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“Paleo” or “caveman” diets and lifestyles have come into vogue with a lot of the leading edge fitness thinkers over the last few years. From barefoot running to raw foods, many luminaries are forging a trail to get back to basics.

Mark Sisson is one of those thinkers. He’s a fitness and nutrition expert whose daily writings have spawned a popular blog amongst the paleo set, Mark’s Daily Apple. There he relates his thoughts, his musings and experiences and his well reasoned arguments for what he calls a “primal” lifestyle. Sisson comes to primal or paleo thinking with a strong traditional fitness pedigree including experience as a competitive triathlete, trainer and even as a consultant on the popular home fitness routine P90X. His blog has served as a test bed for ideas and ultimately for his book.  The Primal Blueprint was released last year and collects many of his ideas into a single volume. The companion cookbook, The Primal Blueprint Cookbook, arrived on bookshelves mere weeks ago.

Readers of The Primal Blueprint are presented with ten guidelines for living a paleolithic lifestyle while still living in the 21st century. While some things will sound brutally obvious (#2 Avoid Poisonous Things), others seem to contradict what modern experts would advise (#8 Get Adequate Sunlight). Plenty of references and chapter endnotes are available for those who question his logic. There’s a little insight on how he balances anthropological and modern nutritional findings in the middle of this post.

Sisson contrasts the Primal lifestyle with what he calls “CW”, short for Conventional Wisdom, using the fictitious Grok — whose family roamed what is now California 10,000 years ago — and the modern lifestyle of the equally fictitious Korg family. The highly stressful and scheduled routine of the Korgs is likely familiar to most families, including a sugar-rich diet, prescription medications, and struggles with weight gain.

As for actual diet tips, it boils down to eating things that were available 10,000 years ago: vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, meat. No grains, no added sugars, no legumes including soybeans, no processed foods. In fact, it wouldn’t be a terrible oversimplification to say “If humans can be allergic to it, you probably shouldn’t eat it” (the only exception we could think of was shellfish). While actual ketogenic diets (such as Atkins) tend to require eating no more than 50 grams of carbohydrate daily, Mr. Sisson maintains that you can lose wight on 50-100 g of carbohydrate daily and easily maintain weight on 100-150 grams daily. The problem is that the typical Western diet is well over those levels. There is no doubt that anybody who consumes a diet based primarily on a variety of vegetables, supplemented with appropriate protein, will achieve a normal weight.

As for exercise, the recommendation is to move around a lot — but at a slower pace than most cardio workouts — “lift heavy things” regularly, and occasionally go all-out. Some will recognize the last as “wind sprints.” He also advocates playtime and naptime for adults.

As much as we liked the book, we found ourselves disappointed with the cookbook. While Sisson’s website often has fabulous recipes, the cookbook felt uninspired. Old standard recipes like how to properly cook a steak or make a Caesar salad are interspersed with several ghastly looking soups and single-pot suppers. Moreover, we really wish that cookbooks like this would stop trying to come up with substitutes for bread and other bakery goods. Just accept the fact that you don’t eat that stuff anymore and move on. It has been our experience that almost none of these substitutes are actually good enough to make up for the calories they contain.

His Take: I like Sisson’s well reasoned arguments for a refined model of low carbohydrate dieting, something that I have advocated for a long time. Whether Adkin’s or Protein Power, it’s a model that’s proven over and over to be a successful strategy for weight control and general health. We’ve even found weird little plans like the Drinking Man’s Diet that take advantage of the solid thinking of low carbohydrate dining. The Primal Blueprint takes things further losing the grains and other relative latecomers to the human diet. Good plan, tough to follow but good plan.

I was disappointed in the lack of a real specific exercise formula in The Primal Blueprint, but I guess that’s part of his point. Find ways to work hard and “lift heavy things” and the rest will take care of itself. If you start with the muscle memory of a triathlete that might be fine but for someone making the move from Korg to caveman they might want a little more specific guidance.

I sadly can say nothing really good about the cookbook save that the pictures are well done. They unfortunately are pictures that are very often of food that’s often fundamentally unappetizing in presentation. The recipes are all really simple: 1. see meat, 2. cook meat, so the cooking is approachable. It’s a stepping off point for people having trouble getting a good idea of what to eat that will qualify as “primal” but little else. Sisson has presented better food on his blog than made the cut for the book.

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