The following are both actual and paraphrased versions of questions I regularly get from readers:
If grains are so bad how can you explain the leanness and good health of Clarence Bass?
How is it that this guy can eat 30 bananas a day and not gain weight, or this guy can eat nothing but potatoes for 60 days and lose 20 pounds?
How do the Kitavans or Okinawans maintain good body composition despite a higher carb diet?
Mark, how were you able to maintain a low body fat percentage despite eating a half gallon of ice cream a day?
Why can my brother eat anything he wants and never gain a pound?
All of these examples seem contrary to what we say in the Primal Blueprint. How can they be explained? Are they anomalies? Tails of the bell curve? Is something else at work?
These questions all bring to mind one of the main principles underlying the Primal Blueprint, which is that ultimately there are no right or wrong answers in life, just choices we make based on what we think we know or what we believe to be in our best interest. I happen to think we here at Mark’s Daily Apple have hit upon a range of choices within the Primal Blueprint – based on what we know about evolution and epigenetics – that can bring out the best in our health, fitness and energy. We seek to optimize our individual genetic potential using these principals and to literally influence gene signaling. Of course, there are other ways and other choices to get lean, some of which might even get you close to healthy if you do everything right. Me, I want the option that gets me the fittest and healthiest with the least amount of pain, suffering, sacrifice, discipline and calorie-counting possible.
The truth is, if you never undertook to live a Primal lifestyle, the chances are still pretty good that you might enjoy a “relatively comfortable” existence for a substantial part of your life – until the wheels inevitably started to fall off. Millions of people around the world “get by” just fine in their obliviousness on the SAD (Standard American Diet), only 10 or 30 pounds overweight, a little arthritic, maybe some GERD for which they gladly take a pill. Some people even appear to thrive for a while on less-than-ideal diet and exercise programs. Even I did “adequately” on the Conventional Wisdom plan for a long time, and I’m pretty sure I’d still be doing reasonably well today had I not adopted this PB strategy myself. Of course, I’d be a little more decrepit and arthritic, less energetic, a little weaker and sick more often, and I’d probably still have IBS. And if I didn’t know any better, I’d think all that was normal for a 57-year-old man, so I might even label myself “content.”
Of course, genetics has a lot to do with it. I got away with dietary murder when I was an endurance athlete because I was “genetically gifted” to be able to run long and hard enough to burn off a half gallon of ice cream (and a loaf of bread and a bowl of pasta and a six-pack of beer…) every night – as long as I ran long and hard the next day, too. But sometimes a guy can look lean, and not be healthy. And that was me. There’s a lot going on under the hood. Your 30 bananas guy above does the same things I did, but with a higher sugar – high mileage program that he advocates for everyone. In his case, he looks skinny because doesn’t get enough protein and he cycles endless miles in a valiant-yet-doomed effort to burn off all that sugar. He also takes in paltry amounts of protein, and it shows in the lack of muscle typical of a high-carb endurance athlete. His inability to gain weight while eating lots of carbs is actually a bad thing, since he’s constantly losing muscle mass and enduring all manner of glycation inside. I can’t comment on the 20 potatoes guy except to say that if the 19th century Irish lived on potatoes for decades and couldn’t gain much muscle, it makes sense that he couldn’t either in 60 days. The Kitavans and the Okinawans thrive partly because they typically don’t overeat (see: Calorie Restriction) and partly because they expend a fair amount of energy not sitting at their desk all day long (Primal Blueprint Law #3: Move Frequently at a Slow Pace). I suspect that their reliance on real food and low intakes of processed and high omega-6 PUFA seed oils also contribute to their metabolic efficiency.
Clarence Bass can look so great at 73 on a grain-based diet because he has spent his life focused on staying in shape, mostly as a body-builder. He understood very early in his career that lean mass was the main driver of health, and he orchestrated a workout and diet plan contemplated to keep him fit. He’s never really been out of shape and, from what I gather, he’s pretty strict with his diet in terms of macronutrient breakdown, calorie count and meal timing. That takes a lot of discipline. If you do it right, you can get pretty decent results. The fact that he includes grains in his diet and apparently suffers no ill effects puts him among a select minority who may not be as susceptible to their antinutrient effects as most of us are. Again, maybe he’s genetically “gifted” that way.
We’ve talked a little about genetic ranges before, but let me remind you of this point. Each of us has the recipe for a lean, fit, strong, healthy human contained within our DNA. Biological processes don’t really differ from one person to another (except in rare occasions). We all make proteins the same way, we all digest and process nutrients the same way, etc. But it’s the individual variations in our specific familial DNA (those pesky single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs) that often account for the differences in the degree to which we tend to build muscle, or burn or store fat. From there it comes down to the signals (those diet and exercise choices) we send our genes that maximize our ultimate potential or not. The truth is, some of us are just lucky enough to be able to “get away” with eating certain foods that aren’t exactly Primal, not gaining much weight and not experiencing noticeable inflammation. Others among us who may have genetic red flags really need to pay attention or we easily gain weight or develop health issues if we stray at all. There is for each of us a predetermined “range of genetic outcomes” that we do inherit from our parents. My job is to help you discover how to optimize your potential – if that’s what you choose to do.
Humans are among the most adaptive (short-term anyway) animals on the planet when it comes to diet. We can survive on just about anything, as witnessed by the plethora of obese Americans surviving on fast food and soft drinks. Over half the world stays “slim and trim” on a low-calorie, grain-based diet simply because there are paltry few food choices and they just can’t take in enough calories to gain much weight (store fat). But let’s not always confuse their leanness with good health.
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.