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


Grok said...

Nice review!

guy said...

Excellent review.
I was going to buy the book but baulked at paying the postage to the UK. Thought I would wait till it appears on, if ever.

A bit like you I am also worried about will I really learn much more?
I've think I've 'got it'(different thing obeying it) from all the resources on the web and my $30 could be better spent.

Bryce said...

Great review, Methuselah.

I can't say the primal blue print is high on my to-read list, even though it does sound like a great book. I just have a few other things I need to work through first (almost done with Good Calories Bad Calories). It is good to know that there is some good information in PB for the already-paleo-indoctrinated.

BTW, I never knew before that "Methuselah" could mean "man of the spear."


Bryce said...

Great post Methuselah,

There are a number of other things on my list to read before I get to PB (I'm almost done with Good calories Bad calories), but it's good to know there are some useful things in PB for the already-paleo-indoctrinated.

Also, I never knew that "Methuselah" could be interpreted as "Man of the Spear."

Methuselah said...

Thanks Guy - I reckon I slapped at least another 33% on top of my existing knowledge, but it also made what I already knew seem more real and important, which has helped with some 'obedience' issues following recent indulgences!

Vin - NaturalBias said...

Great review! I just wrote an article based on Mark's book as well. (most recent article on my blog if you want to check it out)

I've been living a pretty strict primal lifestyle for more than two years, and like you, still learned a few things. I thought it was a great read. One thing in particular is that it's making me reconsider my opinion of low intensity cardio.

I completely agree with you about supplements ... I try to error on the side of not needing them, but do think they're useful. Being a resident of NY and often stuck in an office, I also agree with you about vitamin D.

Yeah, dairy is definitely a gray area. Personally, I avoid it, mostly because I don't digest it well. While I think dairy is a more complete source of nutrition than grain, that doesn't make it any more of a part of our evolution, and it doesn't change the fact that a lot of people have trouble digesting it. However, it would be difficult to promote a lifestyle that strictly prohibits the two most common foods in the modern diet.

Methuselah said...

Thanks Vin - yours in certainly a thorough examination and great for people wanting some more detail before committing to the book. Yes - the low intensity cardio thing was a revelation for me too. I am going to get back into mountain running I think, but just handle the training a different way...

Bryce said...

sorry about the double post. The page wiped when I was writing, and I thought it hadn't posted, so I wrote it again.

Methuselah said...

Bryce - no problem - I was using my phone to publish comments so I didn't really notice - but let's leave them both up as together they offer a little more insight than one alone!

Man of the Spear.

michael plunkett said...

Taking extra fish oil is the best thing anyone can do. PERIOD. Modern diets no matter how Primal, no matter how well grass fed or how caught wild they can be can't duplicate the quality our primal cousins enjoyed. Take a quality supplement.

Paleo pales compared to the Primal appraoach.

Methuselah said...

Michael - in your view is it the quality of the omega 3 fats in modern wild food that is lacking or the quantity? I eat so many sardines, herring and mackerel that it would seem pointless supplementing, especially given my omega 6 consumption is relatively low and therefore the ratio is probably favourable. So the only way I can see supplementation being of benefit is if there is something about the quality of the omega 3 fat I am getting through the fish that is inferior to that which I can get from supplementation...

Aaron Blaisdell said...

Very nice review. I read the book when it was first released and bought a copy for my Mom's birthday. One point of difference I have with the paleo community is that I enjoy quite a bit of dairy. I have never had problems with digesting milk, but since becoming more familiar with the Weston A Price Foundation I have switched to raw milk. I actually don't drink a lot of raw milk, but eat raw-milk cheese every day, twice a day. I also drink goat-milk kefir and yogurt every day. As I said, I tolerate dairy well and believe the protein, fat, and probiotics in the fermented dairy are all very beneficial to me. I feel like a million bucks eating this stuff and my GI tract is very quiescent since giving up grains and increasing my consumption of raw milk and fermented dairy. I think my point is that there is no one-size-fits-all to paleo / primal approaches and that it is best to listen to your own body and act accordingly.

Methuselah said...

Hi Aaron - I agree. I tend to regard the Paleo / Primal approach as the lowest common denominator - the safe bet, if you like. Yet having read about the insidious effects of grains, I tend to err on the side of caution and assume that there are not necessarily outward symtoms of inward effects. So whilst I accept that individuals have been differentially endowed with the capacity to tolerate certain food types, for me it's the 'how can I be sure' factor that is the problem...

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading TPB. I started the primal diet a couple of months back after my girlfriend convinced me that it would help my bipolar symptoms. Wow, was she right! I’m a believer in the primal way of life. It’s not a diet or a passing fad–it’s a life-change that makes so much sense for me. Along the path of learning about the primal way, I learned that depression is an inflammatory disorder. What causes inflammation in our bodies? Carbohydrates, of course! I was poisoning myself with every piece of bread or bowl of cereal; it made no difference that they were whole grains. Eating right isn’t the only change I made. Routine exercise, meditation and regular sleep patterns have become the norm making insomnia, fatigue and stress a thing of the past. This book really does offer the tools one needs to change your life! I highly recommend it!

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