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.

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.

As sparks do, the movement grew.

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.

MDA’s web design circa 2007 was very different. Here, take a look for yourself. (Anyone reading remember those days?)

Mark's Daily Apple circa 2007

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.

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. (The next one is just a week away!) 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 instead of pizza, finally felt at home. They didn’t have to explain themselves. They’d found a tribe.

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, your Kurt Harrises, your Gnolls, to just name a few that come to mind – this is when that cadre of thinkers blew the scene wide open.

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.

Now, the Primal/paleo/ancestral health community is very close. We talk – a lot. And since I’d had a lot of success self-publishing my books, other would-be authors would often approach me for advice on doing the same thing. This became an almost everyday occurrence, via email and in person at various health and fitness events. Doling out advice began to take up so much time that I started to put together a template to speed up the process. And then it hit me: why not publish them myself? So Primal Blueprint Publishing was founded in 2013, and we’ve already published seven books with several more on the way.

More PrimalCons every year, too, including in Tulum, Mexico; South Lake Tahoe, CA; Austin, TX; and Mohonk, NY. More Ancestral Health Symposiums every year. PaleoFX was another huge conference that sprung up in Austin, less formally academic than Ancestral Health Symposium and geared toward the layperson (of course, Primal laypeople run a bit more intellectually curious than the general population); 2015 will be the fourth annual event. More Google searches, more blog visitors, fewer dumbfounded looks when you tell someone “I don’t eat grains or refined sugar, and I like to walk barefoot.”

Conventional wisdom that used to look set in stone was beginning to crack. Heck, many Primal principles are finally getting mainstream media coverage. Most of the then-arcane stuff we used to talk about four or five 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.

What’s next?

I’ve always tried to write with clarity and simplicity so that anyone who read my books and blogs, and felt moved, could explain to their friends, family, and colleagues just what they found so engaging. And as I said earlier, it’s worked quite well; the Primal concept is simple, intuitive, and fairly easy to explain. That the diet and exercise and everything else actually work doesn’t hurt either. Our growth reflects all that.

But 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.

Now, in 2014, the release of the Primal Blueprint Expert Certification program marks the latest – and most important – development in the evolution of the Primal movement. 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.

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.

I hope you’ll join us in changing the world.

Download the full-size version of the Grok around the world image at the top of this article (large file)
A version of this article was recently published on Bare-Essentials.com

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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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