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« Introducing Mark Sisson | Main | Q&A With Mark Sisson, Part Two »

August 12, 2009

Q&A With Mark Sisson, Part One

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Yesterday I introduced the eating-and-fitness coach Mark Sisson, who advocates what he calls the Primal Blueprint. I'm crazy about Mark's website, and I think his new book is downright sensational. (Buy a copy at Amazon.) Speaking from personal experience: I've obtained excellent results from doing my eating and my exercising in a more Primal way.

Today -- in the first part of my two-part interview with Mark -- I talk with him about the downside of grain consumption, about the perils of overtraining, and about how basing your fitness program on evolutionary wisdom can bring fast and lasting benefits.



Michael Blowhard: Hi, Mark. Fun to run into you again. I remember you as one of the best athletes at our boarding school, as well as one of the most health-aware people I've ever known.

Mark Sisson: Yeah, I was pretty health-conscious as a kid, and that mindset certainly carried me through Exeter and Williams. Problem was, I had health issues largely as a result of my voracious reading, my training, and following Conventional Wisdom so closely.

MB: What kind?

MS: As a top runner, I was putting in far more miles than I ought to have, and I was fueling myself with a diet very high in complex carbs -- especially grains -- just as I had been told to do by some of the best coaches. I could perform pretty well on the track and the roads, but I was certainly not the picture of health.

MB: Given how lean and fast you were, I'm surprised to hear that.

MS: I had bad skin, chronic bouts of IBS that would often keep me from classes, constant upper respiratory tract infections and later started developing early onset osteoarthritis. It wasn’t until a decade later (a decade of competing at a very high level, yet doing more of the same in terms of training and diet) that the work load and the diet finally ended my competitive career.

MB: Ouch. How’d you react?

MS: I began to investigate the science behind training and peak performance, and realized that there wasn’t a lot of real science to back it all up.

MB: Really?

MS: Most of what was going on at the elite level was “monkey see monkey do.” God forbid you should log fewer training miles than the guys you were trying to beat. The high-tech carb-centric diet was based on the need to keep up the high level of training and not on what would promote health. As a result, many of my elite contemporaries have suffered health issues over the years.

MB: What’s wrong with high-mileage training?

MS: Humans were not meant to run long distances with elevated heart rates for days on end, like I and so many millions have done over the past few decades.

MB: What were we built for?

MS: Our genes -- the genetic recipe for a healthy, lean, fit human being -- evolved over two million years as hunter-gatherers to assemble us into potentially great slow-moving fat burners (walk, crawl, migrate, forage, hunt, gather, etc.), with an ability to sprint pretty quickly every once in a while if we needed to do so to escape death or catch dinner.

MB: So jogging wasn’t in the picture?

MS: Of course, the research shows that our ancestors did have the ability to run long distances after prey on occasion. Our bodies are clearly designed to run. But our ancestors generally ran only if they had to and only because they were already fit enough from their day-to-day myriad activities to do so, not because they spent days on end training specifically to do just that.

MB: When you put it that way, running for the sake of more running does seem a little peculiar.

MS: We now know that our human DNA expects us to move in ways that mimic our hunter-gatherer ancestors -- ways that can best be described as sporadic and unpredictable, with a wide range of activities and workloads. Some walking, some sprinting, some running, some climbing and lifting, lots of resting, etc.

MB: You’ve got a great term for the endless-jogging thing.

MS: A few years ago, I coined the phrase “Chronic Cardio” to describe the approach that so many people erroneously take when they want to achieve some new level of fitness. They spend endless hours on the treadmill, bike or elliptical machine sweating and watching the calories mount up on the LED readout, thinking they are effectively improving fitness. They’re not. Research shows you can get the same or better fitness in a fraction of the time doing sprints.

MB: What are they accomplishing instead?

MS: Chronic Cardio is largely a dead-end pursuit that increases your risk of inflammation and injury, increases your appetite (so most people never actually lose weight just from the training), suppresses your immune system and decreases bone density!

MB: What's wrong with a little discipline?

MS: Nothing wrong with discipline per se. But when you apply it to a non-productive pursuit, it’s meaningless.

Of course, at the elite levels athletes are still training way too hard to produce health –- but that’s not their motivation at that level. At the elite level it’s about digging as deep as you can and sorting out the consequences later.

MB: What were a few of the steps involved in pulling your Primal approach to eating and fitness together? Any self-experimentation?

MS: Yes, there was lots of self-experimentation, but also lots of research. The internet has made it infinitely easier to gather and sort research papers, order books and find opinion pieces.

MB: Can you give us an example of a lightbulb-going-on moment?

MS: One Aha! moment came when I gave up my precious whole grains eight years ago -- and I will say that beer was the toughest to let go.

MB: What was giving up grains like for you?

MS: While I had read most of the research on the deleterious effects of grain consumption, I was suspicious, since I had basically lived for 45 years on whole grains (up to 1,000 carb grams a day) without overt symptoms. But when I eliminated them for 30 days as an experiment, suddenly the arthritis in my fingers that I had assumed was a natural effect of being 48 disappeared, the “normal” prostate hyperplasia that had caused me to get up and pee at 3 AM most nights was gone, the chronic early morning stomach cramps I had assumed for 40 years were a result of stress were now gone, and my energy levels evened out to the point I no longer felt like taking a nap in the afternoon.

MB: And it all definitely had to do with grain consumption?

MS: All these effects returned back once I reintroduced grains. It made perfect sense after I reread the research. Humans have just not had time to adapt to the glutens, excessive carbs, phytates, lectins and other “antinutrients” in grains.

MB: How about another example?

MS: Another lightbulb moment: I had been writing about the perils of overtraining since my first book in 1983. But as I looked back at all the world-class endurance athletes that had died early or had had major health problems in their 20’s or 30’s, I suddenly came up with a list of over 30 that I had known personally! Something’s wrong with the exercise paradigm when the fittest people in the world die from heart problems or get cancer, atrial fib and a host of other life-threatening conditions from their training.

MB: I love the Primal name. How did you come up with that?

MS: I have always had a passion for evolution, dinosaurs, cavemen, etc. I think most kids did when we were growing up. It just resonated with me. I have used the Primal theme for 30 years. My first company was called Primal Urge Press.

MB: That's great. Your Paleo character Grok is an inspiration as well.

MS: Grok just sort of rolled off the tongue one day as the name for my prototypical hunter-gatherer. Of course, the Heinlein reference was too perfect to pass up as well, so the name stuck.

MB: You’re interested in evo-bio and gene expression.

MS: The gene expression thing started in an evolutionary biology class at Williams and has fascinated me ever since.

I love the fact that our genes may be hardwired in each of us, but that we can control how they are programmed to produce certain proteins (or not) by what we eat, how we move, what we think, etc. We can literally rebuild, repair and renew ourselves every day. I’m sure that this epigenetic control will eventually be seen as the most powerful tool we have in medicine. In fact, stem cell research, which is the most exciting part of medicine today, is just an outgrowth of the field of epigenetics.


MB: When you present the Primal vision, do people resist it? God knows that a lot of what you preach isn’t the usual thing.

MS: Most people have habits and assumptions based on learned dogma that is generally flawed. It’s not their fault, it’s just the way information is handed down in a democratic society. It’s tough to change, especially when you have years invested in a behavior you thought was benefiting you.

MB: For instance ...?

MS: For example, the “eight glasses of water a day” mantra was like a game of Telephone gone awry. Someone did a study in the '40s that showed that the water content in the food of a healthy human averaged about 64 ounces a day. Over the years that was described as the equivalent of eight 8-ounce glasses, which eventually became the advice that “to be healthy you must consume eight 8-ounce glasses of water every day.” Bullshit.

MB: Really?

MS: Our ancestors didn’t carry an Evian bottle in a mesh bag around with them all day. They got all the water they needed from food, or from licking the dew off a leaf. In general, drink when you are thirsty, but don’t force yourself to drink when you are not. Moreover, too much water can be a bad thing.

MB: Do you mind sharing a few other examples?

MS: Sure. 1) Grain eaters (especially vegans) today resist the notion that grains are bad because the Food Pyramid suggests that everyone should get 6-11 servings a day.

2) In many cases, runners and triathletes often can’t fathom that the thousands of miles they have logged might not have been good for them since, after all, Ken Cooper said “more is better” when it comes to aerobics.

3) Cholesterol-phobes have a tough time reintroducing yolks to their otherwise bland egg-white omelets because they think there’s actually a connection between consumption of cholesterol and blood lipids (there’s not), or that blood cholesterol is the cause of heart disease.

MB: That's quite a list.

MS: It’s all over the place. Gym-goers refuse to believe they can get stronger by doing less, dermatologists cringe when I tell people sun avoidance causes more cancer than it prevents.

As you see, I bash Conventional Wisdom at just about every turn, or at least whenever evolution provides a much better explanation for how we were designed by natural selection to function optimally.

MB: For myself, I group your Primal thing together with the Paleo thing, Barry Sears’ Zone thing, the low-carb thing, the Gary Taubes message ... In a very general sense, am I right or wrong to do this?

MS: I think there’s a fairly large number of us now fighting the good fight. We might differ in nuance here or there, but much of the basis on which we build our philosophy or lifeway is similar.

MB: What are y'all in accord on?

MS: Of those listed above, we all agree that insulin is a major player and needs to be controlled by diet and exercise, inflammation is seen as a major disrupter of health, we agree that humans need to match our diet and behaviors to what our genes expect from us. We believe that medicine is missing the boat by prescribing statins, COX inhibitors, proton pump inhibitors and anti-depressants when lifetstyle adjustments are so much more effective and come without side effects.

MB: What are some of the points y’all differ on?

MS: And, yes, we also have our differences. The Primal Blueprint is a lifestyle that encompasses all aspects of living -- not just diet. Paleo still seems to harbor a fear of saturated fats (which I do not). Barry Sears still thinks every meal should be balanced at 40/30/30 to control insulin, while I say cut the carbs and then eat whatever you want whenever you want. Taubes has diet drilled down, but doesn’t touch on exercise, which is a Primal Blueprint specialty. Still, we are all on a mission to show how badly Conventional Wisdom, modern medicine and public policy have led us astray.

MB: So far as fitness goes, your orientation is towards athletic and gym activities -- walking, running, weights, cycles, etc. What's your view of yoga, qigong, Pilates, etc?

MS: I train to play now, and that means playing hard and often without getting injured. I like golf, Ultimate (Frisbee), snowboarding, hiking, stand-up paddling, surfing, etc. Pilates, yoga and qigong may have some measure of benefit for injury avoidance, but I don’t do them because I also allocate very limited time to my training.

MB: You say that fitness buffs can cut back on the amount of time they spend on training.

MS: Yes, that’s a major benefit of Primal living. The diet is so effective at maintaining optimum body composition that it takes very little time or effort to retain muscle strength and mass. Less training can yield better results. I rest much more now than I ever did, yet I am as strong (at 56) as I’ve ever been in the gym.

MB: Some people think that the Paleo, Primal and low-carb people are just as fanatical and thus just as objectionable as the conventional health-tips people are. Fair?

MS: Not fair, really. Primal is certainly not “my way or the highway” at all. A major component is the 80% rule, which states that as long as you are living Primal(ly) 80% of the time, you will make steady progress towards your goal of better health, energy, fitness, leanness, etc.

MB: How fully do people have to buy into the Primal Blueprint to get something out of it?

MS: We have thousands of adherents, many of whom adopt the lifestyle right away. But others pick it up piecemeal. Some take on only on the diet, refusing to abandon their Chronic Cardio for a while. Others like the idea of working out less but more intensely, but have a tough time giving up the grains or the potatoes. In due time, as people start to notice differences in how they look and feel, most everyone starts getting into the whole Primal lifestyle. It really is infectious. People start to ask themselves, “What would Grok do?”

MB: A question to live by!

MS: My dream here was for people to take responsibility for their own health and make rational decisions based on solid information. I think we supply the best information in the world. I believe that taking an evolutionary perspective on health is the only way to address what our 10,000-year-old genes expect from us if we wish to “honor” them and be healthy.


Visit Mark’s blog and website. Buy Mark’s book. (Or buy it at Amazon.) Check out his pills and shakes. Yak with others who are trying out Primal ideas.

* Read Richard Nikoley's interview with Mark.

* Listen to Jimmy Moore's podcast-interview with Mark.

* Go Healthy Go Fit interviews Mark.

And come back on Thursday for Part Two of my two-part q&a with eating-and-fitness guru Mark Sisson.



posted by Michael at August 12, 2009


Sorry, but I stopped at the "give up beer" part.

Frankly my one goal in life is to live as "unhealthy" a life as possible by any modern standard (namely smoking, drinking to excess, eating lots of fats AND carbs) and see how many of the herbivores and Neo-cavemen I outlive in the process. If I die young, at least I can say I never had to turn down a meal, drink, or cigar. Packing as much as you can into 50 years is better than living to a hundred dodging the reaper the whole way.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on August 12, 2009 5:00 AM

And yet, historiams write about how healthy the early 19th century Irish seemed to be, living on a diet of potatoes and butter.

Posted by: dearieme on August 12, 2009 8:30 AM

Not sure if we can post questions or not, but from what I've read, humans are really herbivores. This is why we have to cook our meat to eat it. Our saliva and stomach acids are not acidic enough to digest raw meat. My understanding is that it wasn't until the last ice age that we had to start eating meat because vegetation couldn't survive in that ice and cold.

Could Mark comment on this? Ideally, should we be giving up meat too?

Posted by: Steve-O on August 12, 2009 9:17 AM


I can certainly understand the cancer survivor's obsession you exhibit with health issues. AIDS survivors have the same obsession.

We want desperately to be in control of our bodies. I'm in agreement with this aspiration. No matter how consciously I accept the reality of aging, physical decline and death, there are times in the middle of the night when I wake up in a panic.

Having said that, I'm often perplexed by the uncritical way in which you seem to have embraced every food, fitness, health and medical fad in existence. You've also posted repeatedly on issues related to statins.

The theme seems to always be: (1) those in authority have a vested interest in profiting from lying to you, (2) those outside the system are more likely to be trustworthy, and therefore (3) I'm going to try the alternative route.

I don't think I buy this. I think I'm a little odd in that I've worked in so many facets of corporate America, and I've also worked in the hip, alternative, anti-America of the arts and media.

The rationale you continually employ doesn't work for me. People are the same, no matter whether they are mainstream or alternative. Everybody is self-interested and concerned with their own profit. Sometimes that profit is monetary. At other times that profit is ego gratification or religious sanctimony or status within a given community.

Frankly, I think that what's eating at you is the same thing that eats at all of us, namely questions about mortality and salvation. While I agree that diet, personal responsibility and exercise will improve the quality of our lives, I don't think that these things will buy our way out of the dilemmas of mortality and salvation.

In fact, I think that traditional religion is more likely to be the answer to these questions. Humbling one's self before God (no matter how that God is manifested) is probably more likely to bring comfort and relief.

Everybody's got to make these decisions alone. There is an air of desperation in these postings. As I said, we all share in that sense of despair over our own mortality and whether we will achieve salvation. At least in my life, dealing directly with that sense of despair by appealing directly to God seems to make more sense.

I don't know what to make of these repeated "journalistic expose" postings. I don't trust journalists, precisely because I've known so many of them. Journalists are also driven by self-interest. Coveting the glory of exposing wrong-doing is a motivation that can lead straight to hell. This particular posting relies on purported expertise in a wide variety of fields from one guy who, really, has no qualifications and relies on nothing except his own personal observations about his experience. Nothing wrong with that, but how much weight should anybody give that?

Sorry for the long reply. The current healthcare "reform" debate seems to me to be about the same underlying issues. We don't want to age, get sick and die. Somebody, someplace must be to blame for our mortality. Must be the Republicans, or the pharma companies or the insurance industry. It can't just be our fate to die.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 12, 2009 10:11 AM

I don't believe diets or lifestyle regimens come in one-size-fits-all, nor do I believe Mark was trying to impose that.

However, Grok did not have a very long lifespan, now did he? Be it from diet, genes, or sabertooth tigers, old Grok was literally old at age 30.

I am of the opinion that too much of a good thing is always loaded with bad karma. So, it makes sense to cut back on foods that push insulin levels to overload.

One more thing I've noticed through the years, a lot of my friends and coworkers have been slaves to their workout routines and are pretty much addicted to include more and more workout time.

Michael, thanks for the great interview. Always interesting to see what the fitness gurus are thinking, but I don't believe I'll be tossing my Friday night beer or wine for a hunk of raw bison with lime.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on August 12, 2009 10:16 AM

This is great! I have a Google Alert out on everything Mark Sisson does. He's my favorite health-tips guy. And this is shaping up as the most in-depth interview with him yet. Thanks to Mark and to 2Blowhards both!

Posted by: Bettina on August 12, 2009 10:22 AM

Let me speak as a fitness fan who's recently been incorporating some suggestions from the Paleo world. It's been working out well! I allow myself the occasional chip attack at Mexican restaurants and, unlike Mark, I'm never going to give up my high-quality beer. But I've cut back on the carbs, I indulge in a lot of good fats, and I've begun mixing my workouts up with more leisure and fun.

It's been great. For one thing, it's a routine that's got nothing to do with deprivation. You don't starve yourself in the kitchen, and you don't drive yourself to collapse in the gym. And the results are terrific. I've lost some weight, I've achieved better fitness, and I hurt myself less than I used to. I feel like I'm happier too -- is that a consequence of the good fats? The variety?

Anyway, I urge anyone who's interested in freshening up their routine to give some Paleo or Primal ideas a try. My one complaint about the approach -- not enough fiber!

Posted by: PrimalDaddy on August 12, 2009 10:33 AM

Thanks for the interview Michael. I'm going to give this a try, although less beer and potatoes may not be easy.

Posted by: jonathanjones02 on August 12, 2009 10:51 AM

Thanks for the introduction. This is my first real contact with any Paleo idea.

I wonder--if one objects to grainy, gluteny diets in terms of personal health, does this potentially imply any comment on the social and political effects of the advent of grains (settled civilization and so on)?

Posted by: Evan McLaren on August 12, 2009 11:19 AM

I'm with ST on this one. How is Sisson different from anyone else out there purporting exactly the same thing;, namely, everyone else had it all wrong, I've finally got the answer? If this were 10 years ago, Sisson's name would be Atkins.

Sure, the Primal thing in general sounds sensible, but Sisson obviously a fanatical dude, and fanatical dudes are fanatical for one reason: they're control freaks. Taking advice from control freaks is never a good idea.

Also, I love beer.

Posted by: JV on August 12, 2009 12:31 PM

Also, "at our boarding school." You mean high school? For someone who purports to be practically ashamed of his Ivy credentials, you don't let anyone forget about them. :) I'm only giving you a hard time on this because I believe you should be proud and grateful for having such an education.

Posted by: JV on August 12, 2009 12:43 PM

Some questions related to what others have been saying here:

We could not have evolved to grow old on a Paleo/Primal diet. A diet could only be something we evolve to if it helps us increase our chances of reproductive success...which means having and raising children successfully. A diet that let us age gracefully until, say, 70, 80 or 90 back in our Grok days would simply have meant we were still hanging around competing with our offspring (and their offspring and theirs) for a scarce food supply.

About long running: I agree with Sisson that it's not something we should do every day. But it is something we should do. Odd fact: humans can run down any species on earth except Siberian Huskies. Why did this capacity evolve if it was of no use? Our capacity for long-distance running, and the repeated emphasis placed on it by a variety of cultures around the world, indicates to me that long, slow, steady efforts should be part of a Paleo/Primal exercise lifestyle.

Though not, of course, every day. But fairly often. And mixed with sprints and weights and sports...and rest. He's right about that.

P.S. My own low-carb/low-cal/low-fat diet experiment is now over, with my weight in the high 160s (from 190), belt in all the way to the tightest notch, pants ballooning around me, and my newly visible jawline continuing to excite admiring comments from my fiancee. Some of that change was, however, produced by some long, steady efforts, on treadmills, ellipticals, and especially indoor rowing ergs.

How does that relate to Sisson's philosophy? Supports it some. Contradicts it some. Hey, people are complicated.

P.P.S. I think Michael is very hip to the mortality thing, ST. I get the impression he's trying to deal with straightforward "how can I feel better today" issues. He's already stared the "distinguished gentleman" in the eyes...and he's trying to Gyro and yoga and Primal his way to some damn fine mellow healthy-as-hell remaining years. You still doing Gyro, Michael? I'd love to try that, but it's still not up here in Ottawa.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 12, 2009 1:23 PM

> Be it from diet, genes, or sabertooth tigers, old Grok was literally old at age 30.

False. Predators had no real significance. Infections and violence were big causes of mortality. Those who avoided them aged and died about the same as we do.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on August 12, 2009 1:40 PM

i have three questions for mark:

1. what are your thoughts on dairy? those who say milk is bad because in the ancestral environment humans didn't drink it into adulthood forget that lactose tolerance evolved *genetically* in northern euros relatively recently to handle lifelong consumption of milk as a nutrient source. if you're ok with milk consumption, is skim, 1%, 2% or whole preferable? how about unpasteurized milk?

2. giving up beer sounds like a particularly cruel sacrifice. i'd like to think some beer can be incorporated into the primal diet. are certain beers better than others? e.g. guinness versus miller light?

3. asians eat a lot of high glycemic carbs in the form of rice, yet they have longer lifespans and less obesity than americans. does rice have a property that makes it more complementary to human health than other grain-based carbs, or are the major races divergently evolved to process carbs differently?

Posted by: roissy on August 12, 2009 2:30 PM

ST -- Depth analysis, how flattering! But no, there's no particular significance to my interest in health and eating stuff. I was an active kid who grew up on canned and frozen foods, encountered the "aerobics" thing in the '60s, and the health food thing in the '70s ... And, like I said in the intro-to-Sisson posting, I've always felt far better when I've eaten well and gotten regular exercise of some kind. So fitness-and-food has always been an interest of mine. The cancer bout? Eh, eating-and-fitness-wise, what it left me having to adjust to has been a much lower energy level than I had before the surgery. Hence yoga and Gyro. The big story in health and fitness at the moment, it seems to me, is the way the lowfat/veggie mainstream health-tips model is crumbling. It's been our standard for the last 40 years and it appears to have been largely wrong. If this is true (and read the Taubes book if you want the most thorough account around of this -- he's anything but faddish and flakey), then it has been one of the biggest scientific/ medical/ governmental fuckups in American history. How this happened is a great story. (How it affected many people is a tragic one.) You don't find that interesting? Why not?

JV -- Atkins made some valuable points. Nearly everyone (including Harvard's otherwise mainstream Walter Willett) now agrees on this. As for Sisson and fanaticism ... He can answer for himself, of course. But my response is: Wouldn't you assume that anyone who's a specialist about a topic, and who cares about what he stands for, and who has some drive about conveying it, is to some extent a fanatic? Painters are fanatics about painting, writers about writing. (Hey, I care strongly about what I say in my blog postings.) I wouldn't want a coach who didn't care strongly about the training style he's selling. Agreed that there are nutcases in the world who need to be avoided. But if all we listen to are well-rounded, fully-adjusted people, 1) where are we to find them? and 2) What would they have of interest to say? They'd be boring. No one's trying to suck you into a cult, in any case. For me, it's far more about how we take these people than it is about whether or not to reject them because they care strongly about what they stand for. I want them to care strongly; but, just as important, I'll be the one to pick and choose from among the suggestions they make.

PatrickH -- Congrats on the reappearance of the jawline. That's a big accomplishment. What's your plan for keeping the weight off?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 12, 2009 5:00 PM

> hanging around competing with our offspring

You aren't necessarily a drain once you pass the age of reproduction. You need not compete with kin unless we assume territory size is fixed. Territory rights were probably mostly a function of war in most times and places, and you might be able to remain a net plus to the clan war machine. Sentinal work, alliance-making with other clans, and economic donations to combat warriors might all have been key to the war effort.

If you can keep making a caloric profit (without weakening the war effort), you can donate calories to descendant kin and be a net plus to them. Once you are feeble, you can't. But what matters is not really the age you become feeble at, but how rapidly you die after becoming so. Perhaps suicide was practiced - I haven't read enough ethnography to know if it was common among enfeebled elderly of modern hunter and proto-ag groups.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on August 12, 2009 5:34 PM

"What's your plan for keeping the weight off?"
Heartless bastard!

Posted by: dearieme on August 12, 2009 5:38 PM

Self experimentation seems to me to be the key. I myself don't follow any particular diet but what has made a major difference to me is getting over the fear of fat. Lay on the butter! Last week we had pork shoulder simmered all day in a pound of lard - yum. Whole milk yoghurt, cream, kefir, all good stuff. Having done this has made me much less hungry for carbs, but I do still eat good bread and pasta a few times a week - because I like it. So the "eat what you want" thing works for me. Also I rarely snack or feel tired during the day. Sisson points out that you don't have to stick to it rigidly, just most of the time. So I'll have a beer, maybe once or twice a week, no problem. It's not about living a hairshirt lifestyle.

This change has cleared up so many chronic problems that I can say I've never felt better in my life, at age 44. Excema is gone, allergies are gone, headaches are gone. I sleep well and think clearly and much less moody and prone to depression. I'm now 5 lbs over my high school weight, which means I've lost 30 lbs in the last year, with quite literally no effort on my part, and all while enjoying what I eat. I just have to laugh at the weight obsessed exercise-aholics I know.

So read about some of the options and then try them to see what works. It's not about dogma, just finding ways to live better.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on August 12, 2009 6:14 PM

Mark Sisson's comments are interesting in that I have independently come to many of the same conclusions as he has with regards to diet, fitness regimes, and the causes of cardiovascular problems. He certainly looks good for a man of any age, let alone one in his 50's. This tells me that there is reality to whatever he recommends.

What I do different is that I am into supplementation for life extension purposes (CoQ-10, Resveratrol, Melatonin, and Carnosine) based on information I get from the LEF, my friends, and life-extension oriented websites.

There is a pile of information on supplements over on the Immortality Institute's website forums at I will also tell you that I have been an LEF member since 1984 and that the LEF has an outstanding 25 year track record of predicting of what works and what doesn't.

The other thing I have done, which is considered controversial in some circles is chelation with alpha lipoic acid for an 18 month period. This has completely eliminated my asthma and has significantly improved my seasonal allergies.

Posted by: kurt9 on August 12, 2009 6:16 PM

Michael, Have you seen this TED talk by Dean Ornish?


Posted by: Simon Roberts on August 12, 2009 6:29 PM

In the eighties I ran too far for too long in those big yellow Nikes. The diet lacked protein. Teeth died. Other little things went wrong. My temperament wasn't always the best.

What saved me was my own personal "Grok": a lamb-and-veg eating Aussie from prosperous suburbia, who was a guts and a food-lover. Grok was me, before the bad boarding-school food and the final move from home.

The undramatic turning-point was joining some of my very athletic friends for a meal of pasta boiled without salt and topped with unflavoured steamed broccoli. Some olive oil and cheese was administered mingily with Calvinistic terror. It was a stark and extreme version of a diet I'd been inflicting on myself: I knew I could no longer subscribe to that way of life.


We can look back on every recent era and point to its evident follies. But what underlay the high-carb fad? The neurotic analysis, the ageless, photogenic gurus, the intellectualising of appetite, good gastronomic tradition defeated by junk science...all those constant appeals to the fear and vanity of the fretful classes.

Excessive carb, especially in the sugar form, was a no-no when I was growing up on lamb-chops and baked veggies, and drinking free government milk - unhomogenised! - at little-lunch. It was no secret then, it shouldn't be a revelation now.

Mark Sisson offers a few valuable ideas. But it would be a pity if, in fifteen years time, we're raking through the debris left by a low-fibre, carb-fearing food-culture. God help me, I hope the reaction doesn't bring back unsalted boiled noodles topped with steamed broccoli.

Eat hearty!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 12, 2009 6:35 PM

"Last week we had pork shoulder simmered all day in a pound of lard - yum."

Todd Fletcher, that has a kind of greatness to it.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 12, 2009 7:22 PM

"I love the fact that our genes may be hardwired in each of us, but that we can control how they are programmed to produce certain proteins (or not) by what we eat, how we move, what we think, etc."

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Sisson's own assertions aren't proof.

Gene's can't be reprogrammed, except by some form of genetic engineering, which has yet to be successfully demonstrated. Cells are programmed to do certain things repeatedly until the cell's death, which is also programmed. If cells were easily mutable through external stimuli, our bodies would start to perform in grossly unpedictable ways, such as growing bony carapaces where epithelial tissue used to be.

Someone whose claims contravene settled, basic science and whose approach is to abstract universal principles from his personal anecdotes is, at best, hopelessly naive, and at worst, a hukster.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on August 12, 2009 8:47 PM

PLW, Sisson's statement may arguably be over-exuberant - but contra your post, his words did not imply that the environment can alter one's genome.

You know less bio than you think. Sisson's talking about the level of mRNA and protein production from each gene. These levels are indeed modulated by the environment. Obviously, the changes that common environmental factors produce are not unlimited or unstructured, which is why we don't grow bony carapaces on our skin. That doesn't mean such changes don't happen.

I agree Sisson gave an anecdotal vibe. His response to grain-free eating could be due to subtle celiac disease. What's the evidence that grain-free eating will benefit the average person?

Posted by: Eric Johnson on August 12, 2009 9:40 PM

Notice how everyone who tries low-carb or just adding more animal products says that their mood improved and their skin got better? Those are not part of the message that most gurus emphasize when they talk about low-carb -- mostly the appeal is weight loss / maintenance, and thus the effects of insulin on fat storage.

So it's not some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Getting more animal products, and fewer carbs (especially sugar), really does mechanistically change your epithelial cells -- they're in top shape, now that you're actually getting some vitamin A (and not the pathetic trace amount that gets converted from caretinoids found in plants). Ditto for your serotonin levels.

Posted by: agnostic on August 12, 2009 11:51 PM

How to keep the weight off? Keep doing my exer-thing, increase the protein 2x (that's part of what's now the "Maintenance Phase"; the first part, now just over, was "Strict Phase", and man was it ever!), veggies unlimited...and keep the sugar down. That's a problem for me. Following Todd F, my allergies disappeared when I was strict, skin was clearing up, energy was good. I've indulged in some cookies lately and already my nose is running, I've got some zits springing up on my face, and my weight is up a bit.

So...keep it off by more or less doing what I've been doing, but more moderately. I'm optimistic.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 12, 2009 11:52 PM

Great interview and comments thread! I'm thoroughly enjoying it, as someone who's got lots of irons in this fire.

I lost about 60 pounds or so a decade ago. I've kept at least 50 of those pounds off, and hopefully added some muscle, so I'm reasonably fit. But I struggle with exactly the issues Shouting Thomas brought up: I'm a Christian, and taking care of my body is important, but efforts so made also shade into idolatry if they go too far, and into the self-delusion of genuine control over my own contingency. I'm dust, and so are you . . .

Anyway, I found Mark's interview responses and site good fun and full of sensible advice. I think he's been blessed with a tremendous genetic profile as well as unusual perseverance, but making the most of those gifts is certainly admirable, too.

I've got a couple of questions. First, does Grok ever party down? Does he feast? Does he gorge sometimes on stuff that he ordinarily wouldn't get in his day-to-day huntin' and gatherin'? I recall reading at some point an argument that periodic over-consumption (i.e. as one would at a tribal feast) is actually not all that bad, and might even be beneficial. It's certainly a pattern found in many, many cultures.

Second, I know grains = bad for Grok, but surely there's a continuum here? As Roissy mentioned above, Asian eat loads upon loads of complex carbs via rice, and although these days (at least here in HK/China) you see lots of little butterball kids waddling around, it seems more likely to me to be the result of too many computer games, not too much rice. There are simply so many lean people here amongst the adults that I find it hard to imagine that all of them would be even leaner on high protein diets. Are there racial/genetic differences at work here?

Again, thanks for the interview.

Posted by: mr tall on August 13, 2009 1:49 AM

Second Tall's q about rice. Does it not matter how whole the grain is, and how low its glycemic load can therefore be since it takes a while to digest? Doesn't that make any difference, or is the condemnation of grains blanket?

Hot damn, but Sisson's wife is a knockout! Hola heyla, I think I'm going to "arrange" for a leeeetle "accident" to happen to our health guru. Sorry Mark, it's not personal; it's not about you. It's about her. Talk about bringing out the Primal in the man. Yummy!

Posted by: PatrickH on August 13, 2009 9:12 AM

Great site -- just found it via Richard Nikoley's link.

To those who are dogging the low-grain life, why are you so adament? Try it. I did, and I have been far from perfect -- results: No more hand dermatitis. No more seasonal allergies. No more asthma. Weight is the same.

Posted by: Matt on August 13, 2009 9:55 AM

Man,Matt, my allergies kicked back in as soon as I reintroduced grains into my diet. It's the season for my allergies (allegedly to ragweed), which is what I thought was happening. But when I was strict on the no-grains, my nose was clear, my skin was clear(er), and (oddly) some lower back pain disappeared as well.

Damn, but this is interesting. I may have a negative reaction to grains as well as to dairy, and the story of my runny-nosed phlegm-ridden life may not be a genetic tragedy after all. More like a nutritional farce. Or maybe a comedy, since those are supposed to have happy endings.

So...going back off the grains, and let's see what happens to the mucus production!

Posted by: PatrickH on August 13, 2009 1:12 PM

I eat a small amount of grains every day plus desserts on Christmas, Thanksgiving and my birthday, but I've followed a relatively low-carb diet since college. It cleared up my IBS, PMS and improved my mood. Shortly after I started it I spent the weekend at my vegetarian friends' beach house. After a day of pancakes, chips, pasta and cookies I woke up the next morning with the worst migraine of my life that kept me in bed the whole weekend. When I got back to cooking for myself the migraine vanished and I've kept it up since. Still, I know people who've gotten very sick on low-carb diets as well people who do very well on vegetarian diets so it all depends on the individual.

Asians and rice,
In "The China Study", considered one of the definitive studies in low-fat diets, the examination of many Chinese villagers determined that people who ate a predominantly plant based diets had lower rates of cancer, heart disease etc. Asian Americans, when controlled for the lower average BMI, have a higher rate of diabetes diabetes than non-Hispanic whites even though diabetes is relatively uncommon when they live in Asian countries. So I think it's very possible that Asians tend to have a different genetic response to low-fat, low protein diets. Still, I know white people who are happy and healthy on vegetarian diets so I think it's a matter of finding what works best for you.

Posted by: hello on August 13, 2009 10:47 PM

Asians don't consume that much rice -- more than us, but numbers matter more than rankings. When you combine per capita consumption of all common food grains -- corn, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, and wheat (and perhaps barley if you want to count beer) -- Western Europe and its off-shoots are far above Northeast Asians in carb consumption. That's specially due to our sky-high corn consumption -- way more than Asian rice consumption.

Japan, for example, consumes about 13% less rice per capita than India. Ever been to a Japanese restaurant? Fish, fish, and more fish. Ever been to a Chinese restaurant? Pork, pork, and more pork. No desserts offered at either place.

I wrote this up with tables and charts at my pay-only blog. But you can get the data from NationMaster and construct them yourself (look under the Agriculture category, then Grains, and then the various per capita rates for each major grain).

Posted by: agnostic on August 14, 2009 5:23 AM

if you wake up most mornings with mild to moderate stomach discomfort, then the paleo diet will eliminate that. Mark's website covers in detail how and why grains damage the GI tract tissue, and cause inflammation all over the body.

some people here seem to be pre-disposed to scepticism and cynicism. when you dismiss something out of hand, you really aren't contributing anything useful.

it's easy to do simple experiments and see how you feel, without making major changes in lifestyle. give up cereals, breads, and potatoes for a couple of weeks andsee how you feel. one technique from the book/website I didn't see in the interview i sintermittent fasting. this involves going without food (typically by skipping a meal) for 12 - 18 hours, in order to stimulate fat burning. I do this by skipping breakfast most mornings, and eating lunch a little earlier than normal to compensate.

processing food is a strain on the body and the paleo det/lifestyle reduces that strain tremendously.

the rice question is one i would like to see answered too, as it presents something of a paradox. anyone who thinks asians don't eat a ton of rice are very confused -- they eat it at every meal. it's a *staple* of their diet. all the attempts to resolve the rice question always involve hand waving and unconvincing arguments. the plaeo diet works great, and the rice issue doesn't invalidate it, but it would be nice to see a genuine argument made and supported.

Posted by: cjm on August 24, 2009 11:39 AM

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