Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Review: The Primal Blueprint

Mark Sisson has been a central figure in the evolutionary health community since he began his weblog Mark's Daily Apple in 2006. He and his staff have been posting daily on his blog ever since. He has also written several other books, edited the Optimum Health newsletter, competed as a high-level endurance athlete, and served on the International Triathlon Union as the anti-doping chairman, all of which you can read about on his biography page. Mark is a practice-what-you-preach kind of guy, and if physical appearance means anything, he's on to something.

In 2009, Mark published his long-awaited book The Primal Blueprint. He self-published the book, which has advantages and disadvantages. The big advantage is that you aren't subject to the sometimes onerous demands of publishers, who attempt to maximize sales at Barnes and Noble. The front cover sports a simple picture of Mark, rather than a sunbaked swimsuit model, and the back cover offers no ridiculous claims of instant beauty and fat loss.

The drawback of self-publishing is it's more difficult to break into a wider market. That's why Mark has asked me to publish my review of his book today. He's trying to push it up in the Amazon.com rankings so that it gets a broader exposure. If you've been thinking about buying Mark's book, now is a good time to do it. If you order it from Amazon.com on March 17th, Mark is offering to sweeten the deal with some freebies on his site Mark's Daily Apple. Full disclosure: I'm not getting anything out of this, I'm simply mentioning it because I was reviewing Mark's book anyway and I thought some readers might enjoy it.

The Primal Blueprint is not a weight loss or diet book, it's a lifestyle program with an evolutionary slant. Mark uses the example of historical and contemporary hunter-gatherers as a model, and attempts to apply those lessons to life in the 21st century. He does it in a way that's empowering accessible to nearly everyone. To illustrate his points, he uses the example of an archetypal hunter-gatherer called Grok, and his 21st century mirror image, the Korg family.

The diet section will be familiar to anyone who has read about "paleolithic"-type diets. He advocates eating meats including organs, seafood, eggs, nuts, abundant vegetables, and fruit. He also suggests avoiding grains, legumes, dairy (although he's not very militant about this one), processed food in general, and reducing carbohydrate to less than 150 grams per day. I like his diet suggestions because they focus on real food. Mark is not a drill sergeant. He tries to create a plan that will be sustainable in the long run, by staying positive and allowing for cheats.

We part ways on the issue of carbohydrate. He suggests that eating more than 150 grams of carbohydrate per day leads to fat gain and disease, whereas I feel that position is untenable in light of what we know of non-industrial cultures (including some relatively high-carbohydrate hunter-gatherers). Although carbohydrate restriction (or at least wheat and sugar restriction) does have its place in treating obesity and metabolic dysfunction in modern populations, ultimately I don't think it's necessary for the prevention of those same problems, and it can even be counterproductive in some cases. Mark does acknowledge that refined carbohydrates are the main culprits.

The book's diet section also recommends nutritional supplements, including a multivitamin/mineral, antioxidant supplement, probiotics, protein powder and fish oil. I'm not a big proponent of supplementation. I'm also a bit of a hypocrite because I do take small doses of fish oil (when I haven't had seafood recently), and vitamin D in wintertime. But I can't get behind protein powders and antioxidant supplements.

Mark's suggestions for exercise, sun exposure, sleep and stress management make good sense to me. In a nutshell: do all three, but keep the exercise varied and don't overdo it. As a former high-level endurance athlete, he has a lot of credibility here. He puts everything in a format that's practical, accessible and empowering.

I think The Primal Blueprint is a useful book for a person who wants to maintain or improve her health. Although we disagree on the issue of carbohydrate, the diet and lifestyle advice is solid and will definitely be a vast improvement over what the average person is doing. The Primal Blueprint is not an academic book, nor does it attempt to be. It doesn't contain many references (although it does contain some), and it won't satisfy someone looking for an in-depth discussion of the scientific literature. However, it's perfect for someone who's getting started and needs guidance, or who simply wants a more comprehensive source than reading blog snippets. It would make a great gift for that family member or friend who's been asking how you stay in such good shape.

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