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

Part one can be found here. Click here for part three.

So! You’ve decided to go Primal. You’ve skimmed Mark’s Daily Apple, put in an order for The Primal Blueprint (Kindle version, I’m sure, you crazy minimalist), and have gone out to pick up several cartons of eggs and six packages of bacon in preparation for the upcoming few weeks.

What next? There’s more to this Primal/Paleo thing than meets the eye, especially once you start digging into the nitty-gritty behind the lifestyle itself. Part one of this guide (hopefully!) cleared up some misconceptions of what Paleo even is, finishing with a brief look at some of the core principles that nearly every modern-day caveperson adheres to.

But what’s it like? I say I eat Primal, but what does that actually mean? Part two of my beginner’s guide to the Primal lifestyle aims to find out.

A Practical Look at Primal

Primal and Paleo are not low-carb lifestyles.

Just to make things kind of confusing, though, they can be. They can be moderate-carb, too, which is what I’m currently doing, though the choice of how many carbohydrates to incorporate is entirely yours to make.

When you’re first starting out, the general rule of thumb is to go easy on the carbohydrates (which come from fruits, veggies, and starches like potatoes). We’ll dive more into this later, but starting low-carb is useful for adjusting insulin sensitivity and forcing the body to adapt to using fat as its preferred source of fuel. Later on, as you lean out and start incorporating exercise, you can add in potatoes and the occasional bit of white rice and very likely not suffer any ill effects.

However you choose, though, one thing remains the same: you’re eating lower carb than you used to. Look at like this — the typical American eats upwards of 300 grams of carbohydrates each day, the product of a diet that relies on grains, soft drinks, and processed food that’s always within reach.

Eating Primally, however, makes it legitimately difficult to go above 150 grams of carbohydrates daily. It’s certainly doable if you load up on fruits and starch (hello, potatoes!), but the average Primal eater, especially when starting out, will probably emphasize veggies and fruits over much else. Have a serving of fruit or two throughout the day, pack your plate with veggies, and odds are you’ll still come in below 100 grams, significantly lower carb than the average American diet.

Doesn’t really paint the average American diet in such a pretty light, does it?

But what does Primal look like? We’ve established that it’s low-carb, in a sense, but that probably doesn’t mean anything to anyone coming off years of pancakes and pasta.

The best way I can think to show this, honestly, is to describe a few example meals. I’ve even provided pictures (since I’m such a swell guy!) to give you a feel for what a practicing Primal person eats on a daily basis.

Breakfast: I, er, don’t eat breakfast, given the daily Intermittent Fasting. If I did, though, it would look like this:

That’s three eggs cooked in pastured butter with mushrooms, green bell pepper, and feta cheese sprinkled on top. I also tossed in some leftover steak from last night, though leftover steak is a pretty rare sight in my kitchen.

Lunch: A salad is always a good choice, and one Mark Sisson himself advocates. I’m not quite up to his level of “Big Ass Salads,” but I’m doing pretty well, I think, in getting in some greens:

That salad is rocking mixed greens, spinach leaves, mushrooms, carrot sticks, macadamia nuts, bell pepper rings, avocado bits, and goat cheese, all covered in a pretty generous layer of olive oil (good fat!) mixed with balsamic vinaigrette. That’s chicken below it, skin very much intact.

It’s a simple, flavorful meal, and one with room for infinite variation. Sub in almonds if you don’t like macadamia nuts (which are an incredible source of healthy fat, by the way), toss in any other veggies as you see fit (zucchini sticks are a favorite of mine), experiment with different dressings — just keep it natural, tasty, and satisfying above all else.

Dinner: This one is a bit fancier than I usually run, but I’m pretty damn proud of how it all turned out, so forgive the bragging that’s about to happen.

The pan on the bottom has roasted carrots mixed with rosemary, orange zest, and almonds. Delicious, simple, and the combo of orange and rosemary was delightful in a way I didn’t expect.

The pan on the top has (experimental) twice-baked sweet potatoes. Without diving too much into the recipe, the ‘meat’ of the potatoes contained a mix of coconut milk (high fat), goat cheese (full fat!), vanilla, salt, pepper and a smidgeon of honey, which made for an absolutely mind-blowing dish.

Toss in a steak or two (cooked medium-rare, fat eaten and enjoyed) and dinner is (very happily) served!

Snacks: I don’t snack much, now, but I did way back when I first started my Primal journey. Primal snacks run the gamut, but the emphasis on natural and healthy remains unchanged.

  • Coconut milk shake with frozen berries
  • Home-made jerky (store-bought kind comes with a lot of chemicals)
  • Fruit
  • Hard-boiled eggs

And so forth.

Notice the common trend between all these dishes? Eat natural. Put some veggies on your plate, toss in some protein, and then have fruit for dessert or as a snack sometime during the day. That’s it. It’s simple, fairly quick cuisine, and far more healthy and flavorful than any of those frozen meals dubbed “healthy choice” by the glossy magazines and advertising machines running rampant in America.

So let’s pretend that you’re going to give Primal a shot, then, and neatly segue into the second half of this post: the transition period. Going Primal, see, isn’t quite as simple as just loading up on eggs and bacon every meal of the day (tempting though that might be). You’re actively changing how your body works, here, so you’d better know what’s going to happen when you do.

The Transition Period

And because I’ve googled each of these phrases at one point or the other myself, let’s make this a little more entertaining.

1. I feel like crap!”

Sorry to hear it! Here’s why you do.

The conventional American diet is carb-heavy: soft drinks with 60+ grams of sugar, grains all over the place, and processed food like you wouldn’t believe. All of these carbs are converted into glucose in the bloodstream, which sounds like a great idea when you consider that the brain looks to glucose for its primary source of energy.

When you go Primal, though, you’re dramatically reducing your intake of carbohydrates and supplementing instead with healthy fats. Your brain does not like this. Your brain gets a little cranky, even, at this sudden loss of its primary source of energy, and will remind you of this fact with a variety of symptoms that justify the name of “low-carb flu.”

How long they last — and the severity, likewise — are variable. I had one morning where I felt terrible, but come noon I felt as fine as can be. I’ve heard stories (anecdotal, as always) of people feeling low-energy for the better part of a month or two, though that seems to be a pretty rare case.

Expect to feel not so great for a few weeks. Through it all, don’t worry: it’ll pass! Your brain will adjust to burning sweet, delicious fat instead, the exact fat you’re pigging out on, and you’ll start to see some surprising benefits along the way.

How does constant energy throughout the day sound? How about a complete removal of the ravenous hunger that accompanies carb-rich meals, the kind of stomach pangs that can make you feel weak and irritated?

Just remember: it’ll pass. And you’ll be well on the way to strong, vibrant health when it does.

2. “I’m not hungry!”

My roommate found me huddled by the kitchen sink one night, cracking open a can of coconut milk and downing the whole thing in a few gulps. This alone might have alarmed him. It also might have confused him when I set the can down, sighed, and reached for another, mumbling beneath my breath about how I needed more freaking calories.

Here’s the thing: fat is filling. It’s not quite as satiating as protein, but it fills you up far better than most carbs, which is why (as an example) a handful of almonds is universally considered a go-to snack for when you’re dealing with hunger pangs.

With this in mind, remember now that your first few weeks of Primal might look like a heart surgeon’s worst nightmare: coconut milk shakes! Eggs and bacon every morning! Straight olive oil as a dressing! Avocado everywhere!

That’s fine. That’s healthy, too, but there’s one small problem: you’re not going to be hungry. Your body won’t be used to handling all this fat and protein, so a big meal of eggs and bacon for breakfast might last you well until — if not beyond! — dinner.

This is okay. You might get a little freaked out if you tally up just how many calories you consume (I went under 1000 on some days), but don’t worry yourself sick: you’re not going to die. You’re not going to waste away into nothing, and your metabolism isn’t going to crash and burn, never to recover.

It might seem strange to eat only one or two meals a day. That’s normal. The key, though, is to listen to your body. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re not — as I wasn’t for a week or so — then don’t worry about it. Go about your business! Eat something if you’re absolutely convinced it’s vital to your health, but don’t stress if you come well under 2000 calories a day for the first week or two.

Much like the low-carb flu, this will pass. Your body will adjust to the increased fat and protein intake and your appetite will return accordingly.

3. “I miss donuts!”

This is the tough one. I didn’t have much of an issue forgoing the grains whenever I started, but I know that probably isn’t the case for most people coming over from a former carb-addiction. Rather than spouting off, then, I’m turning this one to the readers: how do you handle it?

If you’re a pasta addict, how are you handling the sudden lack of your favorite dish? If you’re trying to give up pancakes and biscuits, what techniques or tricks are you using to overcome the urge?

This might warrant a separate post, later, just to spread some ideas on how to make it through temptation. I look forward to reading your responses!

In any case, the advice remains the same: stay strong. This, too, shall pass. I passed a box of donuts the other day and didn’t bat an eye. I know it’s not good for my body, for one, and I know I wouldn’t like how incredibly sweet it is. My taste buds have definitely changed after eight or so months of eating 99% dark chocolate.

A Few Final Thoughts

You’re going to lose weight.

I can’t guarantee that, I guess, but I’d say there are very good odds of it happening. The reasons are many: decreased caloric intake from the increased fat and protein, reduced water retention from the decrease in carbs, etc.

Whatever the cause, though, don’t be surprised to look — and feel better — within weeks. Do be surprised, though, when the weight doesn’t come right back. My experience with Primal has been a solid nine months of getting leaner and leaner, and I can pretty safely say that not a single pound has come back — not even when I partied far too much for the New Year and ate things I’d skipped over for months.

I hope — and I expect — your experience will be the same.

The last part of this guide will cover all the top bloggers in the Paleo world right now so you know who to start reading as you progress further into this. The recipes I promised for this post (so sorry!) will also show up then, probably as an introduction to a new recipe section I’m thinking of adding on to the site. Any thoughts on this? Requests or just interest in the idea in the first place? Let me know!

One last thing: I’ve started up a side tumblr for my adventures in Los Angeles. It’s a small project in every sense of the phrase, as I’ll just be posting random photos and stories on a semi-regular basis. If you have more than a passing interest in what I’m doing when I’m not writing excessively long posts about the Primal lifestyle, you know where to find out. :)

Thanks so much for reading!

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8 Comments

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  4. Iris says:

    I have been doing primal for about 3 weeks. I am hungry, tired and gaining weight. What am I doing wrong. I am using some nuts for a snack, about /4 cup a day, coconut oil, and 1/2 and 1/2 in my coffee. Eggs for breakfast, lots of veggies, fruis, beef, fish chicken.. Also daily headaches. Please help!

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Hi, Iris!

      First: take a deep breath. :) Don’t stress yourself out anymore, as you have ample resources here and elsewhere on the ‘net to try and figure this out.

      A few quick points:

      - Daily headaches could be a symptom of your body adjusting to reduced carb intake. It also could be a ‘detox’ of sorts, whether from reduced sugar intake or all the bad omega-6 being released (flushed, in a sense) from your fat cells.
      - Tiredness is probably a product of going low-carb. Google “low-carb flu” to see what I mean.
      - Weight gain is nothing to be worried about. Do you actually see additional pounds on your body? I’m going to guess not. If you’re relying on a bathroom scale, do yourself a favor and start ignoring it — the number you see on the readout fluctuates on a daily basis due to water retention and a lot of other factors. Weight, frankly, is a useless number, and one you’re far better off ignoring in favor of how you actually feel. Give it a try!

      For the first two points, the answer is the same: give it time. The low-carb flu can pass within a few weeks to a month, depending on the person, but I promise it does pass in time. If you’d like more feedback on this, I recommend going to http://www.paleohacks.com and asking the ‘hackers’ there (just make sure you describe your diet, symptoms, background, etc. in full in the question), or doing the same at the Marks Daily Apple forums. You’ll find plenty of additional help there.

      Good luck! And remember: give it time. If you don’t feel better within a week, don’t be afraid to incorporate a sweet potato at some point to give your body some carbs to work with.

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