Where Do I Start? The Big Picture on Tackling Primal Challenges

Inline_Where_Do_I_Start-2Earlier this month, a reader posed a fantastic question that prompted today’s post. It was long, so I’ll give the choice bits rather than quote the entire thing:

Where do I start? I’d be interested in seeing your opinion on the relative impact of various primal lifestyle changes… Eating “clean” would be a 10, etc… but what about subtler things like sprinting, IF, quality sleep, sunlight, and play… So I guess I’m asking you to write on a 30,000ft level, how all these things interplay and what their relative contributions are to overall wellness.

Where does one start indeed?

Most people familiar with the Primal Blueprint are also familiar with the pecking order within each Primal law. I’m sure the reader is one of them. If you’re not, I’ll give a couple examples.

The foundation of the Primal Blueprint way of eating is:

  1. Eliminating grains, especially gluten grains.
  2. Eliminating processed sugar and excess carbs (carbs you haven’t earned through physical activity/pregnancy/nursing/etc.).
  3. Eliminating processed seed oils high in omega-6 PUFAs.

Do those three things, and you’re most of the way there. You can tinker around the edges, sourcing only grass-fed meat, giving up nightshades for a spell to see how it affects you, forgoing dairy, eating liver once a week, eating lots of colorful fruits and veggies—but doing the first three will usually get you the most benefits. And you’ll probably start doing the other things naturally.

The PB way of training can be boiled down to:

  1. Lift heavy things.
  2. Move frequently at a slow pace (walk, hike, low-level aerobic activity).
  3. Run (or bike/row) really fast once in awhile.

You can try different movement systems, go high-volume/low-intensity or high-intensity/low-volume. You can try CrossFit, or MovNat, or P90x, or strongman, or Olympic lifting. But the basic prescription is the most important.

But is there also a pecking order to heed when choosing which Primal Blueprint lifestyle intervention to tackle first? Should you do diet, exercise, sleep, or any of the others before the rest?

Okay, outlandish scenario time. Guy holding a gun to your head says “Choose one Primal Blueprint lifestyle intervention to enact. Only one.”

What do you choose?

That depends where you’re starting.

For me, it was a tossup between diet and training. The two were inextricably linked. I accumulated a ton of mileage and wear and tear thanks to the gargantuan infusions of grain-based glucose, which allowed me to keep up my excessive training while increasing its inflammatory effects. When I changed, I dropped my training volume and the carbohydrate-based eating style. They begat each other. They both had to go.

After that, my stress resilience improved (less training left more in the tank to deal with life’s trials and lowered my cortisol), and I started sleeping better (fewer late night training sessions and early morning wake-ups, plus not being in “go go go” mode all the time). I suddenly had time to grow my businesses and devote attention to my personal relationships. I began playing more, actually enjoying the physical activity I now had time for. Everything else unfolded once I fixed my training and eating.

Say you only change your diet.

What happens if you adopt a Primal way of eating and start losing body fat but do little else? If you’re overweight or obese, your first step should be changing your diet. Not only will this help you lose body fat and weight, it will lead to improvements in other areas addressed by the PB.

  • Your sleep gets better. Low-carb diets tend to improve sleep in overweight and obese people.
  • You suddenly want to exercise. Losing weight also improves energy levels, so you actually feel like exercising. That’s much more effective than forcing a sluggish, overweight body to train when every natural impulse opposes movement. Weight loss also makes higher-impact training like sprints safer.
  • Avoiding junk food, grains, sugar, and seed oils might not directly reduce stress, but eliminating them eliminates many of the foods we binge on during stressful periods. They’re “off-limits” and thus harder to rationalize eating.

Say you only fix your sleep.

You get natural light during the day, avoid artificial after dark, wear those ugly orange goggles, toggle nightmode on your phone, and get in bed by 10 or 11 at the latest for a solid 7-8 hours. What will happen?

  • Your cravings will diminish. Junk food doesn’t look so appealing after a good night’s sleep. Eating healthily will get easier.
  • You won’t be so insulin-resistant. You’ll lose fat more easily and handle carbohydrates better.
  • You have more energy during the day, which translates into better productivity, better workouts, and a renewed zest for life.
  • Your cortisol levels drop. One bad night’s sleep increases cortisol levels; a string of nights with good sleep will do the opposite.

Not bad for a little extra sleep.

Say you decide to focus only on your exercise and leave everything else intact.

You start lifting 2-3x a week, running hill sprints, and walking 5-6 miles a day. What happens?

  • You get more insulin-sensitive. Training clears glycogen from the muscles, giving you an opening to eat some carbs and refill them without adverse impacts to insulin levels (and fat loss).
  • You build lean mass.
  • You increase fat oxidation. You become a fat-burning beast, with new and better-functioning mitochondria to boot.
  • And while people talk about out-exercising a bad diet, intending to use training as a free pass to eat whatever junk they want, I have a different experience. When i’m training really consistently and effectively, my cravings for junk vanish. It’s almost like I switch over into health mode, the training stimulus creating a desire for greater nutrient density to further my gains.
  • You’ll get more fresh air and sun. Particularly if you exercise outdoors.

The boring but true answer is that everything matters. Even the “small stuff” isn’t small stuff and affects the bigger stuff. And everyone can tackle multiple interventions simultaneously. No one has that proverbial gun to their head.

It sounds daunting. Overwhelming, even. Trust me, though: it’s the best part of the Primal approach.

The flip-side of everything affecting everything is that changing just a single aspect of Primal health reverberates through the rest of your lifestyle. Starting almost anywhere works, each intervention having a measurable impact on the other facets of Primal health.

But don’t stop there. Sleeping like a champ might allow you to only eat half the French fries you normally would, but imagine the results if you didn’t eat any of them. Training consistently can build muscle on any diet, but imagine the gains if you swapped breakfast cereal for bacon and eggs.

That’s it for today, folks. Now I’d love to hear from you. Where did you start on your Primal journey? What would you do differently, if anything?

Thanks for reading!


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 more than three decades 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 flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!