Primal Life: A Journey of Diet and HealthFriday, February 5, 2010
Note: The word “diet,” as used in this piece, refers to habitual nourishment, not a short-term “weight-loss” fixation.
People write me often and ask about resources, books, websites, etc. that point to the primal/paleo lifestyle and/or diet that I often refer to in my posts such as this one titled, ‘The Medical Establishment is Pathetic.” In that post, I point to one of the numerous articles that appear nowadays, in popular news sources, exclaiming some new scientific fact on food that is based on junk science supported by one man’s opinion or some flimsy “study.” This article in particular points to an establishment medical hack who makes the claim that replacing the saturated fat in your diet with industry’s toxic hydrogenated vegetable oils can make you healthy. Each time I read this simpleton trash I get a good chuckle, but then I ask – at what point does this tripe border on professional negligence? I can’t help but recall the words of Michael Pollan, who stated in his 2008 book, In Defense of Food:
…Most of the nutritional advice we’ve received over the last half-century (and in particular the advice to replace the fats in our diets with carbohydrates) has actually made us less healthy and considerably fatter.
As to the “considerably fatter” comment, one only needs to open his or her eyes in any public place to confirm that notion. Pollan goes on to say:
All of our uncertainties about nutrition should not obscure the plain fact that the chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and aft produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn, and soy.
I’ve undergone a somewhat long and exploratory process to get to the point where I am now eating only fresh, whole, natural foods - real foods, such as meat, vegetables, animal fats, fruits, and nuts. And yes, plenty of saturated fats. My evolution to “things natural” started way before it was fashionable because I have never been a fad person or a follower. All my life I have never understood, or felt, this thing called “peer pressure.” Not as a teenager, not ever. In my opinion, that is a crock of you-know-what. In 1986 I was working in the printing industry – my starving artist days, as I like to call them. I was a keyliner (page designer), if you even remember that term. We printed up a quarterly newsletter for the local chiropractor, East Detroit Chiropractic. I would read the articles and ads as I worked on the layouts and I was eager to understand what chiropractic was all about. I had a horribly painful neck problem from bending over light tables and art tables all day, so I went to see Dr. Koukles, a chiropractor at the clinic. It turned out that he shared my passion and philosophy for athletics and conditioning, and he was firmly in the natural health camp, so twenty-four years later he is still my cherished chiropractor.
At the same time I started to scrutinize the food I was eating. I had pretty much always been thin – terrifyingly skinny as a kid – but I had put on some “soft” or what I call “inflammatory weight.” So I started eating more healthy, or at least what I *thought* was healthy at the time. I was a cyclist, occasionally racing mountain bikes and doing track and road training. And we were taught to, yes, carb load. Endurance athletes need tons of carbs, they say. Far more than the average person! So I raced, ate “healthy,” and loaded up on carbs before weekend rides or races. Eating healthy included cutting out the sugar (good), cutting down on meat (bad), and substituting those “healthy” Healthy Choice meals (real, real bad) for real food while at work each day. Also, I ditched sugar-loaded pop and I was drinking bottled water, Evian, as soon as it hit the shelves in the U.S. I did look pretty buff and everyone thought I was such a health nut. But not quite.
In 1996 I got very sick – an assortment of symptoms that I won’t get into here. How can a young, well-conditioned athlete get as sick as I did? The solution for me, from the medical specialists, was drugs and tests and more drugs and more tests. That lasted a very short while for two reasons: 1) the drugs made a nightmare of my metabolism and the side effects were not acceptable, and 2) I had no tolerance for short-term, easy solutions that glossed over the underlying issues. I wanted to know what was causing the problems, and then, what solutions were available to get rid of those problems.
I tossed the pharma garbage – never to return again – and explored other alternatives such as massage, chiropractic, holistic health, homeopathic remedies, more meat and …… still I carb-loaded. I was an endurance athlete so I had to eat lots of carbs, remember? Then I discovered Atkins and started to flirt with that philosophy. But that went against my endurance athlete philosophy. What to do? I began cycling my carbohydrates – in other words, I was being smarter and cutting back on them at times. I was eating carbs when I felt I needed them, but I often cut back drastically on them, hence the “carb cycling.” I eliminated most all processed foods. Since I had chucked pop (soda for some of you) back in 80s, I thought the good alternative was diet Coke. I didn’t drink a lot of pop, but sometimes one a day. All that aspartame must’ve done wonders.
Things seemed to get better, or maybe I just wasn’t tuned in to my body as well as I should have been. In 2003, I got really sick again – out of the blue, and this time much worse. This whole event – and it was an event – left me bouncing back and forth between the infectious disease and rheumatology Docs at the local hospital for 3-4 months while they all ran around trying to solve the perplexing puzzle.
My recovery from that situation found me revisiting Atkins, where I tweaked and modified that philosophy into what would essentially become something very similar to the Mark Sisson primal diet. I still did not give up wheat and grains 100%, but fat started to become a staple of my diet and processed foods were nixed entirely. About that time I started to do intermittent fasting (IF) without any such planning – it just happened because I was busy and running around all over the place.
For instance, on Saturdays and/or Sundays, I’d jump from my morning gym workout to the Harley to meet up with friends to ride all day – and sometimes I was going between 18 – 24 hours without eating. And I discovered it made me feel great. The old bodybuilder ruse about “losing your muscle” if you didn’t eat gobs of protein post-workout had become a big joke in my mind. All the protein shakes and the constant assault of food is just not advantageous to one’s health. The more I incorporated intermittent fasting into my life, the leaner I became. On some days I’ll eat more, smaller meals, and on other days I’ll eat maybe one big meal, and nothing else for 18-24 hours. I never plan anything; I just take it by the day or hour. I take advantage of my busy schedule to fast, and if I am home all day I may eat a lot. I like the “confusion” and change this offers my body. And again, just as with exercise, things never get boring.
I consider Mark Sisson to be the chief proponent of the “primal” lifestyle that is based on returning to our roots as hunter-gatherers and eating the (real) food that we were meant to eat. Mark’s “Primal Blueprint” (I will review the book soon) is the single best book available that discusses the various ways in which you can attend to your health through food, exercise, and clean living. Mark’s Daily Apple website is a magnificent source of information, and his passion and ideas have motivated me to experiment with my own food selections. And in spite of my continuous experimentation, I will never waver from my core philosophy on food – I feel and look too good to mess with the results.
Oh yeah – and my cycling? I don’t race anymore – not since 2003 and that illness – but I do occasional distance rides, and lots of medium-range rides. I have no stamina problems whatsoever. I pity those poor endurance athletes who think they need all of that nutritionally deficient pasta to keep riding. And so many cyclists I see out on the trails are 30-40 pounds overweight, or more. I’ll wake up on a weekend day, do a 20-40 mile road ride, get home at 1pm or so, and not eat anything until afternoon. On a longer ride I’ll stick some food in my bag — trail mix, fruit, or the occasional carb (Clif brand) bar.
Mark Sisson’s “primal eating plan” is about the best framework out there for laying the foundation for what to eat. No soy or wheat, low carbs, and limited (or no) grains. One thing I have done recently is swear off soy altogether. Poison! I never had it much, but once in a blue moon I admit to enjoying a tofu meal at my favorite Asian bistro, or a veggie burger. I eat very little grains, no processed anything, no processed oils or hydrogenated anything, no genetically modified (toxic) food, no pop (okay, a diet Vernors or diet Coke maybe once per month or less), and of course, I don’t do sugar. I do eat grains sometimes – rice, oatmeal, and granola in moderation – and I also eat some dairy products, especially cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt (Fage or Trader Joe’s Greek Yogurt). Of course, there are times to cheat a little (like when the Christmas cookies are surrounding me and calling my name), but essentially, there is a “primal” substitute for just about everything you enjoy right now.
As an example, I was watching the Food Channel one night, and a host on one of the weekly shows went to Philadelphia to eat at a famous dive known for its philly cheese steaks, and his goal was to eat its signature 4-pound Philly cheese steak sandwich. Gobs of bun, a ton of good meat, onions galore, and a whole lot of entirely disgusting cheese sauce. Yes, those Philly cheese steak sandwiches, that are supposed to be so good, are buried in a trashy, disgusting, heavily processed cheese sauce. He ate the whole thing, nearly getting sick, while the crowd cheered. That brings up the question – why do people cheer when they watch others gorge themselves into a coma?
The sandwich looked repulsive. That is how I have come to view food like that over the years. I do not desire it and therefore I miss nothing. I do not want sugar, pop, candy (except quality dark chocolate and Godiva), cakes, chips, snacks, bagels, donuts, and other junk. There are no food demons that I have to fight, and that’s because I eat so much great food. And that’s the great thing about the primal/paleo eating plan – eating good food and being satiated by fat.
One recent morning, post-gym, I decided to make a better, healthier KDC cheese steak than I had seen on the Food Channel. I had some ultra thin-cut chip steak that I cut up into small pieces and put aside. I fixed up a sauté of onions, fresh mushrooms, and red peppers, and added about five spices. When those were ready, I added diced-up grape tomatoes and got those hot. I dumped that mixture in my plate, and threw the chip steak into the pan with all the drippings from the veggie sauté. It took about 1 minute for that chip steak to get medium rare. I dumped the steak pieces on top of my pile of veggies, and then I topped that off with freshly shredded Romano cheese and fresh-chopped parsley. All it takes is a little effort and some brainstorming to come up with truly wholesome alternatives.
To sum things up, here’s a nice quote from Richard Nikoley, a popular primal/paleo blogger whose home is at Free the Animal:
So, many may have noticed that I’ve upped my carbohydrate considerably over the last few months. You can consider it another self-experiment. After all, it’s a long time I’ve been writing that Paleo is a dietary framework, a foundation. It’s not a prescription. It’s principles that are to be applied individually, and so the dietary makeup is going to differ individual to individual. But what if it also differs depending upon where you are? Are you fat or lean? Are you diabetic or borderline? Are you hungry all the time or never hungry?
And he nails it. This lifestyle is about taking a healthy food foundation and perpetually modifying it to customize your lifetime diet for your needs, and to accommodate your desires. It is a learning process, and for me it is also about constant change and experimentation. Everyone can start with the basic principles and make that dietary framework work for them. For instance, I’ll still cycle carbs in when I want them, or if I feel I need them. I am not afraid of carbs – I just respect their power to do damage. And I have cheat meals, or even cheat days, whenever it seems like a good occasion for it. A whole pizza and an order of cheesy bread sticks do the trick. I listen to my body and accommodate its needs, up to and including my half-bottle of wine – along with nuts and brie – almost every night before bedtime. That’s hardly a part of the “primal/paleo” system, but it’s me (!), and it does me no harm.
The one objective we should all share is the elimination of those non-food items that masquerade as food but are in fact toxins in your body. Among those are the packaged and pre-made foods of convenience that people turn to so they can get on to more important things … like shopping, gawking at the cell phone, and watching TV. Then there are the snacks, sweets, sugar beverages, and all of the mock foods chock-full of high-fructose corn syrup. When food is approached as an enjoyable experience rather than a daily demon you have to fight, the thrill of the experiment – shopping, creating, and cooking – becomes a passion, or perhaps a challenge, rather than a cumbersome task. The most amazing comment I hear from overweight acquaintances is, “I hate to go grocery shopping.” I hear that comment all the time and it perplexes me. I love to shop for food, and even more so, I like the challenge of finding, creating, and enjoying something new and delicious all the time. Recently, I just learned how to do some wicked things with a homemade artichoke and roasted red pepper spread.
The choices now offered to food consumers, due to the glories of the market, give all of us so many options to eat well, live healthy, and control what goes into our bodies. Michael Pollan calls this era the postindustrial era of food. He describes this as a time and place where, “for the first time in a generation it is possible to leave behind the Western diet without having to also leave behind civilization.” Those words describe my own pilgrimage over the last two decades. Two decades ago, there was little or no selection of organic foods, cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, and websites that offered foods “from the farm, overnight to your door.” In these times, I can place an online order with a local grower, a Michigan farm 75 miles to the north, and get the goods delivered to my door.
I have been on a “journey” since I opened that chiropractic newsletter back in 1986, with big changes coming in 1996 and 2003. I have more energy, now, than I have ever had in my whole life. People at the office often joke that I “bounce off walls.” And I am at my leanest weight ever, while retaining an abundance of muscle mass. I was about 97 pounds wearing size -0- pants post-high school, when I started bodybuilding. I stick in the 110-115 lb. range right now, wearing sizes in the range of 1 -3, and I feel better than I did twenty years ago.
In conclusion, I can chalk up all of my exploration and knowledge to two things: desire and availability. I want it, and it’s there – with so much of the knowledge being free. Free to explore, read, practice, and learn. Thanks to all of the benefits and marvels of Western civilization, I can delight in its advantages, pick from its countless alternatives, and leave most of its industrialized food-crap behind.
Following is a hodgepodge of primal/paleo links that may be of interest to readers who want to learn more about this philosophy and lifestyle commitment. NOTE: Many of these resources reflect varying philosophies on carbs, fats, politics, and whatnot. I don’t agree with and/or endorse all the ideas contained within each resource I present, but rather, they are all valuable resources to people who want to earn more about health and food matters and determine what works best for them.
- Mark’s Daily Apple
- Arthur De Vany
- Jimmy Moore’s Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb Blog
- Free the Animal
- Nutrition and Physical Regeneration
- Paleo Garden
- Loren Cordain’s Paleo Diet
- Kurt G. Harris, MD
- DrsEades.com (Drs Michael and Mary Eades)
- The Heart Scan Blog
- Caveman Food
- Son of Grok
- Stephan Guyenet – Whole Health Source
- Animal Pharm
- Fitness Spotlight
- The Carnivore Health Weblog
- Cooling Inflammation
- Primal Wisdom
Organizations and Websites
- Weston A. Price Foundation
- Institute for Responsible Technology
- The Paleo Diet
- Cholesterol-and-Health – Chris Masterjohn
- The Cholesterol Myths – Dr. Ugfe Ravnskov, MD, PhD
- Jeffrey M. Smith’s Seeds of Deception
- Non-GMO Shopping Guide
- Beyond Vegetarianism: Transcending Outdated Dogmas
- Stop-Eat-Stop: A Guide to Intermittent Fasting
- Eat STOP Eat website
- Mark Sisson’s Intermittent Fasting “How-To”
- Mark Sisson’s “Definitive Guide to Oils”
- Mark Sisson’s “A Primal Primer: Animal Fats”
- Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint
- Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes
- The Complete Notes to Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes
- Letter on Corpulence by William Banting
- In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan
- Protein Power by Drs Michael and Mary Eades
- Washington Post: “Paleolithic Diet is So Easy, Cavemen Actually Did It”
- LewRockwell.com (Chris Masterjohn): “Why the State Hates Cholesterol”
- New York Times (Gary Taubes): “What If it’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?”
- New York Times: “Michael Pollan Offers 64 Ways to Eat Food”
- MIT: “Inside the Story: Gary Taubes Interview”
- Testosterone Muscle: Interview With Gary Taubes
- Reason Magazine (Gary Taubes): “An Exercise in Vitriol Rather Than Sound Journalism”
- New York Times: “The New Age Cavemen and the City”
- Gary Taubes: “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat”
- LewRockwell.com (Dr. Donald Miller): “Iodine for Health”
- The Battle of Diets: Is Anyone Winning (at Losing)? On YouTube. A very important lecture by Christopher Gardner, PhD, at the Stanford School of Medicine.
- Sugar: The Bitter Truth. On YouTube. Robert H. Lustig, MD on the evils of fructose.
- The Future of Food. Free on Hulu TV. One of the best food documentaries.
- Controlling Our Food. Free on Google Video.
- King Corn – Here’s the PBS “King Corn” website.
- Food, Inc. – A review on PBS. Here’s a review of Food, Inc. by Richard Nikoley.
- Bad Seed: The Truth About Our Food