10 Primal-Friendly Tips from Wise People Throughout History

Primal Tips from Wise People Throughout History in lineI’m not the first one to talk about the importance of sleep, the primacy of gut health, the impact food has on your well-being, how we divorce ourselves from nature at our peril, and why everyone needs to explore and express and enhance their physical capacities. Wise men and women have been saying the same things for thousands of years around campfires, on scrolls, during lectures, in town squares, and on the printed page. Today, we’re going to read about ten of them.

For each, I’ve attempted to confirm that these are indeed real quotes, claims, and practices. And in the off chance that I get it wrong and a misattribution slips through, that doesn’t take away from the quality of the content. Good tips are good tips.

1. Jeanne Calment, famous French supercentenarian, on olive oil, chocolate, and the importance of taking it easy.

There’s not a ton to say. She wasn’t writing diet books or tweeting links to nutrition studies. She was no guru or life coach. She didn’t really give explicit life advice. But she embodied both the nutritive and psychological aspects of Primal living. She poured olive oil all over food and rubbed it into her skin. She ate a kilo of chocolate a week and drank red wine daily. She eschewed sports but loved to stay active, riding bikes, and even taking up fencing at the age of 85. She lived to 122 while staying active, cheerful, and taking pleasure in life.

2. Socrates, Greek philosopher, on physical fitness.

To Socrates, physical fitness wasn’t an elective. It wasn’t extracurricular. It was a pre-requisite for being a real man (ladies, rest assured if we were talking about @socrates he’d be more gender inclusive). Not a “real man” in the macho sense. A real man in that you weren’t a real human being if you neglected your physical capabilities. In his own words, “No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which is body is capable.” I can’t disagree. Can you?

3. Ben Franklin, founding father, on cold exposure and swimming.

Ben Franklin was a renaissance man, the patron saint of entrepreneurs, and an inveterate dabbler. But he wasn’t just a thinker or a politician. He was virile and advocated lifting weights when almost no one else did. He considered sleeping in cold rooms a curative and enjoyed cold water, especially before bed. Living in London during winter, he spent two or three hours swimming in the river every night. This wasn’t puttering around, either; the man was a master swimmer, able to swim three and a half miles in a single bout.

4. Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady, on the necessity of 28 eggs a week.

She wasn’t called the Iron Lady for her strong demeanor and unflinching opposition to the Soviet Union. She was called the Iron Lady because she ate so much steak, eggs, and spinach. Okay, I lied about that, but she really did eat that way. On top of her 28 eggs each week, she also enjoyed spinach, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, black coffee, “plenty of” steak, lamb chops, whisky, fish, and grapefruit. Oh, and there was a bit of toast now and again, but we’ll forgive her.

5. John Muir, naturalist philosopher, on the essentiality of nature.

If you didn’t know better, you might think the man responsible for quotes like “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness” and “The mountains are calling and I must go” was some pants-less SF tech exec in the midst of an ayahuasca ceremony at Burning Man. Actually, it was a 19th century Scottish-American suit-wearing, voluminous beard-having naturalist and philosopher named John Muir. Muir was the real deal. He not only enjoyed nature on a personal level, he established Yosemite National Park and taught an entire nation the importance of wilderness preservation. Hell, without Muir, we might not think of nature the way we folks in the Primal community do today—as a place of great spiritual significance.

6. Hippocrates, ancient physician, on walking and gut health.

Hippocrates is often credited with “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” Just about every alternative nutrition health site will spout that off at some point in their timeline. It’s a great sentiment, and I mostly agree, but there’s no strong evidence Hippocrates actually said it. What he did say for certain was “Walking is man’s best medicine.” Simple, but deep as hell. See, Hippocrates isn’t saying walking is a cure-all. You can’t “walk off leukemia.” But, if medicine’s first priority is to “do no harm”—which, coincidentally, Hippocrates also coined—walking does that in spades. Walking is safe and helpful for almost everyone and everything. I can’t imagine a condition that walking will exacerbate, except for maybe a badly sprained ankle or something. And even then, walking with good form while avoiding pain will speed up your recovery from an ankle sprain.

Another Hippocrates quote is “All disease begins in the gut.” Now, he may not have known about resistant starch, soil-based probiotics, or kimchi. He didn’t have a papyrus Bristol Stool Chart on his office wall. He still hit the nail on the head. Your immune system—the first line of defense against pathogens, endotoxins, and other invaders—resides primarily in the gut. If you can’t digest your food or absorb nutrients, you won’t last long. If your gut biome is messed up, you’re more susceptible to autoimmune diseases and pathogens. Inflammation starts in the gut. Modern researchers are even proposing that many metabolic diseases and disorders begin with a dysregulation of our gut biome. We don’t know everything. We’re probably missing a lot more than we’ve discovered. Whichever way you cut it, though, the gut is a hugely important player in our health. We can’t say for sure if all disease begins in the gut, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true.

7. Joan Gussow, food policy expert, farmer, and nutrition professor, on butter vs. margarine.

Joan Gussow is the lady who started the local food movement, invades and informs the thoughts of every New Yorker-reader’s favorite food writer—Michael Pollan—and, when asked about the eternal butter vs margarine debate, replied “I trust cows more than chemists.” Damn right.

8. Julia Child, French chef and CIA spook, on fear of fat.

Julia Child loved fat, pitied those who feared it, and never let up. If someone was “afraid of butter,” they could “use cream.” Regarding “healthy eating,” she said “the only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”  In response to critics at the height of the low-fat era, Child maintained “I like marble steaks, and I like butter. I am very careful to eat two tablespoons of saturated fat a day, with greatest pleasure.” Anyone who wants to learn the basics (and more) should pick up a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cookingby the way.

9. Eugen Sandow, physical culturalist, on cold plunges and strength training.

As a kid traveling through Italy, Eugen (it’s really hard not to add that extra “e”) Sandow marveled at the impressive physiques of the classic Hellenic statues. Though most people assumed they were exaggerated representations of the ideal physique rather than recreations of actual bodies, Sandow disagreed: the perfect Greek physique was achievable, and he was going to get it. He did. In an age of lean but willowy men, Sandow became a beast with his rippled, sinewy physique. In 1897, he wrote one of the first, and probably the most complete, tomes of physical culture. Strength and How to Obtain It is still relevant today. It lays out Sandow’s philosophy of training, explores the extra benefits of exercise (trains both body and mind), explains “the secret of the cold bath,” stresses the importance of nutrition and recovery, and arrives at many of the same concepts bodybuilders discovered half a century later (isolating muscles to sculpt them, meditating on the “feel” of the muscle as you’re using it). Oh, and it’s got some incredible photos of Sandow’s physique.

10. Jiddu Krishnamurti, anti-guru guru, on being your own guru.

In the latter half of the 19th century, a group of secular “seekers after Truth” formed The Theosophical Society, an organization with some very lofty goals: promoting unity and brotherhood among all people and leading humanity to become willing and conscious participants in the evolutionary process. They eventually discovered an Indian teenager named Jiddu Krishnamurti, and decided he was their messiah—the most advanced spiritual entity on earth, or “World Teacher.” He went along with it for some time, preparing to lead humanity into a new era of enlightenment until, at age 34, he realized how silly and preposterous it all was. From then on, he rejected the entire concept of gurus, teachers, and spiritual leaders, proclaiming truth to be a “pathless land” that we must explore on our own. Ultimately, all you have is you. You can’t be taught; you must learn. You don’t lie back and let knowledge, wisdom, and advice wash over you. You plunge headfirst into it, marinate awhile, and actively absorb it. Jiddu Krishnamurti was the anti-guru, a teacher and speaker and philosopher who, on paper, resembled the prototypical guru. He “taught.” He “spoke.” He “gave advice.” But the crux of his teachings rested on the abolition of dependence upon the external—teachers, ideologies, religions, dogmas—for validation of the internal. According to him the only guru, teacher, and leader in your life was you. It’s a lot of responsibility, sure. Knowledge exists external to us, of course. Experts in a thousand different fields know more than you and reading and hearing what they have to say can be useful. But the ultimate decision of how to respond and handle that information rests in your hands. You must find the path, or realize that the path doesn’t really exist.

As you can see, you don’t have to have worn a toga and witnessed the birth of democracy to have wisdom to impart.

Now let’s hear from you. Who did I miss? What other Primal-friendly wisdom has been handed out across the ages?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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66 thoughts on “10 Primal-Friendly Tips from Wise People Throughout History”

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  1. It is amazing to see that what we might think are “new and radical” ideas are simple truths we used to know- and have forgotten. This was a fun read Mark, thanks for the reminder that we aren’t breaking new ground- just dusting off previous well-traveled paths.

  2. Interesting idea.

    I guess it’s mostly about fun.

    Here’s a reflection on the comment attributed to Socrates, though. (I say “attributed” because Socrates didn’t actually write anything himself – he was just became the Soc-puppet of others who did.) Physical training was important in the Ancient Greek polis, because it had a *military* application: the notion was that young men had to be capable of defending their city.

    It’s a remarkable fact that “music” (a term with a wider application than our English word) and “gymnastic” (i.e. physical/military training) were regarded as the foundational subjects in education among the Greeks. (This is so in Plato’s [i]Republic[/i] but it hardly originates with him.) In contemporary societies, of course, the most important subjects are believed to be reading, writing and arithmetic – the 3 Rs – and music and physical education are lucky to get in the curriculum at all. It shows how different the Greek mind was from the contemporary one.

  3. Mrs. Thatcher may not be the best primal witness, because she died after a long, devastating period of alzheimer’s disease. No “Live long, drop dead” at all.

    1. IIRC, she used to boast of only taking two hours sleep a night. Not the best practice for one’s health, and I wonder if that explains her dementia. I understand that she became a dipsomaniac in the end, too—perhaps living with Dennis hadn’t helped in that regard, since I think he was known as one for bending the elbow.

    2. That was my first thought too A shame to lose such a good mind to a devastating disease like Alzheimer’s. Obviously a good diet doesn’t prevent everything. I also wonder what proof there is that Jeanne Calment actually did live to be 122. Probably mostly genetic if she did, although her love of olive oil, red wine and chocolate probably didn’t hurt.

      1. A good diet doesn’t prevent anything ?? That’s like saying a bad diet doesn’t hurt anything. Why should we even bother ?

    3. She was active up to 77 before her health failed, having led her nation through 12 years of revolutionary change as the first female PM, living into the Iron Lady, no sleep and whisky image because that was what you did back then. Half what she did would leave most of us a gibbering wreck. It was probably retirement and losing Denis that did for her, her diet must have supported her pretty well.

  4. That only problem with citing Margaret Thatcher is that she ended up with dementia.

  5. I especially appreciated the last one “Being your own guru”. As much as I listen to wise and experienced advice, I can never limit myself to just one person’s view. I have to follow my own individual plan. And besides, I just can’t picture Mark trading his board shorts for an orange robe!

  6. I like these quotes which fit in with Primal living:

    “Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”
    Mark Twain

    “That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.”
    Henry David Thoreau

    “Only after the last tree has been cut down. Only after the last river has been poisoned. Only after the last fish has been caught. Only then you will find that money cannot be eaten.”
    Cree Indian Proverb

    1. Wow, love these, especially the Cree Indian Proverb. Thanks for posting them.

    2. I’m not sure that we can claim as “old Indian proverb” an idea that has to have been foreign to Indians until very recently.

      Poisoning rivers is not something that they knew could be done, nor cutting down entire forests. Nor did money in any form pay a major part in their lives.

      Reasonable scepticism is a Primal trait. Unreasonable gullibility is not.

      1. Native American/First Nations culture was not nearly as one-dimensional as modern convention seems to think. They were not strangers to the ugly side of humanity prior to European contact.

        I do not know the origin of the above Cree proverb, and it may actually refer to industrial runoff, modern logging practices, etc. – but every concept mentioned in the quote would have been familiar pre-contact (as did the concept of hyperbole).

        For instance, drinking downstream from a dead body can be considered poisonous.
        While fiat currency may not have existed; trade, greed, and precious objects certainly did.
        As for cutting down trees, they didn’t build their dwellings out of air.

        Even if it was coined post-contact, it may still be old compared to many of the other quotes listed.

  7. “It’s like butter.’

    Mike Meyers, aka Linda Richman from Coffee Talk

  8. “Sleep no more!
    Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
    Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,
    The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
    Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
    Chief nourisher in life’s feast,–”

    Shakespeare on a good night’s sleep

    But then Macbeth has to murder to stay in power, a high stress occupation.

  9. Great article. It is wonderful to have this historical reference.

    1. I especially like Socrates. It’s difficult to respect any leader or teacher who is not physically fit.

  10. It’s amazing to me how these themes keep recurring throughout history…must be important stuff.

  11. I think of Oscar Wilde. Death along with humor, both being primal…

    On his deathbed, his last words were “either that wallpaper goes or I do”

  12. I LOVE the Julia Child quote: “the only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” Great!
    As for Thatcher, I must concur with previous comments. She said she only needed four (not two, I think) hours’ sleep a night, and she did have dementia, so possibly not the ideal Primal image. Oh, and the toast.

  13. My personal problem with growing very old is when my money runs out. I don’t want to be in my 90’s looking for work, or maybe I do. And about sleep, it makes sense to me why Trump is such an idiot. He sleeps maybe 4 or 5 hours a night. This explains why he’s nuts.

    1. I have no plans to stop working. I expect to change what and how I work, but not to cease being a productive, useful member of my family and community.

  14. From Jiddu Krishnamurti
    From then on, he rejected the entire concept of gurus, teachers, and spiritual leaders, proclaiming truth to be a “pathless land” that we must explore on our own. Ultimately, all you have is you….According to him the only guru, teacher, and leader in your life was you.

    Well if all you have is you–then you’d better be sure you’re 100% right– but then, that would be absolute truth for truth to be absolute there can only be one truth, not your truth and my truth and their truth!

  15. I first heard of Sandow in Pavel’s “Enter the Kettlebell”. The man did look just like an ancient Greek statue. Simply amazing and far better proportioned than today’s bodybuilders.

  16. I love this! I was not familiar with a couple of these pioneers.

  17. My favorite of this list is, “You can’t be taught; you must learn.” Schools teach you to learn well enough to pass the test but not well enough to actually live well.That’s why I am so happy to see the increase in homeschooling, unschooling, and road schooling. Those are the children I want to be the leaders in my old age. I am always thrilled when I visit a national park and see children doing the junior ranger exercises–what better way to learn about all aspects of nature? And walking the grounds of the Gettysburg battlefield made me wonder how the soldiers survived wearing wool uniforms during that midsummer fighting? And a pirate museum teaches math by having kids calculate their share of the booty. I suspect all those lessons will be remembered long after typical classroom lessons are forgotten.

  18. Whisky? Paleo/Primal? Whahhht?

    Don’t get me wrong, this would be good news.

    But if we had to excuse Marge for her toast habit, what the hell is whisky if not fermented liquid bread?

    1. Fermented, distilled, and aged liquid bread. That’s what.

    2. Very primal indeed. Rat food is fermented and condensed, into a portable commodity of great barter value.

  19. Krishnamurti was an amazing individual. Imagine you are the head of an organization that essentially worships you, and disbanding that organization and telling your followers to reject all dogma. That literally happened with Krishnamurti and the Order of the Star.

  20. Edgar Cayce – check out a compilation of his eating recommendations.

  21. This is great. Just to let you know, Sisson and worker bees et al, that whenever friends and coworkers ask me about health and wellness, I try to down play the power that my sudden perceived expertise has granted me. Part of knowing the best approach to health is knowing that there is still much to learn…

    But everyone could use a reliable source of reference and credibility….enter The Daily Apple. So what I do usually is begin the answer to everyone of their questions with, “Well, Mark says…” and then urge them to do EXACTLY what you say to do.

    What, not Krishnamurti enough?

  22. Mrs Calment also smoked for about 100 years although it was apparently only about 2 a day. And no one knows if she inhaled.
    Perhaps the power of hormesis.
    And other than her diet, there really is not a lot of good evidence olive oil is good for you.

    1. Do a search on this “Life Extension Olive Oil: Powerful Protection Against Aging And Mortality”

      1. So nice article but when you actually read the few studies they quote, many talk about the mediterranean diet not olive oil. These were mostly association which could be anything in the diet or lifestyle.. Some of these studies don’t even use olive oil and most are very poorly designed.
        Reminds of the same politics and personalities that sold the ‘low fat diet’ to the world.
        Some of these researchers stated things in their conclusions that just were not proven in the study.
        Not that olive oil may not be good for you; the studies to support it, when you dig deep, are just not there.

      2. So to perhaps better show you what I mean about the research, here is a quote from the article
        Start quote ‘However, a recent study focused on the specific, individual role that olive oil plays in this association.19

        Scientists analyzed data from a large, prospective study that followed 40,622 participants aged 29 to 69 for a combined total of over 550,000 person-years.

        They observed an impressive 26% reduction in mortality among healthy adults in the upper quartile of olive oil consumption compared to non-consumers. ‘

        This is footnote 19, the epic study. Do you know why this is crap. The study did not even measure the oliveoil consumption of the subjects but you would never know that by looking at the the summary or all the articles about the study. typical of food research.

        1. The above twp posts are in reference to healthy hombres post mentioning a article on olive oil (3 posts above) in reference to my post 4 posts above)

        2. John they have several articles and each one with about 30+ references to studies and research by biochemists and physicians etc. LOL. I’ll go with the advice of the experts, but hey feel free to avoid olive oil if you wish. I like the taste of it for certain dishes and I figure it won’t hurt me in any case. All the best to you though and I do think it’s good to look at research with healthy skepticism. These folks are pretty good IMHO. MDA and LE are my two main “go-to” sources for health-related topics.

  23. Love that Ben Franklin was into weight lifting and swimming in cold water! I’ll be keeping him in mind as I see how much longer I can go swimming in our glacially cold lake twice a day (including after 5:30am Crossfit). Winter’s Coming – getting colder…

  24. My mother – no you cannot have that candy…no you cannot have a Coke…go outside and play

    Every day for most of my childhood

  25. 13th Century Poet, Rumi on Fasting
    There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
    We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
    is stuffed full of anything, no music.
    If the brain and belly are burning clean
    with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
    The fog clears, and new energy makes you
    run up the steps in front of you.

    When you fast, good habits gather like friends who want to help.
    Fasting is Solomon’s ring. Don’t give it
    to some illusion and lose your power,
    but even if you have, if you’ve lost all will and control,
    they come back when you fast, like soldiers appearing
    out of the ground, pennants flying above them.
    A table descends to your tents, spread with other food,
    better than the broth of cabbages.

  26. thank you for the research behind this interesting article. perhaps a good addition:
    “Civilize the mind and make savage the body” – attributed to Confucius.

      1. Possibly, though i have seen it ascribed to confucius in a couple historical texts. mao was a great appropriator of chinese culture and history for his own ends. confucius did articulate the importance of balance not losing sight of physical health and training despite study and contemplation.

  27. The note about maggie thatchers diet is a little misleading. This was a short term diet that she apparently followed for two weeks about the time she was first elected so she could lose weight for photos. It was from a note found in her personal diary that also included the caution not to follow the diet for more than two weeks.

  28. Ben Franklin is officially my favorite of the Founding Fathers now. Yes!

  29. Point 4 needs some clarification… Lady Thatcher only followed that eating regime for 2 weeks as a crash diet before entering Number 10.

  30. Not everyone is ready to respond to primal wisdom. A friend and I often critique popular health advice. I have been known to start with “my mate Mark”. (Yes I am a Brummie!). Her reply almost always begins ” my mates Ben and Jerry”.

  31. Not strictly a Paleo advocate, but Adelle Davis is my nutrition hero. Most famous for her quote ‘ Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper’, she was one of the pioneers of healthy eating and campaigned to make people aware of the damage caused by processed food.

  32. Love these, food for thought! Though, I would dispute Margaret Thatcher and her infamous 4hrs sleep… I love Michael Pollan’s “Defence of Food” – eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

    My mum used to say that about “no” to sweets and play outside too.

  33. All this and no scripture? Lev11:3 … of all the animals that walk the land you may eat the ones that chew the cud and have a split hoof. Translation: If you are going to eat terrestrial meat make sure it’s grass fed and finished.

  34. One of the links (“she also enjoyed”) in the Thatcher story explains that the 28 eggs a week diet is one that was actually a type written note found in her possessions after her death. It explicitly stated that the diet was “not to be followed longer than two weeks”. So we have no evidence that “she really did eat that way” or for that matter that she even gave the diet a shot, at least according to the article in the Daily Mail. In any case, as one person stated above, she suffered from dementia…..not exactly a great example….just saying. Good tips all the same.

  35. Reading the Art of French Cooking now! Absolutely love it! Also, found in the original Joy of Cooking the art of threading lean pieces of meat with bacon fat. There’s even a special needle for it! I desperately want to try it.

  36. On the link for Margaret Thatcher . They said she follow the diet only 2 weeks to shed 20 lbs. It’s a crash diet before the 1979 victory

  37. “…if the body be feeble, the mind will not be strong. The sovereign invigorator of the body is exercise, and of all the exercises walking is best. A horse gives but a kind of half exercise, and a carriage is no better than a cradle. No one knows, till he tries, how easily a habit of walking is acquired. A person who never walked three miles will in the course of a month become able to walk 15 or 20 without fatigue. I have known some great walkers and had particular accounts of many more; and I never knew or heard of one who was not healthy and long lived. This species of exercise therefore is much to be advised….”

    Thomas Jefferson