A Beginner’s Guide to the Primal Lifestyle, Part One

Part two here, part three here.

Let’s talk Paleo/Primal, shall we?

I’ve seen word that some of my rambling (and awkward photos!) here has convinced people to give this lifestyle a shot, which is pretty damn wonderful. In light of it being January, then, at the start of a brand new year, I thought I’d see if I can make the transition a little bit smoother for anyone willing to give Primal a go for the next few months.

This three-part guide, accordingly, will be kind of a mind-dump of everything I’ve learned in the last nine months. The information here is what forms the underlying basis for my own dietary beliefs, and it’ll even come with several links to bloggers I read daily in order to stay current with the latest in nutritional dorkiness.

This first part will start by defining just what the heck Paleo is, talk up some of the bigger ideas it champions, and work in a few of my own ideas on the concept of a diet in the first place. Part two will offer practical tips for anyone thinking of trying Primal as part of their quest for better health. Part three, lastly, will list several bloggers at the front of the Paleo movement and say several flattering things about each, the overall idea being to guide your further reading and research into this exciting field of nutrition.

Ready to get started?

What is Paleo?

Paleo is a return to our roots.

It’s a recognition, in a sense, that the health of the average human has declined pretty significantly since the introduction of agriculture in the Neolithic period of human history (let alone modern food products!). Paleo, accordingly, is a call to step back — to apply modern science and reasoning to the diet and exercise of our Paleolithic ancestors.

That’s a fancy way of saying that we should eat like cavemen, exercise like cavemen, but not live like cavemen, since toilet paper is probably one of the greatest inventions in history.

Paleo, in another sense, is a movement borne on the breath of the Internet. It’s trickling into scientific studies, now, with impressive results, but it’s still very much a product of incredible bloggers and normal folk like me and you. This is, in other words, very much a case of anecdotal evidence. Until the scientific community catches up and starts studying the effect of a Paleolithic diet more consistently, we’re left mainly with the thousands of success stories from people all across the globe.

Got it? Good. Let’s talk Primal.

So what’s Primal, then?

I’ve been asked this question several times, but my answer always stays the same: it’s a more user-friendly version of Paleo.

That’s due mostly to Mark Sisson, the man who created the Primal label and built an incredible community over at Mark’s Daily Apple. The man has a knack for taking complicated health concepts and translating them for the masses, the results of which can be seen in the huge following he’s built over just the last few years.

He has his own take on the Paleo principles, however, and that’s where the user-friendly part really comes in: he allows chocolate. There’s a tendency in certain Paleo camps to be very strict with the diet, nixing things like dairy, (dark) chocolate, and everything fun in life, but Primal takes a more moderate approach that we’ll discuss in full later.

Primal was my first introduction to the Paleo community, so I’ll admit that I’m biased as all hell. I’m also an unabashed fan of what Mark has done for me and for his community overall, so try not to gag if this guide turns weepy midway through.

That said, I’ll refer to the core principles as Paleo except in cases where they’re more specifically Primal. It’s just easier, I think, and they’re similar enough that I’m not doing either a disservice.

And a last big point: Paleo is not a religion.

That might seem odd, but let me explain.

People get passionate about their food. I get it. I get pretty riled up myself when I see the colossal amounts of crap that people like to shovel down their throats on a daily basis.

But here’s the thing: Paleo is changing. Even the core principles are tweaked as more studies are completed and more evidence pours in every week.

Take potatoes, for example. Not even six months back the plain varieties (everything except sweet potatoes, come to think of it) were blacklisted by a lot of Paleo eaters on account of possible toxins and the heavy starch content. That changed, though, when one of my favorite health bloggers did some in-depth research that proved the white potato could be relatively harmless — even beneficial — to a lot of people.

I celebrated by frying up a few Yukon gold potatoes in bacon fat and doing a happy dance around the kitchen.

Again: Paleo changes. I don’t expect, ten years from now, for every idea and every principle to be the same — and that’s awesome. As more and more people study it, exploring the depths of its ideas, we get closer and closer to the picture of perfect health that every single one of us seeks.

Along those lines, Paleo is all about one thing: what works for you. The goal, as always, is strong, vibrant health, and you’re expected to take full control in determining what you need to achieve it. Some people eat potatoes. Some people don’t. If it makes you feel better, then eat it! If it doesn’t, then don’t.

No need to get all dogmatic about it, right?

The Core Principles

Mark Sisson has an incredible guide over at Mark’s Daily Apple that explains the core ideas of a Primal lifestyle. I don’t much see the point of regurgitating that information here, so let’s just call this the study guide — a brief look at some of the bigger ideas and a small list of stuff that you need to know.

First: natural is good.

And, accordingly, natural food is what you eat. This includes meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, and fruit. What this does not include is just about everything we’ve grown to love in life: pizza, pasta, candy bars and Coca Cola.

Remember that part about returning to our roots? It comes in full-force here. Our Paleolithic ancestors survived and thrived with the one thing available to them: natural food. It’s not a perfect comparison, but this also seems the case for a lot of modern-day hunter-gatherer groups, those rare few untouched by Western food culture.

Take the Kitavans, for example, whose intake of coconut products might make the fat-phobic among us feel pretty unsettled. Compared to the average American, Kitavans consume 55% more saturated fat — probably the most vilified, unpopular macronutrient of our time. Want to know the twist? They exhibit none of the health problems that are rampant in the modern world, particularly diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

This suggests, then, that what they’re eating — natural food, natural fat (including saturated!) — has incredible effects for our health. Their diet, likewise, lacks a lot of ‘modern staples,’ including heavily-processed food products, sugar-laden drinks, and cheaply-produced grains.

Natural is good. Remember that. There’s a trend in America, at least, to shy away from natural food and emphasize something that comes out of a laboratory: low-fat or fat-free concoctions, fake meats, and all kinds of products that our bodies literally never encountered until modern times.

Is it any wonder, then, that we’re facing a health crisis?

With this in mind, here’s a (very) brief list of Paleo principles:

1. Avoid grains. They’re calorie-rich, nutrient-poor food, and likewise must be heavily processed just to be made edible. This preparation process, however, does little to break down the toxins and antinutrients that all grains contain. White rice is the least offensive of all grains, but the rest — wheat, oats, rye, corn, etc. — should be avoided, and not just in their commercial forms (bread, pasta, most processed snacks).

2. Dairy is questionable. Many people possess some degree of lactose intolerance, so try going without it for 30 days and then adding it back in. The results should speak for themselves.

3. Legumes (beans) contain antinutrients similar to grains and should be avoided without proper preparation (soaking). Most commercially-available beans are prepared in a way that makes them edible without actually breaking down the antinutrients within.

4. Stick with more natural cooking oils: olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, and coconut oil. Vegetable oils (corn, peanut, soybean, sunflower, canola, etc.), without going into the Omega 3/6 ratio just yet, should be avoided.

5. Processed food, by and large, is not good for your health. If the ingredient list is longer than five items (or populated by unpronounceable words), then you’re better off avoiding it. Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store so that you’ll emphasize fruits, veggies, meats, etc.

It’s worth mentioning, again, that even these five principles aren’t 100% set in stone. If you’re just starting out, I think it’s wise to adhere to them as strictly as possible, but as you do your own research — and as more and more people weigh in on these subjects — you might find yourself deviating in small ways. I myself eat dairy on occasion (pastured butter is a constant companion) and partake in the occasional legumes, but that might change as more research hits the Internet.

Remember: Paleo changes. And that’s why it’s awesome.

Second: conventional wisdom sucks.

That’s a blanket statement, I know, but it’s also a pretty accurate assessment of my feelings for conventional nutritional advice.

Conventional wisdom tells us that fat makes you fat. It also tells us that eggs raise your cholesterol and ultimately lead to cardiovascular disease. It also recommends we avoid all coconut products given their high levels of saturated fats. Sometimes it tells us that meat (particularly the red variety) is bad for your health. It even tells us — and this hurts me inside — that whole grains are the best choice and a necessary part of a balanced, healthy diet.

It tells us, in other words, a lot of things that are most definitely not true. To be fair, a fair few of these ideas have studies that seem to prove their validity — at least until you dig a little deeper and see how incredibly skewed the experiment was in the first place. This isn’t a new thing, either. It dates back to Ancel Keyes and the Seven Countries study, which kick-started the low-fat craze, and continues on through modern times with T. Colin Campbell’s infamous China Study.

Part three of this guide will have a list to several bloggers who have worked tirelessly to debunk a lot of the conventional thinking that dictates modern nutritional thought. For now, though, don’t just assume everything you’ve been told is true — take steps to do research and verify it for yourself.

(And yes, that includes this guide!)

Lastly: diet is a dirty, dirty word

This isn’t specifically a Paleo point, but I think it’s worth mentioning: Paleo, for most people, is a lifestyle above all else. This isn’t something you hop on to lose a few pounds and then abandon back for the waiting arms of pizza and cake. Understanding any of the principles above makes it exceptionally difficult to return to your ‘old ways,’ especially when you understand in full what exactly modern food does to the body.

Paleo, accordingly, is not a diet. A diet implies some magical period where you lose weight, improve your health markers, and then return to your old eating habits, completely discounting the fact that the old ways are what made you unhealthy in the first place.

You don’t need a diet. You just need to be informed.

My hope is that this guide will be the first step towards making that happen. I hope, too, that it’ll come in handy as you follow through with New Year’s resolutions and pursue better health in the coming months of 2011.

Part two will cover the transition period into a more Primal lifestyle. I’ll offer some tips and describe my own experience so you’ll know what to expect if you try it yourself. I’ll describe, too, how eating Primal plays out in real life, painting a more practical picture of what it means to eat natural and avoid processed food.

Wondering how to make the Paleo pizza I posted a picture of on Twitter a few days back? You’re in luck! The next part will include sample meals and recipes — the pizza one included — so you can get a better feel for what Primal eating looks like.

Thanks so much for reading!

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50 Comments

  1. Jeanie says:

    So, fermented soybeans & bean sprouts would be the way to go on primal vegan “diet?”

    Also I’ve been thinking…the reason I became vegetarian is 2 fold. Health/energy & factory farming. Do you see the primal/paleo movements as returning farming back to something more sustainable?

    Love to hear your thoughts!

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Soy is a tricky subject. There seems to be two camps: those who think the health concerns are overblown, and those who are convinced that soy in most forms isn’t safe for consumption. Most Primal eaters, I think, fall into the latter camp, but the fact that you go for fermented soybeans might make all the difference. I’m honestly not too familiar with them, but if they don’t make you feel bad when you eat them, I guess that’s a green light to go ahead and enjoy them. :)

      As far as bean sprouts go, I have to pull the ignorance card again. :) Sorry! I haven’t heard much about them beyond the fact that they tend to cause inflammatory issues for people with arthritis.

      Regarding sustainability, I do believe that the Primal model can make — or intends to make — a big difference. Most Primal eaters opt for locally-sourced, organic products, in defiance of the factory farm model and in the hope of encouraging a local (and far more sustainable) system. If you ever spend time on Mark’s Daily Apple, I think that’s something you’ll see — Mark himself and most of his readers are thoroughly unhappy with how most animals are treated in the conventional factory system. Primal has even been called a bit more expensive than conventional diets for that reason, since many of us are willing to shell out for local and organic instead of supporting the large-scale systems.

      Food for thought, if nothing else. Hope this helps!

  2. Mia says:

    My favourite trick is using julienne’d carrot and zucchini instead of wheat pasta with a decent homemade bolognese. I had that last night, and leftovers probably for lunch. Yum!

    Travelling America as someone who was allergic to wheat, I got a fair idea of why you guys have so many health problems! I found it near impossible to get a salad that wasn’t just lettuce drowned in cheese. EVERYTHING is made from grains. You can buy Twinkies and Doritoes in cartons the size of a suitcase at the supermarket, but the fresh food section is comparatively tiny. Here in Australia (only half-jokingly referred to as the 51st state!) it’s not much better, and you can see why our two countries are the world’s fattest nations.

    My own research suggests that grains of all kinds can have adverse affects on auto-immune disease (of which I have a few…) so I reckon Primal is spot on! I love that a lot of the nutritional ideas I have spent the last few years looking into have been rolled into one specific plan (and thoroughly backed up with research!)

  3. Stacia says:

    I have a similar comment to Jeanie — I’d love to hear some more about the Primal way of eating, esp. for vegetarians. (I eat fish, but not meat/chicken.) Is it do-able w/in those confines?

    Curious to hear more…

    :-)

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Vegetarianism is a tricky subject :)

      Given that you eat fish, though, I’d say it’s definitely possible to do well within the confines of a Primal diet. Studies done in the early twentieth century indicate that the protein available in potatoes, for example, can be sufficient to maintain muscularity and a general level of health, so the lack of meat might not a huge problem.

      That said, I can’t say I’m too familiar with how it all might work (given that I eat meat), so my recommendation is this: go check out Mark’s Daily Apple (www.marksdailyapple.com) and check out the forums. I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t asked the same question there before.

      Hope this helps! Let me know if you have trouble finding the answer to your question.

  4. Chandra says:

    Thanks for sharing so much information on this subject. Btw, try telling this to most people and they look at you like you are just plain nuts… Its kinda fun. :D

    I think my biggest hurdle would be giving up green beans. Aren’t they not allowed either as part of the legumes group? Oh, and are mushrooms okay? I have an unhealthy amount of love for both. :D

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Mushrooms and green beans are just fine! Especially the former. :)

      Green beans are in kind of an ambiguous spot with the Primal camp, but this is very much a case of “what works best for you.” If you like green beans and don’t feel bad when you eat them, enjoy!

      Thanks for the comment, Chandra! :)

  5. JPM says:

    This post won’t scare me away, think your blog is great! I found Mark Sisson (via you and your inspiring before and after photos, via “Where Is Jenny?”) and I am stoked! I had been doing Atkins-ish with good results, but I have needed something less “diet-y” and more life-choice. Loving it. So okay, your list is great except #3 regarding legumes is confusing to me. I thought I understood “avoid legumes”. Is that what you mean here?

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Indeed!

      Even legumes are a tricky subject, though, since there is conflicting info on whether or not we should eat them. I know most Primal people give them up just for the sake of going low-carb in the beginning, and I doubt many add them back in for fear of the antinutrients and everything. I tend to avoid them myself, but I’m waiting for more research on the subject to know for sure whether I’ll add them back in my diet eventually.

      Glad this helped! :) Thanks for reading.

  6. Susan says:

    I love it when conventional wisdom sucks. And I love it when I can gorge on coconut. And your awkward photos rock.

  7. Nina Yau says:

    Please make that pizza for me (and everything else!) when I visit you in LA, Matt. I demand it! Lest you want your ass handled in front of everyone in Hollywood. :P

  8. matthew says:

    Hi Matt.

    Thanks, again, for sharing your experience with the Primal Blueprint. Your post just before the holidays brought the PB to my attention, and inspired me to pick up the book. I just finished reading it. I am on day one of my Blueprint, if you will. I plan to write a piece on my blog about starting, and will provide periodic updates. I also plan to touch on some of the things addressed in your post, as well as go into some detail about my ups-and-downs with weight.

    I’ve done Atkins in the past, with a good amount of success. However, I inevitably seem to lose momentum and regress. Something that you mentioned at the very end of your post is SO very important. The Primal Blueprint is not a diet. I think it’s critical to differentiate between making a change in my diet (wholesale) versus being ON a diet. It’s a very different mindset. Even if people are trying some other approach, the pressure of being on a diet can be mentally exhausting, leading most to lose interest and miss their intended goal(s).

    What’s interesting about the Primal Blueprint is that a lot of the things Sisson address are either well know, or just make [common] sense. The challenge is to tie those things together.

    Thank you, and Happy New Year. Cheers!
    Matthew

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Hey Matthew!

      I’m so glad you picked up the book! And I’m not surprised it just “clicked” on so many levels, as that’s a surprisingly common response to what is otherwise a life-changing book. I look forward to checking out your posts on the subject, especially as I’m trying to puzzle my way through this guide right now. (Check out part two, by the way, just published today. It might come in handy as you start your Primal journey!).

      The distinction between a diet and a lifestyle, I think, doesn’t get the attention it deserves. You’ve discovered, though, how important it is to make. I’m not sure I could have lasted on Primal if I had thought there was a time where I’d eventually get to dive right back into pizza and pasta, haha, but I guess that’s the big difference now: I don’t want to go back to my carb days. I’ve changed my diet for the better, and I understand full well that certain foods are just bad for me, so I’m much more comfortable with this idea of a new lifestyle more than anything else.

      Thanks for reading!

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  10. Vanessa says:

    Hey Matt!

    So I’ve been reading up on Primal Fitness and creating a paleo lifestyle. So far I’ve been reading as much as I can and I’ve cut out grains and increased my (local) meat intake. Of course, a lot of the benefits of this food lifestyle revolve around weight loss. But…I don’t need to lose any weight. In fact, gaining would be very beneficial for me. Any recommendations on that?

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Hey, Vanessa! :)

      Gaining, you say? Well! Time to pack on some muscle. :)

      You’re on the right track. Keep eating high fat and high protein, do bodyweight exercises like in the Primal Fitness, and make sure you’re getting in a decent amount of calories each day to fuel the muscle growth. That should be enough to promote the creation of lean muscle mass, the exact kind of mass that you need to live a long, healthy life.

      Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions. :)

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  25. Meaghann says:

    Hi Matt,
    I loved your use of the phrase “doing a happy dance around the kitchen” I am an adventurous chef by nature and I love cooking new things, so doing happy dances around the kitchen when yummyness is discovered is in my nature. Thanks for the giggle*

    Also,
    I just started eating Paleo. I have been doing it for a little over a week now, and I feel absolutley amazing! (side note: I dropped 5.5 lbs in one week yay!) I came across this lifestyle by a recomendation from a coworker. They read Robb Wolf’s book “The Paleo Diet” and had a lot of success following his plan. So that day I went to the Barnes and Nobles book store next to my work, and bought the book. Lucky for me, Robb Wolf lives in the same town as I do and he was doing a book signing at that Barnes and Noble book store the very next day. So of course I went and also met Sarah Fragoso author of the cookbook “Everyday Paleo”, and BAM I think my life is changed forever!

    I too have always struggled with being kind of chubby ever since gradeschool… No fun! In my junior year of college I changed my lifestyle a bit and managed to “eat right” by standard american conventions and weight lift 5 days a week which helped me look pretty darn gorgeous I might Add, but after college the transition into the real world of working 40 hours a week and being crazy busy led me back astray to my onld ways and the weight came back, and puddgy I got! I have always been an active person- I love the outdoors- camping hiking rock climbing…. but food has always been my down fall! A few months back I turned 26 and it seemed like my body went nuts. I started having mad gas, which never a problem before. I also got migraines and crazy sugar cravings, which led to a 15lb weight gain! Yikes! I am a female, 26 years old, and 5 foot 4 inches tall, 15 lbs made me very round…. But back to the point I have only been eating Paleo for 10 days now, and I can not explain in words how great I feel! With a weight loss of 5.5 lbs already I am excited to keep going and see where this lifestyle takes me!
    Thanks for all the great posts! I also over research everything I do, so seeing other people’s success stories really helps me to stay on track!
    xoxoxo- Meaghann

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Congratulations, Meaghann!

      On meeting Robb Wolf, for one, and for your success with Paleo too. :) You’ll only feel better from here, I can promise, and all of those sudden problems will start falling away in time. I’m happy to help if they don’t (or if they do!), so please don’t hesitate to reach out if you’d like to chat Paleo stuff further. If nothing else, I can tell you about all the incredible food Paleo lets me eat — and all the dancing that results. :P

      • Meaghann says:

        Thanks for the support Matt! It’s very much appreciated. Today is Day 23 of Paleo Living and Life is Fantastic. There is abundant Happy Dancing in the kitchen, especially after one particularly easy to make and out of this world delicious beet apple salad was concocted. I am also noticing a huge difference in recovery time after and performance during my workouts! xoxox

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  32. ayasha says:

    I just did the happy potatoe dance after reading this! HahA now if only they weren’t such a high glycemic food.

    Do you think that all legumes are bad? Ex:cashews peanuts peas green beans garbanzo and pinto beans.

    Would you be available to answer questions I have via email. I have been trying to eat paleo for a while but often splurg with things like candy bars cheese and regimes .my two main questions are: would a food allergy test tell me witch foods are hard for me to digest and should be avoided and is eating bread like products out of flax and almond meal bad because they cause me to eat morethan the typical serving of these things would be?

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Hi, ayasha!

      Keep dancing. :) And if you’re not diabetic, don’t fret too much about the glycemic index — it’s not the greatest indication of how a food will interact with your body to start with.

      Regarding legumes, I’ll just say this: if you soak them properly (in the range of 24 to 36 hours) and don’t feel bad after you eat them, then go for it! I don’t bother with it myself, but nor do I shun legumes in every form. I enjoy cashews every so often, peas and green beans whenever they’re part of my dish, and eat hummus in quantities that a ‘strict Paleo’ type might shudder to imagine, as I have a hard time believing any of these foods will do serious harm to my body.

      When I say I avoid legumes, I’m really thinking about most conventional beans: pinto, black, etc. Like I said, though, see what happens when you prepare and eat them. You might find that your system handles them just fine. :)

      Feel free to email with those questions and I’ll answer them in better detail. :) Hope this helps!

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