The Primal Blueprint
Reprogram your genes for effortless weight loss,
vibrant health, and boundless energy
Mark Sisson
Primal Nutrition, Inc., Malibu, California (USA), 2009 (2009) 283 pages, including index
ISBN: 978-0-9822077-0-3

As an aside, am I the only one who is shocked by the ugliness of the covers on certain books published in the US? In particular, there is a general inclination to include a picture of the authors on the covers of many self-help books that I just don't understand. Worse yet, in this particular case, the picture of the author looks way too intentional and fake ("perfect") to me (not to speak of the picture with his wife on the flap of the dust jacket). Yes, I know, it's marketing. That's precisely my point! It's way too cheesy, obvious, and fake. As a matter of fact, it may be due to my European upbringing, but I find it a bit off-putting. In any case, I digress...

Mark Sisson's The Primal Blueprint (check the website here, his blog here) puts forward the idea that it is possible to "reprogram" one's own genes in order to lose weight and promote health and longevity by following certain rules (he calls them "laws") supposedly validated by two million years of human evolution. In this sense, what Sisson proposes is a variety of the popular paleo diet encompassing not only the diet, but also one's general lifestyle. His so-called 10 Primal Blueprint laws are:

  1. Eat lots of plants and animals.
  2. Avoid poisonous things.
  3. Move frequently at a slow pace.
  4. Lift heavy things.
  5. Sprint once in a while.
  6. Get adequate sleep.
  7. Play.
  8. Get adequate sunlight.
  9. Avoid stupid mistakes.
  10. Use your brain.

In regards to the first two points, which are strictly about food, Sisson defends a diet centered on plants (both in the form of vegetables and fruit), meat, fish, and eggs that avoids "poisonous things" which, according to him, include things like processed grains (flour products, snack foods, baked goods...), as well as rice, corn, cereal, ice cream and sugary drinks. In summary, the general approach is to eat only what might conceivably have been available to one of our ancestors living before the Neolithic brought about agriculture, a sedentary lifestyle, and civilization. Sure, Sisson emphasizes that, contrary to what many other people in the business do, his "is not a regimented program where I shove my agenda down your throat and cajole you to go against your own common sense or pleasure-seeking human nature." (p. XII) Therefore, he is not opposed to modifications, updates, adaptations... whatever may be needed to get his "blueprint" to work. He even advocates the 80% Rule, instead of striving for perfection. However, in spite of his statements, I still get the feeling pretty much everywhere that he is an enlightened guru spreading the good news with quasi-evangelical fervor.

So, truly, what Sisson proposes is pretty much the same thing as the Paleo diet. Yes, there are some minor differences (see the details here), but overall that's what it is, both for the good and the bad (Wikipedia has a very nice section on the article dedicated to the paleo diet discussing the rationale and counter-arguments in favor and against the diet). In general, my view is that while the overall approach sort of makes sense, there are quite a few lose threads. For example, it seems clear that human populations have been able to live healthily while following a wide variety of diets across the planet. As a matter of fact, it seems plausible that there never was one single paleo diet, but rather a variety of them depending on the local availability of foods. And yet, said that, it is also true that we can safely state that certain products (sugars, ice cream, processed food...) don't belong in a healthy diet. Other than that, I'm not so sure I share the author's strong opposition to any sort of grains and, above all, legumes. According to his view, grains (yes, even the whole ones) are nothing but vessels to carry sugar which, in the end, will always make our insulin rise. There may be something to it, I don't rule it out. But I'm not so certain. In any case, my feeling is that, provided that one doesn't feel any sort of negative reaction to them, eating grains and legumes in moderation should be OK. In that sense, my own approach to a natural, healthy diet would be more like: avoid sugar, avoid processed food, and eats lots of natural foods, especially if they are fresh vegetables and fruit, with some grains, legumes, fish and meats in moderation. That's what makes sense to me. It may not be totally "paleo" or "primal", but I certainly think it's both healthy and, at the same time, flexible and not dogmatic.

In any case, as serendipity has it, I recently came across a series of pictures titled Daily Bread, by the artist Gregg Segal that come to illustrate this point pretty well. Going through all the pictures in the series, I noticed a common denominator: those kids who appeared to be clearly overweight also happen to be the ones who show the largest amount of packaged and processed foods. Nevertheless, I must say that the picture corresponding to a native kid from the Amazon in Brazil definitely looks a lot like what the defenders of the paleo diet support:

The next three points on Sisson's blueprint deal with exercise. Here, he also departs from conventional wisdom. Instead of promoting any particular set of complicated (and expensive) fitness techniques like the ones that usually come accompanied with videos and gym fees, Sisson prefers to stick to the fundamentals. He is not talking any heavy exercise here, but rather a more natural and relaxed approach. Thus, he has this to say when discussing the basic moves that are needed to maintain what he calls primal fitness:

The movements that dictated how our genes evolved were simple: squat, crawl, walk, run, jump, climb, hang, carry, throw, push, pull, and more stuff we probably don't even have names for! This primal "training program" helped Grok survive the rigors of a hostile environment, explore new territories, track and exploit new types of food, build shelters, and basically become ripped. If we simply emulated these movements with lots of low-level work, and intermittent bouts of higher-intensity efforst, we'd get most, if not all, the results we seek. We would have little need for the incredible complexity of today's fitness scene —the outrageous gym equipment, obssesively detailed and regimented training programs, and fancy contraptions, such as cyclometers and GPS units. This stuff, while possessing a high "cool" factor, can also lead us astray from the benefits of having a simple, varied, and intuitive approach to exercise. By the way, most young kids will employ many of Grok's movements (squat, crawl, walk, etc.) when left outside to play in a suitable environment. If your fitness regimen consisted of simply playing with school kids at recess, you'd be in super shape!

Unfortunately, commuting, work, digital entertainment, urban living, and a to-do list a mile long hinder our opportunities to enjoy spontaneous play and get fit naturally. Furthermore, Conventional Wisdom has brainwashed us to believe that a lean, fit body comes from either lucky genes or following a regimented, physically stressful exercise routine. Accumulate endless hours and miles of vigorous aerobic exercise, hit the strength-training machines religiously for several hours a week —oh, and count every calorie that enters your mouth— and you, too, can look like a magazine cover model! It's no wonder that many well-meaning enthusiasts have become either exhausted or totally turned off to getting fit. Millions more endure with flawed approaches that leave them disappointed and discouraged when they fall far short of their ultimate peak performance potential and ideal body composition.

(Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint, p. 163)

Sisson even brings up his own experience when he competed in marathons as a clear example of hyper-specialized training that, in the end, has more negative than positive effects on the body:

Speaking of one-dimensional, during my days as a marathoner, I would occasionally shock myself at how grossly unfit I was for anything besides running. I wouldn't even play ball sports or side-to-side sports, for fear of injury. If I did so much as hoist a dozen sandbags into place to prevent flooding in my driveway, I'd get a backache that would compromise my training the next day. has extensive commentary about how pursuing specialized athletic goals is inherently destructive to your health. We are focusing on something entirely different here with Primal Fitness. Perhaps of most interest is the improvement in body composition you can enjoy with the combination of Primal Blueprint eating and exercise. By breaking free from the cycle of carbs fueling stressful, carb-burning Chronic Cardio workouts, you can easily get into the ideal body fat percentage range of 8 to 15 percent for men and 12 to 20 percent for women. This is true no matter who you are or how plump your family tree is.

(Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint, p. 167)

Once again, his model is the primitive hunter-gatherer, which he jokingly refers to as Grok throughout the book:

For those heavily indoctrinated into the Conventional Wisdom that Chronic Cardio is the path to health, fitness, and weight control, consider again the premise of the Primal Blueprint. Because Grok was a lean, strong, extremely active dude, he probably was capable of running long distances, similar to today's gung-ho endurance athletes, but he most likely very rarely decided to do so. When the concept of organized hunting came along, it appears that Grok relied more on superior tracking ability (using his highly evolved brain) and walking or slow jogging (using his superior fat-burning system), rather than literally chasing down his prey. In fact, squandering valuable energy reserves (and increasing glucose metabolism by a factor of 10) by running hard for long periods of time would have hastened his demise. Imagine Grok chasing some game animal all-out for a few hours and —oops— not succeeding in killing it. He's spent an incredible amount of energy yet now has no food to replace that energy. He has suddenly become some other animal's prey because he is physically exhausted.

(Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint, p. 175)

Steps 6 through 10 on his blueprint are, I think, quite weak. It's almost as if he felt the need to start filling up the list with something in order to reach the magical number, ten. So, together with sensible advice ("get adequate sleep", or "get adequate sunlight"), we also get other that sounds awfully general ("play") and, finally, two that are just surreal ("avoid stupid mistakes", and "use your brain").

Altogether, I'm not sure what to think of this book. Although it does include plenty of sensible advice, it also smacks of evangelizing and, above all, business smarts. When it comes to the diet (arguably, the most important part of the book), I find the author too dogmatic when discussing grains and legumes, as well as too narrow-minded in his view of what the hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic might have been like. His fitness advice I find, for the most part, sensible. I suppose my problem is that, after all, once we remove the dogmatic elements from his approach, we end up with something that doesn't truly need its own label. It's just commonsensical.

A case against cardio when trying to lose weight (and in general!):

In contrast to the coprehensive benefits of a frequent, comfortably paced exercise, getting more serious about working out can really mess you up if you have a flawed approach. Chronic Cardio at heart rates above 75 percent and up to 95 percent of maximum places excessive stress on your body to which you are not genetically adapted. I'd estimate that the vast majority of folks you see working out on cardio machines, jogging through the neughborhood, or keeping pace in the group class are exceeding 75 percent (often by a wide margin) for the duration of nearly every session.

While an aerobic workout at the typical intensity of 75 to 95 percent might not feel terribly difficult at the time, a sustained pattern of Chronic Cardio can lead to numerous problems with metabolism, stress management, immune function, and general health. As exercise intensity increases, your preferred fuel choice shifts from primarily fat at intensities below 75 percent (fat burns well in the presence of oxygen, and supplies are abundant —evenin the skinniest marathoners!) to an ever-increasing percentage of glucose (quicker and easier to burn when oxygen is lacking due to your quickening pace).

A routine of Chronic Cardio requires large amounts of dietary carbohydrates each day to support it. While the risks of excess far storage and hyperinsulinemia (overproduction of insulin) are moderated somewhat by a heavy exercise schedule, they are still significant because of your altered dietary habits throughout the day. When muscles are depleted of glycogen (remember, stored glycogen is converted back into glucose for exercise fuel), your brain sends a powerful signal to replenish with quick-energy carbohydrate foods. Our brains have a tendency to tell us to overcompensate by eating a little too much. This is a genetically programmed survival adaptation against starvation risk, handed down to us from Grok. If you are looking to reduce body fat primarily through vigorous cardiovascular exercise (as Conventional Wisdom promises), you are quite likely to fail unless you slow down your pace and alter your diet to limit your carb intake.

(Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint, pp. 174-175)

More on Chronic Cardio and related fitness programs:

I am fully aware of the many loud and passionate voices extolling the psychological and lifestyle virtues of devoted endurance training and agree that pushing and challenging your body with inspiring competitive goals supports mental, emotional, and also physical health (albeit with the significant caveats alreadt discussed). An exercise physiologist friend of mine countered my "case against cardio" position recently by reminding me that Hawaii Ironman finishers are vastly healthier than the average population. While true, let us not forget, in the words of Jay Leno, the "average" we are dealing with: "Today there are more overweight people in America than average-weight people. So overweight people are now average. Which means you've met your New Year's resolution."

Furthermore, I'll assert that an old has-been like myself (goals: eat Primally, with no processed carbs; visit the gym several days a week, for sessions of widely varied difficulty; and hang with teenagers for two hours of Ultimate on weekends) possesses far superior health and Primal Fitness to the lean, ripped (but often emaciated), super "fit" physical specimens that strut in their Speedos down the main drag of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, every October during Ironman week. Yes, they can all drop me like a shot in a long-distance swim, cycling, or running race (it mighta been a different story back in the day), but their endurance superiority comes at great cost. Collectively, they tend to suffer from recurring fatigue and adrenal burnout, frequent overuse injuries, too-common minor illnesses from suppressed immune function (I get a cold maybe once every five years; a fair number of ironman triathletes probably get five every year), and, last but certainly not least, high overall life stress factor scores —something often touted as the number one heart attack risk factor.

(Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint, p. 176)

On the benefits of slow workouts:

When I completed my career as an elite marathoner and thriahtlete and transitioned into a career as a personal trainer, my training regimen shifted dramatically. I was still out there movingfor several hours a day, but I went from banging my brains out with super fit training partners to dawdling along with a succession of clients on my daily calendar. Unlike many of today's fitness trainers who stand there and count reps, I got outside with my unfit to moderately fit clients and did their workouts with them. Bike rides that I previously hammered at 20+ mph for hours were now conducted at 13 mph (it seemed like any slower and we'd tip over!). The long, hard trail runs of my marathon days were replaced with easy jogs where my heart rate barely exceeded 100 beats per minute (only 50 percent of my max). With a young family and a career filling my days, I rarely had time to do my own specific workouts. I made the most of these opportunities by conducting extremely intense interval sessions once or twice a week —on cardio equipment or with a few quick laps around the track. Usually these sessions lasted around 20 minutes —until my next client came strolling in!

When I jumped into the occasional long or ultra-distance endurance race, the results were shocking to me. My "by chance" regimen of very, very slow workouts coupled with occasional very short, intense workouts allowed me to place among the top competitors in the world in my age group and very close to the standards set by top professionals of that era! Indeed, the Primal Blueprint parameters literally took shape in my mind as I blew by my rivals (who were putting in big Chronic Cardio miles, just like I used to) at races despite what most experts and prevailin Conventional Wisdom would deem ridiculously inadequate preparation.

(Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint, p. 179)

On sleep:

For billions of years, the evolution of nearly all life forms on earth has been driven by the consistent rising and setting of the sun. This circadian rhythm (from Latin: circa, meaning "around"; and dia, meaning "day") governs our sleeping and eating patterns as well as the precise timing of important hormone secretions, brain wave patterns, and cellular repair and regeneration based on a 24-hour cycle. When we interfere with our circadian rhythm (via excessive artificial light and digital stimulation after sunset, irregular bed and wake times, jet lag, graveyard shift work, etc.), we disrupt some of the very processes we depend upon to stay healthy, happy, productive, and focused.

Unlike Grok's dietary and exercise habits —which you can mimic well today by food shopping carefully or finding a smooth neighborhood tree branch for pull-ups— obeying your human circadian rhythm to be active when the sun is up and sleep when it's dark is a bit more of a hassle. Depending on where you live and the time of the year, your efforts to follow a Primal sleep schedule could easily get pinched to the tune of two to eight hours a day. Can you say, "Ain't gonna happen anytime soon?"

This is not to say you have to turn in at sunset in order to be healthy. For one thing, modernization has substantially lowered our activitiy level and the overall degree of difficulty of daily life. (I know commuting is tiring, but imagine walking home from the office every day!) Experts' opinions vary on the amount of sleep you need, but the general consensus is that seven to eight hours per night is sufficient for most people, provided the sleep is of high quality (uninterrupted and not influenced by sleep medication, alcohol, or poor food choices) and that you observe a consistent pattern of bed and wake times.

(Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint, p. 197)

On getting adequate sunlight:

Early humans spent hundreds of thousands of years absorbing powerful equatorial rays over their bodies every day. As we migrated farther away from the equator, genetic adaptations occurred (the lightening of skin pigment and hair over many generations) to help us continue to absorb sun optimally even when it was less plentiful. Just as we've suffered devastating health consequences from the relatively recent shift in the human diet away from hunter-gatherer to grain-based, the same dynamic holds for our sun exposure —except this lifestyle alteration has been even more severe. Only in the last couple of centuries of industrialization have millions of people in the civilized world gone for long periods of time with little to no direct sun exposure. Consequently, there has been an alarming increase in health problems related to vitamin D deficiency.

(Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint, p. 207)

Mark Sisson's Six-Pack secrets:

When you do push-ups, you should make a concerted effort to tighten your abs (pressing the navel toward the spine); the same is recommended during pull-ups, squats, lunges, curls, and other complete body exercises. Raking leaves, carrying your toddler, reloading the bottom drawer on the copy machine, lugging groceries out of the trunk and onto the kitchen counter, and infinite other daily activities —including simply sitting at your desk or in your car— can all be considered opportunities for a mini abs workout. I bet I did more than a thousand of these efforts sitting at my desk writing this book!

When you are engaged in basic movement, sitting or walking, you should tighten your belly as if you are going to be punchedin the gut while blowing out the candles on your birthday cake. Hold it for 10, 20, or more seconds a few times every hour. Now do it while slightly tilted to one side. Repeat for the other side. For even better results and a stronger core, you can also simultaneously contract your buttock muscles. Do these short exercise bursts while you are watching TiVo or driving to pick up the kids. After a while, it will become second nature to squeeze your abs spontaneously. I do some of my best abs work while bent over doing sprints on the stationary bike. It's really all about squeezing, tightening, and trying to isometrically shorten the distance between your sternum and your pubic bone. Engage your abs, eat Primally, you'll soon notice improved muscle tone in your core. Furthermore, a strong, functional set of abs will help you avoid back problems as well as perform all outdoot activities safely and with less risk of injury.

(Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint, pp. 238-239)

On the suggested exercise plan:

Walk, walk, walk. Hike, hike, hike. Move, move, move. This might seem like strange advice to help you get lean and ripped like our primal role model. However, by now you should have a clear understanding of why ill-advised frequent moderate- to high-intensity workouts simply burn glucose and increase appetite and that your exercise program on the whole is only dealing with the 20 percent slice of the weight-loss pie. After all, walking around the block or hiking up to the water tower doesn't burn enough calories to contribute notably to weight loss. However, increasing your daily movement will build you from the inside out —toning muscles, joints, and connective tissue to enable you to thrive on the hight-intensity workouts that strongly influence body composition.

Coupled with Primal Blueprint eating habits, your active lifestyle will refine your fat-burning skills so that you become an efficient fat-burning machine around the clock and easily reach your ideal weight in a matter of weeks or months, as seen with the Korgs' case studies. Best of all, as you scan the suggested daily meal plan (earlier in this chapter) and the weekly exercise plan (next), you'll see that it's easy to eat and exercise in a Primal manner for the rest of your life.

(Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint, p. 239)

Man has conquered the world. As a species, he is the fat cat. He is on top of the heap. Yet now, peak physical and intellectual performance and self-discipline are no longer requirements for survival. Man has become self-indulgent and has reverted to behaviors that provide short-term gratification. Like the miners who stripped and poisoned the land and water during the gold rush, we have done similar to our bodies in the name of making life easier, more convenient, and more productive. In Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, he reveals how the fast-food phenomenon exploded in popularity because fast food made life easier: No more cooking or lengthy waits for expensive meals! Now everyone can live the good life by dining out on delicious food! Unfortunately, the fare served up was disastrous not only to the human body but to the human spirit —destroying a centerpiece of family fabric that was the shared home-cooked meal.

When there is interest and demand to make life easier, profit seekers often swarm in and exploit this element of the human spirit. Nowhere is this more evident than in my own field of health. While I am all in favor of capitalism and making a profit, it seems that where health is concerned, we have allowed forces to run amok to the extent that today we must question the approach, motives, and trustworthiness of some of the traditional pillars of health and expert medical knowledge.

We must admit that doctors, despite their extensive knowledge, training, and loyalty to the Hippocratic Oath, are focused on treatment rather than prevention. As with drugs, it's wonderful to have extensively trained and prepared doctors standing ready when we need them. The sad reality is that most of their business comes from dealing with symptoms —not causes— of easily preventable conditions (as evidences by the remarkable comment from a solo family practic doc I know, who lamented that his "business was down" due to America's 2008 economic recession!). The fact that doctors receive little or no training in nutrition is nothing short of abysmal.

(Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint, p. 253)

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