Summary of “The Primal Blueprint”: “For millions of years, our body and our genes have been shaped by a hunter-gatherer lifestyle: imitating the main components of this lifestyle, in the modern world, can achieve a very good level of health, both physical and mental.”
By Mark Sisson, Thierry Souccar Editions, 2012, 278 pages
Note: This review is a guest review written by Guillaume from the blog, Children’s Health and Environment.
Chronicle and summary of “The Primal Blueprint”:
Mark Sisson is a biologist and former marathon champion. He hosts Mark’s daily apple, one of the most widely read health blogs in the United States. The Primal Blueprint is an international bestseller, translated into a dozen languages.
The emergence of agriculture and civilization about 10,000 years ago is the most important lifestyle change in the history of mankind. In this new lifestyle, human beings have not been particularly exposed to the main “pressures” linked to natural selection: the risk of dying of hunger and the risk of being killed by a predator. Thus, the mechanisms of evolution have practically ceased. As a result, many researchers claim that we are almost genetically identical to our primitive ancestors: the behaviors propitious to the expression of our genes, and therefore to our full health, have remained unchanged for 10,000 years, that is to say, since the end of the Paleolithic period.
To be healthy, the challenge is to imitate the main features of the lifestyle of our ancestors in the modern world. These characteristics are formalized by the ten laws of the Primal Blueprint proposed by Mark Sisson. In addition to these laws, the content of which will be described in the following paragraphs, asking regularly the question “What would our ancestors do in this situation?“helps to adopt behaviors, in today’s world, consistent with those which have shaped our genes for millions of years.
The Primal Blueprint Law No. 1: Eat Food of Animal and Plant Origin
Plants and animals were the only sources of food for our ancestors. They make it possible to obtain all the macros and micronutrients necessary for the proper functioning of our body: proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, fibers, phenols, etc.
The existing Paleolithic diets were wide-ranging. Their composition adapted to the specific features of the different environments on the planet: climate, geography, seasons, local wildlife, etc. There is no single diet superior to all others: inside the Primal Blueprint, your personal preferences and the specifics features of your body will guide your food choices.
In the Paleolithic, food was not continuously available: our ancestors ate sporadically. Therefore, our body is well suited for storing calories – in the form of fat in adipose tissue, glycogen in the liver, and local reserves in the muscles – and for burning them when food is scarce.
These features can be imitated in today’s world, relying on the following principles:
- Focusing on quality animal protein: locally sourced meat, fish, and organic eggs from animals fed based on their natural needs: for example, meat from a grass-fed ruminant will be preferred, when possible, over meat from a ruminant fed on grain.
- Prioritizing fruits and vegetables that are fresh and colorful.
- Selecting sources of healthy lipids: animal fat, avocado, butter, coconut, nuts and seeds, olives and olive oil.
In contrast, here is a list of classic recommendations that are not consistent with the context of evolutionary biology:
- Eating at specific times. For example: three times a day.
- Combining different types of foods during meals.
- Structuring meals according to pre-scheduled phases.
- Eating foods that are assumed to match our blood type.
- Attempting to consume specific amounts of macronutrients.
If they are contrary to human nature, diets that are too strict are almost impossible to appreciate (and even to stick to!) in the long run. Humans develop from natural and varied foods that feed them and give them satisfaction. The quantities and times of food intake vary according to our personal preferences, the environment, our level of activity, our level of stress, etc.
Food must be one of life’s pleasures: eat when you are hungry and stop when you feel full. Paleo foods are inherently the most delicious because they meet the needs of your body.
All laws are important, but Law No. 1 is probably the most important of all: 80% of your health is determined by what you eat.
The Primal Blueprint Law No. 2: Avoid Harmful Foods
Primitive men developed a keen sense of smell and taste to avoid poisonous plants, which they frequently encountered when settling in and exploring new areas. For example, our penchant for sugar is probably a product of evolution, because a sweet taste almost always corresponds to a food that is safe.
Today, there are few toxic plants in our daily environment. On the other hand, the number of toxic agents in food has never been higher: refined sugar, processed fats, grown grain (wheat, rice, corn, etc.) and their by-products (pasta, bread, chips, pastries, etc.).At the scale of evolution, all these products have emerged too recently for our bodies to have the time to adapt to them. Thus, they generate a whole array of problems and affect our health.
Compared to ancestral diets, the standard western diet is much richer in fast-acting carbohydrates– that is to say, carbs that break down quickly into simple sugars in the blood. In this context of abundant carbohydrates, the body has almost no need to mobilize stored energy in the form of fats. Over time, it loses this ability to mobilize: when our blood sugar drops, our body makes us feel the need to eat carbohydrate-rich foods again, rather than burning naturally existing fats.
More generally, a diet far removed from our ancestral needs is one of the main causes of the emergence and growth of “civilization diseases”: type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, a large number of cancers, etc.
The Primal Blueprint Law No. 3: Move Often at a Slow Pace
Our ancestors spent several hours a day moving. This behavior corresponds to a regular physical exercise of low level of intensity. Today, our body still needs this type of physical activity. We are born to walk, mainly, and to run from time to time, to catch prey or flee from danger. Today, the majority of people are far too sedentary. In contrast, some people engage in sports activities that are too long or too intense. Both can have health implications.
Our body enjoys frequent and slow-moving movements: walking, hiking, recreational biking, low-intensity swimming, or any other light aerobic activity, where the heart rate is moderately high (typically between 50% and 75% of maximum potential). This low-intensity physical activity performed for a minimum of two to five hours per week. That said, the more you can do it, without giving in to the temptation of raising the intensity of the exercise, the better it is.
If possible, introduce barefoot walking into this physical activity. This will reinforce your balance, your flexibility and the robustness of your lower limbs.
The Primal Blueprint Law No. 4: Lift Heavy Objects
The life of our ancestors frequently required sessions of intense physical effort: bringing back to the campsite various heavy objects – wood and rocks to build a shelter, carcasses of hunted game, etc. – climbing trees and rocks to explore the surroundings, digging the soil and handling materials to build shelter, etc.
This type of effort can be imitated in our modern world, thanks to a training program composed of natural movements mobilizing the whole body: push-ups, pull-ups, core strength exercises, etc. This program could take the form of fairly brief, intense, and relatively regular sessions – typically 20 to 30 minutes, 2-3 times a week.
The Primal Blueprint Law No. 5: Sprint Once in a While
Danger constantly threatened our ancestors; They had to be able to flee quickly and at any time. A quick burst of speed was also an asset for successful hunting. Consequently, the ability to run fast was an essential element for survival.
This type of effort can be imitated in the modern world, through occasional sprints. Every 7 to 10 days, when your energy level is high, do a few sprints at your maximum speed.
The Primal Blueprint Law No. 6: Sleep Adequately
The sunrise and sunset gave rhythm to the activity and sleep of our ancestors. The days started early, and once the sun was down, regrouping and resting was the safest. In addition, the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers was very active: it demanded from them proper rest periods.
According to researchers specialized in sleep, evolution has provided humans with two phases of sleep:
- A nocturnal phase, the most important (in length and restorative capacity), was probably interrupted in our ancestors in order to resolve family problems or to respond to dangers.
- A diurnal phase, in the middle of the day. This second phase could be explained by the fact that Homo sapiens come from the Great Lakes region of East Africa, where temperatures are very high in the middle of the day.
The modern lifestyle being more condensed and more stressful than at any other time in history largely neglects the need for sleep and rest. The factors most responsible for this are:
- Excessive artificial light and digital stimulation in the evening.
- Food toxins, including sugar, alcohol and drugs.
It is important to reduce exposure to artificial light after dark, to create a calm transition to bedtime and to get enough sleep. Sleeping enough means you wake up on your own (without an alarm, ideally), fresh, full of energy, and clear-minded. Go to bed at the same time every night, if possible. Avoid the TV, computer, intense physical effort, and heavy meals before going to sleep.
Practice napping in the early afternoon and, more generally, when you feel a drop in energy. 20 minutes is enough to get significant benefits.
The Primal Blueprint Law No. 7: Play
For several hours each day, our ancestors engaged in various forms of social interaction other than their main “activity” – finding food, building shelters, caring for children. Most often, current hunter-gatherer populations work weekly well below the typical 40 hours (Note: Mark Sisson lives in the United States) and spend more time on leisure activities. Many abilities can be honed through leisure time: creativity, teamwork, adaptation, resilience, productivity, sense of humor, taking a step back from adversity, and so on.
Too much work is mind-numbing, but the opposite is not ideal either. Balance is important in all areas of life and depends on each one. It’s up to you to find the right amount of work and play. Bear in mind this popular proverb: “No one ever said on their deathbed ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’.“.
Once our ancestors had hunted or gathered their daily food ration (meat, roots, sprouts, nuts, and berries), they had time to play. This playtime helped to strengthen family ties, to relax the regular stresses to which they were subjected, and to prepare them for the physical challenges of everyday life. Take time every day to unplug from work and routine tasks and play randomly: have fun. This will allow you to offset the over-stimulation of the modern lifestyle. If you have children, show them that playing is a lifelong thing.
The Primal Blueprint Law No. 8: Get Adequate Sunlight
“Cavemen” (and “cavewomen”) spent most of their days outside their caves, engaging in survival or leisure activities. Regular sun exposure, over large areas of skin, is an essential element for good health. For example, this exposure makes it possible to produce a large amount of vitamin D, which is an essential vitamin for the cells to function properly. Food alone cannot provide enough vitamin D. The body can store vitamin D in the summer and use it in the winter. Light also has a powerful effect on mood.
As a general rule, the modern lifestyle involves spending a good part of the day in confined spaces. Moreover, we have become obsessed with protecting ourselves against sun rays.
Sunburns are obviously not advised, but having a light tan all year round indicates that you have a sufficient amount of vitamin D(Note: Mark Sisson lives in California).
The Primal Blueprint Law No. 9: Avoid Stupid Mistakes
For our ancestors, acute observation skills and a cautious attitude were two essential elements for survival. They constantly scanned, smelled, and listened to their environment, looking for potential risks. Hypervigilance and risk management were qualities perfected day after day since childhood. The slightest mistake could have dramatic consequences.
Today, our security is often provided by external organizations and systems. Often, by “delegating” this skill, we have become less vigilant and less cautious, which can lead to avoidable accidents. Devote a little more attention and energy to risk management in your daily life, and you will enjoy a long life without needless suffering.
The Primal Blueprint Law No. 10: Use Your Brain
Man’s intellectual capacity is one of the elements that differentiate us from animals. The rapid increase in the size of our brain, over a few thousand generations, results from an evolution in diet – meat consumption in particular – and from the use of complex thinking. Hunter-gatherers around the world developed languages, tools, and effective hunting methods, independent from one another.
Many people have a job that does not fulfill them, especially because it does not stimulate them intellectually.
Numerous studies identify curiosity as one of the most significant indicators of intelligence: the possibilities for intellectual stimulation are a great many in our daily lives.
Set personal challenges that call upon your intellectual abilities. For example: learning a new language, playing a musical instrument, mastering a new discipline, taking evening classes, etc. Staying active intellectually (and physically) can reduce the risk of developing serious mental illnesses such as dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.
These 10 laws identify the main behaviors that have shaped our genes for millions of years (with the exception of sex) and play a vital role in our health and well-being. Our genes are adapted to a hunter-gatherer existence because this is the existence that our ancestors lived for the vast majority of their time on Earth. Imitating the lifestyle of our ancestors helps to protect and treat many “civilization diseases”, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, most cancers, chronic fatigue, etc. These diseases are not contained in our genes: on the contrary, they result from the fact that our life is not consistent with what our genes need. The secret lies in the ability to adopt lifestyle habits in the modern world that allow genes to express themselves harmoniously.
These laws should be respected 100% at the time. However, with this principle in mind, you must know that:
- The context of modern life will subject you to competing demands that are not consistent with the Primal Blueprint.
- A perfectionist approach can compromise the sustainability of new behaviors adopted.
Do not look for perfection at all costs. The pleasure of living must remain your principle driver. If you stick to the Primal Blueprint 80% of the time, you will have much success. This success will probably encourage you to continue on this path, increasingly easy over time. The legendary basketball coach John Wooden said that “Perfection is an impossibility. However, striving for perfection is not an impossibility. Do the best you can under the conditions that exist. That is what counts.”.
Some people are looking to lose weight. The Primal Blueprint allows us to obtain a slim and athletic build, but its goal is above all health. As part of a paleo-style approach, a good figure is the logical consequence of a healthy body.
The laws of the Primal Blueprint are simple and intuitive. They differ from widely held beliefs that you usually have to fight and suffer to be healthy. On the contrary, the implementation of these laws is accompanied by pleasure and increases one’s joy of living.
As a general rule, adopting the Primal Blueprint Laws produces significant results in a matter of days, not in a matter of weeks or months. It’s up to you to take action!
Book critique of “The Primal Blueprint”, by Guillaume from the Blog, Children’s Health and Environment:
The principle of preventive medicine, based on the laws of evolution, seems to me to be all at once exciting, promising and revolutionary. When I discovered evolutionary medicine, my overall level of health wasn’t that good. Putting these “laws” into practice has done a lot of good for me. Most of the disorders that I suffered from, and for which classic allopathic medicine proved powerless, have either disappeared or been significantly reduced: the principles of the Paleo lifestyle have, in practice, changed my daily life.
I have observed around me, in scientific publications and in the many testimonials available on the Internet, that these principles have helped and relieved many other people as well. In my opinion, it’s in everyone’s interest to try it for a while (a period of 30 days is typically suggested) and to observe the effects on their own health. One of Olivier’s recurring tips seems to apply here: let’s be skeptics… but good skeptics; let’s test ourselves, proactively, and learn lessons tailored to our specific situations!
The Paleo movement
Mark Sisson adopted principles that previously were mainly applied to nutrition and physical exercise; he broadened their scope of application, ultimately creating a unique lifestyle. This lifestyle provides some of the keys to imitate the lifestyle of our ancestors, in the modern world, with a goal of health and general well-being. For those interested: Mark Sisson transposed the Primal Blueprint to other areas (social relations, parenthood, contact with nature, etc.), in his second book, The Primal Connection (not translated into French to date).
Nevertheless, in my opinion, the argument about the end to pressures linked to natural selection is rather weak. Critics of the Paleo movement point out that other types of pressure have emerged over the last 10,000 years, such as the consumption of milk and grain, and that the ability to develop genetic mutations is rather quick. It seems to me that this argument is valid at the individual level; and that it is especially the propagation speed of a mutation at the species level (several hundreds of thousands of years); which explains our genetic proximity with our ancestors.
The Paleo movement is booming, especially in the United States. And, as in all great movements, several “prep-schools” have appeared. The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson is the only one translated into French to date; which does not reflect the richness of the different current approaches.
Low Carb / High Fat
In terms of diet, Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint is part of the “Low Carb / High Fat”; approach of the ancestral diet, i.e., an approach that favors a diet low in carbohydrates and rich in (good) fats. Many scientific publications show that this type of diet can be very useful when you have a chronic disease. However, in routine diet, once this curative period has passed; the “Low Carb / High Fat” diet is not suitable for everyone. Each body has its specifics, to which an optimal diet corresponds, to be discovered by one’s own experience. In my opinion, this aspect is not sufficiently emphasized in the book; Mark Sisson implies that his recommendations are appropriate for everyone.
In my blog, I discuss the link between children’s health and the environment. Imitating the ancestral lifestyle in our modern world, the basis of the Primal Blueprint, is an essential part of my analysis. In this context, my blog aims to provide practical advice for:
- Protecting children from a polluted environment.
- Helping them enjoy the benefits of a natural environment.
Looking forward to future exchanges on the blog!
- Exciting and very motivating.
- Full of information and quality references.
- Integrates different kinds of information into a coherent system.
- Disregards a little too quickly criticisms about the costs of Paleo-type food.
- The author’s ego, which some readers will find oversized.
My rating :
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