Last week I outlined my basic philosophy of nutrition, informed by my evolutionary biology knowledge. Or, as I call it, Primal Health. The lifestyle is simple: peer into the past at how our robust ancestors lived and take some notes from the DNA handbook (well, I’ll do that part).
Before the advent of agriculture, before the industrial revolution, and certainly before the modern era of fast food, long commutes, and sedentary office jobs, humans had evolved into the amazing creatures that they still are. To say we’re amazing isn’t anthropocentric – all creatures are amazing in the sense that they are finely tuned to survive in their niche. We are no different. For the delicacy of our skin, eyes, and bones, the susceptibility to environmental and emotional stress, and the infectious side effects of communal living, we are remarkably resilient. But it’s really our intelligence that has gotten us this far. Are we powerful? Well, not really, compared to apes. Sturdy? Again, nope. Our young take longer than just about any other mammal to mature (and also come with tuition bills). But brains? We have massive, enormously complex brains.
My Primal Health philosophy is really a marriage of ancient and high-tech. I believe we should harness the power of our knowledge, tools and intelligence to maximize human health and longevity. And the place to start is in our ancestral blueprints – our DNA – which haven’t changed in 10,000 or more years.
Great, Sisson. What does this mean for dinner?
Early humans were omnivorous (though in fact, there’s a bit of scavenger in the old DNA as well). I don’t consider my diet the Caveman Diet, as that’s a bit of a misnomer anyway. Rather, my “diet” is simply the very natural lifestyle I adhere to based upon what our genetic composition (that DNA blueprint) tells us about our highly successful evolution and adaptation. I attribute many, if not most, of our health problems – including mental health conditions – to a diet and lifestyle that’s severely out of sync with human physiology. I’ll be discussing the implications of this for exercise and stress in further articles, but today, let’s talk about the tastier aspects of primal health: what’s for dinner?
Like I said, humans are omnivores. Our teeth, digestive tract and nutritional needs make that plain. You can certainly follow a vegetarian lifestyle if you choose, though I espouse limited, responsible meat consumption. I admit, I do tease the vegheads a bit, but in truth my own son is a lifelong vegetarian – and he’s one of the most athletic, fit, healthy kids you’ll ever meet.
I do not have the same complimentary regard for veganism: it’s usually unhealthy, it’s difficult to sustain, and there’s no guarantee you’re doing any better by the planet (if you eat local, I applaud you). I know I’ll take some heat for this, but I believe the science outweighs the feelings. It’s possible to be vegan, but I parry: veganism, for all the compassionate intent, is in direct contradiction of our fundamental genetic makeup. The problem, of course, is how to eat animal protein responsibly, in light of the modern factory farming system and environmental degradation. (Read up: my reflections on the meat dilemma.)
What’s a primal omnivore to eat? I’ll tell you what we absolutely should not eat, and in no uncertain terms:
– Absolutely no refined flours, sugars, starches or syrups of any kind. Sorry. This effectively eliminates all sodas, sweet beverages, breads, pastas, crackers, cookies, pastries and processed snacks. You may think this is extreme, but ignoring our primal blueprint and gobbling up Big Agra’s latest addictive inventions like so many sheep is a complacent, unthinking alternative. We have to get outside our own insignificant bubble here. We’re a dot in the universe; a speck in the span of time. The standard American diet is a new invention that maximizes profit and minimizes health. Realize that your diet is a direct result of effective brainwashing that exploits the human susceptibility to addiction. What we eat benefits Big Agra, a model consisting of corporations that have merely arisen within the last short century. We are a mass-consumption society and marketing has taken the place of the Pope. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in on the scam with a food pyramid suggestion 6-11 servings of grains a day! (Can you say “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you”?). What’s the big deal about questioning the merit of the food supply? What’s so radical about looking at human health through a larger lens than one lifetime?
– Avoid processed foods, and you low-carbers, this means meat and dairy as well as the carbs. Not everyone will agree with this. Some folks are into Atkins; some are into South Beach; some will eat all sorts of chemicals (the Diet Coke and Splenda crowd). I’m far from militant. I love a good beer as much as the next guy. However, my personal recommendation is to get as natural and as whole as you can. The more raw produce you consume, the better. Again, we’re simply thinking about what humans ate for millennia – and understanding, in a profound way, that the human design is not static. What humans ate directly influenced how humans evolved. The introduction of grain agriculture, and its ugly offspring, processed “food”, will directly influence our future. Our current anachronistic foray into refined sugar is already influencing human health.
It’s not “normal” for a population to need so many drugs and to face so many health conditions. We are now a chronically diseased population, threatened to an extent that is no different from any other endangered species, if you think about it. In a normal, healthy population, would you expect to find children developing diabetes? Men (and women), think about how your eyes jerk at the sight of a thin woman at the grocery store. And ladies, when was the last time you saw a fit guy? Slender humans are the exception these days. How utterly bizarre. There’s nothing glamorous about being slim – that’s how humans come. Genotypes and phenotypes vary, but in general, we’re meant to be lithe and trim (our as-yet weak backs can’t stand much weight). Start living exclusively on whole, fresh, natural foods and you’ll find how very natural being lean is.
The “Primal Blueprint diet” isn’t really a diet. It’s simply a matter of living in step with the human capacity to thrive. It’s an embarrassingly easy breakdown:
– Green and colorful vegetables at most meals.
– Supplement with a bit of protein from a clean, nutritious source (organic and grass-fed meats, minimally processed soy, eggs, wild fish, and so on). Just a few ounces.
– Don’t stuff yourself. Here I am talking about evolution and DNA. Well, what helped us in the past to survive is now problematic. It made sense to gorge when the next carcass might not show up for a week. In terms of pure survival, it might have made sense to consume rapidly metabolized grains that were easy to grow and a plentiful source of calories. But not as a steady diet for centuries (least of all a health food!). Evolution has a way of righting the wrongs – the system always self-corrects eventually. What we’re experiencing right now with the grossly excessive rates of disease and obesity? In the scheme of human development, this is an experimental blip with a food source that doesn’t work. And make no mistake: correction is around the corner. Only now, we’ve got the tools and resources to preemptively address the problems.
– Drink water several times a day, and avoid any beverages other than modest amounts of tea, wine, and coffee.
– Don’t be afraid of fat, but make sure you’re eating unrefined fats. The fat in meat and dairy is actually quite nutritious (yes, I like saturated fat!). That is, if you aren’t excluding vegetables, nuts, and fish from your diet.
– Envision your meals. Early humans thrived on occasional meat; seafood; at times, a little dairy, depending on the location and specific group; plenty of nuts, seeds and berries; a little fruit; and copious amounts of greens. They didn’t eat potatoes, grains, sugar, sweetened beverages, and they certainly ate nothing processed. Most food was eaten raw. Like it or not, this is how we evolved, and this diet is what the human body thrives on. Your mental filters may find it initially odd, but there’s really nothing so odd about eating the food that fits your genes even better than your jeans.
– Most meals ought to be mostly vegetables. An entire plateful of vegetables will only add about 100 calories to your body, so there’s still plenty of room for a little protein and fat. But envisioning our primal plate, volume goes to the veggies.
– For weight loss, you can get into specific meal times, portion sizes, calories and more. There’s a real place for those factors considering three quarters of us are carting around too much blubber. That’s why I talk about calories and portions at my blog and why you’re wise to read up on the stories and views at Jimmy’s blog, as well. For weight loss and health, I believe limited calories are best.
– People have been led to believe “dieting” is essential for weight loss. Of course some “dieting” is essential, in the sense that whatever you’re currently doing clearly isn’t working if you’re overweight and unhealthy. But again, if you consume the foods most natural to the human blueprint, you’ll see that being trim is, in fact, just a basic feature of the human design. “Diets” like Atkins work because they’re simply in alliance with the body’s blueprint.
– It’s not complicated. Really. Just eat your vegetables. They aren’t “accents”. You don’t “add them in” to your diet. They are the diet. They should be the entire base of the Food Pyramid.
Soon, I’ll be posting pictures of my meals, including my 20-years-on love affair with giant salads.
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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.