It’s Friday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here. In fact, I have a contest going right now. So if you have a story to share, no matter how big or how small, you’ll be in the running to win a big prize. Read more here.
Big-boned. That’s what I told myself I was when I was growing up. I put down to genetics a tendency to gain fat with unnerving ease but what else could I blame? Armed with the conventional wisdom of Australia in the 1980s and 90s, we were simply fed the way we were taught to eat: some meat and vegetables but otherwise plenty of white bread, cereals, skimmed milk, margarine, and other ‘healthy carbs’ like potatoes and pasta. Having something of a sweet tooth myself, I was no stranger to unloading a tablespoon of sugar into my bowl of Weetbix or Rice Bubbles. I didn’t like water (admittedly, the tap water in Adelaide is still the worst I’ve tasted to this day) so anytime I drank fluids, they were enhanced with the sugary goodness of cordial. I often got sick when I was young, generally in the form of lingering colds, but my stomach often played up, too; nausea was a given for me for long periods of time, and if there was a stomach bug going around, I’d be the first to get it. (It would later turn out via a blood test in my 20s that I was borderline coeliac so I’d be surprised if that isn’t connected!). I was a reasonably active child, spending a lot of time on my BMX at the bike track, out waterskiing on the river, swimming in our pool, rowing, and playing weekly games of hockey, so I’m lucky not to have been really seriously out of shape. I was most definitely very soft around the edges though.
It was around the time I left school in 2000 at the age of 18 that friends and I started to take an interest in lifting weights, but we really had no idea what we were doing at that stage, especially as far as nutrition was concerned. We were far more likely to be downing post-training beers than anything remotely helpful like a protein shake or, god forbid, actual food. For the next couple of years I left the weights, and my only exercise was the daily 30-minute ride to and from my job at an award-winning bakery. I can only thank having youth on my side for the fact that the unfathomable number of pies, sausage rolls, cakes, buns and Red Bulls I consumed didn’t go straight to my fat stores and stay there!
The next decade or so contained a variety of approaches to training, nutrition and wellbeing, some more successful or long-lasting than others. I discovered my love of a style of kung fu which I’ve now kept up for 13 years; I dabbled in Ori Hoffmeckler’s Warrior Diet for a few months; I fell in love with kettlebell training and have grown a pretty nice collection of them which I use religiously; I fell out of love with a vegetarian-pasta-obsessed girlfriend (this stuff contained pasta, tinned tomatoes, a couple of carrots and some celery – talk about a malnourished period of my life!); whey protein took its place in my diet and, like an epiphany, crystallized for me the importance protein plays in the healthy functioning of the body; I completed a personal training qualification but ended up not working as a PT after learning the statistic about the very high number of PTs who contract vocal nodules – I was (and still am) a classical singer who relied on his vocal health!
I’d always admired Arnold Schwarzenegger (his dedication and his physique, anyway) so at the time I was doing the PT course, I started training with traditional weights again to get as big and strong as I possibly could. And I did. I got very big and very strong. And fat. I got so fat you could barely tell I’d gained a notable amount of muscle too. Conventional Lifting Wisdom, as I was interpreting it, had been telling me to eat as much as I could fit in my belly, multiple times a day. I was loading up on fantastic meat (my sister managed one of the best butcher shops in Australia), but I was also gorging on peanut butter right out of the jar just to keep my calories up. I really ran with the concept and completely overshot the mark, going from 77kgs to 94kgs (169lbs to 207lbs) at a height of just shy of 6ft in a matter of months, and I did not look or feel healthy or especially happy by this point. It was a real eye-opener in terms of my caloric requirements, too – I’d significantly overestimated how much energy I was burning and how much of which foods I needed to eat for recovery. I have no regrets because self-experimentation has taught me a lot, but I realise in hindsight that this phase may well have created the insulin resistance that stayed with me for quite a few of the ensuing years.
Six months later. New wonderful girlfriend (soon-to-be-wonderful-wife), moved to a smaller place that didn’t fit my weights gear (power cage, Olympic bar and the rest) which was a real problem for my lifting as the introvert in me makes me very much a solo trainee – I’m completely self-conscious in a gym, and I need silence to train effectively – so I got lazy and happy. I was still using my kettlebells every so often and training kung fu but not with the dedication I had been. I lost some fat, but I also lost some muscle so for the next couple of years I was strong but kind of out of shape again with my training in flux without a clear goal. In 2011 we moved our whole lives over to the UK to try our hands at fully freelance classical music careers (my wife is a violinist). Things began well but building a freelance career where you don’t know anyone inevitably means pinching pennies so our eating suffered somewhat. It was never hideous but it was definitely still conventional in the sense that we didn’t really think much about what we ate. Lots of carbs but lots of fat to go with it, plus healthy volumes of heavy British ales. I kept up the kung fu and I bought some cheap kettle bells, but my commitment was somewhat intermittent given our entire living space was one room for two years. Still didn’t look great at somewhere between 87kg and 91kg (190-200lbs). For most of this time though, because we were poor, we walked a hell of a lot to avoid paying for transport!
Still in the UK and careers going from strength to strength, we had our first beautiful boy, Tobias, in 2015 and despite ramping up my training and healthier eating in the months beforehand, I REALLY let myself go once he appeared in our lives. I was sleep-deprived so I constantly fell for comfort foods and beer and wine, and within nine months I was up to 95kg (209lbs). I’d never been heavier or felt worse. They say it takes 28 days to build a habit and three days to break one and during this period, any time I tried to train, I couldn’t create enough momentum to take me to the next session; I couldn’t get anywhere near enough to the ‘28 days’ to establish the pattern I needed to be consistent again. Of course, I was weaker and more unfit than I had been and I found this very depressing so I coped by avoiding it altogether – and I’d always hated avoidance as a coping tactic. I was becoming someone whose choices I couldn’t respect and that was heartbreaking to me. I’d always been confident but that was now diminishing to the point that friends and colleagues commented on it. I even started to get ever-increasing bouts of performance anxiety on stage – scary stuff because I’d seen it end careers. The final straw was a photo that was taken of a group of friends and me on a visit back home to Australia; despite knowing inside that I’d gained a lot of fat, it was seeing my body stretching my t-shirt in all directions and having the photo shared far and wide that was my ‘ugh’ moment.
Enter Primal. I stumbled on Mark’s Daily Apple after looking at hunter-gatherer-related pages (I’d always had a thirst for knowledge about prehistoric peoples) and, like so many others who write these stories, I was instantly dumbstruck by the sense in everything I read. I’d heard bits and pieces about Paleo and a lower carb lifestyle (I tried the Ketogenic Diet in early 2014 with mixed success) but not like this. I ordered The Primal Blueprint days later and finally I saw what I needed presented in a way that used science, logic and common sense without the sensationalism you see surrounding other ‘diets’. This was so much more than a simple diet; as I saw it, it took care of everything that makes the human body and mind thrive, and with countless studies to back it up.
I wasn’t a super high-carb eater so I didn’t suffer terribly from the ‘carb flu’ the way some do when I dropped the last vestiges of a grainy diet (oats and sandwiches and the like) and upped the fat from sources like avocado, eggs, nuts, bacon, fish, heavy cream in coffee, and more olive oil, but still, the weight just flew off – in a matter of a few weeks I was down 6kg. I’m sure some of that was water but I felt so much better too: I was already getting sick far less often, I was sleeping better, my energy was balanced and I wasn’t getting as hungry. I attempted my first 24 hour fast on a major concert day (much to the bewilderment of my colleagues) and I barely noticed on stage that I hadn’t eaten all day. One of the other great benefits of all this for me has been the ease with which I can retain muscle while eating little enough to lose the fat off the top. 13 months on, I’m down 15.5kg (34lbs) and I can see my abs for the first time in my ENTIRE LIFE – and I still have most of the muscle I worked so hard for.
Day-to-day, I tend to cycle through the regular components of my diet according to what I’m in the mood for. Every morning I have the juice of half a lemon in hot water before anything else. If I’m having breakfast (I often fast till lunch), I’ll either have a protein shake or some full-fat natural Greek yoghurt and some ricotta with berries, a couple of Brazil nuts and milled flax, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, plus a double espresso with a splash of heavy cream. Lunch is generally a big tin of salmon (bones included, though I take the skin out – I’ve been squeamish about fish skin since I worked in a seafood factory at the age of 19) mixed with a bit of yoghurt, capers, cucumber, lemon juice, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and seaweed salt. Dinners are a mix! It’s always meat and vegetables in some combination (curry, tagine, roast, summer salad, etc), generally without much in the way of carbs. Lamb shanks are my all-time favourite meal, however they’re prepared, and I’ll have some potato with them. I’ll have a spoon or two of rice with a curry.
Post-training I’ll always have a protein shake with creatine and a spoonful of blackstrap molasses or an occasional banana. I was eating a lot of eggs but I’ve largely dropped them of late due to some bloating – which I hope passes as they’re so convenient and tasty! I could certainly improve on my base level Primal diet, though. I really need to eat more vegetables throughout the day, and I need to eat more collagen due to my taste for muscle meat. That said, every day I feel I learn more about how I can best make it work for me so food decisions become easier and more instinctive.
My training schedule varies according to how I feel, but my average week will contain four or five days with some form of training. These will either be heavy kettlebell work (overhead mostly – clean and presses, snatches, and some rows and swings), or weighted dips, chin-ups, pistols and Turkish Get-ups, or a 15-minute farmers’ walk with my heaviest ‘bells, kung fu training, or (lately) some sprints. None of these sessions will exceed an hour – I’m generally done between 30 and 45 minutes. I’ll also knock out a set of pushups or chin-ups or dips when I’m near my doorway chin-up bar or a pair of kitchen chairs!
I travel a lot for work, often for a couple of weeks at a time staying in various hotels touring around the USA. Lots of the tour days will contain two flights (when I’m already jetlagged and having to be out of bed by 5 a.m. after a late concert the night before), and this can add a little guesswork into the equation as far as not knowing what type of meal an airport will have or a promoter will provide – I’ll sometimes simply have to be a little less strict. Same thing with frequent 24-hour trips to spots all over Europe like that great Mecca of beer, Belgium. I’m extremely lucky to have a career that takes me to these wonderful places – as a great food and drink lover, I feel I owe it to myself to make the most of what these cultures have to offer so I might indulge a little. In any case, as long as I get back in the saddle on my return, nothing negative lasts very long at all. The 80/20 principle works very well for me – I’ve proven to myself that loosening the reins every so often doesn’t have to end the game for me, at least once my body and I knew the ropes. I’ve learned that I can get away with a couple of beers here, some wine and chocolate there, or an almond croissant on a special morning out with my wife and son. I don’t always feel great afterwards but it’s good for the soul.
If there’s hope I have to offer to anyone in particular who is contemplating taking the plunge, it’s to new parents. Our respective families live on the other side of the world, so we’re essentially raising our son alone – life is therefore far from easy, and a day’s planned physical activity can often go out the window at a moment’s notice – but the Primal approach is so adaptable that it needn’t ever be derailed. If Tobias woke early from his nap, my kettlebell session would be halved; if I was completely destroyed by a night with him refusing to sleep for more than 30 minutes at a time, I did a handful of chin-ups and chair dips and called it a day on training till I’d caught up a bit; if I was stressed by his unwillingness to play on his own for an entire day and felt like falling into a packet of sweet biscuits or chips, I was thankfully armed with the knowledge that I was just going to feel awful afterwards. And if I did succumb? I’d appreciate the moment for what it was and move on because I’d be back to craving what my body now instinctively knew what was good for it. This is all still relevant, but now that Tobias is nearly two, the challenge has changed a bit. Now he insists on lifting kettlebells with me (well, he deadlifts the 8kg one at least!), he gets me to help him with dips, he planks with me, he copies one-arm push-ups, and he now enjoys using a foam roller to work out all that tension created by the incredibly demanding situation of being a 23-month-old with his every whim taken care of.
As an aside, growing up in Australia, we took the sun for granted so we never considered taking vitamin D supplements – we simply didn’t need to – but it took me five years here in the UK to realise that it’s a really good idea in winter! Two months ago I was feeling especially drained, I had a constant headache, my sleep was sporadic, I was getting sick a lot again, and my fat loss had stalled. I re-read Mark’s article about vitamin D and checked all my symptoms against a few other websites and realised that was it. I’m now taking 5,000-10,000IU a day and all of the symptoms have gone, including my fat loss plateau – and that’s the only thing I’ve changed. If you’re not getting much sun for a long period of time, it’s definitely worth checking your vitamin D levels.
So that’s my Primal journey so far! I have to commend and thank my wife, Julia. Despite some reluctance at the beginning – she was raised with a more progressive and holistic attitude towards food, and as a result hasn’t struggled with the same fat gain or health issues – she is completely onboard and has been really supportive with all this (useful because she loves cooking and does nearly all of it). I’m also very glad to be able to give our boy the healthy head start not many get at the same age. We’re expecting our second baby in a couple of months so we’ll be back to square one with the sleep issues, but I now know I don’t have to drop everything as a result!
I have so much gratitude to Mark for the wealth of reliable and verifiable information he makes available in a world which is only just starting to shift in the right direction. He’s had the most profound influence on our health and well-being that it’s hard to know where to begin. So thank you, Mark!