Friday, 19 December 2008

The Hunter Gatherer Lifestyle: One Religion, Several Bibles

This week saw Mark Sisson post on his blog a preview of his upcoming book, The Primal Blueprint, which promises to be something of a bible for those wishing to emulate their hunter gatherer ancestors to live healthier, happier lives. Coincidentally, I have just finished reading The Protein Power Life Plan by Michael and Mary Eades, which, although it is not clear from its title, is similarly themed.

Mark has been blogging about his Primal Blueprint for some time, but by choosing to publish a book to enshrine the philosophy he joins a more select group which, as well as Michael and Mary Eades, includes the likes of Loren Cordain and Art Devany.

There are some differences between the respective philosophies of these (and other) proponents of ancestral living. For example, Lauren Cordain's Paleo Diet emphasises the importance of lean meat, whereas others believe we should not fear saturated animal fat as it was a key part of our ancestors' diet. However, the commonalities far outweigh the differences, to the extent that choosing your bible is less about what you believe in and more about the angle from which you want to see it covered.

Michael and Mary Eades are doctors who have spent years treating patients with disorders like heart disease and diabetes by prescribing a hunter gatherer lifestyle, with dramatic success. So the underlying theme of the Protein Power Life Plan is how that lifestyle can be safely implemented in stages to arrest or reverse the progress of serious disease. To underpin their approach they devote more than half their book to a chapter-by-chapter coverage of key areas in which modern life is falling short of the optimum. Whilst I am not suffering from any of the conditions they have treated this way, and have no intention of following their stage-by-stage plan, nevertheless I found the book fascinating and enlightening. The doctors justify their recommendations with detailed but comprehensible medical explanations of the biochemical mechanisms at work, relating these to what we know about how our ancestors lived.

Loren Cordain combines supreme academic rigour with an interest in the human as an athlete. Whilst I have not read The Paleo Diet, I have read The Paleo Diet for Athletes, which along with his website and newsletters, is what I base my assessment on. Unlike the Eades book, Cordain references all his assertions, although I did not pay any attention to these, since I already know Cordain to be well-respected and certainly don't have time to explore the papers. My impression is that Cordain is the scientist and researcher of the field. He has authored and co-authored many academic papers that explore issues around ancestral lifestyle and the style of his writing reflects that - it's not as accessible as the Eades book, and so perhaps more for the academically inclined who demand evidence for every assertion.

Art Devany's book has been due for imminent release for so long that it has taken on an almost mythical aura. He released a paper some years ago outlining his 'Evolutionary Fitness' philosophy, which he is due to expand upon in the upcoming book. I think he may also have recently released the first chapter and perhaps even an outline of the all the chapters. Assuming his book turns out to be an expansion on the essay, and based on the time I spent reading his blog, my observation is that Devany's approach is influenced by his also being an economist and a weight lifting enthusiast. As with his co-proponents of the hunter gatherer philosophy, Devany covers diet as well as exercise, pitching his science somewhere between the Eades partnership and Cordain: whereas he goes into more technical detail that the Eades book, he does not use references. Nevertheless, as one might expect from the name 'Evolutionary Fitness', there is a sense that Devany's true passion is the exercise component.

So where does this leave the Primal Blueprint? On the basis of his blog and chapter outline, I expect Mark's book to neatly slot in as the first truly viable mainstream advocate for the hunter gatherer lifestyle. The thing about Cordain and Devany is that they are unashamedly technical and prefer, I suspect, not to sacrifice precision for the sake of the layman. The Eades book, does a great job of bringing the subject to the layman, but by its title and emphasis on treatment does to some extent exclude itself from the mainstream.

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.

The question is, in the field of promoting the hunter gatherer lifestyle, how mainstream is mainstream? Could Mark hope to match the sales figures generated by the Atkins movement, for which the primary sales driver was arguably vanity rather than a desire for health and balance? Is the idea of radically changing what you do now to pave the way for a happier, healthier life in the future something society is ready to embrace, or an idea likely to remain at the margins in a world still fixated on more immediate gratification?

I have given the hunter gatherer pitch to most of the people I know at some time. I'm getting pretty good at it. I am also getting good at recognising the difference between belief and intention to act.

The look I get from most people during my impromptu seminars says I believe you, but honestly, I just don't care enough to do something about it. These are the thirty and forty-something equivalents of young smokers, unable to see the point in forgoing pleasure now when the effects will not be seen for years, and are in any case determined by probability rather than certainty. They are not denying the facts, merely choosing to ignore them.

It's easy for people in the communities that surround our blogs to believe it's only a matter of time before the word gets out and everyone embraces the hunter gatherer philosophy; and whilst I remain cautious about whether we can realistically expect this to happen soon, I nevertheless think Mark's book has the potential to be the catalyst.


Anonymous said...

Let's hope so. I do believe though, that the vast majority of people will simply consume whatever happens to be the cheapest and easiest to get their hands on within their particular, given culture. Unfortunately, it's only the thinnest of slices of a culture who truly gives a damn about their overall health and well being -- prior to it being too late, that is.

Asclepius said...

My first Paleo book purchase was by Tamir Katz:

Despite poor graphics and production, it has a cool low-fi feel and gives you pretty much all you need to go paleo.

Methuselah said...

Ascelpius - I am conscious that the books I listed did not represent a complete coverage of all Paleo books and thanks for mentioning this one.

Another once, recently mentioned over on Conditioning Research, was Exuberant Animal, although I think this deals exclusively with the actvity component rather than diet.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading mark's daily apple for a while. I think his diet is fantastic for men, but may not be suitable for all women's life cycles... I'm not sure modern women are fit to be gatherers anymore.

Methuselah said...

marjann - I did mention to Mark in the comments of his sneak preview that different ways the blueprint might be applied to men and women would be worth exploring in some depth because Mrs M and my Mum both struggle with the idea of intense exercise, yet thrive on the diet - almost certainly because the roles of males and females would have been significantly different when we were evolving. Is this the point you are alluding to, or are you just saying its harder for a modern woman to adopt the lifestyle of hunter gatherer woman than it is for modern man to adopt the lifestyle of hunter gatherer man?

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