One of the things my blog has been missing, is a dissertation of how the Paleo/Primal diet actually works. I have been wanting to post an article on this, because understanding the science made a big difference to me. I would like to think it could also make a difference to others.
The problem is the science is not easy to explain. To be honest I have been putting off writing an article about it because I knew it would be time consuming and challenging.
So, I was very pleased to find this video with Dr. Doug McGuff where he goes through the biochemistry of human metabolism to explains obesity, diabetics and why eating Paleo/Primal works for optimal health.
I have read a lot of material on how Paleo nutrition works, but this is by far the clearest explanation I have come across.
The whole video is 1 hour and 38 minutes long, but I have embedded it so it only plays the part where Dr. McGuff explains current understanding of metabolism. If you want to understand the science of Primal eating, these 36 minute are going to be worth your while.
Richard is a friend and colleague of mine who switched to the Primal life-style a couple of months ago. The difference this has made to his life has made him almost as obsessed with nutrition and health as I am!
What was your health situation before you decided to change your diet and life-style?
Not too bad, other than an operation in December to remove a benign tumour. I am an active sportsman (cricket, football, squash), and regularly cycled, ran and swam to keep up my level of aerobic fitness for my triathlon hobby. I wasn’t too happy with my diet, and indeed, other aspects of my life in terms of energy levels and weight. I felt that if I didn’t do the exercise I was doing, I would suffer even further from a predilection to put on weight.
What caused you to suddenly make changes in your life?
I think that the seed of change was blowing around my person for a while given the above answer, waiting for a way in. I didn’t know what that change would be, but I knew I had an opening to investigate and explore a change. I guess, ultimately, that age and weight were key factors and feeling that both were catching up with me. It was dawning on me that I needed to do something if I was to continue with the active sports that I am involved in – but the catalyst for change was without doubt the initial discussion I had with you, Peter, and hearing how you had made these changes and how you had made them.
What changes did you make in your life and what pace and order did you make them in?
Well, due to my personality, which is somewhat addictive, I listened and chatted more to you, did an evening’s worth of scouring the net, explained and shared what I could with my wife. I asked if she would be comfortable with such a sudden change and helping me cater for it (which I think is a very important factor if you are married and/or with children). So with that, some initial (and probably clumsy) planning around meals and what I should and shouldn’t be eating, I pretty much jumped straight in. I think that the first change was ruling out all cereals/grains/pastas/milk immediately and vastly reducing my sugar intake, which did lead to me thinking “OK, it’s dead easy knowing what not to eat…..but what does that mean in terms of meal planning?”. So, the second change was around starting to plan better, which was helped as I began to understand more about my body and the dramatic change that I was putting it through. I’m into my third month now, and now the primal lifestyle basics are things that are normal part of my everyday life, so I’m starting to plan my next steps, which will include an alteration to my exercise regime mainly, but also gaining more specific knowledge in terms of what I’m eating and what it’s doing in more depth.
What changes have you seen to your quality of life so far and what difference has it made to you?
Lots!! The most noticeable change has been to my weight. When I started living this way 10 weeks ago, I weighed 101.5KG, as I type this, I’m now 91.5KG – and I’ve not starved myself (far from it), I haven’t counted a single calorie, I haven’t sweated buckets in a gym or endured 3 hour runs, in fact, all I’ve done is made the changes I mention above. The difference this has made (apart from being delighted to find those clothes fitting that I kept in the slim hope I’d be able to wear them again) is that being lighter has increased my self-esteem and improved my own body image, which I think are not to be underestimated psychologically. This is to add to the obvious physical benefits that being thinner makes to you. Another change has been a real improvement in my sleep routine. For years I struggled to get to sleep at night, often lying awake for ages fighting a losing battle. Now, however, my average sleep duration has increased to what for me is an amazing 7.25hrs, and the quality of my sleep seems to have improved as well. I think that other changes are knock-on effects from a severe reduction in my nocturnal restlessness as well as benefits from how I’m now treating my body, such as having more energy, less of a tendency to be so stressed (this hasn’t gone completely, although I’m hopeful that it will continue to improve), and generally being a happier and more content person.
What have you learned about diet and health you did not know before?
More than I can reasonably write here I think! Given that I was starting with my bar pretty low in this area, I could argue that every piece of information in this area counted as something I’d learned. If I can distil this into a more succinct answer, I will. Learning that it’s all about controlling insulin secretion at its heart was eye-opening, as well as understanding how the ‘staple’ foods that I’d been relying on all my life do, in fact, encourage the secretion of insulin and how we should rely on the reserves that our bodies will build up naturally to do the buying and selling in our bodies if we follow the lessons of our forefathers (Grok and his mates) and eat primally. Understanding our DNA set-up (well, at a basic level) and how we can, in fact, programme our genes by understanding what happens when we eat what we eat, drink what we drink and exercise how we exercise. Becoming educated, again at a basic level, on exactly what the things on the side of packets mean, and I’m just starting to learn much more about why conventional wisdom around diet and lifestyle doesn’t, in fact, do ‘what it says on the tin’……
What challenges did you have in putting your new life-style into practice?
Aside from the challenge of learning to put together a completely different eating strategy, I did find it a challenge to not ‘snack’ – having been a great snacker before, although not always a snacker of what modern advisors may consider unhealthy (oat bars, cereal bars and suchlike, as well as chocolate, crisps, biscuits). Other challenges were around introducing, or in some cases a re-introduction, to foods that I hadn’t eaten, although as often happens, challenges (or fears) turn into unexpected pleasures. So an awful many foods that I refused to eat for years, I now enjoy hugely and in abundance and I find myself wondering why I was so stubborn before! (Liver, most root vegetables, biltong, greek yoghurt & venison are some of the main ones I refer to here). Another challenge was having to start cooking more than I/we did before, but we quickly realised that this isn’t actually a chore at all, and exploring more ways of preparing and cooking primal foods is one of the pleasures of the diet. Lastly, and this shouldn’t be underestimated I think in an honest assessment of changes, I think if this is approached properly, then not only eating according to the primal way but also obtaining organic, free range, freshly grown and preservative-free foods is important, and it tool us a while to get into a routine of how we do this, because it did mean a big change to the way we procured foods before.
What changes do you expect to see in the future if you continue following your program?
Hmmm…..good question. I think that changes that I will experience moving forwards will be less obvious and much more around the changes in the medium/longer term in how my body will benefit from how I’m now treating it. I think that I will see some further weight loss, although nowhere near at the rate I have been experiencing. I think once I change my exercise regime, I may see a slight change in body shape, perhaps. I wonder also whether I may feel less ‘old’ and more youthful as well…..
What challenges do you think you will have going forward in sticking to the program?
Honestly, I don’t think I will experience any challenges in sticking to it. I’m very contented and extremely happy having this way of living and eating and certainly don’t feel I’m missing out on anything (and when you’ve brewed that wheat-free ale Peter, that will be that sorted too :-)) I believe I will continue to learn more and indeed how to become an advocate of the programme. I believe in it, I ask questions when I don’t understand something, and I challenge things that I don’t think I follow, but it’s improved how I think and how I feel so much, that any thought of abandoning it are far away right now.
“The important thing is not to stop questioning.
Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
When you read about ancestral health you come across a variety of terms that describe different sections of our community. Some of the more common are Paleo, Primal and Low-Carb. You may also have encountered the term LCHF. I often get asked what these labels cover, and what the differences are between them. It’s not entirely clear cut, but here is how I define them.
The Paleo Diet is based on the hypothesis that humans are genetically adapted to eat like our pre-historic ancestors. Paleo followers believe modern western diseases and obesity are due to changes in our diet that arrived with agriculture and industrialisation.
The Paleo Diet consists of meat, fish, poultry and vegetables. It suggests avoiding grains, legumes, most tubers, dairy, sugar and processed foods. Paleo dieters also prefers grass fed beef, wild game, organic poultry and wild fish over intensively farmed equivalents.
If you follow a Paleo diet, your carbohydrate intake will tend to be lower than on a typical western diet. But Paleo is less specific about the amount of carbohydrate you should eat than Primal, Low-Carb and LCHF. There are also researchers in the movement who argue for “safe starches”. One example is Staffan Lindenburgh who points to the Kitavans of Papa New Guinea as an example of aboriginal people who subsist on a high starch diet without incurring the degenerative diseases that are so common in the west.
In summary, Paleo is mostly about eating unprocessed and nutritionally dense foods to emulate the diet of our hunter gatherer ancestors.
The Primal diet is also inspired by our pre-historic ancestors. The selection of foods allowed on the Primal diet is much the same as Paleo. However, Primal allows high-fat dairy such as butter, cream, full-fat yoghurt and cheese. Some also argue a small amount of white rice is OK on a Primal diet.
Primal seems to me to be more prescriptive about your carbohydrate intake than Paleo. Primal diet books tend to give specific direction about the amount of carbohydrate you should consume to create optimal conditions for fat loss.
The most prolific advocate of Primal is Mark Sisson who runs a website called Mark’s Daily Apple.
The Low-Carb label is very broad. It covers over a number of diets that prescribe carbohydrate restriction for weight loss. Many followers started their Low-Carb journeys with the Atkins Diet, but there are many other Low-Carb diets such as the South Beach Diet and the Dukan diet.
Although it doesn’t apply to all Low-Carbers, in general this community is more relaxed about processed foods and Omega-6 rich oils than the Paleo and Primal communities. Low-Carbers tend to focus more specifically on the macronutrient balance in their diet. Some emphasise high protein, others emphasise high fat. What they have in common is the restriction of carbohydrate to trigger ketosis, which is when your body burns fat for fuel.
I think most people consider Atkins the founding father of Low-Carb weight loss. The research has since been moved forward by scientists such as Dr. Stephen Phinner and Dr. Jeff S. Volek.
You could argue that LCHF is the Scandinavian sub-section of the Low-Carb community. The LCHF label stands for Low-Carb-High-Fat. The term originated in Sweden where low-carb approaches to health appear to be moving into the mainstream.
I have seen LCHF defined as Paleo with high-fat dairy. By this definition you could argue it is similar to Primal. However, LCHF appears to be a little more relaxed about whether their food is organic and unprocessed, so to my mind their approach is closer to Low-Carb. But, as with all these definitions, we are splitting hairs.
High-profile LCHF people include Dr. Annika Dahlqvist and Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt in Sweden as well as Dr. Sofie Hexberg in Norway.
I like the term Ancestral Health because it is broad and inclusive. To me it covers all the four communities I describe here, along with some others (GAPS dieters and Western A. Price followers are notable examples). Inevitably when you try to define these movements, you emphasise the differences, which, to a degree, masks the obvious commonalities. At the same time, there are plenty of people in the Ancestral Health movements who don’t fit neatly into any one of these buckets.
I have learned a great deal from leaders and enthusiasts across the Paleo, Primal, Low-Carb, LCHF, GAPS and Western A. Price communities. We don’t all agree on everything, off course, but we do share some key characteristics. We are all sceptical about the low-fat grain-based diet dogma that dominates the mainstream. What drives us is the belief there is a better and more natural way of achieving wellness and vitality.
Diana Hsieh has published the best summary of the Paleo protocol I have seen online on her blog. It includes links to articles and materials that explains the rationale for each element of the diet. Click here.
Thought leaders in the Paleo movement include Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf and Art deVany. Here are som YouTube videos:
Mark Sisson more than anyone is responsible for popularising Primal living. Here is a YouTube lecture with him:
For visuals summarising of the Primal life-style click here.
I have posted this video with Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt recently, but it is so good it is worth sharing again:
Hi Peter – Hope you’re in fine fettle? Thought I’d give you an update a week and a day in…the big headline is that I’ve lost nearly 4 kg (8 lb)!! I honestly cannot believe it, I’ve been eating quite a lot, but been very strict as to WHAT I’ve been eating. Nicki is gobsmacked!
I’ve arranged the visit to the Dr’s this Friday as well, and I’m feeling great – finding time for good breakfasts, and also finding time to cook too. I wish we’d have had that chat earlier….
Anyway – my week two questions move me onto desserts and snack-type things for when I’m a little peckish and whilst I’m reducing the need to feed my sweet-tooth
Also, Nicki mentioned about calcium, although I suspect that you’ll say that it’s present in many of the primal foods anyway….Last one, I like biltong and jerky, is that a suitable item to eat from your perspective? I read that as long as it’s low sugar content biltong then it’s a good nibble to include on one’s diet…
Congratulations, Richard, and well done on sticking to the foods a Primal diet allows!
When it comes to snacks the Primal rules still apply. Stay away from grains, starches and sugar. You are right, jerky and biltong are good options. Make sure they don’t contain sugar or are chemically processed, though.
Other snacks I used to enjoy include nuts, full fat greek yoghurt and grilled bacon rashers left over from breakfast. I don’t snack much anymore, though. You will find over time your need to snack will wane. As your body gets better adapted to burning ketones (fat) the period between meals and hunger will gradually get longer. I also find the hunger I now experience is completely different. It is a less urgent and less stressful sensation. This makes it easier to defer eating when I find myself in a situation where there are no good food choices available.
With regards to sweet things, the best thing you can do is stay away from them, endure the cravings and wait for them to pass. The cravings are part of the adaptation process. Some of it is physiological and some of it is psychological. Eventually you will have fewer cravings and all foods will start to taste much sweeter.
If the cravings become too much, go for a small bar of organic dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids. The cocoa is packed full of actioxidants and a small 35g bar of Green & Blacks dark chocolate contains 12g of carbohydrate (mostly sugar, I imagine) which is not too bad for an occasional treat.
At times, you may find yourself giving in to temptation when you are offered sweet treats or other non-primal foods at social occasions. Don’t beat yourself up about that. My philosophy is the same as Mark Sisson’s which is to aspire to 100% compliance, but to be satisfied when I achieve 80% compliance. Now I probably comply 95% of the time, but achieving that was much tougher in the beginning.
The calcium question is a good one. The short answer is that a high-carb diet causes your body to leach calcium. Consequently, on a typical western diet, you need to ensure you get plenty of calcium in your diet. If you restrict your carbohydrate intake, the calcium you get from vegetables is plenty. I don’t remember the details of how the biochemistry works for this, but I will research it and post an explanation on this blog.
We also know that our hunter gatherer ancestors had denser bones than modern man, and osteoporosis is virtually non-existent amongst contemporary hunter gatherers. This is despite a complete absence of diary in their diet. If you think about it, we are the only mammal that habitually consume the milk of other species. My personal intuition is that diary is not essential for humans.
Nevertheless, I do eat yoghurt and a small amount of cheese, but that’s because I enjoy it, and I don’t think it does any harm. As I mentioned in my last post, Paleo purists take a different view, and I respect people’s personal choices with regards to diary. As long as you tolerate lactose and casein (the most common causes of diary alergies), go ahead and enjoy it. I do avoid milk because lactose is a form of carbohydrate, and milk sits high on the glycemic index. It is likely to trigger a spike in insulin secretion, which is something I try to avoid in the interest of keeping my body conditioned to fat burn.
I am sure I don’t have to tell you this, but be aware that the spectacular progress you have made in week 1 is not going to continue forever. Your rate of weight loss will slow and you will also hit a few plateaus along the way. When that happens, focus on how eating primal makes you feel rather than what it does for your weight. Here is a post on how Primal eating makes me feel: link
Keep the questions coming and good luck!
Mark Sisson’s book “The Primal Blueprint”, is on my list of Top-3 books on ancestral health. In this interview with Sean Croxton of UW Radio, Mark explains the principles of the Primal Blueprint including The Ten Immutable Laws of Primal Living.
To listen to the interview click here
If you have tried low-fat approaches to fat loss, it may surprise you how I lost weight. I consumed plenty of saturated fat and I didn’t count calories or even track the macro nutrients I consumed.
And it is important to emphasise that I have not only lost weight. All my health markers improved, including my blood cholesterol, which goes counter to what many health professionals would have predicted.
I know this may sound too good to be true. Especially, if you have tried a multitude of diets that promised so much but ended in failure. Can it really be that easy?
I will let you judge whether this approach is easy or hard. It depends on your personal circumstances, I suppose.
Here is my 7-step eating plan:
- My diet consists of meat, fish, poultry, eggs and vegetables.
- I mainly eat things that are prepared from scratch (mostly by my very supportive wife) and we try to use ingredients that are local and/or organic.
- I avoid all grains, tubers and legumes. This means cutting out bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, beans and lentils.
- I also avoid drinks that contain calories. I do not drink fruit juices, milk or sodas, nor do I take any sugar or other sweetener in hot drinks. I do make one small exception to this rule. I enjoy the odd alcoholic drink once or twice a week. I tend to mostly drink red wine.
- I restrict the amount of carbohydrate in my diet. This happens more or less by itself if you follow points 1 to 3 above. The only additional measures I take is to avoid sugar and I also eat very little fruit. Periodically, I spot check my carbohydrates, so I know my daily consumption is between 30g and 60g per day.
- I make sure I get plenty of fats from meats and wild fish. I supplement this with coconut oil and butter for cooking. I use olive oil for salad dressings. I avoid all other vegetable and nut oils.
- I eat when I am hungry and I eat as much as I need to be full.
Those of you who have studied low-carb and/or paleolithic nutrition will recognise this diet. There is nothing particularly original in what I practice. Researchers and thought leaders like Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, Art Devany and others all recommend diets that are similar to this with minor variations. There is plenty of information available on this and I recommend you study the writings of these men.
You will also notice that there is no mention of exercise in my plan. I do exercise, but the truth is exercise is not strictly necessary to loose weight. I will discuss this further in future articles.
I would also like to make an obvious but important point here. Loosing weight is not just about what you eat. If your head is not in the right place, it is very hard to change a life-time of unhealthy habits. Watch this blog for future articles about how I stayed the course by changing the way I think about diet and life-style.
Here are some links to on-line resources that explain the basics of paleo/primal diet and exercise principles.
Here are my current Top-3 books on ancestral health.
This book is a joy to read. It is my current favourite how-to book. Mark Sisson gives practical advice on how you can put primal life-style changes into action for optimal health and weight loss. He also explains the science in a nice accessible way. If you want to see the difference the Primal Blueprint has made to people, go to www.marksdailyapple.com.
Robb Wolf is one of the people who has done most to popularise the Paleo movement. In this book he explains in considerable depth what goes wrong when we get obese. He also links this to diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, parkinsons, PCOS and a host of other diseases. If (like me) you have a tendency to get geeky about the science, then this is definitely a book for you. If you are more action oriented and less interested in the scientific detail, Rob has recently created “Robb Wolf’s 30 Day Total Transformation” for people like you.
This is not really a how-to book, but it is an excellent book for understanding weight loss science. Gary Taubes addresses common misconceptions about why we get fat in the western world. He does a magnificent job of debunking both popular myth and faulty bias in the scientific establishment. This book completely changed my perspective on nutrition and health. It has also changed the views of many others, and it has helped create real momentum for the ancestral and low-carb health movements. It is a very important book.
For more book recommendations click here.