Then, as I was reading it, for a while I worried I would struggle to find sufficient criticisms to avoid accusations of blogger backslapping. So if any of my analysis appears pedantic, you will know why.
In December I wrote a piece about some of the books in this field. Of The Primal Blueprint preview, I said:
I think The Primal Blueprint will combine the best aspects of these other works into a hunter gatherer bible the man in the street will feel comfortable reading and recommending. As a former professional athlete who has looked into the science of nutrition and exercise in great depth, Mark is likely to justify The Primal Blueprint with as much science as the layman requires without blinding him with more than he wants. His blog has a vibrant community of readers and contributors, of which I am one. So although the others do offer a holistic view, I expect The Primal Blueprint to add a real-world, man-in-the-street feel that has not yet been seen.
Once You Get it, You Get itThe Primal Blueprint brings the books I read on this subject to a modest three; but really - how widely do you need to read about this? Once you get it, you get it, as someone said to me recently.
In fact to be perfectly honest, for that reason I had originally been in two minds about whether to read the Primal Blueprint at all. We all have a finite reading time in this life, and I hate the idea of displacing some great work of fiction with a book whose only contribution is to allow me to pontificate in even greater detail to my already bored friends about the macronutrient breakdown of the ancestral diet.
Where my December analysis falls short, is that The Primal Blueprint is more than a book about how to eat or exercise according to ancestral patterns. Rather, it is a philosophy of life Mark Sisson has constructed around the framework of ancestral principles. For this reason, and because he is happy to imbue the book with his personal views, experiences and humour, it is a genuinely pleasurable read.
Minefield of Modern LifeMark does two things very well in the book. First, in describing what a terrible mess the world and our lives are in. After the first chapter, in which he outlines the 10 Primal Blueprint laws, you are left wondering what else there can be to say – at which point he hits you with the second chapter, which could be summarised thus (my words not his):
We hurtle through life in a stressed haze, slowly destroying our bodies and minds with drugs, bad food and poisons, influenced by obsolete and baseless recommendations and trusting our health to ignorant experts. This is not how we used to live. It's killing us.
This message is delivered very effectively through two narratives, one describing a day in the life of 'Grok' and his hunter gatherer family, the other a day in the life of the Korgs, a modern American family. It's at this point you realise Mark has a lot more to offer than a list of rules. Interestingly, this is the only chapter he provides references for, signalling its importance in setting out the Primal Blueprint stall.
The second thing he does well (which is fortunate, given the first success) is provide practical advice on how to navigate the minefield of modern life to follow the Primal Blueprint laws as much as possible.
The chapters covering the laws in detail take up the bulk of the rest of the book. They offer scientific rationales, practical advice on how to succeed, a wealth of background information and detail where required, such as how to calculate appropriate heart rate zones and lists of good and bad oils. Of course the laws cover areas beyond diet and exercise, such as play and intellectual stimulation. One new area for me was footwear and the effect modern shoe-wearing habits can have. I had also never heard of epigenics.
Conventional Wisdom, the VillainI suspect that even for seasoned Paleo types there are more than a few nuggets of new information here, as well as new or better ways of explaining things and areas not covered in other books. Most notably, he explores issues around motivation, the dangers of perfectionism and deals with accusations of elitism and the costliness of the lifestyle.
There is an edge to Mark’s writing which he employs well when debunking some of the common myths, such as those around the life-expectancy of our ancestors, the connection between cholesterol and heart disease and the fallacy of cardiovascular exercise. From the start he sets up ‘Conventional Wisdom’ as the villain of the piece and much of the background and rationale takes the form of a sustained attack on this abstract enemy. It works well, allowing him to be dogmatic without excessive finger-pointing and creating an amiable but compelling style; but he can also be sarcastic and witty:
On evolution, he says
Presumably we could wait another thousand generations to see if we fully adapt to overemphasizing sugars and grains, but I don’t wish to be sick and fat in the meanwhile.
Lance Armstrong has a genetically superior cardiovascular system, but he could easily have cruised through life as a candy-chomping, video-gaming fat kid and still have reproduced successfully…
I particularly like the quotes he includes at various points, my favourite being:
If we’re not supposed to eat animals, how come they’re made of meat?
Don’t get me wrong, the book is not perfect – or to be more precise, I don’t necessarily agree with everything in there.
SupplementationI don’t agree, for example, that multi-vitamin or omega 3 supplementation is necessary. Mark is very up front in this section about his commercial interests in supplementation and just about gets away with giving his enterprise a brief plug. I am certainly not suggesting his objectivity is compromised by that. Yet the chapters on food left me convinced that if you eat grass-fed organ meat and plenty of organic, local fruit and vegetables, you should get all the vitamins and minerals you need. I understand the counterarguments about selective breeding reducing the nutrient content, but wonder whether the sheer volume of fruit and vegetables we have access to would mitigate this.
One kind of supplementation Mark does not specifically recommend, is vitamin D. It is perhaps because, like Dr Eades, Mark dwells in sunnier climes than I, that he follows the precedent set in The Protein Power Life Plan by not covering vitamin D supplementation in much detail. Like Dr Eades, he does give plenty of information on the subject, but seems not to acknowledge that for many people, getting enough sun is simply not possible. As I type, sound of relentlessly drumming rain on my roof serves to illustrate.
DairyAnother area where the lines are blurred is dairy. Mark does cover in some depth the pros and cons of consuming its various forms, empowering the reader to make his or her own choice – indeed, I learned some useful facts; but it doesn’t seem right to include, as he does in his version of the food pyramid, the possibility of eating high fat dairy in moderation. Mark’s point is that of the bad foods, dairy is one of the least bad, so eating it in moderation can be part of a healthy life; but I think dairy’s status as ‘least bad’ should be enough to let people know. I would rather see a list of what’s strictly good and then a list of what’s not, with the ‘not good’ foods ordered by badness. When advising my training partner on what to eat, I always make a point of saying dairy is bad – but not as bad as wheat. If I said dairy’s okay now and again, he’d eat it every other day.
CompromiseI think the dairy point is a reflection of my own, no-compromise approach rather than, necessarily, something Mark should have done differently. It might not suit me, but perhaps for the majority of his readers, it’s exactly what’s needed. After all, Mark’s key message is one of compromise and pragmatism. His 80-20 rule is emblematic of this – get it right 80% of the time and you will be fine. Perhaps he recommends supplementation on the basis that it’s needed to plug the gap in nutrients left by the 20%.
One more thing: he doesn’t mention swimming in the sprint section, yet even the despicable StairMaster gets offered as an alternative to running sprints. I can’t think of anything more primal than swimming for your life across a cold river, having been discovered by a grizzly fishing for salmon in his favourite spot!
The Primal Blueprint is a reminder that it’s not as easy as you might think to live according to hunter-gatherer principles. We take a lot for granted about our modern lives, perhaps not realising quite how out of step they are with the kind of world our genes thrive in.
Why am I wearing a one-inch raise on my feet all day? Why am I taking a sleeping tablet that contains God-knows-what? Why am I buying food that’s been flown in from Guatemala?
I would be surprised if even the most dedicated follower of the hunter gatherer lifestyle would come away from The Primal Blueprint without a few questions of their own.
So yes, I now have yet more information with which to bore the pants off my friends - but it's interesting and genuinely useful information; and whilst I may not feel as enriched as if I'd read a Joseph Conrad novel, I am enriched nevertheless.
The Hunter Gatherer Lifestyle: One Religion, Several Bibles