Is the Primal Blueprint a Type of Asceticism?

Last week, MDA member Bobbylight posed a pretty poignant question in the forum: is the Primal Blueprint an ascetic lifestyle? As you’ll see from the actual post, he basically answered his own question (he agrees that the PB, by definition, is not asceticism, but his particular brand of the PB has gradually morphed into a kind of personal journey away from material pleasures; a “food as fuel” mode of asceticism), but the concept of asceticism gives me a jumping off point for a larger issue that needs addressing.

First, I’d like to review the differences between asceticism and eating in accordance with evolutionary biology. As it’s generally practiced across multiple disciplines and belief systems, asceticism refers to the complete and utter refutation of “worldly pleasures” to achieve spiritual and physical enrichment. Cleansing the mind along with the body. Regarding the pursuit of pleasure as somehow unnatural or impure, as if giving in to our animal urges is something to be ashamed of. It promotes permanent abstention from material desires with the hope that they will permanently atrophy and dissipate, like some little-used muscle or organ withers and dies. If the fate of the appendix is any indication of this idea’s validity, though, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Pleasure is here to stay. In fact, I’d argue that our relentless pursuit of pleasure is actually completely natural, deep-seated, and immutable. The basic human condition is desire. Without that pursuit of pleasure, we may not have made it this far. Without that constant, nagging desire to feel good, to taste good things and enjoy the warmth and intimacy of a sexual companion, to sit bundled up in front of a roaring fire licking marrow from sticky fingers, we lose the desire to survive – because what use is living if you’re not going to enjoy it on some basic level? Why get up in the morning without something to look forward to? It may be that thriving is actually necessary for surviving after all.

What do we crave, once we’ve transcended the artifice of refined sugar and whole grain addiction? Once we’ve spent a few weeks eating clean, Primal foods and cleansed our palate, most of us don’t even want the Twinkies or the Wonder Bread or the pizza anymore; we want the fat, the grease, and the gristle. We want fresh veggies sautéed in butter and salads drenched in olive oil and vinegar. We crave chicken with the skin, and we might just eat an entire pack of bacon to finish off an IF (if you put it in front of us). Some of us want nothing but the animal, while others sample the entire pantheon of flora and fauna. Above all, though, we all suddenly want nothing but real, whole foods once we get off the Neolithic faux-food. And when we get it, it tastes good.

Damn good.

Doesn’t that make you wonder? Might that not-so-subtle positive interplay between taste bud and food stuff be by design? I mean, sex feels good because it promotes procreation. The sun feels good to convince us to stay outside long enough to make vitamin D, an essential prohormone for life. Conversely, direct flame applied to our skin hurts like hell because it’s damaging our body and threatening our health, and we get sunburns to let us know we’ve gotten a bit too much sunlight. Wouldn’t it follow that the things that taste good actually are good for us, that the things we could conceivably come across and eat raw in nature are in fact suitable for consumption? I’d say so, yes.

I can already hear the fingers typing furiously.

“What about candy? Candy tastes good, so doesn’t that mean it’s good for us?”

For one, consumption of refined sugar and excess fructose beyond evolutionarily-realistic amounts is proven to be harmful. Tooth decay, insulin resistance, small and dense LDL formation – all that and more can be directly attributed to sugar intake. We all know that. But we also know that candies are clusters of pure sugar, half glucose and half fructose (a bit more fructose than glucose if made with HFCS), that appeared only recently on the menu. Crystallized sugar appeared on the scene around 5,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt, but until Columbus realized sugar cane flourished in the Americas and established a profitable slave-based industry, refined sugar in all forms was cost-prohibitive for anyone that wasn’t rich. Now? Now it’s cheap. It’s actually cost effective for companies to stick sugar and especially HFCS in anything and everything. Breads, salad dressings, condiments, sauces – pretty much everything on shelves and in packages contains a form of sugar. Some estimates peg our yearly intake of the stuff at over a hundred pounds each. Each, per year! That’s terrifying (especially when you realize that it’s an average, and that there are a significant number of people that minimize sugar intake, like us – somewhere, someone is eating two hundred pounds a year!), and it far exceeds what we could have mustered in Grok’s day.

A better question would be, “What about the sweet flavor? Why are we drawn to the sweet flavor if it signifies danger?”

That’s just it; in and of itself, it doesn’t necessarily mean bad things to come. In days of yore, sweet things were difficult to come by. Honey meant receiving bee stings and climbing tall trees, and, while there’s no way of knowing exactly how sweet or bitter seasonal fruit in the Paleolithic was or was not, we do know that today’s fruits are selectively bred for increased sugar content. Yesterday’s fruits were sweet (they had to be to enable seed dispersion), and sweet meant nutrients, but that sweetness was naturally selected for, rather than forced and sped up by man’s hands. Simple logic indicates that a fruit actively bred for sweetness will trend sweeter than the fruit left alone. The data certainly suggests as much.

Then there’s the fact that fruit used to be seasonal. Northern European Grok wasn’t shivering by fjords waiting for the latest shipment of Amazonian bananas (fun fact: here’s what a wild banana actually looks like – a far cry from the perfect peel-able fruit that we’re able to produce) by dug-out canoe. If he was lucky, he might nab a bushel or two of berries and apples in season and then gorge on them. But an apple a day? No, that wasn’t possible for Grok year round. Tropical or temperate Grok probably had more access to fruit, but they still weren’t as sweet. And wherever he was, Grok was not drinking Jamba juice or chugging a liter of orange juice in a single sitting. If he lucked out on a sweet fruit, he was eating the entire thing.

We may be drawn to the sweet flavor, but that’s because it was such a rare, quick source of cheap energy for our ancestors (and possibly a bit of a holdover from our extremely distant days as arboreal frugivores about 4 million years ago). Besides, what better time to fatten up than with a dose of sugar right before winter? The fact remains that, historically, the fruit we rarely ate was less abundant, and it contained less sugar than modern fruits. Our attraction to sweet flavors is not a free pass to subsist on bananas and figs. It’s merely a cue for Grok to snap up all the fruit and honey he can carry, because this might be the last time he sees any for a long, long time.

Meat, however, was abundant. Man had yet to encroach upon and severely disrupt local ecologies, and game was not relegated to a preserve or a national forest. Our brains grew big and hogged our metabolic output thanks to meat, which represented a new, denser source of energy for Grok. Neanderthals were our closest ancestors, and they were completely carnivorous, while many Homo sapien cultures were essentially pure meat eaters. Meat was the foundation for man’s emergence as conscious, cunning, brilliant, adaptable, preeminent predator. We depended on meat, which explains why we have such a visceral reaction to it.

The dog salivates at the whiff of a meaty bone, the cat seeks out the sunny patch so it can synthesize Vitamin D in its fur, and the plant strains toward the nourishing sunlight. Organisms are pleasure seekers, and we are no different. We’ve just the ability (or curse) to rationalize and analyze our behavior, sometimes to our detriment. When we start using some arbitrary moral system to condemn and regulate our very natures, we deny our humanity. That is a very, very bad thing. I dunno about you, but I like being human. I like my big brain, and my compassion, and my conscience, and my consciousness. I can appreciate the fact that I drool a little when I smell a steak seared in butter even as I sit down to read the paper with my meal. We represent the union between animal urge and reason. The former keeps us alive and well, while the latter makes us human. The Primal Blueprint simply recognizes those urges, rationalizes them with an examination of the clinical and anthropological evidence, and offers a stable (yet malleable) foundation for people to follow. We satisfy our cravings, blood and grease dripping from our chins, content that this time (like most, actually) our basest urges are the purest and most righteous.

Jack LaLanne got it half right when he said, “If man made it, don’t eat it,” but I think he dropped the ball with “If it tastes good, spit it out.” I say embrace worldly pleasures that nourish our bodies and minds. Pastured meat, relations with a loved one, a bowl of wild berries, a day of play with some pals, a healthy serving of sunshine – these are true worldly pleasures that we derive from the natural world and to which we are drawn by our natural, animalistic urges. These are urges that promote healthful, vibrant living and true happiness, and I think the ascetic does himself a disservice in denying them. We are animals – thinking, feeling, loving, free animals – and we shouldn’t ignore or bury that fact for inconsequential ideologies or self-imposed limitations.

As William Blake wrote, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Grok took that road, and perhaps we should, too.

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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