Dear Mark: Your 21-Day Challenge Questions Answered

Torn brown paper with The Answer is... textAs promised, today’s edition of Dear Mark is all about the 21-Day Challenge. Last week, you asked me a ton of questions. Today, I’m trying to answer as many of them as I can.

We’ve got questions about posture, weight loss, dairy, probiotics, alcohol, and much more. Hopefully, you find today’s post useful.

I’ll answer some more next week, so stay tuned for that. Now let’s get to it!

Hi I’m doing the challenge but I’ve been primal for the last year mostly. What would be the most effective bodyweight exercise for correcting a bad hunchback?

The best exercise for correcting a hunchback is maintaining proper posture throughout the day: shoulders back and down. Sadly, there’s no quick fix.

  • Set a timer to go off every ten minutes. When it goes off, check your posture. Make sure you’re not hunching over with your shoulders rolled forward.
  • Consider working, at least part of the day, at a standing workstation.
  • Get a deep tissue massage from someone who specializes in office worker hunchback. You likely have tight anterior shoulders and pectorals (pulling your shoulders forward), so you can also go digging around on those areas with a lacrosse ball.
  • Check out the posts I did on thoracic mobilityshoulder mobility/stability, and dealing with deskjockery several years back. Do the relevant drills suggested there.

As far as exercises go, pushups, pullups, planks, and bodyweight rows are all excellent for your upper back (and the rest of your body, for that matter).

How do I get my Husband to go Primal? He is fit, healthy, strong, Gorgeous. He lifts weights and he is Chronic Cardio. He believes in conventional wisdom and he drinks diet soda.

Honestly? It sounds like whatever he’s doing is working for him. I wouldn’t stress about the food, because that never goes well. Just slip Primal food into any meals you prepare. Make a side of potatoes instead of bread — that sorta thing.

Focus on the other aspects of Primal, the non-food stuff, that he can get on board with. Sleep, sun, play, pleasure, nature, fresh air, long walks, dinners together. These are all arguably as important as cutting back on sugar or giving up diet soda.

What are your thoughts on weigh-ins and their frequency when doing the challenge primarily for weight loss (although with a view to longer term benefits too)?

Personally, I’m a fan of a pre- and post-Challenge weigh-in. See how much you weigh before starting, and see how much you weigh after. Simple and easy, and if there’s a trend (which is what really matters) over the course of three weeks, you’ll see it.

But I know people like to obsess over the scale. A person’s weight fluctuates hour to hour, meal to meal, bathroom visit to bathroom visit. And since you’re not interested in merely losing weight but losing fat, daily fluctuations are more likely to obfuscate the truth of what’s going on, metabolically, inside.

A good compromise is a weekly weigh-in. That should eliminate the hourly fluctuation factor and give insight to trends.

What’s the best thing you can do when you don’t get enough sleep? Like when all the fire alarms in your house go off in the middle of the night?

So you woke up. Big deal. Don’t make it worse than it already is.

Do you suggest workouts that focus on one group of muscles or workouts that work your whole body when it comes to weight lifting?

Most people will do best on full body workouts. These pack the most bang for your buck, and targeting more body parts in a single workout provides the largest overall growth stimulus.

More experienced trainees can benefit from splitting their workouts up by muscle group (upper body days and lower body days, for example), but that’s a select group.

I’m currently not drinking and very low carb except for vegetables. Can anyone tell me why I am not losing any weight? Eating between 1,100-1,200 calories a day and working out. Thanks!

That might be too low for you. First off, 1100 calories is already low. And by working out on a regular basis, you’re effectively lowering your calories even further (by using them up).

  • Consider increasing your calorie count. You may just need to eat a bit more than you are.
  • Try calorie cycling. Low calorie one day, higher calorie the next. Cycling one’s calorie intake seems to work better than just chronic calorie reduction.
  • Another thing to try is a carb refeed. Once or twice a week, drop the fat low and bump up the carbs (from Primal sources, of course). This could restore leptin levels and kickstart the fat-burning process.

Hope it works!

If grass-fed/pastured butter is something that we should seek to add to our diets, why is grass-fed cheese (Kerrygold makes a nice cheddar) not something on the “good” list?

Cheese is high in dairy proteins, particularly casein, and many people have a sensitivity or intolerance to dairy protein. If you don’t, then cheese is a great food with a lot of nutrition. But because dairy protein intolerance is relatively widespread, I refrain from giving it the blanket “all good.”

My question is: Is smoked salmon a good choice, or is it better just to grill or bake it?

Smoked salmon is fine, so long as it’s wild. We’ve been using smoke to preserve salmon for centuries.

A 2009 study found that smoking salmon at 95 ºC made the “fragile” fish fats even more oxidatively stable, with a lower peroxide value, fewer TBARS, and fewer free fatty acids, than fresh salmon. That’s right: smoking salmon at a high heat protected the omega-3s from oxidizing to a greater extent than leaving it alone, even if antioxidants were added to the fresh salmon oils. That said, when heating the smoked salmon fat past 75 ºC, peroxides formed at a faster rate than in the fresh salmon fat.

I wouldn’t eat all your salmon smoked, of course. Pound for pound, it’s usually more expensive than fresh or frozen salmon.

You can smoke your own, too, you know.

What’s the best way to handle a spouse who wants to support you in your efforts but isn’t willing to change their own eating habits? That one’s bugging me right now. She just can’t hear what I have to say yet because I don’t have great results at the moment.

Don’t force the issue. This never works. Let your results speak for themselves. Then they’ll come to you. Oh, and those results will come, even if it’s a change in mood, energy levels, or sleep. It doesn’t have to be outwardly apparent to be convincing.

My question: I am trying to fit in some more movement with not a lot of time or opportunity. I see that there are re-bounders that people use, or well, hang in their garage and think they will use, like a mini trampoline. Can a person use one of those for some exercise, 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there?

Totally. Those are a lot of fun. But, yeah, like you say, I notice a lot of people ignoring them after a couple sessions. If you’re set on it and you’re sure you’ll actually use the thing, go for it. Frequent movement (of any sort) is the key here.

You might try finding those people who gave up on the mini trampoline and attempt to purchase it for a lower price than new.

My biggest issue is eating more leafy greens. Is it more beneficial to eat them raw with some high quality olive oil or to lightly fry them with some tallow until soft?

A mix of both.

Some days, have a fresh salad of leafy greens tossed in real extra virgin olive oil. There’s real value in eating raw vegetables from time to time, especially if they’re organic and fresh from the farm (maybe even with a bit of soil left on them).

Other days, do a sauté. This helps you pack more quantity in your meals, as it’s a lot easier to eat six cups of spinach when you wilt it first. By the way, you can cook with extra virgin olive oil, contrary to popular belief. It’s actually a very stable fat.

My question is do you feel it is detrimental to splurge every few months on a favorite “non” food?

Barring consumption of allergenic foods that definitely do harm (like a celiac splurging on a large pizza), I think a splurge, or cheat meal can actually help a lot of people stick to the overall eating plan.

I’m technically lactose intolerant (the 23andme genotype test told me) but I do not see any adverse effects when I eat full fat dairy (or any dairy, for that matter). Should I continue or am I surreptitiously causing all kinds of inflammation by not heeding my genetics? Thanks.

I’m going to go against the grain and say that you should just go with it. If you were truly lactose intolerant, you’d know it when you drank a glass of milk. I suspect you’ve cultivated a microbiome capable of digesting lactose for you. Good work!

And I’m sure you know, but full-fat dairy is definitely worth eating if you can handle it. The health benefits are too numerous to discount and ignore.

Should I really specifically search out grass-fed organic cheese or is any organic cheese that I like just as good/good enough? Thanks.

Grass-fed is definitely superior to just organic. Use the Challenge as a test to see if it makes a subjective difference in how you feel. For some people, switching to grass-fed really does. This is a good opportunity to see if that’s true for you.

A few times I have had people tell me how they will never cook this way again due to the risk of cancer. I even have a family member who is actually getting rid of their grill because they have sworn off this way of cooking!
Is this really that much of a risk? Should I also be considering never grilling again?

Any real science and factual information on this topic would be great! Thanks!

There’s some truth to it. High heat cooking, including but not limited to grilling, does increase the risk of carcinogenic compounds forming. You can mitigate the danger with marinades and cruciferous vegetables. For more tips, check out my posts on gentle cooking methods and the necessity of vegetables in the diet. Rest assured that you can still grill safely and regularly if you take a few precautions.

Everyone says the weight should melt off, but is it possible breastfeeding is making me hold on to those last five pounds?

Yes, it’s fairly common. Body fat helps provide the fatty acids that make up your milk. Some women have the opposite experience, but it’s not nearly as widespread as people make it out to be. Wait till you wean to worry too much.

Where does alcohol fit in the 21-day challenge? Obviously it would be more beneficial for me to cut it out completely.

Try cutting it out altogether. I did a while back, and it worked great for me. It’s not a popular idea, but it’s only 21 days. If you can’t make it the full three weeks, you may have a larger problem on your hands.

I’ll just say it again: the Challenge is a great opportunity to try out some lifestyle changes that you’ve been mulling over.

I had a question around which is worse for you: wine or stress? A couple of glasses of wine at the end of the workday help me relax and unwind, but I’m also trying to lose 45 pounds and know that alcohol is not conducive to fat loss.

Stress is probably worse, but it’s a question of dose. If your stress is a nightly, chronic occurrence and the dose of wine required to mitigate/eliminate it is a glass or two (a real glass, which is about 3 ounces of wine), the wine’s probably worth it. If you need a bottle to take care of the stress, it’s not worth it.

Plus, there are plenty of ways to chill out after a hard day that don’t involve alcohol. Give some of these rituals a shot. And be sure to explore all the other pharmacological ways you can mitigate stress (and a few more).

When you are estimating your carb intake, what do you do with the fiber number? When people say that are eating 50 grams of carbs are they counting the fiber too? Just insoluble fiber? What about soluble fiber?

Don’t count the fiber. It doesn’t turn into glucose, so it doesn’t contribute toward your dietary glucose load.

But don’t discount the fiber. Fiber from fruits, vegetables, and nuts is good, healthy stuff that feeds your gut bacteria and improves your health.

I’m a breastfeeding mother on day 15 of the 21 Day Challenge. I have been doing crossfit style body weight workouts 3 times per week. I have not lost any weight so far, and that’s one of my goals along with other general health goals. Should I be more closely tracking carb counts, calories, etc., or is it enough to just listen to hunger cues?

You shouldn’t dip carbs too low. Breastfeeding generally increases the need for carbs, and so does CrossFit (even if it’s just a ton of high intensity bodyweight exercises, you’re burning glycogen which needs replenishing). As I mentioned to a previous reader, you can simply increase carbs by about 50 grams or so, eating the bulk of them after you workout, or you can try a low-fat, high-carb refeed meal/day once or twice a week.

Hunger cues are usually enough, but not always. Since both your health and your baby’s health are on the line, I’d eat a few more carbs. If you need the carbs (because you’re producing breast milk or burning through glycogen, or both), your body will increase cortisol to stimulate gluconeogenesis (the creation of glucose from protein). Your body gets what it needs either way, but going the cortisol route can inhibit fat burning.

How about integrating probiotics? They are in the “supplements” list in the primal pyramid, but are they any specific real foods you would recommend (biggest bang for your buck) to take care of this, without using supplement, and that would be easy to prepare/make? (PS: I am lactose intolerant)

Sure, there are some things you can try.

Sauerkraut: Since you’re dealing with a lot of material, it’s a bit daunting, but the actual process is easy enough (and fun).

Kefir: The fermentation process takes care of 99% (maybe more) of the lactose in milk, and kefir is loaded with far more bacterial strains than regular yogurt (which is also good, but not lactose-free). It’s also extremely nutrient-dense and may help you digest lactose in its own right. Buy it from a store or make your own using kefir grains. You can usually find someone on Craigslist who has kefir grains to sell or give away.

Unwashed produce from trusted farms/gardens: If you’re dealing with a trustworthy organic farm, eating unwashed produce can introduce soil-based probiotics into your body. I only eat unwashed leafy greens, for example, that I buy from local farmers with whom I’ve struck up a relationship. Learn to like grit.

I am in medical school and am subjected to numerous hours of sitting while I study. What are some ways I can move while still studying?

Take frequent breaks. Walking breaks are ideal (5-10 minutes for every hour of sitting), as they’ll take you physically away from the studying while allowing you to mull over what you’ve just been reading. Short exercise breaks are good, too. Every fifteen minutes, do 15 air squats and 10 pullups, or maybe some jumping jacks, or some walking lunges. Heck, take a kettlebell along with you and do short sets of swings.

The trick is to remind yourself to take the break. Use an online timer to alert you.

How do I get enough daily sun exposure when it’s overcast for weeks on end where I live in the winter?

Vitamin D supplementation is an option.

Sunbeds are an option. Just keep the exposure really short (2-3 minutes) and don’t go more than a three or four times a month, as sunbed radiation is extremely concentrated. Make sure the sunbed you use has a 95:5 UVA:UVB ratio, since that’s the approximate UV ratio of natural sunlight.

But even if there’s no visible sun, it’s still important to get outside during the day and get that natural light into your eyes to help maintain your circadian rhythm. Even obscured by clouds, the sun’s light is bright.

So assuming caloric intake is equal, is there a type of dairy (i.e. fermented vs. fresh) that is less likely to cause weight gain, or would I need to drop it all to test it out?

Although I don’t have any hard evidence, I suspect that fermented dairy is less likely to cause weight gain. A recent study showed that full-fat fermented dairy is better at reducing inflammatory markers (which are often associated with obesity) than either low-fat fermented, full-fat fresh, or (especially) low-fat fresh dairy.

But yes: test it out. Try fermented first.

What is the best workout on the challenge if you are already in adrenal fatigue and not sleeping well? Do you just focus on the diet and come back to fitness later?

Take it easy, but don’t be sedentary:

Stick to long walks, preferably in a nature setting.

You can also throw in some gentle movement, like the sessions described here.

Yoga is worth a shot.

Some light bodyweight movements can work; just keep the reps low, the rest periods high, and avoid getting too out of breath.

That’s it for today, folks. I’ll get back to the questions for the next Dear Mark. Thanks for reading and asking!

TAGS:  dear mark

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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31 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Your 21-Day Challenge Questions Answered”

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  1. Forcing the issue of food with people in your family really never works. I do all the cooking but aside from that I don’t make an issue of my husband or kids not eating paleo. There is so much more to life and better things to focus on. Also on the breastfeeding topic I think weight should be ignored until it’s completely done with. Whether it’s more or less weight it seems breastfeeding women are not quite themselves during that time.

  2. Thanks for all the answers Mark and friends!

    I was surprised that mine got answered about the re-bounders. I was going to “help someone get rid of theirs hanging in the garage” and not actually buy one. 😛

    Still loving the standing desk!

  3. For non-dairy probiotics, it is possible to buy fermented sauerkraut and pickles if you aren’t up for making your own. Bubbies is the brand I buy, and I love them!

    1. I’ve seen that brand. They aren’t organic. Do you know I’d they are pesticide free?

    2. I love Bubbies too but where I live they are super expensive. I started making my own and have a great brine culture I always have a 2 gallon batch going.

  4. If you plan your vacation stay around where you can buy grass-fed meat.

  5. On leafy greens one simple tasty way is to saute them and add sour cream and cheese of your choice.

    I use spinach, Kalona sour cream, best in world IMO, and grated Kerrygold Dubliner. Fantastic.

  6. I had an exercise question. Anything not productive about doing ‘air’ jumpropes? Just mimicking jumping rope without using one?

    1. No, the magic is all in the rope and not the jumping. Kind of like jumping jacks..another worthless endeavor.

  7. If you are looking for a way to correct poor posture or looking to help reverse the negative affects of prolonged sitting, try Foundation Training. Dr. Eric Goodman, a chiropractor based out of Santa Barbara, Ca, or more correctly now out of Boulder, Colo, developed Foundation Training to help relieve back pain that is caused by our modern societal problems like prolonged sitting, driving, poor posture etc. Check it out!

  8. I also suffer from PRSS (Primal Resistant Spouse Syndrome). It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

    1. I suspect there is many of us in that situation. I’m currently trying to convert my husband to minimalist shoes. Maybe because it’s a one-time endeavour and I know that it will be more productive than trying to change his diet. So far, it’s not working really well…

  9. That hunched back is basically chest muscles being tighter than back muscles. So, stretch your pecs and chest out. Arms either side of a doorway and lean through, also look up cobra pose and try variations on that. Self massage your rib cage, super, super slow strong strokes between the ribs and over the collarbone – it will hurt.

    Side stretches also help – stand with back to a wall, lift arm overhead (keeping it on the wall) and stretch to the side, keeping as much body as possible in contact with wall.

    Avoid carrying bags over your shoulders, and when you do carry anything make a point of putting your shoulders back. No backpacks, or if you need them, where them in your chest so you tighten your back muscles to hold it in place instead of your chest muscles.

    1. I was already thinking that going to school for 20 years is not good for the health but your comment about backpacks being bad for the back sealed the deal for me. For 2 years I carried 2 backpacks and I didn’t thought to put one on my chest.

      I don’t understand that: “Arms either side of a doorway and lean through”. Can you please elaborate? Thanks!

  10. In response to the ‘trying to lose weight question.’ I’ve had the same exact problem as you. I was too strict, too calculated. Once I listened to my body and stopped the calorie counting, the body really does fall into place and do what it does best. As Mark suggested, I did add carbs to my previously very limited carb diet, I added red potatoes to my diet and my body responded very well. I didn’t need to do carb refeeds, but ate them when I felt a craving for them and ate moderately 1-2 small-to-medium sized ones for dinner. I was simply going with the flow and listening to when I was really hungry and when I wasn’t. And the changes happened naturally. Good Luck!

    1. That happened to me too. When I added safe starches – potatoes and parboiled rice, I felt even better!!

  11. I used to be very hunched-back. It effortlessly disappeared when I started being primal! Because I added strength training and doing a few yoga stretches (Mercola had a great post on 5 yoga moves to do daily) to my life. I didn’t have to even think about standing up straight. My posture is normal now and it’s wonderful.

  12. Hello,

    I love this post! Short answers for a lot of questions. It’d be great if you do it more often.

    Congrats for your website!

  13. For the hunchback question, lots of thoracic foam rolling will help, but don’t just roll.

    Get on the roller, put your hands overhead, and gradually increase your thoracic extension by increasing the weight on your hands (until they can reach the floor).

    Magazines are a good progressive loading item here.

    Consider buying Crossover Symmetry. This has been the biggest game-changer in overall shoulder health for me, and I’m a serious lifter.

  14. Regarding Wine vs. Stress – here’s the deal, the stress is there regardless of the wine.

    The wine impacts your perception of the stress, but the negative effects of stress (hormonal, etc) are still there.

    Enjoy some wine occasionally, but don’t think that it’s a stress helper.

  15. I started reading about Primal about a year ago and implementing many of the principles. My live-in-partner at the time just couldn’t get on board with it though. I’d just make what I wanted and tell him he should make his own pasta/grain/rice/etc to go along with it if he wanted to. Well, our relationship didn’t last, but we are still friends. And now – a year later – he’s essentially Primal and has lost over 30 lbs in the past four months or so. He wouldn’t call himself Primal as I think he’s one to balk at any kind of label, but he’s low-carbing it, doing body weight exercises, etc.

    People need to come to their own decisions and embrace any kind of lifestyle change on their own terms. If your partner is not on board, hopefully your results will speak for themselves. I think the advice about seeing if they’ll join you in non-food elements of being primal (sleep, sun, play, etc) is very good. Just don’t tell them it’s primal. :p

  16. Regarding PRSS (see above): I’ve been primal for over two years, my partner wasn’t willing to change his diet, nor his workouts (mountain running every other day). He resisted any pushing on my side, so I stopped and did my thing. Nevertheless he ate the meals I was preparing and liked them. Gradually he started to eat more eggs, meat and vegetables, more fat and protein altogether and stopped eating sweets because they weren’t in the house anymore. Then I noticed that he cooked pasta less often and the bread he bought got hard all the time and ended up with my guineapigs. Then I insisted on installing a pull-up bar and started training. Once again he resisted my suggestions of incorporating a little strength training on his off days, I stopped bothering and did my thing. Then after several weeks he said, I have to show you something. He proudly showed my his first pull-ups. He had started to train secretly. Recently he started to cook, something he never did, apart from cooking pasta. The food he cooks now is essentially primal: meat and vegetables made with butter, so I can eat it too. I didn’t suggest it, it just happened naturally. The less I pushed, the more I lived the lifestyle, the more he was willing to adopt it too. I talked to him about chronic cardio in a neutral way and he hasn’t stopped his heavy training, but he always keeps his off days and listens to his body if it feels tired once in a while and rests more then. I noticed that I have brainwashed him successfully when he started talking about the bad impact of grains on my family.

  17. Just wanted to say that I love the Challenge. While I’m not pristinely primal, I am finding that the interactiveness of the Vimify application along with having read practically everything about Primal that I can find, is a pleasantly not painful way to play.

    I’m not particularly competitive so the whole point thing doesn’t work (I actually realize that my lack of competitiveness is because I know that there are high performing athletes of younger age than I in the challenge. They are not in my class. *sniff*) but I like the daily reminders, tips, challenges, and so forth.


  18. Is skipping breakfast a good idea? I only eat two meals a day – lunch around 11:30 and dinner around 6:30-7:00. Maybe a cup of coffee at 9am as well. Does this constitute beneficial intermittent fasting or am I just slowing down my metabolism?

    1. Wondering the same here: half a cup of tea around 7:30, lunch noonish, supper 6:30. I don’t have any inclination to eating breakfast though, even though I have been told “breakfast is THE Most Important Meal of the Day, you HAVE to have breakfast!!!!” Can’t do it. My weight loss seems to have stalled, interested in losing a couple more pounds but have been told not to, am getting too thin. This said by overweight people. I think what they mean is I am making progress, they are stuck doing the same ol’ nothing.