Going Primal with Dana Carpender

Going Primal with Dana Carpender

When I started low carbing in 1995, low fat/high carb mania was still in full swing. Snackwells were selling like crazy, pasta salad and bagels were still “healthy,” and I was clearly nuts. (Well, that had been clear for quite a while, but for other reasons.) Even I was worried I might keel over dead in the first six weeks.

I didn’t, of course. But that’s not my point. What I’m getting at is that when I started eating this way, there were no low-carb specialty foods. You could get sugar-free Jello and pudding mix, Sweet and Low and Equal, most fancy chocolate shops had a few sugar-free chocolates, and that was about it. Those few of us who were, shall we say, early adaptors were compelled to eat real food – meat, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, butter and cream, vegetables and low-sugar fruits, nuts and seeds. No low carb chips, no soy bake mix, no low carb bread, none of that stuff.

As the word spread about low carb, and as more and more people tried it, the market was flooded with products, some good, some bad, some in-between. In a way the products were – and are – great; if knowing you can have an occasional reduced carb tortilla chip, bowl of granola or grilled cheese sandwich is what it takes to make you comfortable with knowing you’re eating this way for life, then the existence of low carb products is a boon.

On the other hand, during the Atkins Boom of 2003, when the grocery stores were flooded with everything from “low carb” Special K to nasty soy pasta, way too many people were “going low carb” not by changing the fundamentals of their diet, but by continuing to live on processed, packaged junk, just “low carb” processed, packaged junk – a soy muffin for breakfast, a sandwich on low carb bread for lunch, Dreamfield’s pasta for dinner, Atkins bars for snacks, you get the picture. It was around this time that I started reading a fair number of reports from people for whom low carb had failed either to create weight loss or improve health.

Turns out that the value of a low-carb lifestyle lies not solely in the macronutrient balance – carbs/protein/fat – but also in the elimination of various “foods of civilization,” substances that are relatively novel in the human diet. Many of these are toxic in ways that have little or nothing to do with their carb content. Among the ones that appear most damaging are wheat, soy, and most vegetable oils, but anything that only appeared in the human diet with the advent of agriculture is suspect. This is why low-carb tortillas have gone from a staple in my house to a “now and then” thing – I trust neither the wheat nor the soy in them, regardless of the carb count.

As a result, the world of low carb is rapidly approaching and merging with a separate but related nutritional movement, the paleo or primal diet. The point of a paleo or primal diet is to eat as close as is reasonably possible to the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who, we are pretty darned certain, did not have soy cereal, chips, or pasta, nor bread of any kind. There is quite a lot of discussion on paleo/primal blogs and discussion boards about what the best primal diet is – whether, for instance, it includes dairy because as a mammal mankind is at least reasonably well-suited for milk proteins and fats, or whether dairy should be excluded because herding came after hunting and gathering.

One of the best and most popular writers on not only primal diets but primal fitness, in general, is a fellow named Mark Sisson. A retired competitive athlete, Sisson used to run miles and miles every week, carb load, and in general do everything according to the conventional wisdom. He also injured himself often, and despite being far more fit than the general run of humankind, was frequently tired and even ill.

Mark Sisson from MarksDailyApple.com
Mark Sisson from MarksDailyApple.com

Then Sisson went primal. He now eats per his appetite, but only of primal foods. He works out far less than he used to, yet is in far better shape. (It’s hard to see how he could be in better shape – We’re talking serious eye candy at the age of 57.)

Sisson has become one of the best and most trusted writers on primal fitness. I’ve recently been reading his first book, The Primal Blueprint, and it’s wonderful. There are ten simple rules that sum up the Primal Blueprint approach:

Steps to Going Primal

  1. Eat lots of plants and animals
  2. Avoid poisonous things
  3. Move frequently at a slow pace
  4. Lift heavy things
  5. Sprint once in a while
  6. Get adequate sleep
  7. Play
  8. Get adequate sunlight
  9. Avoid stupid mistakes
  10. Use your brain.

Pretty cool, huh? The basic jist here is a diet based on animal protein and fats, with plenty of salads and low sugar fruit (Sisson does recommend going easy on the higher-carb fruits), avoiding “foods” like grains and legumes that include lots of natural toxins, not to mention avoiding frankly deleterious things like sugar. (Sisson is anti-artificial sweetener, and I understand why. He advocates limiting all sweeteners sharply, and I agree, but this girl is carb intolerant enough that I’d rather use a little Splenda than a little honey, even if honey is primal. I could eliminate sweeteners altogether. I just don’t want to.)

Get the kinds of exercise a hunter-gatherer would – lots of walking – not power walking, just walking around – hiking, dancing, stuff like that, plus lifting and carrying, and the occasional sprint to get away from something dangerous or kill something tasty.

Until the invention of artificial light, getting enough sleep wasn’t a problem; people slept from shortly after sunset to sunrise. Now we let artificial light and the lures of television and the computer cut into our sleep to a disastrous degree. Sisson also points out that artificial light can mess with the brain’s release of melatonin, the sleep hormone; I’ve learned to wear blue-blocking sunglasses while I read in bed at night.

As for play, it may come as a surprise to you to hear that the best estimates say that the average member of a hunter-gatherer society spent a big 10-15 hours per week obtaining food and other necessities. Other than that, they hung out, played, made little hunter-gatherers. Not only do we work too hard, all in the interests of supporting our stuff, we’ve become a driven society, where even leisure activities are supposed to be a form of self-improvement, and where, thanks to the electronic leash we call the cell phone, no one is ever completely off-duty.

I trust not doing stupid things (like driving drunk, or standing in high open places in thunderstorms) and using your brain are self-explanatory?

The Primal Blueprint

The Primal Blueprint is a comprehensive approach to producing excellent health and fitness, and it makes every kind of sense. Highly recommended.

Which leads us to The Primal Blueprint Cookbook. Omigosh. As a best-selling cookbook “arthur” myself, I am agog with admiration. If I weren’t in recipe development at the moment myself, I’d be cooking my way through this book. Just the titles of the recipes will make you drool:

  • Shrimp Cakes with Spinach Slaw and Coconut Almond Dressing
  • Peachy Chicken Salad
  • Five-Spice Beef and Broccoli Stir Fry
  • Bison Chili
  • Braised Duck with Bok Choy
  • Brussels Sprouts With Browned Butter and Hazelnuts

Are you hungry yet?

Another valuable feature of this cookbook is the inclusion of recipes for offal – all the stuff other than muscle meats that our ancestors prized, but modern Americans have decided are “icky.” I’m all ready to try the recipe for marrow. I grew up digging the marrow out of my lamb chop bones, so I never learned that marrow is icky – I always knew it was basically meat-flavored butter, yum!

I also love chicken livers, and look forward to trying the recipe for chopped liver. (If we had a genuine Jewish deli here in town, I’d buy the stuff. I love chopped liver.)

If you’re intrigued, I very much recommend you check out Mark Sisson’s blog, Mark’s Daily Apple. I read it quite often myself, and subscribe to Mark’s daily email updates.

I also will be incorporating Mark’s fitness suggestions into my workouts. I’ve started a new blog at mytotalgymtransformation.com, where I’m documenting my Slow Burn-style workout program on the popular machine the Total Gym. I’ll be adding some sprints and a lot of moving around slowing to the plan, and we’ll see how it goes. (In the meanwhile, you can go there and look at embarrassing, unflattering pictures of me in my old gym suit. Or not.) Stay tuned to see where it all gets me!

© Dana Carpender. Used by permission of the primal author. What do you think? Please send Dana your comments to Dana Carpender.

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