As Mark’s Daily Apple and the Primal community have grown in popularity, I hear a lot of stuff bandied about. Some of it is positive, some negative, and that’s to be expected. You can’t please everyone – I would probably be surprised if no one ever criticized me. However, I’ve noticed that for whatever reason, some people have a skewed perception of my opinion on certain issues. Maybe it’s my fault for not being more clear. Maybe they just haven’t plumbed the depths of MDA (I don’t blame them; it’s got some deep archives) to find the truth, instead going on what someone else told them. But whatever the reason, I have an obligation to set the record straight. I don’t want people getting the wrong idea about me or my ideas.
In this post, I’m going to describe five common misinterpretations about me and then explain where I truly stand. You may still disagree with me. That’s cool. At least then you’ll be able to criticize me for what I actually said or wrote.
So, what are some things people assume about me that are wrong?
To my knowledge, I’ve never claimed that calories don’t matter (cue frantic searching of MDA archives). On the contrary, I’ve held that while calories are the ultimate arbiters of weight management, the beauty of a Primal eating plan is that obsessively counting, tabulating, graphing, and monitoring calorie intake often becomes unnecessary. You’re eating nutrient-dense and calorie-sparse plants, nutrient-dense animals (and their fat), and nutrient-dense and calorie-dense starchy plants (when desired/required), and you just need less food than before. You’re sated, you enjoy the food, you’re sufficiently nourished, and so you don’t eat as much. You’re not telling yourself not to eat X amount of calories; you just don’t get hungry for all those extra calories and so it’s not an issue that requires conscious thought. Some people may even find counting counterproductive to weight loss if the counting intrudes on their enjoyment of normal life and becomes a significant source of stress.
If you somehow find the will and desire to gorge endlessly on multiple thousands of calories of coconut oil and butter and red palm oil and mac nuts and grass-fed beef and wild-caught salmon, you can and likely will gain weight (and fat). All I’m saying is this: why would you ever want to? Calories do matter, though. I’ve always said that.
The reality is that I view carbs as an elective source of calories to be divvied out according to training volume, performance goals, and individual variation in tolerance/desire. If you’re regularly engaging in lots of anaerobic activity (HIIT, sprinting, heavy lifting, mid-to-high intensity endurance training, sports like soccer, basketball, football), you should probably eat more carbs to the tune of 100 extra grams per hour of anaerobic output. If you’re just doing lots of walking, lifting once or twice a week, and throwing in a sprint session every now and then, you’ll probably be fine underneath the Primal carb curve. I gear my recommendations toward regular folks getting regular, but not excessive or elite level, amounts of activity – the people who juggle work, family, sleep, and leisure with exercise. That’s me, that’s most of you, but it’s not everyone. If I come off as a carb basher, it’s only because I assume that most people aren’t doing the kind of activity that warrants carb-loading.
I am a big proponent of eating a macronutrient that works for you and your lifestyle and your needs, whatever those look like. I’m also a big proponent of gorging on in-season berries to the point of stomach upset (not really, but kinda). My point is that I don’t hate any and all carbs.
I talk a lot about the benefits of being outside in nature, particularly being active outside in nature. I often suggest that people go for hikes on a weekly basis, preferably with family members (both hominidae and canid). I discuss spiritual encounters in nature, wherein people experience what seem like “mystical” states of mind simply by leaving city limits and rubbing up against some trees and greenery. I’ve explained how exercising outdoors is not only more effective, but also more sustainable – people are more likely to stick with an exercise plan when they do it outdoors. What wins?
Trail running through a forest of redwoods with the brilliant morning sun shimmering through the canopy overhead or jogging on a treadmill while watching close captioned American Idol?
Sprints on a beach (complete with adjacent natural sea salt cold dip wave pool) or sprints on a track?
Stand up paddle boarding on blue-green seas or, well, there isn’t really a gym equivalent to that one, is there?
I’ll always choose to workout outside if I can. Of course, I live in Malibu, where winter is when surfers wear hooded sweatshirts with their shorts and sandals, so I have the luxury of exercising outdoors year round. Many people do not. Perhaps my perspective is skewed.
That said, I like gyms. I work out in a gym on a regular basis. And bulky, oddly shaped natural objects like rocks and logs are fun to pick up and put down, and you can get really strong using them, but barbells, weight vests, kettlebells, and other manmade fitness tools are arguably better for building pure, raw strength. You know what? Make like Arnold and lug a barbell and some weights out to the forest and get the best of both worlds.
One of my earliest and most popular posts was my tirade against chronic cardio, or the kind of extended mid-to-high intensity endurance training that made me sick, broke down my body, required me to eat an inflammatory diet laden with cheap refined carbs, destroyed my social life, and sapped my will to live. My terrible experience with high-level endurance training helped me find a more sustainable, more Primal path. It got me where I am today, basically. It was the impetus for my search for something better. I guess you could say I’m not a big fan.
I’ve become known for that stance on chronic cardio, but many people assume that distaste extends to all cardio. They assume I roll my eyes at people who ride their bikes to work, who run a 5k every now and then, who use the rower at the gym, who go hiking with heavy rucksacks, who swim laps. I don’t hate all cardio, though. I mean, how many times have you gotten annoyed with how often I tell people to walk, hike, and otherwise move around at a slow pace? That’s “cardio.” I fully support all forms of movement that result in improved health and happiness. I’ve mentioned before that my characterization of an activity as chronic cardio is more qualitative than quantitative. Rather than hewing to some objective standard, it often comes down to your subjective response. For me, running more than five miles or so becomes a race, even if I’m the only one around. I stop enjoying the run and start to focus on how fast I’m going, how far I’ve gone, and how much I can push it. I get sucked in to the competitive tunnel.
I’m not even against running the occasional marathon, if you truly enjoy it and it improves your quality of life. But training for marathons round the clock? Logging 15-20 miles a day? I can’t in good conscience recommend that people do that in the pursuit of good health. Do it to say you can. Do it because you love it. But don’t do it to live forever.
I don’t romanticize anything (except, perhaps, grass-fed meat). I simply acknowledge the reality of our situation: humans, as a species, have evolved under various selective pressures and environments, and by studying those pressures and environments, we can learn about what lifestyle interventions might work for us, today, in the here and now. Moreover, we undoubtedly did not encounter 10-hour workdays consisting solely of sitting on our duffs, penned in by cubicle walls, isolated from our fellow humans (except by choice). We did not eat sugar, seed oil, and grain slurries out of colorful boxes and plastic packaging. It is a simple fact that some things about our modern existence are screwy and ridiculous, and when we spend our days sitting down, completely isolated from nature, from other humans (in the flesh), from edible plants and animals in their original packaging (absent some fur, perhaps), problems arise.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent most of their lives outdoors. One wonders if perhaps spending time outdoors is therefore “normal” for our physiology and we should do it more often. Sure enough, recent scientific evidence shows that being outdoors confers numerous health benefits upon humans. Health benefits that we can verify with actual biomarkers.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors got a decent amount of sunlight (being outdoors), depending on where in the world they lived. One wonders if perhaps sun exposure provides any benefit to modern humans. Sure enough, evidence suggests that vitamin D (which humans make from sun exposure) performs many physiological tasks, like immune modulation and bone calcium resorption, vital to our health. (Also, sunny days tend to make people happy, which counts for a lot.)
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors experienced high infant mortality. High infant mortality is not very good for human health.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have access to modern medical technology. Modern medical technology is good for human health.
Do I think we can gain valuable insight about what makes us tick and what works today by examining the ancestral environment? Yes, absolutely.
Am I happy to live in the 21st century where babies generally survive and people can hold all the world’s knowledge (and then some) in the palm of their hands and casually implore lightning to do their bidding with a flick of a switch? Heck yes.
To say that certain selective pressures helped determine the physiology of modern humans and that we can glean helpful and relevant lessons from studying (or even speculating about) said pressures is not to say that everything was perfect back then and we need to return to that perfect Edenic (that wasn’t) lifestyle. It’s just saying what it says. Nothing more.
What other misconceptions about me and my message have you seen out there? Lemme know in the comment section! Thanks for reading, folks.