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Dear Mark: Your 21-Day Challenge Questions Answered

As promised, today’s edition of Dear Mark [1] is all about the 21-Day Challenge [2]. Last week, you asked me a ton of questions [3]. 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.

As far as exercises go, pushups [11], pullups [12], planks [13], and bodyweight rows [14] 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 [15] about the food, because that never goes well. Just slip Primal food into any meals you prepare. Make a side of potatoes [16] instead of bread — that sorta thing.

Focus on the other aspects of Primal, the non-food stuff [17], 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 [18]. 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).

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 [26] 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 [27]. We’ve been using smoke to preserve salmon for centuries.

A 2009 study [28] 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 [29], 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 [30], energy levels [31], or sleep [32]. 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 [33].

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 [34] 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 [35] for you. Good work!

And I’m sure you know, but full-fat dairy [36] is definitely worth eating if you can handle it. The health benefits [37] 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 [38] is definitely superior to just organic [39]. 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 [40] and the necessity of vegetables in the diet [41]. 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 [42], 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 [43]. And be sure to explore all the other pharmacological ways you can mitigate stress [44] (and a few more [45]).

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 [46] from fruits, vegetables, and nuts is good, healthy stuff that feeds your gut bacteria [47] and improves your health [48].

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 [49] (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 [50], 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 [51]: Since you’re dealing with a lot of material, it’s a bit daunting, but the actual process is easy enough (and fun).

Kefir [52]: 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 [53] and may help you digest lactose [54] 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 [55] 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 [56] and 10 pullups, or maybe some jumping jacks, or some walking lunges. Heck, take a kettlebell [57] along with you and do short sets of swings.

The trick is to remind yourself to take the break. Use an online timer [58] 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 [59] 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 [60] is less likely to cause weight gain. A recent study [61] showed that full-fat fermented dairy is better at reducing inflammatory markers [62] (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 [63].

You can also throw in some gentle movement [64], like the sessions described here [65].

Yoga [66] is worth a shot.

Some light bodyweight movements [67] 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!