If you don’t know who Mark Sisson is, he’s the author of The Primal Blueprint, one of the most widely known Primal/Paleo eating guides, and owner/founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, one of the largest Paleo/Primal living blogs. He advocates both primal eating AND primal-style exercise in the form of active play and general movement.
I recently watched an interesting interview with him and wanted to expand on the topics he briefly covered with my own take. He covers many of his philosophies on diet and exercise and what brought him to those conclusions. I thought I’d break down the interview and provide some of the background research he talks about. Obviously, I’m very pro-“Paleo” (or “Primal”) diet, but want to be sure that people understand that there is no single answer for the “what should I be eating to lose weight/gain weight/be healthier/be faster/etc?” question, and that the answer usually boils down to “whatever is working for you.”
The informational content of the video starts at about the 6:15 mark where he just barely touches on the subject of insulin and its relationship with obesity. He sort of skips over what the relationship is, if there is one, and goes straight into his belief that we’re not designed to use large amounts of glucose (the substance that all carbohydrates get broken down into), and that, instead, our bodies have the evolutionary machinery to burn fat for energy.
Let’s go back a step. For years, it has been stated that carbohydrates should be our primary source of energy. It has been drilled into our heads that, in order to lose weight and stay healthy, you need to eat a lot of whole grains and keep your fat intake low. What Mark is saying is the opposite, and I agree with him.
Many high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets may be counterproductive to weight control because they markedly increase postprandial hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinemia.
That quote was taken from a 2002 Study showing that foods with a lower glycemic index (read: how much a certain food would raise your blood sugar levels in relation to pure glucose, on a scale of 0-100) promote hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), followed by hyperinsulinemia (high insulin levels). One of insulin’s jobs in the body is to stop the use of fat as an energy source and to tell fat tissue to take extra glucose from the blood and store it.
Let me make that clear; insulin tells your body to use excess glucose to fill your fat cells. It also tells your body to stop using fat as an energy source. Don’t we want to “burn fat” in order to improve our body composition? So why would we want to spike our blood sugar, thus spiking our insulin levels?
Now, the problem with whole grains is that their glycemic index is through the roof. Whole wheat bread has a glycemic index as high as 73. By comparison, that bottle of Cola? 63. That scoop of ice cream? About 57. Remember, the lower the better when it comes to weight loss and body composition change. There are various other reasons to not eat grains, but that is a huge one right there.
My suggestion is to lower your carbohydrate intake and instead of getting your carbohydrates from grains or potatoes, get them from large amounts of vegetables and small amounts of fruit and berries.
At 8:10 Mark discusses how he tries to approach such a radical lifestyle change, and I like his ideas. He suggests to not be exclusionary; don’t think about what you can’t have, but think about all of the things that you can have and how they’re positively affecting your health. He suggests aiming to be 100% primal/paleo, but that anything above 80% is perfectly fine and will still net positive results. He enjoys red wine, small amounts of chocolate, and dairy. What type of dairy is ok? As long as you don’t have any lactose intolerance, full fat dairy products such as cream, whole milk, and full fat butter from grass-fed cows (easy to find in most groceries; Kerrygold qualifies). Along with those, the fermented dairy products like yogurt (as long as it isn’t sweetened by a huge amount) and Keefer are also a great supplement to your diet to keep your gut happy.
He also speaks about how, initially, he felt as though he was one of the lucky ones that could eat grains without the side effects, but is now adamant about their exclusion from a healthy diet. In Mark’s own words, why you should not eat grains.
11:00 – He speaks about sugar and how he believes that acute sugar consumption is not what is causing health issues, but rather the accumulation of long term, chronic, high levels of sugar consumption that is contributing to the increasing amounts of insulin resistance, diabetes, and overall obesity in our nation. He even jokes about how basic table sugar could be considered “paleo” since it is often referred to as “evaporated cane juice”. In other words; if you’re struggling with a sweet or carbohydrate addiction, stay away from all sweeteners, but if you’re comfortable burning fat as your fuel source and can control your cravings, a teaspoon in your coffee in the morning won’t kill you.
I believe the reason he’s saying this is because there isn’t a lot of conclusive studies that say that sugar itself in inherently bad for you. Yes, it does provide a high glycemic load (though less than whole wheat bread.) Yes, it is “empty” calories, providing little to no nutritional value except an easy to access source of energy. It is not the hidden killer, it is not toxic in limited doses. The issue is that most people are not taking in limited doses. It is just a food that we don’t want to eat much of because it converts easily to glucose, is easy to over-consume, and doesn’t provide us any other benefits in return. I’m not just referring to table sugar, here. I mean honey, maple syrup, agave nectar… they’re all just different forms of sugar. Remember, all sugar is, is the sap of the cane sugar plant.
13:07 – Without getting too far into detail, the interviewer asks about ketogenic diets as a viable option for people struggling to lose weight and looking for an answer. In essence, Mark says that, yes, in some extreme cases, these can be useful, but they need to be approached slowly and done in cycles to prevent burnout. There is a lot that can be said about ketogenic/ultra low carb diets; so much so, that in order to really explain it, it would need to be its own post. The premise is that you keep your carbohydrate intake extremely low (sub 30 grams per day), using only fat and protein as an energy source. It is viable, and can be tailored to work for both athletes and those looking to control their weight, but it can be extreme so should be approached cautiously. My belief is that focusing on something in the 50-150g per day of carbohydrates is healthier and more easily manageable, but every person is different.
20:00 – The interviewer asks about “safe” starches, and what Mark recommends. He believes that most of your carbohydrates should come from leafy vegetables and a small amount of fruit rather than starches at all, but that Yams are probably the safest. He mentions new studies being done on acellular carbohydrates (carbohydrates that are “simple”, processed, and require little break down to get at the glucose) and how those carry more negative weight than carbohydrate sources that require the body to do a bit of work to get at the energy. Ultimately, though, a sweet potato has a glycemic index of 70 – not that much better than whole wheat bread. White and Russet potato’s are even higher. Keep that in mind, and save your starch intake for pre and post workout, when you’ll burn off that glucose before it has a chance to store.
22:00 – By now you’re probably wondering “How in the world do I carb load if I can’t eat grains and I can’t eat starches!” The answer to that is that you don’t, because there is no need to. Once your body has adjusted to using fat as a primary source of fuel, even endurance athletes are able to keep their body happy without ingesting 500-1000g of carbohydrates. He still recommends not going over 250g of carbs per day, even for endurance athletes.
The problem with carb loading is that your body can’t really store up that much, and often just turns the excess into fat cells or it is passed through your digestive system. The problem with this is that if your body is struggling with insulin telling it not to burn fat and you stored all of that excess glucose as fat cells, how is it supposed to get at it when you need it quickly? It can also cause that rush and crash that everyone is familiar with after eating the recommended american meal full of whole grains.
26:25 – Protein Intake. His statements here are aimed more toward people who take in excessive amounts of protein as a fuel source and as a way to maintain body mass. He suggests that protein intake can be lowered when you become a “fat burning machine” (his words,) because of ketone production from fat metabolization rather than gluconeogenesis (or, the conversion of amino acids, or proteins, into energy). The ketone bodies will provide your body with the energy it needs in a smooth, stable fashion, thus lowering the need for energy from protein sources or carbohydrate sources. Here is a study abstract regarding protein intake for endurance athletes, and here is one for strength athletes.
Personally, I believe this is largely individual. I know that I feel my best when I eat roughly 1g/lb of lean body weight of protein per day, which works out to about 1.7gPRO/kg lean body weight. I can go up to about 1.2g/lb of lean body weight and still feel good. More than that is just excessive and less than that and I struggle with muscle fatigue and extended recovery times. You may be different.
One other important note; eat protein. I see so many people eating meals that contain no clean, quality protein source. It is good for your body. Please stop being afraid of it.
At 29:00 he covers what his typical day is like. This is actually interesting if you want to be jealous of what living an awesome, free-form life would be like. He does things like go hiking or for a paddle mid-day and jumps in his pool around 2:30 in the afternoon, and spends the next couple of hours air-drying in the Malibu, CA sun.
It really is something we can all aspire to; living that free-form, low stress type life. It definitely is worth listening to, as it may spark you to make some small changes as you work towards living your ideal life.
Mark also stresses the importance of living actively instead of spending all of your time in the gym or on the treadmill. He suggests that, for general health and weight loss, spending time moving, walking around, hiking, and being active 7 days a week, with a couple of days of dedicated and programmed workouts is the way to go. He emphasizes that the key to successful weight loss and health maintenance is finding a way to get your workout in without noticing its a workout at all. He enjoys a highly competitive weekly game of Ultimate Frisbee with superstar athletes and actors, or whatever other Joe Schmoe he can scrounge up around Malibu.
His plan not only sounds fun, but studies have also shown that short bouts of high intensity exercise burn fat more efficiently. It is also completely possible to increase your cardiovascular capacity and endurance using high intensity exercises.
A growing body of evidence suggests that high-intensity interval training (HIT) induces numerous physiological adaptations that are similar to traditional endurance training despite a lower total exercise volume and training time commitment (Gibala & McGee, 2008).
So, get out there and play. Move around more, eat less grains and sugar and more fat and protein, and enjoy your life.