Sunday, 26 July 2009

Primal in the Pyranees (In a Nutshell)

We started in Paris - nothing much Primal happened there - too much of this ... but we did do some walking, such as here Then to the Pyrenees, where we stayed here and were presented with local produce (well, not the bananas or melon!) - so local that the eggs were laid by her and her sisters who lived in the grounds. In the morning I sprinted here and here followed by this We hiked here where we found these wild bilberries and picked this many In the evening we ate this local food Next day, more eggs followed by a hike to here and here then a swim here (cooold!) and some sunbathing. Later this for lunch. Next morning, a dawn hike for more of these getting this haul which included wild raspberries. So we had this for breakfast, ahead of some seriously primal activity here and here and here followed by this in the evening. On our final evening, this then on the boat journey back, more sun!
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Sunday, 19 July 2009

UK Supermarket Redefines the Word 'Healthy'

Outraged by what I found when I examined the difference between UK supermarket Somerfield's standard garlic bread and so-called 'Healthy Choice' garlic bread, I decide to initiate a new campaign:

Dear Somerfield,

Based on the differences between your standard and 'Healthy Choice' garlic bread products, I believe the premise behind your 'Healthy Choice' range is deeply flawed.

I also believe I have an excellent opportunity for you to lead the way on healthy eating.

The differences demonstrates one of two things.

Your marketing and product development departments are either…
  1. …cynically exploiting consumer ignorance (which is despicable) or…
  2. … themselves ignorant (which is lamentable.)
Using the phrase ‘Healthy Choice’ is flawed on a number of levels:

White bread is not a healthy choice, regardless of how you tinker with the ingredients.

Reduced fat is not healthier - the only significant difference between the macronutrient composition of your standard garlic bread and the ‘Healthy Choice’ garlic bread appears to be that the latter contains less fat. This suggests you regard fat as unhealthy. This is not necessarily true. More on fat in a moment.


Healthy Choice

Less healthy ingredients - there is only one difference between the ‘Healthy Choice’ ingredients and the standard:

Standard: Butter

Healthy Choice: Low Fat Spread [Vegetable Oils (rapeseed oil, palm oil), Emulsifiers (E471, E476), Water, Milk Proteins, Salt, Stabiliser (E401), Preservative (E202), Flavourings, Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Colour (E160a)]


Healthy Choice

Ironically, the low fat spread is less healthy. First because it contains vegetable oils (not healthy) instead of saturated fat from butter (healthy). Second because it contains 5 additional e-number additives.

On the package you say

Somerfield Healthy Choice can only aid weight loss as part of a calorie controlled diet. Healthy Choice can help maintain your health as part of a healthy lifestyle including an appropriate level of exercise.

Nothing we have seen so far suggests this would be true – please provide some evidence – how does it help?

I cannot emphasise enough what an opportunity this is for you.

All the other supermarkets remain behind the curve. They are also selling low fat alternatives under the banner of healthy eating, pumping them full of garbage ingredients to make them palatable.

I am not suggesting you make an immediate u-turn; but if you start researching this now and thinking about ways to engage the customer with the realities of healthy eating rather than pandering (wilfully or otherwise) to their misplaced perceptions, then when the mainstream finally realises what genuinely constitutes healthy eating , you will have started making the changes already.

You could be forgiven for dismissing me as a crackpot – but I assure you I am not; and nor are the highly respected doctors and researchers whose references I can provide.

I challenge you to take one small step – ask me for references. To make it easy, let’s pick one of the issues only: saturated fat. Email me and request a couple of articles or papers.

Maybe you are not the right person. Maybe you are in the PR department. In that case, I challenge you at least to pass this onto someone at Somerfield whose expertise lies in this area.

Of course this would ultimately be important to the PR department, too – after all, there is great PR to be had from being the first to get it right.

I await your response with eager anticipation.

Yours faithfully,
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Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Primal Blueprint: A Review

I was nervous about reviewing Mark Sisson's The Primal Blueprint. In a blogosphere where it's customary for fellow bloggers to be complementary about one another's work, the whiff of faint praise is not hard to detect. I was worried about what I would say if it was no good.

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 it
The 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 Life
Mark 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 Villain
I 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?
Tom Snyder

Don’t get me wrong, the book is not perfect – or to be more precise, I don’t necessarily agree with everything in there.
I 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.
Another 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.
I 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.

See Also:
The Hunter Gatherer Lifestyle: One Religion, Several Bibles
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Saturday, 4 July 2009

Primal/Paleo Breakfast of Champions - so Good it's like a Dessert!

I have to share this recipe. I have it for breakfast or brunch. Two reasons I think its so great:

First - each ingredient is highly praised by Mark Sisson in his book, Primal Blueprint, which I am reading at the moment (full review coming soon.)

Second - it tastes like a dessert. The interaction between coconut cream, cocoa powder and fruit creates a genuinely chocolaty sensation - which when coupled with the innately dessert-like qualities of egg seems to really hit the spot.

Whilst it can be eaten hot or cold, I usually put it in the fridge overnight and eat it the next day - this is when when it acquires it's most dessert-like qualities.

Here are the ingredients (to serve one greedy person like me):

Coconut cream, 100 ml
P.B. "Coconut oil offers numerous health benefits...has been found to help normalize blood lipids and protect against damage to the liver from alcohol and other toxins, and it has anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting properties."

There is an example brand of coconut cream in the instructions. I always make sure the only ingredients are coconut and water. I think 'coconut extract' is also fine.

Unsweetened Cocoa powder
P.B. "Some studies have shown that cocoa contains considerably more flavanoids than acclaimed heavy hitters like green tea and red wine...dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, brain-stimulating compounds...offers impressive health benefits, such as reducing the instance of blood clots, lowering blood pressure and helping prevent cancer...the ORAC values of coca powder and dark chocolate are higher than those of virtually any fruit or vegetable..."

Mark suggests ideally using organic cocoa as conventionally grown beans are exposed to pesticides.

Eggs, 8 medium organic
P.B. "Excellent source of healthy protein, fat, B complex vitamins, and folate...the yolk is one of the most nutrient-rich foods you can find-laden with omega-3s and the aforementioned nutrients."

Mark also explains in the book why the cholesterol fears around eggs are unfounded. He urges people to buy organic eggs to maximise these benefits.

Any fruit
ideally berries like strawberries, blackberries, blueberries etc

P.B. "...most fruits offer a host of nutritional benefits..."

Mark does caution people to consider the GI value of fruits in relation to the amount of antioxidants they contain. In the case of berries this is a very favourable ratio.
Cooking Instructions
The ingredients.

This is the brand of coconut cream I use. [Update 6th Aug 2010: since they changed the ingredients, this is no longer my chosen brand. I wrote an open letter to Tropical Sun in this post.]

Put the eggs in a pan.

Beat them.

Cook whilst continually stirring until nearly cooked, but not quite.

Add the coconut cream. Be careful here - you don't want it too runny, so maybe add half of the cream and cook a little further to see whether it was enough. Then a little more, and so on. You are aiming for a moist but firm consistency.

Cook until you have a creamy scrambled egg consistency.

Prepare your fruit and place on top.

Sprinkle the cocoa powder using a sieve.

Serve and enjoy!

Here's one I made with strawberries to take to work last week. I ate it cold from the fridge.

See Also:

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