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Sep. 1 2009 - 10:34 am | 278 views | 4 recommendations | 5 comments

A prehistoric paradigm: Q&A with Mark Sisson

Mark_Sisson-1Mark Sisson’s been an athlete his entire life: at twelve, he says he was holding solo track meets in his backyard, complete with bamboo pole vaulting and laps around the block.  But fast forward a few decades, and Sisson, 56, has undergone a health transformation that’s landed him squarely in the spotlight: since the early 90’s, he’s been a renowned advocate of Paleolithic living. Sisson has become the go-to voice for the lifestyle, as the author of The Primal Blueprint and the creator of Mark’s Daily Apple, a blog with page views that hit 3 million in August.

In a prehistoric nutshell, Paleolithic eating imitates the diet of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers, who sustained themselves on wild game, plants, nuts, seeds and so on. In other words: nothing refined, nothing processed, and nothing packaged. What underlies the diet is evolutionary biology: according to advocates like Sisson, we weren’t designed to dine on much of what comprises the contemporary western diet. The result? Obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and the other ailments plaguing our nation with ever-growing frequency.

But Sisson’s ideology extends beyond food. He wants Americans to go primal: a Paleo diet, along with an exercise regime that emphasizes strength and endurance over endless cardio sessions, more sleep, more play, more sun and less stress. According to him, it’s by moving backward in time that we’ll move forward with our health. Of course, not everyone agrees. Debate continues over the evolutionary basis of Paleolithic eating, and the American Dietetic Association has labeled it “a fad diet”.

So far, clinical studies have been small and inconclusive, but one need only look to Sisson to wonder whether he might be onto something. The former marathoner made it to the 1980 Olympic trials before dropping out due to injury, and went on to compete in triathlons until 1988. Plagued by injuries, his research gradually led him to his Primal paradigm.

As many readers of the blog probably know, I’ve been vegan since I was 12, and often embark on those lengthy cardio sessions that Sisson maligns. With so little in common, I thought it was time to get to know a little more about a very different Extreme Self.

Before we talk diet, I wanted to ask about the bigger picture of the Primal lifestyle. More sleep and leisure time sound great, but isn’t it easier said than done, given the pace most of us live at?

Actually, that’s the best part: once people give it a try, they see that they can do it easily for the rest of their lives. When all the science and the debate is put away, you get to the real crux of it. We’re allowing people to look forward to 20, 40, 50 years of taking ownership of their own health.

That’s the irony of it. Technology gives us all these options that we “should” be taking and doing. Facebooking, Twittering, surfing the ‘net, seeing some new video. We’re inundated with new toys and activities. But realize that you don’t need to partake. Strip it down, and you’ll find the time to sleep and play and so on. Life’s better that way.

I’m training for my first triathlon right now, and I know a lot of people who are huge advocates of the benefits of endurance sports. Not to mention the thousands of very successful athletes out there. What’s so wrong with that kind of fitness?

I did triathlons for years. But my shift away was forced, because I was so plagued by injuries. I thought it would kill me to stop, but I literally dropped out of a race and moved on. Human beings weren’t designed to do triathlons. Sure, they can do them. If you trained Primal – strength training with weights, slow endurance movement – you could do a triathlon, without adapting and forcing your body to do one.

I really think that everyone on the treadmill, everyone training for marathons or triathlons, deep down, they don’t really want to be doing it. But they think it’s the healthiest thing, or that they have to do it. Or they like the sense of accomplishment. Trust me, I get that, I’ve been there. And those Saturdays spent on three-hour bike rides and 10-mile runs were better spent at home, playing soccer with my son.

Most Americans are looking to get healthier, but they want a quick-fix or an easy way to lose weight or prevent illness. Can Primal living be that for people? Or is it an all-or-nothing approach that takes full-on commitment? What about Christmas cookies?

If you commit 80 percent, then we say don’t beat yourself up. But remember that you are literally reprogramming your genes: from a sugar burning monster to a fat burning organism. Right now, we’re doing a thirty-day primal challenge on our site. And trust me, if someone were to dedicate themselves to those thirty days, and then they sat down to a piece of pie, they’d notice. Wow, it’s uncomfortable.

So, we know you’re not big on the triathlons. What about veganism? Can I be a vegan primal?

Where do you get most of your protein now?

Soy, legumes, nuts, seeds…

I don’t want you to be offended, but I’ll be honest. I would say that what you’re eating isn’t what humans are adapted to – especially soy. I’m not a fan of legumes, either. The lectins in them can cause digestive problems.

A vegan primal? Probably impossible. You just wouldn’t get enough protein. But you can live the rest of the lifestyle, sure, and benefits accrue from that. But the diet won’t work. That said, triathlons are a non-Primal activity, because to do them you need a lot of calories and a lot of carbohydrate. So, there’s an argument that vegan diet will work well for a triathlete. But not for what I’m after.

So where do considerations of ethics and sustainability factor into the Primal lifestyle? What about the environmental impact of this kind of diet?

I often liken this to the debate over global warming. Some scientists are convinced that it’s human factors, and others are sure that this is just the earth going through natural stages and cycles. Compare that to vegan diets and Primal diets. A vegan diet that relies on massive crops is wholly unsustainable, relative to the concept of feeding ruminants on grass.

Maybe, but aren’t grass-fed animals the exception to the rule, and don’t a lot of communities subsist on grain diets?

I want to cycle grasses for feed, and eliminate grain crops altogether. Unfortunately, we’re so far removed from this idea of sustainability right now. It’s so ironic that the Gates Foundation is shipping grains to starving nations, and these people will then grow up to be sick, unproductive, plagued with chronic health problems.

You’ve certainly got one strong opinion after another, and a lot to say that goes beyond just a Primal how-to! What’s next for you?

It’s become clear to me, as the site has grown and we’ve built this community with Mark’s Daily Apple, that this will be my life’s work. I want to keep paring down the science, so that people can take ownership of their health without being experts. Because even if they don’t, nobody is going to do it for them.

Whether you agree with him or not, Sisson’s got a lot to say. For more info on the lifestyle, check out his website. Ask questions, do some research, join the dialogue. I’ve got a lot more questions for Sisson myself – so I have a feeling this isn’t the last time you’ll hear about him on The Extreme Self.


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  1. collapse expand

    A vegan diet unsustainable? The largest non-CO2 greenhouse gas is methane and animal agriculture produces more than 100 million tons of methane a year. Raising animals poses a large impact on deforestation, land degradation, air pollution, water pollution, and bio diversity loss (by large impact I mean worldwide scale). Water used to produce 1 pound of wheat is 25 gallons and the amount of water to produce the same amount of meat is 2,500 gallons. & a vegan diet is unsustainable? Alright.

  2. collapse expand

    Erik. I totally agree with you that as it stands now, animal agriculture is wholly unsustainable, and absolutely so when compared to veganism. I think Mark’s point was that he wants to eliminate grain-fed animal agriculture and revert to pastoral, grass-fed systems. My biggest objection to this is simply that’s utopian and entirely unrealistic. Then again, maybe global veganism is too. It’s a tough question.

  3. collapse expand

    What about the role of fermentation in enhancing the nutrient quality of the paleolithic diet. That has to be up there with the wheel and making fire in enhancing the otherwise short and brutish lives of hunter gatherers. Imagine life without a cold beer to wash down that tofu stir fry after a tough day chasing buffalo over a cliff.

  4. collapse expand

    John: I’ll have to ask my next Paleo interview subject about fermentation. Good question! And yes, agreed, I’m not sure what my dish of choice would be, post-buffalo hunt, if it weren’t tofu and booze! Great minds think alike.

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    About Me

    I'm a full-time heath & science writer at Sphere and a contributing editor at True/Slant. I also contribute military health news to Danger Room at Wired.com, and have recently written for Marie Claire, World Politics Review and Next American City.

    My first foray into journalism came in middle school - at a French-speaking plaid-kilt-wearing educational institute somewhere in the Canadian tundra. It was there that I decided to start my own newspaper, to disseminate my sarcasm and attitude problem among my peers. We lasted three issues.

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