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 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.

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

22 thoughts on “Where Do I Start? The Big Picture on Tackling Primal Challenges”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. This is so perfect….it really doesn’t matter where you start. Just start! I am always encouraging my readers to gradually build healthy habits into their lives. One thing leads to another. Baby steps are fine. Personally, I started my Primal journey with food. The exercise thing was already there (still have to start sprinting!) As a long time vegetarian it seemed really weird eating little bits of grass fed burger, and saying no to all grains, but seeing the improvements in my skin, energy levels, digestion and anxiety made it so worthwhile. Food is a great place to start, but looking back I wish I had made more of an emphasis on sleep. Still working on that one!

  2. Because LGN was a primary motivator for me when I began this primal journey, I found that I wanted to start with diet. As I lost some excess body fat, I began to think that a little bit of time in the weight room might pay off more than it had in the past. Then I figured that an extra 20 minutes of sprinting effort once every ten days was completely worth it. Finally, Robb Wolf’s book highlighted the importance of sleep for me, so it was a gradual shift into this lifestyle that started with some diet changes.

  3. I started the paleo diet after losing 50 lbs, and was stuck there for two years…at 6’3″ 220lbs my glucose seram was 110, prediabetes… Not wanting to have to start taking meds for diabetes, I researched and a friend sent me a link to the daily Apple… I took the 21 day challenge and lost 15 lbs. What I love about your approach Mark, is the attitude that you bring for us to see…on the second month into this experience, we where flooded out of our home in Simonton TX during the memorial day weekend flood in 2016. We had to stay with friends who provide the meals that weren’t very paleo friendly…I avoided all of the bad things that I could but realized that what goark would do is eat we was available in order to live…flexibility…I had to get off course for a few weeks, and I’m back now! There are some out in the primal community, that can get so caught up in all of the facts and figures, that they can really discourage many from giving paleo a try…you Mark are not one of those…as you mentioned once “go ahead and have that slice of birthday cake at the office to celebrate a co workers birthday” this approach gives a certain feeling that this is doable… I can stick with this and have success

  4. For me, losing the grains and sweets meant losing the extra weight. I was never a great deal overweight, but losing around 40 pounds–which was 20 more than I thought I needed to lose–also meant losing the lethargy that had set in. I think correcting one’s diet is by far the best place to begin. It automatically increases energy and sets the stage for improvement in so many other areas, including better sleep, the desire and ability to exercise more, fewer aches and pains, a decreased need for meds (with their often-debilitating side effects), etc. In short, it vastly increases one’s overall vitality in a way that nothing else can.

  5. Very good read
    And if I had to resume it in one line I would choose this one

    “If you’re overweight or obese, your first step should be changing your diet.”

    In my case I got the most bang for the buck (and fast) was the change on the way I exercised.

    1. So did I. With knee injuries from 40 years ago (pounding pavement) I found that stationary cycling has set me free. I do a few moderate minutes (5-15) on the airdyne for my knees and legs, then prop my feet up and get a wonderful upper-body workout. The psychological benefits last all day and it’s easy to skip the “frankenfood”! Some days I’ll do two routines.

  6. I started with diet, which was previously low-carb and low-fat vegan (in other words, a disaster) but it took a while for me to internalize the exercise philosophy. I’d been living with a “more is better” drive for so long, which was difficult to re-program. Now if only I could get my sleep back in order…

  7. I went all-in when I started in 2011. No tippy toeing for me. One healthy Primal Law really did lead to the next. It all felt realIy organic and made sense. I became that irritating guy that felt so good and got healthy, and then started to preach to strangers when they asked a question about my Five Finger shoes. I’ve mellowed out a lot since then. But hey, I got about 8 other folks to follow along and they feel great.

  8. We should all make changes to live a better life in 2017. A healthier, stress-free life, for sure!

    Amazing work here, Mark!

  9. I started with my diet, cutting grains and sugar. I experienced so much stomach discomfort and digestive problems before primal eating. I now experience none of these problems when I’m sticking to my primal food. Then after that most things fell in to place, and I am still trying with some aspects, but I’ll get there! The primal blueprint book is a life changer, I’ve encouraged so many friends to give it a read!

  10. This is a great article, a fast reminder of the essentials in your GREAT book, The New Primal Blueprint. THANK YOU again Mark Sisson!

  11. If you have a chronic dusease or get sick a lot, start with sleep! My immune system improved considerably getting back to normal, good sleep.

  12. Great article and I absolutely agree that when you’re exercising well the cravings for junk food diminish and you slip onto healthy mode. It’s a win win. I really like the idea of the PB way of training as this would fit into my current lifestyle with a few minor adjustments. Very informative post – thanks!

  13. This is great for me to read today. I am 30 pounds overweight and really struggle with exercising other than going on walks with the kids and dog. I have been beating myself up because I feel like I cannot do everything at once especially while my husband is on an overseas work trip. I was just thinking this morning that I would like to just start with diet and be a little more gentle with myself. Thanks for the encouragement.

    1. Naomi, FWIW, I found that my energy levels sky rocketed once I got my diet in order… I decided to just focus on one thing at a time (as I thought this was more doable for me) and am so glad that I focused on diet first. Once I lost 5kg (I didn’t really have a lot to lose) I found that I became more energetic and just wanted to move and be active, whereas previously I struggled to find the energy to do more than walk the dog.. I find that now I have to actually be conscious not to be too active (who would’ve thought!), I get a lot more done around the house and have more time and energy for my family 🙂 plus all the other things Mark mentions, like sleep & training just naturally feel into place for me once I sorted my diet. Good luck on your journey, and be kind to yourself- we all experience set backs so try to learn from them and move on rather than beating yourself up and feeling guilty (I know, easier said than done)

  14. This is a great reminder for me today… my biggest struggle is sleep, but reading this stresses to me the importance and the results of getting enough good sleep. Ill focus more on that. Thank you!

  15. If I’m starting this, grass fed butter (dairy) would be okay right? I like the butter with my eggs in the morning to get some more fats. I could just do coconut oil but I prefer the taste of a tbsp of Kerrygold 🙂

    1. Enjoy your grass fed butter. For those that can tolerate dairy, it’s awesome!

  16. I came to primal for my health. Weight was not an issue, other than I needed to stop dropping, so I started by ditching the grains and bad oils. I lost 3 lbs. of excess fat in the first week and started feeling better. Working down from my chronic exercising took a few months.

  17. I started small – dropping grains and processed sugar. I dropped about 10lbs and then stalled…which got me excited about planning the next small change(better sleep habits). I feel GREAT and I’m so confident that these small changes will add up to big things. 😀

  18. Love this post!
    I have two ” reminders” on my wall where I see the first thing in the morning…
    ” you don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great”
    ” little bit by little bit”
    Just start!
    Even if you do ” just a little bit”

  19. I started with diet, because I was carrying an extra 35 lbs. I started with PB (instead of another plan) because I had heard it would cut down on the aches and pains that accumulate over the years. I haven’t increased my exercise, and I already got enough sleep, so the 29 lbs I lost quickly and effortlessly has been my entire PB experience. I’m still following the food plan 9 months later, in a lackadaisical fashion, and it’s still working. Maybe one day I’ll add exercise…. or not. ;0)