Some research indicates that eating modern foods can result in depleted nutrition and increased toxicity in humans. Since the 1970s, scientists have promoted the idea that returning to the eating patterns of our Paleolithic ancestors could help avert many diet-related diseases that are epidemic today. The Primal diet builds on this assumption, offering guidance on what early people likely ate to survive and thrive. Mark Sisson unveiled his “Primal Blueprint” to provide a roadmap back to the ways of ancient hunter-gatherers. Get primed on Primal diet basics, how it compares to paleo, and if it’s right for you.

Primal Beginnings

Former athlete Mark Sisson published Primal Blueprint in 2009. He set forth rules based on evolutionary biology to help people understand how food and behavior choices impact genetic expression. He relied on extensive research to determine how people lived before the agricultural revolution, believing that following those primitive patterns can help people achieve optimal fitness today. Sisson’s “blueprint” includes these guidelines:

  • Eating plenty of animals, plants, and insects
  • Ample movement at a low-level aerobic pace
  • Lifting heavy objects
  • Running fast occasionally
  • Getting sufficient sunlight and sleep
  • Avoiding poisonous things and trauma
  • Using the mind

Mark Sisson Phillip Faraone / Getty Images


How Grok Ate

The main principle of the Primal diet is to consume foods that Grok, a typical ancient hunter-gatherer, would have recognized in his day. Proponents say that our bodies have not adapted to foods developed after the advent of farming, and this impedes the full potential of our genes to build the strongest, healthiest bodies possible. The diet focuses on raw, organic vegetables and fruits for energy and fiber and wild-caught meats for proteins and healthy fats.

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Primal vs. Paleo?

Many people believe that Primal and Paleo diets have important differences, but the eating styles are much the same. They both focus on consuming foods that early peoples ate, and they both incorporate modern science to encourage optimal nutrition and minimal toxicity from foods. Contrary to commonly held assumptions, both diet plans maintain the same stance on dairy and saturated fats.

Loren Cordain, who wrote The Paleo Diet in 2002, initially argued that saturated fats from dairy are unhealthy, a perspective in line with contemporary medical knowledge. In 2010, however, he published a revised edition in which he retracted his statements on these fats. Further, Cordain and Mark Sisson both agree that raw or fermented full-fat dairy products are completely compatible with their plans. One difference, though, is that the paleo diet discourages caffeine consumption while the primal diet allows moderate intake.

dairy products fcafotodigital / Getty Images


Foods You Can Eat

The Primal diet includes a wide variety of raw, wholesome foods. Meats and some vegetables and grains must, naturally, be cooked. Proponents also stress the importance of fresh, organic items. Accepted foods include

  • Meats
  • Raw or fermented dairy products
  • Fish
  • Seeds
  • Fruit
  • Nuts
  • Unfiltered maple syrup and honey
  • Vegetables, including starchy ones
  • Quinoa and wild rice

primal diet foods fcafotodigital / Getty Images


Primal Taboos

If a food was not available to early humans, the Primal diet restricts it. The plan calls for avoiding:

  • Refined sugars
  • Artificial additives and preservatives
  • Trans fats and hydrogenated oils
  • Soy
  • Peanuts
  • Grains such as wheat, barley, and oats

Mark Sisson teaches that legumes are fine in moderation, although some people may want to avoid them due to lectins and phytic acid, compounds that may cause digestive distress.

man eating junk food miodrag ignjatovic / Getty Images


Are Hunter-Gatherers Healthier?

Hunter-gatherer groups are often referred to as bastions of public health because of their generally excellent cardiovascular and metabolic condition. The diets of these populations are typically richer in micronutrients and fiber than urban diets, although not necessarily low in carbohydrates. According to research discussed in a 2018 edition of Obesity Reviews, small-scale societies such as pastoralists, subsistence farmers, and horticulturalists experience very low obesity rates and cases of metabolic and heart disease.

Maasai warrior Katiekk2 / Getty Images


Does Science Back Up the Primal Diet?

The Primal diet breaks away from modern dietary practices that are associated with conditions such as obesity, hyperglycemia, and cardiovascular disease. There is substantial empirical evidence of its effectiveness. A 2015 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition observed that a Primal-like diet improved lipid profiles and glucose control in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Research specific to the Primal diet is limited; however, studies on the similar Paleo plan are more plentiful. A 2017 article in the Journal of Nutrition noted that Paleo and Mediterranean diets could help reduce the risk of mortality from cancer, heart disease, and other non-injury causes. Another report published in 2019 noted favorable weight and metabolic outcomes related to the Paleo eating style.

Data research Laurence Dutton / Getty Images


Primal Pros

Replacing refined sugars and preservatives with whole foods in their natural state provides many evidence-backed benefits. People who follow the Primal diet have experienced relief from food allergies, celiac disease, and hypertension. Many of the foods promoted by the plan are known to induce satiety, which helps with portion control and reduced caloric intake.

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The Primal diet cuts out whole grains, which can be sources of vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients. Some medical experts feel that people following the diet may be depriving themselves of the benefits of those foods. Also, grains are typically much more accessible and affordable than Primal staples such as organic, wild, or grass-fed animal products.

Some researchers believe that the fundamental concepts of the Primal diet oversimplify the evolution of human dietary changes. These scientists argue that early humans may have eaten wild grains long before farming, perhaps 30,000 years ago. The experts also point to genetic studies showing that significant evolutionary adaptations occurred after the Paleolithic era, including an increase in the number of genes pertaining to the metabolism of dietary starches.

scientist debate KatarzynaBialasiewicz / Getty Images


Potential Side Effects

Although the primal diet emphasizes healthful foods, some people experience adverse reactions to changing their diets. As their bodies adjust to a drastically decreased supply of carbohydrates, they may experience the symptoms of a low-carb flu such as fatigue or irritability. These effects usually last for a few weeks, and they may be averted by gradually eliminating carbs rather than quitting cold turkey. Ketosis is a metabolic state in which the body burns fat instead of carbohydrates for energy. One of its unpleasant byproducts is acetone, a culprit behind halitosis. Chewing on mint or cilantro can help offset bad breath. Another side effect that concerns some people is elevated LDL cholesterol levels. However, there is significant evidence that this condition does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

low carb flu PeopleImages / Getty Images


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