Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review & Experiment - The Primal Blueprint

I recently read The Primal Blueprint 21 Day Total Body Transformation to be familiar with the Primal diet as it is so popular right now. It was exactly what I had heard--a sexy (be a primal BEAST!) repackaging of the Atkins diet but (thank goodness) without the processed food.

Things I liked about this book:

Mark brings raw dairy, natural light and ancient ways of "exercising" to people's attention. He has gotten the message out there about not eating fake food, which is very important.

Things I did not like about this book:

Mark Sisson is not a scientist, doctor or nutritionist; he is not someone who does studies or researches in the field of food. He is not someone who studies our hunter-gatherer ancestors. He is an "elite athlete" who took biology in college and became an armchair nutritionist. Now, I don't support certification b.s.--I do believe someone can be an expert in something without the educational credentials to prove it, but Mark isn't it. To his credit, he has become more of an expert after putting out his book and being told where he went wrong by the real experts... but I am not reviewing his blog today, I am reviewing his book which has lots of great things to say mixed in with some wrong, unproven and questionable things.

Mark's main message is the Atkins message: all grains are bad. One reason is because they have anti-nutrients in them. As do legumes. But Mark misses nuts. So the correct information is:
1) Nuts are in the same boat as grains, full of anti-nutients and not belonging in the human body unless they have been soaked/sprouted/fermented--which, no surprise, is the only way traditional peoples consumed nuts.
2) Nuts are in the same boat as grains. To support nuts and then to not support the properly prepared (soaked/sprouted/fermented) grains that our ancestors ate is to obsess over carbs rather than human health i.e. macronutrients instead of micronutrients.

The macronutrients / micronutrients issue: this is where most diets lose me--native peoples have lived off of every possible balance of protein/carbs/fat. Weston A Prince, in his research, noted that the healthiest native peoples ate all three i.e. those tribes that ate all-protein-no-grains and those that were vegetarian did not enjoy the same level of health that those tribes who ate both meat and grains enjoyed. Price and the foundation that has continued his research today focuses on "nutritionally dense foods," the foods that pack the most punch nutritionally i.e. vitamins and minerals. When you focus on this, you end up with a diet that IS low-carb compared to the Standard American Diet, but not anti-carb or anti-grain or as low-carb as Sisson advocates.

The other reason Mark hates carbs (because then we will burn glucose as our fuel instead of fat) makes no sense to me. Our bodies can burn glucose OR fat for a reason--both are helpful at certain times. If it wasn't advantageous for our bodies to be able to be "glucose-burners" sometimes, we would not have evolved with the ability to be "glucose burners". Perhaps we burned fat during the winter and spring when food was scarce but when food was plentiful we burned glucose... who knows! What I know is that my body can burn both, and I assume that it evolved that way for a reason. Now, don't get me wrong,  I don't support sugar or high-carb diets but, properly prepared grains are full of nutrients and that is what I care about.

The worst part about this book was when Mark advocated eating CAFO meat (i.e. the stuff that is really really bad for you) over eating any grains whatsoever or eating "too much" fruit. Factory farm meat is poison, literally. No one in their right mind should believe that bacon from Costco is healthier than eating too many organic apples. Like I said above, this is a repackaged Atkins diet. It's not about health, it's about weight loss. (Unless you are diabetic, if you are diabetic this is the diet for you!).

The other part about Mark's diet that I didn't like was the blatant contradiction: "don't eat fake food EXCEPT buy my protein powder!!! Eat like a cave man--make shakes out of chemically altered substances that were food once!" Some of the ingredients in his "primal fuel": Whey Protein Isolate, Inulin, Guar Gum, Sucrose, Natural Flavors, Maltodexrin, Sodium Caseinate.... I have read books on how these things are made and they are NOT natural. They are NOT food. Grok would not have eaten them.

One of the other major things Mark misses is that traditional peoples ate a lot of bacteria i.e. fermented foods. These are not mentioned at all in this book.

My 21 Day Primal Experiment:

I love doing science experiments so I decided to follow Mark's diet for the first 21 days of January to see if it transformed my body like he promises. Following his diet has changed the lives of many of my friends, but I had a sneaking suspicion that that was because they went from eating a Standard American Diet to eating a Primal Diet i.e. it was not that Primal was so amazing but rather that the SAD is so bad. I would be switching from eating a WAPF diet. For those of you unfamiliar with the WAPF diet, know that it is similar to Primal in that I already don't eat sugar, wheat or anything processed.

What I had to change to eat Primal instead of WAPF :
-no soaked/sprouted/fermented oats, wild rice and beans that are a normal part of my WAPF diet
-limit my fruit and vegetable intake so that I did not exceed his recommended 100-150 grams of carbs per day
-no sweet potatoes (he only lets athletes have tubers)
-no kombucha or lacto-fermented rootbeer (both are a normal part of my diet)
-I had to "moderate" my dairy intake
-I was allowed to have nuts that had not be soaked or sprouted but I chose not to do this and continued to eat WAPF style nuts throughout my experiment
-I was allowed to have coffee, dark chocolate and red wine (as treats). WAPF doesn't support any of these things--a WAPF treat would be an apricot compote sweetened with maple syrup and served with lots of raw whipped cream).

My results:
-Getting an hour of sunlight a day helped my sleep immensely. It is also possible that it was the diet that gave me better sleep though so I need to experiment more with this.
-I neither gained nor lost a single pound. (I was at a healthy weight to begin with)
-I noticed no "glucose burner to fat burner" change. I wonder if, since the WAPF diet is a rather high fat, high protein diet, I was already a fat burner
-When I reintroduced certain foods after 21 days I learned that I have a sensitivity (I have a reaction in my sinuses) to raisins and corn. I need to experiment more on this to see if properly prepared corn gives me a reaction as well (I was at a restaurant so I don't know if the corn flour I ate had been soaked in lyme or not).
-I also had a reaction to some standard american whole wheat bread I had at a restaurant. I will definitely be curious to see if I react to properly prepared wheat.
-I had no reaction when I consumed fermented oats or any other sprouted grain. I did not feel bloated, tired, sick or any of the other things I was told I might feel.
-I did not notice any change in energy or mood and it would have been impossible for me to notice an improvement in health since I already haven't had a cold in a decade.
-So I didn't feel any better BUT I also, didn't feel any worse! Except for an intense increase in my desire to eat "forbidden" foods i.e. all the self-control required to eat this way kind of wore me out. The WAPF way of eating does wear out my will-power, in fact, the WAPF diet makes me feel quite spoiled.

Random Note:

When I started eating the WAPF way, with a focus on nutritionally dense foods like organ meats and anything fermented, I noticed a sharp decline in my cravings for sugar and alcohol. All my adult life I had loved chocolate and enjoyed having a glass of red wine with dinner. When I started drinking lots of bacteria-beverages and eating lots of bacteria-foods, I found I had no desire for chocolate and the thought of having wine was almost gross. A year later, I hardly ever drink or indulge in chocolate anymore, not because I have all kinds of will-power, but because I just don't want those things that much. The WAP Federation explains this phenomenon: our cravings for sugar and alcohol are actually cravings for bacteria. This seems to have been totally accurate in my case.

My conclusion:

The Primal diet is a great way for people to kick the Standard American Diet. It has easy-to-follow rules and instructions and is sold very well. The Weston A Price Foundation--though it has more accurate and more complete information does NOT sell itself well. "Be a Primal BEAST!" is so much sexier than  "Eat a traditional diet full of nutritionally dense foods."

Because the Weston A. Price Foundation is extremely research oriented, they also weigh down some of their followers with Too Much Information. Therefore, the Primal Diet is great for people who just want a better way to eat, but don't want to get into it too much.

That being said, after a while on the Primal Diet or if you find yourself wanting to cheat, EAT FERMENTED FOODS! I think Sisson approves of some of them.

If you just want to dig a little deeper into the subject of nutrition and ancient ways of eating, check out:
Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A Price


  1. Can you tell us more about the relative macronutrient content of (certain) grains versus animal proteins and fats and fresh fruits and vegetables? It seems odd that Sisson would bad-mouth something that is full of nutrients.

  2. Hi Taylor,

    I think you mean micronutrient content. Macronutrients are protein, carbs and fat. One will get all of those without trying if he focuses on eating what he really needs which is micronutrients--vitamins and minerals. Back when I trusted the USDA's recommendations for vitamin and mineral intake I invented meals that provided the eater with 100% of their daily RDA for every vitamin and mineral, not an easy thing to do, especially as vitamin recommendations change and new necessary micronutrients are constantly discovered (like fatty acids and sterols are the most recent). That being said, here are some links to some foods in the categories you asked for that show their full macro and micro nutrient breakdown.

    When I was doing Nutritionally Perfect Meals I always looked for the foods that packed the most punch, the most nutrients per calorie and then worked with other foods in order to get every single nutrient need met. There is no winning food, I learned, but there are winning combinations of foods. I remember trying to find a way to make a nutritionally perfect steak meal and struggling with it for a long time before I tried the combination of steak with asparagus, potatoes, a mushroom sauce and glass of milk. It almost always ended up that classic dishes were actually perfect--corned beef and cabbage, ham and split pea soup and chicken with peas and carrots are three more meals that come to mind that are perfect combinations of foods. I remember thinking that our ancestors had good instincts when it came to eating.

    When you examine the charts, note that chicken is high in some nutrients and wheat is high in others. (In my NPM days I remember preferring oats, rye and masa harina when I needed grains as they packed the most punch). Note that apples are extremely unimpressive. (In my Nutritionally Perfect Meal days I actually ate almost no fruit as I saw it being so useless. Now I believe there are things in fruit that are crucial that we just haven't discovered yet or just are considered "required" yet.) Note that milk has a lot to offer! I never drank milk as a kid but when I was creating NPM it turned out that a glass of milk with every meal is what made them perfect, I almost always needed that glass of milk to meet Pantothenic Acid requirements. I remember vitamin D and E were also hard to get. Note that coconut oil looks entirely useless. When we measure the foods we eat by the same standards that the USDA measures, we will end up with the same conclusions.

    Except one. All of my nutritionally perfect meals had an interesting macronutrient content--they were all high fat. They had to be that way for me to get enough vitamin E into the meal. I had learned in school that fat is useless and one needed only 18 calories of fat per day but every one of my meals was 30-50% fat. I didn't worry about this as they were still 500 calories, satiating and providing 100% of everything else but it frustrated me that the USDA recommendations were contradictory on that point.

    I don't put too much faith in these charts anymore. Organic apples have more to offer than other apples. Depleted soils have left modern apples with less nutrients. Animal products vary greatly depending on the health of the animal and how it was raised. Foods combine with each other in our bodies in such a way that the vitamins and minerals will or won't be absorbed depending on what else you are eating. Our ancestors ate bacteria with every meal yet bacteria are not part of the USDA recommendations. The history of nutrition shows that nutrition science has gotten many things wrong for decades. And then there are the politics and financial interests of those peddling the nutrition information.

    1. PART 2 (too long to do as one post)

      I ended up turning to history and finding the research of Weston A Price who traveled for over a decade recording the eating habits of the healthiest people in the world--people who we know for a fact had strong, healthy bodies with perfect teeth and children with the same. Something we cannot say for most Americans. The Price Pottenger Foundation that exists today has done an incredible job of compiling historic data on what the healthiest of our ancestors ate and how they ate it (i.e. we know healthy people have eaten grains for thousands of years but they always ate them sprouted) and combining that with modern scientific research to make recommendations for eating that are far more trustworthy than these charts.

      According to his post on Aug 3, 2011, Mark is not against grains. He is just not interested in the soaking and sprouting required to eat them i.e. he is too lazy to eat grains. He also misses the valuable bacteria one gets to eat as a result of soaking and sprouting (depending on how you are eating the final product of course).

      Here is an article that points out some of the inconsistencies in the paleo diet:

      Here are some letters to the editor that mention how the paleo diet has changed its tune over the years after its creators discovered WAPF and tried to save face:

      Here is an interesting article that came out recently comparing the WAPF and Paleo diets:

      I hope that answers your questions and I hope you spend as much time reading this as I spent writing it--about 2 hours :)


  3. Hi Roslyn,

    yes, you're correct, I meant micronutritent content.

    I would hope one of the reasons the Paleo Diet "changed its tune" was not to "save face" but because the people advocating it are, overall, interested in being scientific. I'd be concerned if anyone remained unphased when faced with uncomfortable contrary evidence.

    But I am not here to defend "Paleo". I just want to eat "right."

    Re: grains, I would love to eat more things, not less, including grains. I'm not an ascetic and get no pleasure denying myself things I could/should be eating. I guess I am "lazy" as well, though... not interested in sprouting my own stuff all the time, at least not routinely.

    So questions I have now are:

    1.) What do I miss out on by not eating (sprouted) grains?
    2.) Are these things essential? If yes, can I get them other ways?
    3.) If I eat (sprouted) grains, do I need to modify other aspects of my diet (for example, do I need to lower my intake of fat or protein?)
    4.) How MUCH of (sprouted) grains can I eat? The common wisdom I have come across is you can eat as much as you want of the things that are good for you, but I wonder if this is still true if I am eating (sprouted) grains?

    Another challenge I perceive for myself is that if I want to incorporate (sprouted) grains, I still can't eat most of the grain based products available on store shelves or in restaurants.

    Whereas I feel reasonably comfortable I can eat a steak at the right restaurant that won't poison me, I have yet to come across a place that offers a "sprouted grain bread basket", etc. So it might take time before I can safely consume those foods outside the confines (and time investment) in my own home.

    Does that make sense?

    Looking forward to learning more about this from you-- as I said, I want to eat MORE things, not less, so if I was hasty in condemning grains I am glad to hear it and move on with my life.

  4. Hi Taylor,
    1) You miss out on some B and K vitamins and quite a few others
    2) Yes, they are essential, yes you can get them in other ways but usually not in the paleo diet
    3) Fat, protein and carbs are not how I judge a diet because super healthy people have existed on almost entirely all fat diets (Eskimos) and almost entire all carb diets (Africans). I judge by vitamins and minerals. Native peoples do talk about "rabbit starvation" which makes me think they were aware of the dangers of high-protein diets but in general, there is no one balance that is perfect for all people. There are many healthy peoples whose example we can follow and we can also listen to our own bodies.
    4) Africans who live on fermented grain beverages and bugs are very healthy with gorgeously made bodies. I don't think they consider their sprouted grains to be a food they should limit.

    I think this podcast will do a better job in answering your questions than I can, I really like what she says about being able to "eat in the world" because when it comes to making the best choices I can at restaurants... it's HARD. I usually go for fish and rice as long as there is a very fatty sauce. Everyone is different but I know for me if the meal is too low-fat I will not feel satiated--full, but not "satiated"

    Anyway, the podcast I think you are looking for: