A Brief History of the Primal Movement

Grok Around the WorldIt’s relatively easy being Primal nowadays. Most restaurants have dairy-free, gluten-free options, if not entire menus devoted to Primal-friendly restrictions. Actual paleo restaurants and food trucks literally exist. Minimalist shoes are everywhere. Standing desks are standard at many corporations, a farmer’s market lurks around every corner, regular grocery stores carry grass-fed beef and butter, and Whole Foods has a paleo hot bar. Comment sections of mainstream nutrition articles are overrun with Primal supporters dropping knowledge. And in 2013, “Paleo diet” was the most searched-for diet in Google. But it wasn’t always like this. If you weren’t around for the hard scrabble days of yore, you probably don’t realize what we endured. I’m talking about the days when:

You’d get asked to leave a store for wearing “monkey toe socks.”

Waiters had no idea what “gluten-free” meant and you had to say “real butter, ya know, from cows” or else receive food cooked in butter-flavored soy oil (if they even had butter).

You were the lone dissenting voice among hundreds of commenters on a “red meat will kill you” article.

The Early Days

Back in 2006 when I started writing my blog – Mark’s Daily Apple – the average person had no clue about the Primal lifestyle. Those of us who espoused it were fringe characters, radicals on street corners with cardboard signs. But sometimes those crazy guys on the street aren’t so crazy. Sometimes their rants and raves catch on.

I can remember being out to dinner with people who’d ask why I wasn’t eating the bread. My wife and I would exchange a look, she’d sit back, roll her eyes as if to say “Here we go…” and I’d launch into my spiel. But once they’d heard and over the course of a dinner carefully considered it, the notion of a biologically appropriate way of eating, exercising, and living for humans made intuitive sense. By the time the check had arrived, most of the people at the table who’d been asking the questions were vowing to give the lifestyle a trial run. This wasn’t a one time thing, mind you. It happened constantly, practically every time we went out to eat with people.

And I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one. Tens of thousands of people, maybe even hundreds of thousands, were having those same dinner conversations all over the world. Haven’t you? And that’s why I knew from the very beginning that this was big and would only grow as time went on: it worked, it made sense, and once a person discovered that, they’d fall all over themselves to tell others about it. They wouldn’t – they couldn’t – keep it to themselves. Primal living had a life of its own. It was a self-perpetuating, viral spark.

A Growing Movement

The early days of MDA were different than today. I was still developing my philosophy of health, and my opinions were always subject to change as I grew aware of new evidence. The basic Primal Blueprint was the same, but my focus has expanded to include far more than diet, exercise, sun, and sleep. Readership was scarce back then and comment sections were often ghost towns. But I plugged away and stuck with it because I knew there was something special happening.

2007 was a big year. It saw the release of Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, a powerful rebuke of decades of flawed government advice on nutrition, dietary fat, and disease. Taubes showed that the campaign against saturated fat and cholesterol was founded on flawed pseudoscience, and that the weight of the actual evidence suggested that animal fat and protein were benign and perhaps even essential to human health. The basic Primal postulate – that humans evolved eating ample amounts of animal fat and protein, and probably still should – had been vindicated in a widely-read treatise on modern science that had nothing specifically to do with evolutionary health. Taubes’ book got more people embarking on a path to understand proper nutritional science, a path that led inevitably to the ancestral health community.

That’s right around when I took a big step away from the orthodox paleo emphasis on “lean meats” and really embraced saturated fat. I’d never worried much about it and always felt the focus on it was way overblown, but a strong, enthusiastic endorsement was long overdue.

The Primal Blueprint 

In 2009, after a few years of steadily growing readership, I self-published The Primal Blueprint. The book laid out, in plain terms, the health philosophy I’d spent the last couple decades discovering, developing, and refining. It quickly became a best-seller and, along with Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution the following year, helped establish the ancestral health movement as a legitimate force in the health sphere.

In 2010, we put on the very first PrimalCon in Oxnard, CA, a weekend gathering of Primal health and fitness experts and enthusiasts. It was informative, the food was great, and everyone learned a lot about living and moving healthfully, but that wasn’t the most important aspect of the weekend. Dozens of people who’d always been the weird one at the dinner party or the gym or the night out with friends, the oddball eating salad with steak instead of pizza, finally felt at home. They didn’t have to explain themselves. They’d found a community. In total, we did 8 more PrimalCons, ranging all over the country (and even out of it): Lake Tahoe, New York, Austin, and even Tulum, Mexico.

Big Changes

That 2009-2010 stretch was also a time of great change and development for the community:

It’s when the importance of “the other stuff” became crystal clear. Diet and exercise were still foremost, but community, sleep, sun, stress, circadian rhythm, light exposure, and the dangers of excessive sitting began receiving the attention they deserved well before more mainstream outlets had caught on. To put it another way, we were making standup workstations by balancing our laptops on stacks of old Vibram Fivefingers boxes before it was cool.

We realized that regular old white potatoes and white rice, former enemies of the ancestral state, weren’t so bad after all as long as you could actually use the extra carbs.

Our annual 21-Day Challenge became increasingly popular, and we finally got to put faces to the names we were all familiar with in the comment boards and the forum. We got to see families who shop like Grok, friends who picnic like Grok, people who pose like Grok, and people with Grok tattoos. Grok really was all over the world.

A slew of really great ancestral health blogs were also coming into their own and pumping out excellent material that we’re still building on today. Your Perfect Health Diets, your Chris Kressers to just name a few that come to mind – this is when that cadre of thinkers blew the scene wide open.

Academic Rigor and Formal Accreditation

In 2011, the inaugural Ancestral Health Symposium was held at UCLA: a conference of academics, doctors, health practitioners, bloggers, authors, fitness trainers, and enthusiasts devoted to discovering the ways our ancestral traditions and evolutionary history inform and explain modern day health matters. Dozens of formal talks were given; dozens more sprung up informally in the halls. At one of the premier academic institutions in the country, the ancestral health movement had arrived.

Yeah, the community at large was making serious moves. They were building cred on multiple levels: academic, mainstream, the average Joe, the physical culture crowd. So was I. I’d already self-published several books since The Primal Blueprint – The Primal Blueprint Cookbook, Primal Blueprint Quick & Easy Meals, The Primal Blueprint 21-Day Total Body Transformation, The Primal Blueprint 90-Day Journal, The Primal Blueprint Healthy Sauces, Dressings & Toppings, and The Primal Connection – and I was ready to do more.

I knew we needed a stable framework for information dissemination. We needed this because many Primal enthusiasts involved in healthcare and the fitness industry would email us every day asking for one. They’re chiros and MDs and dietitians, coaches and trainers and massage therapists, yoga instructors and midwives. And maybe they’re just regular folks who are really, really enthusiastic about the health benefits of a biologically appropriate lifestyle and want to help the people they care about get the same results. Whatever their background, they wanted to help people join the Primal movement and they needed a comprehensive, structured guide to convincing the uninitiated and converting the dubious.

I saw a big opportunity to change how we do health in this country – and in others.

So in 2014, we released the Primal Blueprint Expert Certification program. A rigorous, intensive educational program similar in difficulty and intensity to an upper division level college course, the “Cert” prepares health and fitness professionals and motivated laypeople to deliver lasting change to clients, friends and family. Now we have vast numbers of Primal health coaches around the world bringing these principles to life in their clients.

I wasn’t through.

Primal Kitchen

In 2015, I created Primal Kitchen. From the start of my Primal journey, I’d always wanted to change the way the world eats. It had changed my health for the better, and I wanted to bring it to as many people as possible. The blog and books were the start of that—working primarily through the art of persuasion, of convincing people who were willing to read to modify their lifestyle—but Primal Kitchen was my foray into the wider world. By creating healthy seed oil-free versions of mayonnaise, ketchup, salad dressings, and other sauces and condiments, I was creating something that literally did not exist but that the world desperately needed.

In 2017, I wrote The Keto Reset Diet to help people learn how to leverage fat adaptation to become metabolically flexible. People learned how being “restrictive” for a period of time could actually open an entire world of metabolic flexibility by changing how the power plants of their cells—the mitochondria—processed energy. Keto as a search term or “formal diet” fell off, but this was actually by design. People had become metabolically flexible through keto and were now exercising their newfound powers to eat more freely. It was working.

Big Moves

And then in 2018, it went even further. Kraft-Heinz bought Primal Kitchen, kept my co-founder Morgan and me on to lead the brand, and maintained the original team. We were (and still are) operating autonomously, only now we had the resources of Kraft-Heinz to leverage explosive growth into even more markets like Target, Costco, and Walmart. We’re still growing.

Right around then, the carnivore way of life began exploding in popularity. The floodgates of science supporting the importance of meat in human evolution, performance, and longevity could no longer be suppressed, and people began experimenting with higher intakes of animal protein to help them overcome debilitating diseases. I was one of them, seriously upping my animal protein intake and dropping my vegetable intake—and feeling better than ever.

Industrial seed oils as a primary toxic component of the modern food environment became a mainstream concern around the same time. No longer was it the province of obscure Primal blogs and nutrition nerd comment sections. Now regular people were starting to think about the oils their food was cooked in, their fries fried in, and their condiments made with. Primal Kitchen helped spearhead that.

The Primal Blueprint and ancestral health as formal concepts, diets, or lifestyles are no longer preeminent on Google search trends, but the concepts we fleshed out have become normalized in broader culture. Conventional wisdom that used to look set in stone has continued to crack. Heck, many Primal principles are finally getting mainstream media coverage. Most of the then-arcane stuff we used to talk about many years ago, like barefoot running, dirt, standing desks, blue blocking goggles to wear at night, and the awesomeness of bone marrow, has disseminated through to the general public. Offal is in. Cereal sales are down; butter sales are up.

The latest development? I already changed the mayonnaise and condiment game. I changed and continue to change the way the world eats, and now I want to change the way the world walks with Peluva—my new minimalist shoe company.

I’m incredibly excited to see what the future brings and to help the movement grow even more. Modern life has made us unhealthy, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Nor will it.

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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