Mark Sisson is the New York Times best-selling author of The Keto Reset Diet and the best-selling author of The Primal Blueprint—a book credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement in 2009. He is also a former triathlete, distance runner, and Ironman competitor, the founder of Primal Kitchen and Primal Nutrition, and a personal hero of mine. Mark’s top-ranked health and fitness blog, Mark’s Daily Apple, is a fantastic daily source of all things health-related—I highly recommend it!
I also appreciate the fact that Mark actually lives everything that he recommends to his followers, and in this way, he truly walks his talk. He impressively delves deep into the science behind various health concepts and approaches, and this has greatly helped me to differentiate fact from opinion.
In this discussion, Mark covers many healthy-living topics including the importance of uncovering our primal blueprint, the benefits of hormetic stressors on the body, and why we all could stand to benefit from chilling out! His responses are not only useful and applicable to everyday health, but they serve as inspiring motivation to assess our current states of well-being while we proactively seek to improve our health now and into the future.
Dr. Jim Bentz: You introduced the world to Grok the caveman. What is the importance of understanding our evolutionary biology in the context of how we live in modern culture with its emphasis on comfort and convenience?
Mark Sisson: Understanding our evolutionary biology is to understand what I refer to as our primal blueprint. It means learning what our DNA as humans expects of us in the areas of nutrition, sleep, sunshine, play, exercise, and our bond and connection with others. I developed a set of ten simple and logical eating, exercise, and lifestyle practices—my Primal Blueprint “laws”—in order to model our twenty-first-century life after our primal hunter-gatherer ancestors. After all, it was their survival that forged today’s genome! This approach can help people greatly reduce or eliminate almost all of the disease risk factors that one may falsely blame on those genes that you inherited from your parents. We don’t have to fall victim to our genetic vulnerabilities; we can control how our genes express themselves in constantly rebuilding, repairing, and renewing our cells.
JB: Over the last few years, I’ve noticed there are a lot of differing opinions among “experts” about what constitutes the optimal human diet. As one of the early proponents of the paleo diet, do you think this is confusing to the public, and is it distracting us from the fundamental message that you have been making regarding how and what we should be eating?
MS: At the root of it all is the advice to “just eat real food”. With that, regardless of your chosen way of eating, you will likely find a diet that suits you. Interestingly, the book Paleofantasy attacks the paleo diet as a farce because, as they claim, our ancestors ate all kinds of different diets depending on where they lived on the globe and the particular environmental conditions of the day. I agree. The book Cult Diets asserts that because no single diet is a perfect fit for everyone, the assorted “cults” or supposed strictures of primal and paleo are ill-advised. But these are exactly the arguments I make as to why regimented diets are illogical, and why I insist that…
we must discover our own optimal eating habits within the framework of evolutionary health principles. We must make allowances for the enjoyment of modern life, as well as individual preferences and sensitivities. Regarding the ancestral dietary debate, a few things are indisputable. First, it is clear what our ancestors did NOT eat: processed sugars, industrial oils, and refined grains (or even whole grains!). We also know that, regardless of their environmental circumstances or location on the globe, they did choose to eat only plants and animals.
JB: One of the most useful things I’ve learned from you over the years has been the concept of hormesis. Could you tell us why this is such an important (and overlooked) piece of the health puzzle for so many people?
MS: Occasional brief exposure to a mild stressor can have a positive effect on our body. For instance, a brief cold-water plunge is an activity considered to be a “hormetic stressor” that helps boost immune function and antioxidant defense, decrease inflammation and pain, and increase blood flow and lymphatic function—something particularly therapeutic for tired muscles. A hot sauna session can have similar effects. A two-day fast can improve glucose tolerance, burn off body fat, and potentially even stimulate cell repair. A short sprint workout can generate a hormetic stress that prompts a release of adrenaline, cortisol, growth hormone, and testosterone. When we hone our fight-or-flight attributes once in a while, as our genes expect us to, we stay youthful, powerful, vibrant, and self-confident. Conversely, when we indulge in endless modern comforts and conveniences, constantly stay warm and well-fed, and never stress our bodies to spur hormesis, our mind and body atrophy across the board and we become less resilient to all forms of life stress. Of course, over-stressing at work and/or exercise can cease being hormetic and become a chronic stressor, and this can negatively impact health as well. You just need to find that balance.
JB: You spend a lot of time outdoors. How do you maximize the benefits of sun exposure while minimizing the risk of skin cancer?
MS: Our vitamin D needs are primarily met by the sun, not by diet (by a factor of approximately ten times). Frequently exposing large skin surface areas to sunlight to maintain a slight tan (as I do) is a sign of healthy vitamin D levels. Vitamin D deficiency decreases immune health and increases cancer risk, so sun (and winter supplementation) is essential to balance indoor-dominant lifestyles.
I always try to avoid burning, and I try to shelter my face and other sensitive or thin-skinned areas from overexposure. That could be wearing a hat, zinc oxide on my face, and long sleeves once I have had sufficient unprotected exposure. Moderate sunlight—contrary to conventional wisdom—actually protects you from the most serious form of skin cancer.
JB: Describe your personal evolution and the ways in which you have changed over the years regarding your views on health and healing.MS: I started out as a carb-centric endurance athlete who was doing everything right and “by the book”. Unfortunately, I had lots of injuries and gastrointestinal issues that made no sense for someone pursuing a healthy lifestyle. After I retired from competition, I did some research on diets and slowly evolved to a lower carb way of eating. Within a few months, I noticed that my maladies all cleared up (no more arthritis, IBS, Gerd, sinus infections, etc.). For me, it was largely the elimination of grains that had the most profound effect. Early into this I was anti-legumes as well, but I have eased back on that aspect somewhat over the years. I also found that as I really noticed the effects certain foods had on me, I could add or subtract them and get better results, thereby refining my own dietary regimen even further.
My major view on health and healing is that eighty percent of all disease results from diet and a few other lifestyle choices. If you can intuitively understand this, you can exert tremendous power over your health destiny.
JB: You obviously live what you teach. I also appreciate the science you research in your writing. What are your thoughts on the academic world’s approach to health compared to those who practice what they preach, and how can we best use science to guide our health choices?
MS: I am very skeptical of nutrition science these days. It is clear to me, for instance, that saturated fat is not the enemy, that cholesterol should not be vilified the way it is, that red meat is a vital part of a healthy diet for most people, that grains are UNhealthy, etc. All these seem to fly in the face of long-accepted “dietary science” which begat, among other things, the USDA food pyramid and the gross over-prescription of statin drugs. Recently, however, it seems that much of that “settled” science is finally starting to come around almost one hundred and eighty degrees to agree with my ancestral research friends and me. As I said earlier, I think that more than eighty percent of modern diseases are a direct result of inappropriate lifestyle choices and that diet is a huge component of that.
JB: You recently sold your Primal Kitchen food line to Kraft Foods. What do you think the possible impact of this sale could be on the corporate food system?
MS: Kraft Heinz purchased Primal Kitchen because they recognized that the consumer is getting wiser to what’s on the Nutrition Facts Panels of their food, and very few companies were actually paying attention. Primal Kitchen has led the way in producing condiments, sauces, and dressings that you can put on real foods to make them taste better, allowing variety to exist in the different flavors from one sauce to the next, and adding value in using “better-for-you” ingredients. Now other companies are following suit and cleaning up their labels. This effect of “a rising tide lifts all boats” is fantastic for the corporate food system as it evolves to meet the needs of a discerning customer. I am proud that we have led the way.
JB: We know that movement and exercise are critical to our health, but I notice that recovery is often overlooked. Could you tell us how you see the relationship between exercise and recovery?
MS: Well, at the foundational level, exercise (which is an intentional form of stress) only works as intended if you allow your body adequate rest and recovery. If you don’t properly recover, or if you over-exercise, you risk becoming a collection of those stresses, getting burned out, perhaps putting on unwanted fat (I know, right?), and compromising your immune system. The same concept applies even if you don’t exercise much but still burn the candles at both ends with work, play, and other stresses. Optimizing sleep practices should be the prominent focus here, but we should also consider a broad-based approach to chilling out, such as disciplining your use of technology, taking frequent breaks from peak cognitive tasks, and doing specially designed micro-workouts that promote relaxation and rejuvenation. KETO is also a great tool to enhance recovery, combat inflammation, and foster anti-aging.
JB: What do you see as your legacy in terms of your impact on the health landscape in the U.S?
MS: I would like to think that I have helped change the way the medical community looks at achieving and maintaining excellent health, having created a much greater emphasis on prevention through a lifestyle that emulates our hunter-gatherer ancestors (obviously, in the context of a more comfortable, even hedonistic, society). And more specifically, I would like to be known as having changed the way the world eats.
JB: If there is one thing you hope readers will take away from this interview, what would that be?
MS: The influence of conventional wisdom on our collective psyche has never been more tenuous, as people are sick and tired of being sick and tired, fat, and overstressed. Metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and Type 2 diabetes are out of control. The time has come to ditch once and for all the health advice dispensed by most of the mainstream medical community and gimmicky best-selling diet books. It’s time to return to the scientific evidence about how our species not only survived against the odds but thrived.
The experience of our hunter-gatherer ancestors is worth understanding and incorporating because it contains the secrets to our long-term health and survival moving forward. And it’s not that difficult!