form of liver and muscle glycogen. It serves its purpose to be sure, but you can’t rely on glycogen indefinitely without constant refills. That’s where your need to snack comes from. It also explains why your energy levels dip an hour or two after eating.

COWORKER: Why do I need so much protein? I mean, I’m no bodybuilder, my doctor said too much protein is bad for my kidneys, and my vegetarian buddies say it’ll destroy my bones.

PRIMAL GUY: Well, you had mentioned never feeling quite full. I suspect that’s because you’re not eating enough protein. Protein (especially with fat) is the most satiating macronutrient. It fills you up, especially when you eat it in the morning. As for the kidney thing, that’s been disproven. People with existing kidney issues might need to watch their protein intake, but kidney impairments aren’t caused by how much protein you eat; they’re most intimately linked to diabetes and hypertension, both of which an adequate protein intake ironically improves. The bone health claim is really silly, as protein actually works synergistically with calcium to improve bone metabolism and calcium retention.

COWORKER: How about exercise? I mean, you’re in great shape. You must spend all day in the gym and run ten miles a day to get that kind of body!

PRIMAL GUY: Ha! Man, I spend at most two hours a week in the gym – usually much less – and haven’t run more than a couple miles at a time for years. I actually find it way more effective to make my short workouts shorter and more intense and my long workouts longer and easier. When I go hard, I go hard, and when I take it easy, I really take it easy. Hanging out in the middle, where you’re trying to maintain a high intensity and a drastically elevated heart rate for 45 minutes to an hour, is both miserable and ultimately ineffective. Sure, it’ll make you good at running, but you run the risk of joint damage, oxidative stress, and elevated cortisol.

COWORKER: Sounds good to me! What’s that cortisol stuff you mentioned, though?

PRIMAL GUY: Cortisol is the premier stress hormone. It’s basically what our body makes in times of acute stress, like facing down a tiger or experiencing a famine. It increases alertness and helps us deal with the stressful situation. Unfortunately, since it’s a signal of starvation and “hard times,” it also breaks down muscle tissue for energy and increases belly fat. All good when you’re actually starving and need the energy at any cost, a disaster when your body only thinks you’re in danger because you’re stressing out over a traffic jam every day or doing too much chronic cardio.

(COWORKER pulls out a diagonally cut cheese sandwich and takes a bite, offering the second half to PRIMAL GUY.)

PRIMAL GUY: No, thanks. Thanks anyway though.

COWORKER: Ah, that’s right! You don’t eat bread, do you? You’re always eating the sandwich interiors! What’s wrong with bread?

PRIMAL GUY: It’s not just bread. It’s grains in general. Think of it like this: unlike many other organisms, grains have no way to defend themselves. They can’t run. They can’t fight. They can’t hide. So they have to defend themselves with proteins like gluten, lectins, and other antinutrients that punch holes in your intestinal lining, allow foreign food substances into your bloodstream to cause problems and trigger your immune response, and inhibit the absorption of nutrients. You’ve probably heard of gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley. It’s the worst of the bunch. If it isn’t degraded entirely by your gut, it can tell the junctions keeping the contents of your stomach out of your bloodstream to open up and let things pass through to the blood, where they can increase inflammation and even trigger autoimmune diseases. Some say that only people with a diagnosed gluten allergy have to worry, but there’s compelling evidence that suggests the majority of people may have sensitivities to gluten. It’s just likely underdiagnosed. Lots of people who never thought they had issues with gluten experience huge benefits when they remove it from their diet.

COWORKER: So it seems like you’re against carbs, huh?

PRIMAL GUY: It’s more that I’m against unnecessary carbs in sedentary people. When you’re sedentary, you’re usually insulin resistant with higher baseline levels of insulin. This is bad because insulin inhibits the release of fat from body fat stores. When an insulin resistant person consumes carbs, they secrete more insulin than normal, which causes greater retention and storage of fat. Athletes need more carbs because they’re burning through their glycogen stores. Plus, they can handle more because their insulin resistance is so low. I’m a fairly active guy myself, but I’m not an elite athlete or exercise addict. I find I just don’t need much more than 150 grams of carbs. Maybe a bit more on really heavy workout days. Often far less.

(COWORKER visibly wilts at the thought of eating fewer carbs. PRIMAL GUY notices.)

COWORKER: How do you get carbs without grains?

PRIMAL GUY: Well, you can eat fruit, vegetables, tubers like sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, roots. There are tons of healthy sources of carbs that don’t come with the antinutrients found in grains and legumes. Eat them as you see fit.

COWORKER: This sounds pretty doable, to be honest. Eat more meat, eggs, vegetables, and fruit. Focus on fat and protein. Avoid grains, legumes, and too many unnecessary carbs. Don’t exercise too much. Okay! I’ll start right now!

(COWORKER pulls out the bottle of community soybean oil from the kitchen cabinet and begins frying a couple eggs he finds in the fridge.)

PRIMAL GUY: Oh, about that. You probably don’t want to be using soybean oil. Or heck, any seed or vegetable oil for that matter. Or trans-fats.

COWORKER: Trans-fat I knew about, but isn’t vegetable oil supposed to be healthy?

PRIMAL GUY: Remember what I told you about saturated fat? How it’s actually healthier and more stable than other fats? Polyunsaturated fats - the kind found in soybean and other seed oils like corn oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and grapeseed oil along with margarine – are the exact opposite: highly unstable when exposed to heat, oxygen, or light. So when we cook with them, we’re damaging them, if they haven’t already been damaged by being stored for months in a warm warehouse waiting to be shipped. Oxidized polyunsaturated fats can lead to oxidized LDL particles, which are a big risk factor for heart disease. Plus, our bodies take the polyunsaturated fats we eat and make inflammatory or anti-inflammatory signaling molecules that form part of the stress response. Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils are inflammatory precursors. We can offset this by eating more fatty fish, which contain the anti-inflammatory precursors known as polyunsaturated omega-3 fats, but it’s better to just reduce the overall intake of omega-6s.

COWORKER: What do I use instead?

PRIMAL GUY: Use buttercoconut oilolive oillardtallowAfrican palm oilmacadamia oil, avocado oil, or ghee instead. Those are all more stable cooking fats. They’re also really, really delicious.

COWORKER: You mean to tell me that butter is okay to use? That not only is it okay, it’s encouraged?

PRIMAL GUY: Yup. I never said this Primal stuff was hard, now did I?

END SCENE

Thanks for reading (out loud, with a partner?), folks! Take care and Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

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

  1. I wish Mark would write a similar dialogue assuming the “coworker” is an extremely intelligent and critical person with a strong background in chemistry/physics/medicine.
    I personally work in academia and telling some astute fellow mathematician / chemistry professor etc. that grains are unhealthy “because they can’t run away” (then carrots are unhealthy too, right?) or “because they contain proteins that punch holes in your intestinal lining” (how?) would only earn me pitying looks and uncomfortable questions.

    Actually, I’m myself starting to be less and less convinced by the standard arguments given for primal/paleo. I don’t need a bunch of publications (I couldn’t read them all thoroughly anyway), but some plausible (plausible for critically and analytically thinking people!!) explanations would be nice.

    Anna wrote on September 21st, 2013
    • Seconded. (my audience: molecular biologists at a food&agriculture centered university.) I dread the day my colleagues start asking questions about why I eat what I eat. So far, I’ve only occasionaly been asked *what* I’m eating, and answering “beetroot and feta salad” or “papaya” was sufficient.

      So although I can explain about nutrient-denseness or avoiding insulin-spiking and sugarcrashing, I’m not sure how to base the claim that slow carbs are still too fast, and I’d dig my own grave trying to justify the amount of eggs I eat for the cholesterol they contain. Sure it’s a cell wall component and hormone precursor, but all animals (including humans) biosynthesise and recycle the stuff, and I doubt you’d need much to meet your hormone requirements…

      Feather wrote on September 21st, 2013
  2. I have faced this situation so many times. Despite my best efforts to explain why they should seek to question conventional dietary advice, my colleagues will not understand that their diets are doing them harm. On Friday when everyone else was queuing for “healthy” couscous salad and whole grain bread I pulled out a tuna and egg salad with home made avocado oil mayo. Everyone at work knows I am trying to lose weight and I got the worst lecture of my life about why I was spoiling a perfectly healthy tuna salad with all the cholesterol and saturated fat in the eggs and mayo.

    Despite my best efforts to tell them otherwise and even point them in the direction of this website, all I got was pitying looks.

    I think I might send them all a link to this post. If nothing else at least they might stop telling me off for snacking on meats and high fat foods!

    Jessica wrote on September 22nd, 2013
  3. I wish people would listen when you try to explain it to them. I have recently been traveling around for a project and meeting lots of new people, and sticking to primal was hard, not just because i had to figure out a way to either prepare my meals on-the-go or find the best options in supermarkets and railwail stations, but also because there were always free sandwiches and SO many people were wondering why I didn’t eat those. Even the people who had heard of low-carb or even primal diets were thinking that it must be because of weight loss (it is, but only in part), and a lot of them have all sorts of diets confused and were thinking I must also be a vegetarian, or macro-biotic, or that it is some kind of fad. And the one thing I heard the most: “Well, everyone is different! It’s nice that it works for you but my body couldn’t function that way” or even “Our bodies can adapt to anything and it doesn’t matter”. How do you even respond to that without being rude?

    Linda wrote on September 22nd, 2013
  4. I find it ironic that in everyday social interactions, the ones knocking it are the ones who arent really open to new things any way. Its never been about educating people but good grief the results me and my significant other have gotten sure has people asking and asking and asking some more. The conversations are basically fragmented versions of the conversation written here. Especially having to explain that something coming from the “earth” does not equal healthy, especially things that have no active defense system(grains and legumes).

    Shane wrote on September 23rd, 2013
  5. 6oz of almonds vs a whopping 3.2 pounds of taters, that hardly seems like a fair comparison!

    Jason wrote on September 19th, 2013
  6. He was mostly referring to cravings and hunger. And the sugar/insulin crash after the first coffees wear off.

    Count. wrote on September 19th, 2013
  7. 3.2 pounds of white potatoes is 6-7 small potatoes and about 1200 calories. That’s too much starch. Also, who eats dry potatoes? Most people would add butter, sour cream, or oil for them to even taste good. 3.2 lb of potatoes makes for an extremely unbalanced macro ratio for breakfast and, yes, while I’d be physically “full”, I’d still be craving carbs & sugar like crazy due to the insulin/blood sugar overload. Potatoes are pure starch, but almonds aren’t pure fat, so that’s not really a good example. As long as we’re using a food containing significant amounts of both protein and fat, why not 1/2 a potato with 3 eggs and 4 oz.smoked salmon? That would tide me over till dinner, and have 1/3 the calories of 3.2 pounds of potatoes (and taste way better.)

    peter wrote on September 19th, 2013
  8. ” Once the glucose calories you ingested run out, you slowly and seamlessly burn more fat.”

    Ha, ha, ha. Your body maybe. The rest of us get sugar crashes until our liver has time to kick in. My hypoglycemic husband get the “shakes” if he’s not careful. That’s a progression of crappy and extreme bodily reactions until he finishes exhausted and then “seamlessly” begins to burn fat.

    ” You absolutely do not need to refuel with more sugar quickly, unless you consume a diet so high in polyunsaturated fat your mitochondria are damaged and can’t oxidize glucose anymore. “

    The known emergency solution to low blood sugar in diabetics and hypoglycemics is the immediate ingestion of glucose in any form they can get their hands on. I’ve never once heard the origination of disorders with involving insulin and blood sugar being traced to polyunsaturated fat. (Although I’m sure it doesn’t help) However, many pre-diabetics have brought on full blown Type II by refusing to cut their sugar (and starch intake.

    ” “Sugar” is as benign a source of calories as saturated fat is, as long as you’re getting it from a good source.

    Oatmeal, granola and orange juice probably isn’t a very nutritious, satisfying breakfast for most of us. Potatoes, fruit and yogurt, on the other hand, is.”

    I’m thinking this post is the makings of a post of a die hard sugar addict? Just wow on the sugar sentence.

    Because I’m generally fat-adapted and avoid sugar, eating fruit without a meal will bring on mild sugar crashes. Even to the point of extra hunger pains just an hour or two later. Too much sugar is just too much sugar, regardless of source.

    ” If you don’t believe me, consume 6oz of almonds one morning and 3.2 pounds of white potatoes the next. See which one keeps you fuller longer.”

    Yep. There’s definitely more than a whiff of addiction out there, right down to the false choices. Both would make me ill, so I’ll pass.

    Amy wrote on September 19th, 2013
  9. 6 oz of almonds is almost 1000 calories, so not much difference in the calorie area, which might’ve been what he was getting at (your other points notwithstanding).

    Darcie wrote on September 19th, 2013
  10. Yes, and 6 oz. of almonds is nearly 1/2 a lb, which is far more almonds than anyone generally consumes. Even if they did eat that many almonds, at least they wouldn’t need to add more fat to make them palatable – raw almonds are tasty! Also, I believe I would feel more satiety with the almonds due to the more balanced macros. Even if the potatoes were eaten dry, they may fill me up on that particular morning – but surely making a habit of eating that much starch every morning would lead to insulin resistance and excess fat storage over time.

    peter wrote on September 19th, 2013
  11. Agree!!!

    Vanessa wrote on September 19th, 2013
  12. You really make no sense…

    Nomad wrote on September 19th, 2013
  13. Chocotaco is a die-hard troll. Please stop feeding him.

    Malandro wrote on September 19th, 2013
  14. Why is disagreeing respectfully and presenting contrary arguments indicative of being a troll? Or am I missing something?

    Darcie wrote on September 19th, 2013
  15. When virtually every single comment that someone makes flies in the face of all the principles upon which the information on this site is founded, that’s trolling (not to mention that the contrary arguments presented are never substantiated with credible references).

    If I was to go onto a vegan blog, and post frequent comments criticizing the entire concept of veganism, would that be “disagreeing respectfully”, or trolling?

    Malandro wrote on September 20th, 2013
  16. I like the image of the immobile salmon…

    Anyway, I presume that Mark’s decision to sell omega-3 / fish oil supplements is based on evidence that it’s good for us. So let’s direct that question to Mark / the forum…

    Assuming that it is good for us, then I’m asking why (given that it is also unstable). What is the mechanism?

    I’m also confused because the (very useful) overview article that Mark links to above states that “replacing SFA with polyunsaturated fat modestly lowers coronary heart disease risk, with ~10% risk reduction for a 5% energy substitution”.

    Now, I know that that’s a very very small reduction in absolute risk (not worth worrying about, and contradicted by other studies, see below), but it still makes me wonder how / why PUFA had this effect in the study.

    (At this point, I usually think — aha it’s the fish oil PUFA that is having the beneficial effect, not the seed oil PUFA, a la (Ramsden 2010; 2013); but then I’m back wondering why fish oil is good for you.)

    ___
    Ramsden, C. E., Hibbeln, J. R., Majchrzak, S. F., & Davis, J. M. (2010). n-6 Fatty acid-specific and mixed polyunsaturate dietary interventions have different effects on CHD risk: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Nutrition, 104(11), 1586-1600. (://000285463900003)

    “Advice to specifically increase n-6 PUFA intake, based on mixed n-3/n-6 RCT data, is unlikely to provide the intended benefits, and may actually increase the risks of CHD and death.”

    Ramsden, C. E., Zamora, D., Leelarthaepin, B., Majchrzak-Hong, S. F., Faurot, K. R., Suchindran, C. M., et al. (2013). Use of dietary linoleic acid for secondary prevention of coronary heart disease and death: evaluation of recovered data from the Sydney Diet Heart Study and updated meta-analysis. BMJ, 346.

    “clinical benefits of the most abundant polyunsaturated fatty acid, omega 6 linoleic acid, have not been established. In this cohort, substituting dietary linoleic acid in place of saturated fats increased the rates of death from all causes, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. An updated meta-analysis of linoleic acid intervention trials showed no evidence of cardiovascular benefit.”

    Scott UK wrote on September 20th, 2013
  17. Daniel wrote on September 20th, 2013

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