8 Primal Food Challenges You Can Take

inline_food_ChallengeHumans are competitive animals. We like a challenge because it compels us to rise to the occasion, prove ourselves, get better at something, or become a bigger version of ourselves. For people, challenges are like hormetic stressors—they often cause suffering and require hard, unpleasant work but provoke a beneficial response that makes us stronger than we were before the challenge.

How does that apply to the challenges I’ve laid out in today’s post, which are all about food, diets, and cooking? Each one unlocks a tangible benefit (eating more vegetables helps you obtain more nutrients, stopping the meal before you’re too full lowers energy intake), but there are also less obvious benefits to meeting a challenge.

Let’s get right to it:

Stop when you’re 80% full.

In Japan, they say “hara hachi bu,” which translates to “eat until 80% full.” It’s the inverse of Louis CK’s philosophy of “eat until you hate yourself.” Don’t eat food just because it’s on your plate. Don’t cram in every last morsel. Ask for a to-go box, bust out the tupperware containers, push the plate away.

If you can figure out how to make this a regular habit, you may find that adhering to a healthy eating plan even easier. One study found that habitual “80% fullers” tended to eat fewer grains and more servings of vegetables.

Eat 10 servings of vegetables each day for two weeks.

The number just keeps climbing. First it was “3 a day,” and that didn’t do much. Then it was “5 a day,” and the results disappointed. Now they’re saying that 10 servings of vegetables each day is where the magic really happens. Is it true?

There is a study just out showing that people who ate 10 servings or more of vegetables each day had lower risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and early mortality. There’s definitely some “healthy user bias” going on here, but I suspect at least a touch of causality too. Maybe more convincing is the recent study where giving healthy 18- to 25-year-olds extra servings of fruits and vegetables across a two-week period led to improved psychological well-being.

Cook a whole mammal.

You’ve cooked whole chickens. Maybe you’ve cooked a whole fish. (No? Go do that, too.) It’s time for the next step: cooking a whole mammal.

Get your hands on a small pig, lamb, goat, or, if you’re really adventurous, cow. I’ll even accept rabbit. Cook it whole. Roast it on a spit or a Patagonian cross over a wood fire. Cook it in the ground.

My only stipulation is that you keep it intact. Don’t dissemble the animal so it fits in your oven. That’s cheating.

Cooking an entire mammal marries two Primal inputs we no longer get enough of: the starting of and caring for a large fire over the course of five to six hours, and the transformation of large animal into food.

It’s an incredibly powerful experience.

Go vegan once a week.

What? Sisson, you’ve gone too far this time….

Hear me out. I’m not urging you to do this to save the world, cut down on emissions, save your life, save a cow’s life, strike fear into the CAFO industry, or anything particularly high-minded. I just think it’s an interesting thing to try. And for a great many of you, it will be an entirely new, entirely foreign. Pure novelty.

What would this even look like?

Well, grains and sugar and vegetable oils are still out. I foresee a lot of coconut, avocado, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. Add in your favorite veggies for taste. Maybe this is a good time to experiment with legumes. Well-prepared, creative vegan food can be among the best tasting—truly.

Go keto for two weeks.

Ketogenic dieting isn’t for everyone. It may not even be for the majority. But you won’t know unless you try. So ditch the sweet potatoes, the bowl of berries you enjoy after dinner, the white rice on cheat days, the honey in your coffee. It’s only two weeks. See how you feel. Hard-charging athletes have more leeway with the carb intake, as they’re burning through loads of glycogen and creating glycogen debt.

Coming off a Primal eating plan, you’re not starting from scratch. Your fat-burning machinery should be well-oiled and humming along, so full-blown ketosis won’t be a huge leap. Chances are, you’ll slip right in without missing a beat. 

Master five recipes.

Get really good at making five things. These would probably be my five. Yours will vary.

Roast chicken. A roast chicken with carrots, shallots, onions, and garlic cloves in the roasting pan? With gravy made from the drippings? Nothing better.

Steak. Learn how to sear a good steak.

A soup of some kind. The key to most great soups is a great broth, so you’d better learn to make that too.

A stew/pot roast/chili. Something meaty and fall-apart tender with rich flavors and hearty sauce/broth that you can slip veggies into without anyone caring.

Something “ethnic,” for lack of a better word. Check out the post I did a few months ago and master one of those if you’re coming up blank.

Keep random veggies around—bags of kale, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, beets—that you can quickly steam or sauté alongside any of these dishes, and you’ve got yourself a solid dinner.

Eat a Big Ass Salad every day.

The Big Ass Salad is my nutritional anchor. It’s my insurance for the day. If I eat poorly for my other meals, I don’t feel too bad because I know I’ll be eating—or will have eaten—an enormous bowl of leafy greens, nuts, seeds, avocado, meat, cheese, healthy dressing, and whatever else I want to include.

Get yourself a huge mixing bowl, either stainless or glass. Plan your BAS every week in advance. Have greens on hand (currently digging a blend of baby kale, spinach, and butter lettuce), plus chopped veggies, protein, seeds, nuts, cheese, hard boiled eggs, avocado, and dressing. Almost everything but the avocado can be prepared days in advance. The easier it is to build a salad, the more likely you are to eat one.

Ferment something.

Everyone talks about the importance of probiotics and fermented food, but few want to shell out $15 for a pint of kraut or pickles from the farmer’s market. It’s easy to make your own. Way easier than you think.

I recommend sauerkraut (basic recipe at the link). It’s easy to make, requires just two ingredients (cabbage and salt), and you can embellish it with all manner of extra ingredients. Try this mix: purple and green cabbage, diced garlic, sliced beets, shaved ginger, grated carrot, salt.

Kefir is another option, but you’ll need kefir grains to make your own. Craigslist is your friend. Pickles or kimchi work, too.

You now have your assignments. Choose at least one, but ideally several, and go try them. If it all works out, you’ll find yourself several months down the line with a slew of awesome new food habits.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Which food challenge are you going to take on? Others you’d offer up to the group?


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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36 thoughts on “8 Primal Food Challenges You Can Take”

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  1. I was just shopping for a new tent and I think I found it…the Patagonian cross. Not as ultralight weight as I was hoping, but sure looks tasty.

  2. Not sure how these “servings” are being measured, but ten servings of anything is going to equate to a lot of food if one also eats meat. I love veggies and probably can’t cram that that many full servings into one day, particularly since I usually eat only twice a day. A more realistic goal would be maybe five adult-size portions.

    1. I don’t eat much so I’d have to have tiny bits as my “serving”
      My body doesn’t like veggies much, so 10 would blow me up like a balloon. I’m sticking with enough to keep me healthy but not enough to cause an explosion.

    2. Apparently, the push for more fruits and veg was implemented by the Fruit and Vegetable growers of California in 1991. If you study nutritional data bases, however, you’ll see a lot more nutrition in animal products. I rarely if ever eat fruit any more, but I do like veggies once a day, sometimes every other day…In other words, I no longer follow some arbitrary rule that isn’t evidence-based.

    3. I totally agree – ten servings of vegetables is just too much food. I started trying to eat 9 servings of vegetables per day after reading about Terry Wahl’s protocol a year ago. As a result, I was constantly overeating and overloading my digestive system. This led to a lot of digestive distress (gas, bloating, stomach pain) and gained weight. Once I stopped trying to cram so many vegetables into my diet every day, my digestive problems disappeared and I lost 12 pounds.

    4. According to USDA food pyramid, a “serving” is a cup of raw leafy greens or half a cup of vegetables cooked or raw. It’s really not that epic. Just take spinach for example, taking 4 cups raw and cooking them yields a nice mound in a platter but nothing to call your mom about. If you get your big ass salad daily like Mark it adds up fast.

  3. I started eating 6 to 9 servings of vegetables per day about a month ago and my 6-pack is better than ever.

  4. Fun post! I find that I mostly do all of these on a regular basis except for roasting a whole mammal. That one is still a little outside my resource capability and my comfort zone, but I sure enjoy the results when someone else does it!

  5. What counts as a single serving of vegetables? I am eating a salad right now with one carrot, lettuce, two stalks celery, half an apple, half an orange pepper, one avocado (and some meat and dressing, etc.)… is that 6 servings of vegetables? I think it might be…

    1. I read somewhere that a “serving” is usually half a cup. Probably if you divided your salad into roughly half-cup portions (by eyeballing it), minus the meat, that would be the number of servings you would have. It would need to be a huge salad to be 6 servings.

      The whole idea of measuring one’s food is a turn-off, as far as I’m concerned, and most of these “expert” recommendations are an overkill. I think it’s probably sufficient for each of us to eat the number of servings (of whatever size) that we are comfortable with.

  6. Good challenges expect for the whole vegan thing. That’s just seems kinda…wrong. I don’t know, maybe I’ll try it. Maybe.

  7. Love these challenges, and I’ve already done some of them! I’ve made sauerkraut successfully more than once (although not lately) and I do great with the veggie thing. And every now and then I have a vegan day…lots of coconut, avocado, etc. Not really planned, it just works out that way. So I think maybe I’m up for a two week keto challenge. I think I’m pretty close as it is. Not trying to lose weight, just want to see if I notice increased energy and focus. And I could still enjoy my Dry Farms Wines!

    1. I guess wine covers both the fruit serving and something fermented?

  8. Good ideas. I’m not really fond of keto, my sweet spot is about 130 carbs a day. I could definitely probably do vegan once a week. In fact I’ve gone a whole week before doing ovo-vegetarianism. Still eating primal/paleo friendly foods though. What made me try it was I read about the possible benefits of an acute sporadic protein fast. Keep protein under 30 grams for one day, quite simple really. I felt so good I decided to carry it out the whole week. The feeling decapitated, and I quickly started missing my juicy red artery clogging meat!

  9. Perfect timing. I had already decided to go not just meat free but fish free on fridays during lent.

  10. I have to go with Romy (author of Fruit Belly) that too much salad and raw food can be hard on your digestive system and cause bloating and other problems. It varies by individual, but for me I hardly ever eat salads. I do a lot of steamed veggies and the fruit I eat these days is berries 95% of the time. As far as stopping when you are full, good advice for eating out and / or doing some kind of a buffet, otherwise just put on your plate the right amount of food … and don’t cheat by munching on stuff before and after LOL.

    1. I’m with you HealthyHombre! I really think the whole raw thing is very individual. I try to have some raw veggies every day, but don’t feel great on too many. I enjoy salads but can’t eat huge ones. And it’s very seasonal for me. I eat salads for lunch frequently in the summer, but the thought hardly crosses my mind when it’s cold out. Like you, berries are my go-to fruit, although I’ve been enjoying red grapefruit this winter.

  11. The Wholly Guacamole people make Wholly Avocado as well. It has no ingredients other than avocado and is a good way for newbies like me to add avocado to their repertoire as you don’t yet have to learn how to tell how ripe an avocado is nor learn how to cut and deseed it. You just have to be willing to deal with excess packaging.

  12. How many servings of vegetables does the Big Ass Salad count as?

  13. I’m evolving my thoughts about veggies. Much of the healthiness comes from the fact that they replace a lot of junk that would have otherwise been eaten. Today’s varieties certainly didn’t exist 30,000 years ago – we were scrounging for tubers and maybe some seasonal fruits.

  14. The whole mammal? Do we get to gut and trim?

    I think the challenge implies a prepped mammal, gutted but skeleton/muscles intact.

    Add some challenge by cooking liver, heart, kidneys, etc. beside the carcass.

  15. Love this post and will start to look at including some of the points you mention into my own diet regime from now on. I have in fact upped my intake of veggies in recent weeks and regularly include kefir in my diet. Plus we are lucky as we have a great Korean restaurant close by that makes superb kimchi. At some point however I will attempt to make my own along with some sauerkraut.

  16. I’m doing a keto protocol right now and love it. My brain feels so much smarter! I can remember things better and comprehend stuff at work better and even find myself considering ‘ooh, maybe I’ll learn a little Japanese.’ Love not being so hungry throughout the day as well.
    On a different topic, I’ve been making my own kombucha for a couple of years and have a tip – on the paleo diet I usually find store bought kombucha too sweet, so I let mine ferment for at least a month until it tastes more like a drinking vinegar – I then pour a cup into a glass of sparkly water and it is super refreshing, tart and yummy.

    1. Starmice, I’ve going to try keto for two weeks…curious how many carbs you take in each day. I don’t like counting or tracking but I’m willing to give this a try. I feel great the way I eat now but always experimenting.

  17. Don’t you think that recommending 10 servings of vegetables per day, is an act of desperation on account of the health authorities, who think that their earlier recommendation falls on deaf ears? There was a time when I eat more then the average and yet it never amounted to this much. I also realize now that some of them I really not good for me but that’s beside the point. And isn’t “Go vegan once a week” a take on “meatless Monday” (I’m not attacking you); when it simply to make that day a fast day? Just saying… Now, I would love to roast a whole animal and tend the fire…but I need partners 😉

    1. Ten servings of vegetables per day might be more even than most vegetarians consume. I eat a lot of veggies, but I know I don’t eat that much. Can a person successfully “medicate” with vegetables (which is what appears to be at the bottom of this idea)? My guess is probably not in most cases. One needs nutrients from other sources as well. Therefore, it makes sense to me not to fill up on any one thing, even if it’s a good thing. As for going vegan once a week… Not me. Been there and done that, and my bod didn’t like it at all.

      1. I guess it depends on the definition of what constitutes a serving per your discussion above. If I go by the cup portion, then I eat around 6 servings plus (big salad). And like you, I’ve decided that I am a meat eater not a rabbit. I’ve got to have my meat, fish and always eggs…Cheers

  18. Planning to take on homemade sauerkraut! And maybe the 80% full idea – though that one will be a struggle for me! As a recovering fast eater, 80% full is something I’m just learning to identify

  19. “Almost everything but the avocado can be prepared days in advance”… not true! Lay fresh avocado slices or cubes on parchment and freeze for a bit. Stored in a container in the freezer, they don’t turn brown. They come up to temperature on a salad fairly quickly too!

  20. Hey there. I’d really like to try fermenting, but many vegetables I can’t buy fresh. Is it possible to ferment flash-frozen veggies (green beans for example). Will they still be as nutritive?

    Also, I’m breastfeeding newborn. Are ferments possibly dangerous in any way for my newborn?


  21. There is a one point is that “stop when you are 80% full” I really don’t know when it already touched 100% level!! After I have done, I found myself unsettled! lol