Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson

Some books of the Bible are full of “begats”, such as “Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob” and so on. The genealogy of a family or of an idea can tell us a lot about the nature of a family member or an idea and how members of the linage have changed through time. Thus, Nietzsche investigated The Genealogy of Morals. Darwin understood the whole of life on earth as a genealogy. The same can be said of ideas. 

As someone who is been interested in health and wellness for the most selfish of reasons—I like being healthy and well—I’ve read and tried a lot in that field for a long time. My current line of thinking is most prominently influenced by the paleo/primal lineage. For me, that lineage began when I read Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. In that book, he cited the economics work of Art De Vany, and as an aside, he also mentioned De Vany’s work on nutrition and fitness This led me to art De Vany’s website, which was a treasure trove of information about how the developmental environment of human beings, especially during pre-agricultural times, shaped how our bodies function. This is especially true in areas of nutrition and exercise. De Vany pointed me to Mark Sisson’s blog, Mark’s Daily Apple. While Taleb comments on these issues from within his larger project, and De Vany has written an excellent book summarizing his thinking (The New Evolution Diet and reviewed again here), it’s been Mark Sisson at Mark’s Daily Apple and in his books who has provided the most continuous update of information and encouragement along this line of thinking.

If you’re new to primal (or paleo) thinking, it’s based on the idea that since human beings evolved in an environment that involved great variation in the availability of nutrition and demands for exercise, the re-creation of a pre-agricultural way of life—insomuch as that is possible within the contemporary context—is the best road to health. Most thinkers and writers in this tradition agree that this involves avoiding grains, which really came into human use only about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago during the Agricultural Revolution that allowed for civilization (cities) to exist. Grains provide a lot of carbohydrate and some proteins, but some of those proteins, like gluten, can cause serious problems. In addition, other forms of simple carbohydrates, especially immense amounts of sugar, are bad because of the insulin load they place on the body. In pre-agricultural times, food was often scarce, and when human beings came upon sources of sweet items, our bodies told us to eat up and our insulin signaled for us to store this source of calories. In our contemporary world, where calories are almost as easily available as the air we breathe, we just get fat. In addition to this type of nutritional advice, intense exercise comes as a standard recommendation, but not “chronic cardio” (long slog runs done repetively).  Lots of sleep, mental stimulation, and other changes are standard recommendations as well.

Sisson’s book outlines all of these factors and presents them clearly. Sisson does good job of mixing the science with practical recommendations. Sisson understands that being a purist isn’t likely to work for many people, so he underlines the importance of the 80/20 rule for persons attempting to follow the primal way of life.

I have been trying with varying degrees success to follow this regimen for health and wellness for several years. It hasn’t been easy in India, where it’s hard to get a clean piece of meat or a decent salad. Many persons here are vegetarian, but vegetarianism isn’t primal and probably isn’t all that healthy. If you don’t order a chapatti (flatbread) or rice with a meal, waiters will look at you with stunned silence waiting you for you to come to your senses. Similarly, sweets are big thing here. (And so is type II diabetes.) It’s hard to resist the mangoes (my goodness, they are sweet!) and so on. Let’s be honest, I suffer from a certain weakness of will in these areas, but when I saw myself tipping the scale too far, I got back on the wagon and used the occasion to read Sisson’s book (again). There couldn’t have been a better coach and advisor.

If you are interested in developing an effective, fun, and healthy way of life, I don’t think I could suggest a better blueprint. In the popular press and in nutritional literature, advice about nutrition and eating is freely given and poorly supported. It’s easy (I know because I’ve done it) to try to alter your eating habits with every new article you read in the press, but the more I consider it, the more I think it’s so much nonsense created by poorly designed studies, confirmational or pecuniary biases, and a failure to appreciate how the complexity of the human body and the human environment. The primal way seems to work for me, to work for others, and to make a great deal of sense when looked at within the context of evolutionary biology. Of course, I think any of the primal/paleo thinkers that I mentioned here would recommend empirical verification of what they’re talking about. In other words, try it seriously and see if it doesn’t work for you. I think it’s worked for me reasonably well, the only limits I found so far are that I don’t adhere to the recommendations as well as I should. But with the likes of Mark Sisson behind me at Mark’s Daily Apple and in his books, I still hold out some hope.

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