Even the advanced among us could use a Primal refresher now and then. Even the diehards could stand to bone up on the material. We’ve all been caught with our pants around our ankles when someone asks about “our weird diet.” Well, no longer. Today, you’re taking a short refresher on the Primal Blueprint. All the burning questions, little details, and inquiries people are likely to throw your way make an appearance. To switch things up, I thought it might be fun to turn it into a dialogue between two fictional characters.
Be nice, now. I’m no playwright. This isn’t trying to be “Waiting for Godot” or “Death of a Salesman” or anything like that. I’m just having fun here. Plus, since the following lines are based on bits of conversation that I’ve actually witnessed and participated in, it might actually be helpful if you find yourself in a similar situation.
SETTING: Your typical 2013 start-up tech office. Absent are the cubicle matrices of the mid 1990s, replaced by tasteful but comfortable high-end furniture, exposed brick, murals by local graffiti artists, communal desks, combination foosball/ping-pong tables, and troughs of snacks and drinks.
AT RISE: PRIMAL GUY and COWORKER are huddled around the espresso machine, the hiss of steam and the aroma of single origin Guatemalan beans heavy in the air. PRIMAL GUY wears Vibram Fivefingers on his feet and quiet confidence on his demeanor. He is fit and muscular, with a sturdy torso and sturdier legs. COWORKER is mostly thin except for a noticeable paunch. As he waits for the beans to finish, his foot taps impatiently. He seems nervous about nothing in particular, and somehow everything.
TIME: 10 AM, Pacific.
COWORKER: Man, this needs to finish like YESTERDAY. I can’t even keep my eyes open at my desk, and I just had a coffee like an hour ago.
(COWORKER smacks the lagging espresso machine, impatient.)
PRIMAL GUY: Here, have mine. I can wait.
COWORKER: Thanks, dude. I don’t know how you do it. I almost never see you drinking coffee. Where do you get your energy?
PRIMAL GUY: Well, what’s a typical breakfast look like for you?
COWORKER: That’s the thing that gets me. You’d think a big bowl of cereal, tall glass of orange juice and a granola bar or two would keep me full for more than an hour and give me plenty of energy, but it doesn’t. I’m starving and dragging by mid morning.
(COWORKER adds a half-cup of skim milk to his espresso, followed by a liberal dose of agave syrup. PRIMAL GUY wonders if he should start by saying something about the fructose.)
PRIMAL GUY: That’s because you’re basically eating pure sugar. Where’s the fat? The protein? And if that’s a typical breakfast? You’re trying to create lasting energy out of a fleeting, transient source of energy. Sugar burns and then you need more of it.
COWORKER: Uhhh, fat and protein? Are you crazy? What’s that look like – what do you eat for breakfast?
PRIMAL GUY: Either steak and eggs or bacon and eggs or steak and bacon and eggs, usually with a bowl of berries.
(This sends COWORKER reeling in obvious disbelief.)
COWORKER: Whaa? Man, I’d love to eat steak and eggs every morning, but my family’s got a history of heart disease and you know what they say…
COWORKER: “Good cholesterol”? There is such a thing? I thought all cholesterol was bad.
PRIMAL GUY: The old model of the arteries getting clogged up with cholesterol like what happens to your pipes when you dump fat down the drain is wrong. Cholesterol isn’t a monolithic entity. HDL is “good” and LDL is “bad,” but even that’s too simplistic. It’s not bad. It’s necessary for optimal health! We make important hormones like testosterone out of cholesterol, and our body uses HDL and LDL particles to deliver nutrients. In fact, when it comes to overall mortality – you know, dying and stuff – cholesterol around 180-220 looks to be ideal.
COWORKER: Okay, so even if fat and cholesterol aren’t necessarily bad for you, that doesn’t mean you should actively seek it out.
PRIMAL GUY: Actually, you know how you asked how I never quite need coffee? It’s because I’m fat-adapted. Thanks to my high-fat diet, I have the metabolic flexibility to tap into my stored body fat whenever I need to. See, we store body fat because it’s a fantastic energy source. It burns clean and we can store upwards of tens of thousands of calories worth. I’m reasonably lean with fairly low body fat and I still have over 50,000 calories worth on my body. Meanwhile, I can only store about 500 grams of sugar in the form of liver and muscle glycogen. It serves its purpose to be sure, but you can’t rely on glycogen indefinitely without constant refills. That’s where your need to snack comes from. It also explains why your energy levels dip an hour or two after eating.
COWORKER: Why do I need so much protein? I mean, I’m no bodybuilder, my doctor said too much protein is bad for my kidneys, and my vegetarian buddies say it’ll destroy my bones.
COWORKER: How about exercise? I mean, you’re in great shape. You must spend all day in the gym and run ten miles a day to get that kind of body!
PRIMAL GUY: Ha! Man, I spend at most two hours a week in the gym – usually much less – and haven’t run more than a couple miles at a time for years. I actually find it way more effective to make my short workouts shorter and more intense and my long workouts longer and easier. When I go hard, I go hard, and when I take it easy, I really take it easy. Hanging out in the middle, where you’re trying to maintain a high intensity and a drastically elevated heart rate for 45 minutes to an hour, is both miserable and ultimately ineffective. Sure, it’ll make you good at running, but you run the risk of joint damage, oxidative stress, and elevated cortisol.
COWORKER: Sounds good to me! What’s that cortisol stuff you mentioned, though?
PRIMAL GUY: Cortisol is the premier stress hormone. It’s basically what our body makes in times of acute stress, like facing down a tiger or experiencing a famine. It increases alertness and helps us deal with the stressful situation. Unfortunately, since it’s a signal of starvation and “hard times,” it also breaks down muscle tissue for energy and increases belly fat. All good when you’re actually starving and need the energy at any cost, a disaster when your body only thinks you’re in danger because you’re stressing out over a traffic jam every day or doing too much chronic cardio.
(COWORKER pulls out a diagonally cut cheese sandwich and takes a bite, offering the second half to PRIMAL GUY.)
PRIMAL GUY: No, thanks. Thanks anyway though.
COWORKER: Ah, that’s right! You don’t eat bread, do you? You’re always eating the sandwich interiors! What’s wrong with bread?
PRIMAL GUY: It’s not just bread. It’s grains in general. Think of it like this: unlike many other organisms, grains have no way to defend themselves. They can’t run. They can’t fight. They can’t hide. So they have to defend themselves with proteins like gluten, lectins, and other antinutrients that punch holes in your intestinal lining, allow foreign food substances into your bloodstream to cause problems and trigger your immune response, and inhibit the absorption of nutrients. You’ve probably heard of gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley. It’s the worst of the bunch. If it isn’t degraded entirely by your gut, it can tell the junctions keeping the contents of your stomach out of your bloodstream to open up and let things pass through to the blood, where they can increase inflammation and even trigger autoimmune diseases. Some say that only people with a diagnosed gluten allergy have to worry, but there’s compelling evidence that suggests the majority of people may have sensitivities to gluten. It’s just likely underdiagnosed. Lots of people who never thought they had issues with gluten experience huge benefits when they remove it from their diet.
COWORKER: So it seems like you’re against carbs, huh?
PRIMAL GUY: It’s more that I’m against unnecessary carbs in sedentary people. When you’re sedentary, you’re usually insulin resistant with higher baseline levels of insulin. This is bad because insulin inhibits the release of fat from body fat stores. When an insulin resistant person consumes carbs, they secrete more insulin than normal, which causes greater retention and storage of fat. Athletes need more carbs because they’re burning through their glycogen stores. Plus, they can handle more because their insulin resistance is so low. I’m a fairly active guy myself, but I’m not an elite athlete or exercise addict. I find I just don’t need much more than 150 grams of carbs. Maybe a bit more on really heavy workout days. Often far less.
(COWORKER visibly wilts at the thought of eating fewer carbs. PRIMAL GUY notices.)
COWORKER: How do you get carbs without grains?
PRIMAL GUY: Well, you can eat fruit, vegetables, tubers like sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, roots. There are tons of healthy sources of carbs that don’t come with the antinutrients found in grains and legumes. Eat them as you see fit.
COWORKER: This sounds pretty doable, to be honest. Eat more meat, eggs, vegetables, and fruit. Focus on fat and protein. Avoid grains, legumes, and too many unnecessary carbs. Don’t exercise too much. Okay! I’ll start right now!
(COWORKER pulls out the bottle of community soybean oil from the kitchen cabinet and begins frying a couple eggs he finds in the fridge.)
PRIMAL GUY: Oh, about that. You probably don’t want to be using soybean oil. Or heck, any seed or vegetable oil for that matter. Or trans-fats.
COWORKER: Trans-fat I knew about, but isn’t vegetable oil supposed to be healthy?
PRIMAL GUY: Remember what I told you about saturated fat? How it’s actually healthier and more stable than other fats? Polyunsaturated fats – the kind found in soybean and other seed oils like corn oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and grapeseed oil along with margarine – are the exact opposite: highly unstable when exposed to heat, oxygen, or light. So when we cook with them, we’re damaging them, if they haven’t already been damaged by being stored for months in a warm warehouse waiting to be shipped. Oxidized polyunsaturated fats can lead to oxidized LDL particles, which are a big risk factor for heart disease. Plus, our bodies take the polyunsaturated fats we eat and make inflammatory or anti-inflammatory signaling molecules that form part of the stress response. Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils are inflammatory precursors. We can offset this by eating more fatty fish, which contain the anti-inflammatory precursors known as polyunsaturated omega-3 fats, but it’s better to just reduce the overall intake of omega-6s.
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.