Sunday, July 14, 2024

What Is a Primal Diet?

Portrait of a young woman having a meal with friends outdoors.The Primal Blueprint, and the book of the same name, offers a framework for achieving your personal best health, vitality, and longevity. It is organized into 10 Primal Laws derived from anthropology, sociology, biology, psychology, and common sense. These laws describe the diet, movement, and lifestyle practices that lead to optimal gene expression—the practices that have allowed humans to thrive for hundreds of thousands of years, but which many people struggle to achieve in the modern world. 

Today we will talk about the two Primal Laws that describe how to eat according to the Primal Blueprint.  

What Is a Primal Diet?

A Primal diet is not a “diet” in the way the word is commonly used. It’s not a rigid set of rules centered around caloric restriction or “allowed” foods, usually prescribed for the express purpose of weight loss. Instead, a Primal diet honors, approximates, and emulates the spirit of the dietary environment available to humans for most of our history. 

To eat according to the Primal Blueprint means choosing foods that provide the body with all the building blocks it needs to function (amino acids, fatty acids, nutrients, and more) while avoiding foods, and modern “frankenfoods,” that erode your health. It means giving your body all the energy it needs to be strong, active, and well. 

In answer to the hugely contentious question of which diet—plant-based, vegan, carnivore, Mediterranean, “everything in moderation”—is best, the Primal Blueprint puts forth a simple answer: The best diet for humans is one comprising the foods that humans are designed to eat. 

Primal Diet: Ancestral Eating in the Modern World

Despite what you might have heard about Primal, paleo, and the more general ancestral health movement, the goal isn’t to get you to eat “like a caveman.” For one thing, many of the foods that were around millennia ago have been changed by natural evolution and human agriculture. Furthermore, the foods your far-back ancestors ate depended entirely on the geographic location from which they hailed. 

The environments in which we eat are also different. Food has never been more abundant and easier to procure. We are more stressed, more rushed, and more sedentary. We are less exposed to dirt and the accompanying microbes that populate the gastrointestinal tract. 

In short, the idea isn’t that we should be eating exactly like our ancestors did. The Primal Blueprint takes lessons from human history and modern science to decide what, when, why, and how (much) to eat—and, importantly, what to avoid.  Primal Laws #1 and #2 cover the what and the why. The how and when are discussed extensively here on the blog; I’ll provide an overview in this post.  

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The Primal Blueprint Diet Laws

The 10 Primal Laws start with diet—what to eat and what to avoid. That’s because of all the environmental inputs we can leverage for proper gene expression, diet arguably has the biggest impact in the shortest time. 

Primal Law #1: Eat lots of animals, insects, and plants.

This is the basic description of everything our ancestors ate to get the protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phenols, fiber, water, and other nutrients necessary to sustain life, build strong muscles, expend lots of energy each day moving about,  maintain healthy immune systems, evolve larger brains, and raise healthy children. 

Array of green vegetables, eggs, cheese, salmon, red meat, avocado.As you can see, this law leaves plenty of room for you to structure your diet according to your personal tastes, preferences, and needs. Perhaps you prefer to eat relatively more plants than animals, or vice versa. You might be a gourmand who takes great pleasure in creating elaborate dishes and trying new foods, or maybe you’re content to repeat a few simple meals over and over. As long as you prioritize close-to-nature foods from these broad categories, you’re headed in the right direction. 

Read more about Law #1 and get specifics about what to eat according to the Primal Blueprint here.

Primal Law #2: Avoid poisonous things.

Humans’ ability to exploit almost every corner of this earth was partly predicated on their ability to consume vastly different types of plant and animal life. Exploring a new environment and trying new foods posed a danger: the new food might contain potent toxins. 

Large bottles of oil on grocery store shelf.You probably don’t have to fear food-borne illness anymore, aside from an occasional bout with non-lethal food poisoning. Instead, we contend with ubiquitous modern foods that undermine our health more slowly and more insidiously. Whereas our ancestors’ keen senses of smell and taste helped sort out the good from the bad, our ability to distinguish good from bad is now thwarted by food manufacturing and clever marketing.

Read more about Law #2 here.

Other Considerations for Primal Eating

Understanding what to eat is only half the battle. You still have to translate that knowledge into action. Here are some other factors that come into play.

Macronutrient intake

Protein: Protein takes priority. The amino acids in protein don’t just go toward making muscle. They’re necessary for all structures in the body, for making hormones and neurotransmitters, and for facilitating enzymatic reactions. Protein is also highly satiating, quelling excessive hunger and the urge to snack around the clock. Most people probably aren’t eating nearly enough protein, especially as they get on in years. 

Carbohydrates: Primal is a “low-carb diet” in comparison to the Standard American Diet, and similar ilks, in which grains and sugars run rampant. A primary goal of the Primal Blueprint is for you to become fat-adapted, so fat becomes a primary fuel instead of glucose (sugar). That doesn’t mean Primal is anti-carb. Carbs are fuel, but excessive carb intake leads to chronically high insulin and the health consequences you can expect as a result. Limit your carb intake to nutrient-dense varieties and only in the amount that you need to provide glucose to the brain and fuel your activities. (Hint: it’s less than you probably think.) 

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The Primal Blueprint Carbohydrate Curve lays out reasonable targets for carb intake.  

Fats: Learn to love them. Fats are the fuel of choice in the Primal Blueprint. Beside providing energy, they are necessary for certain crucial metabolic functions and have little to no impact on insulin. On a Primal eating style, the plurality of your calories will likely come from healthy fats

What about calories?

Most popular diets look at overall calories as the main factor in weight loss, weight gain, and, by implication, overall health. They don’t care about where those calories come from. Despite that age-old Conventional Wisdom mantra that “a calorie is a calorie,” for reasons I explain in depth elsewhere, a calorie is not a calorie. The different macronutrients we eat have different effects in the body, and diets that focus only on calorie restriction miss the point of eating to be healthy, not just skinny.

That doesn’t mean that calories don’t matter. They do. Or rather, it’s important not to intake a lot more energy than you expend over the course of weeks, months, and years. Energy excess is a catalyst for many downstream health issues. I just don’t think calorie counting is the answer for most people.

That’s why the Primal Blueprint doesn’t prescribe specific calorie intakes. Our genes want us to be lean and fit. And that starts with eating from the long list of Primal Blueprint healthy foods and trying to avoid that other list of grain-laden, sugary, processed, and otherwise unhealthy foods.

When: Meal timing, fasting, and seasonal eating

Remember that our genes are accustomed to the way our ancestors ate: intermittently, sporadically, sometimes in large quantities, and sometimes not at all for days. This random or “non-linear” eating pattern kept their bodies in a constant state of preparedness. That said, for newcomers to the Primal Blueprint, what you eat is more important than when. There’s no point worrying about carb cycling or optimal meal timing if you’re still eating mostly grains and sugars. That’s all stuff you can worry about down the road.    

When you’re ready, I’ve written about intermittent fasting (IF) extensively on the blog. As I’ve said many times, when it comes to health and longevity, most of the magic happens when we aren’t eating. It’s important to give your body time to engage in the maintenance, repair, and building processes that are inherent to health and healthy aging. IF has incredible benefits, and you have options when it comes to implementation.

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Lastly, seasonal eating isn’t mandatory, but it can be a great way to vary your carb sources and keep your food interesting. If you’re shopping at your local farmer’s markets, you’ll naturally find different options in the summer, fall, winter, and spring.

A Final Word about Food Quality

Although it’s not explicitly covered by the Primal laws, food quality is an important consideration for Primal eating. In a perfect world, a Primal diet would comprise grass-fed/pastured beef and dairy products, pastured chicken and pork, wild seafood, and produce raised organically or pesticide-free. 

The world isn’t perfect, of course, and the “ideal” foods aren’t always available or budget-friendly (although it’s worth pointing out that few things are a better investment of time and money than high-quality food). The goal of a Primal diet is to eat the best foods you can, understanding that you might need to compromise on organic or buy conventionally raised meat sometimes. Don’t sell yourself short, but also don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

I started Primal Kitchen in order to make healthy eating easier and more delicious. What started out as just mayo has blossomed into an entire line of better-for-you condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings. Selfishly, I was sick of having to make all my own condiments at home. I also heard over and over from people in the Primal community that convenience was a major barrier to fully embracing a Primal way of eating. So, I made products with avocado oil and without refined sugar, seed oils, or other questionable ingredients—products that make meat and vegetables taste good. Now, if you do have to compromise, it won’t be on flavor. 

As I said, I think diet is the foundation of good health. If you’re new to the Primal Blueprint, start with Laws #1 and #2. To learn more about the other pillars of health, check out the Primal Blueprint movement and lifestyle laws. 


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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