The Primal Diet is a nutritional lifestyle that focuses on “real foods” that our bodies evolved to eat. It generally excludes grains, which were a very recent addition to human diets, in favor of a high-protein diet consisting of lean meats, vegetables, and healthy fats. Unlike the Paleo Diet, the Primal Diet does include dairy products.
The Primal Diet has gained a lot of buzz on the heels of its cousin, the Paleo Diet. Trendy diets, in general, have built and lost momentum in recent decades, as health in our society has continued to decline.
What makes a way of eating last? Is the Primal Diet here to stay?
Let’s take a look at what it is, the theory behind it, and if it’s a fit for you.
What is the Primal Diet?
First of all, it’s not a “diet” as we use the word today. Like its name suggests, this approach to primal food brings us back to the early stages in evolutionary development, to look at what our ancestors ate. It emphasizes the minimally processed, real foods that primitive humans could seek out from the environment around them.
Learning from the health of our primal relatives, and their primal lifestyle, the hope is to reverse the lifestyle disease we are seeing today.
Pulling from studies in evolutionary biology, paleontology, genetics, anthropology, and physiology, primal eating is based on much more than our perception of the caveman. It’s not a regimented program, but a foundation that pulls from an earlier time, and allows for modern application.
What if we looked back in time to find solutions for the health of our future?
That’s exactly what Mark Sisson, founder of The Primal Blueprint, and the primal community, has done; growing from a grass-roots extremist methodology into an accepted framework.
Eating to Support Health
“[P]eople are sick of being sick, fat, tired, and stressed,” writes Sisson (The Primal Blueprint).
According to Sisson, letting go of mainstream recommendations largely influenced by the processed food industry and self-interest groups, and bringing our choices back to the basics of what brought us to be as a species may help reverse the health crisis we are faced with.
The goal of the Primal diet is not to be a quick weight loss solution or a trendy protocol that you may adhere to for a few weeks. The goal is to change our way of thinking about what the body needs for true health.
The Primal diet is just one aspect of the lifestyle approach which makes up the whole “blueprint.” When people buy into this way of eating they naturally start looking at other lifestyle choices that may positively impact their health.
Our ancestors didn’t pick and choose from restrictive diet plans; they ate off of the land based on what was available. They simply ate plants and animals, they tried to avoid poisonous things, they moved in different ways, they slept, played, lived in nature, and used their brains to stay alive – naturally fostering peak performance.
Why choose the Primal Diet?
Today we have an abundance of “food” with all kinds of dietary options, so why would someone choose to follow the Primal diet that pushes the envelope of conventional advice?
The Theory Behind It
At the heart of the Primal diet is the idea that we originally developed into a thriving species by eating foods that we could hunt and gather. Real, whole foods.
Our ancestors didn’t struggle with the chronic disease we see today. In fact, it’s argued that humans reached their evolutionary health “pinnacle” around 10,000 years ago, just prior to the shift towards an agricultural lifestyle. Around this time, our brain size, bone density, and muscular structure were at an all-time high, and death was brought on by natural catastrophes and acute infections, rather than slow, chronic sickness.
The development of civilization has had many benefits, but its road to the industrialized food industry has lead to obesity, heart disease, cancer, systemic inflammation, mental health disease, and autoimmune conditions, all with rates on the rise.
The prominent health conditions of our time are directly linked to food and lifestyle choices, a refocus on plants and animals will naturally eliminate some of the biggest offenders of dis-ease (sugars, industrialized oils, chemical additives, and excessive processed grain consumption).
The Touted Benefits
Those who have adopted a Primal way of eating in our modern culture have experienced a multitude of health benefits.
- Improved lipid profiles (higher HDL, lower triglycerides, decreased inflammatory markers)
- Weight loss and healthy body composition
- Mental clarity and brain health
- Decreased cravings
- Better sleep
- Clear skin, healthier hair
Paleo vs Primal
While Paleo and Primal are both built from the idea that our modern diet is not suited to our genetic make-up, and that our health would benefit from emulating our ancestor’s diet, there are a few differences that separate them by definition and practice.
With roots in the pre-agricultural revolution, Paleo and Primal recommend lots of veggies, some fruits, adequate protein, and natural fats (nuts, seeds, olives, avocado, coconut, etc.). Both suggest limiting carbohydrate intake, especially in the form of sugar, processed foods, and grains.
When the Paleo Diet first gathered a following it paralleled the conventional advice on saturated fat. Loren Cordain, the founder of The Paleo Diet Movement recommended lean meats and avoidance of butter, while Mark Sisson encouraged quality sources of saturated fat for energy, hormone health and neurological benefit. Paleo experts have since joined team Primal.
Their differences on dairy remain. Paleo dieters eliminate dairy, suggesting that humans are ill-equipped to handle lactose and dairy proteins. Whereas, the Primal community takes the stand that while not everyone tolerates dairy, those who do, gain nutritional benefit from full-fat pasture-raised sources that are ideally raw and fermented.
Many would argue a few minor differences such as a greater caution towards nightshades (eggplant, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes) by paleo enthusiasts, as well as legumes, coffee, and alcohol.
Because Paleo has a more rigid protocol, its sustainability is often questioned. Many would describe it as more of a “diet” compared to the pragmatic Primal Blueprint.
Quality over Quantity
Whether we are talking Paleo or Primal, a focus on food quality takes priority over food quantity. Neither approach is built on weighing, measuring, or counting calories.
The body has well-designed homeostatic mechanisms built-in to handle excess or insufficient energy intake. But these mechanisms work best when grass-fed, pasture-raised, and wild-caught meats and seafoods, as well as fresh, local, seasonal, and organic produce items are emphasized.
Nutrients Outweigh Calories
According to the Primal eating plan, the nutrient density amongst healthy plants and animals far exceeds the foods that make up the Standard American Diet. We can get all the nutrients we need through a variety of plants, animals and natural fats.
The age old advice that gaining and losing weight comes down to calories in and calories out (conservation of energy) is up for debate. The Primal belief is that what makes up those calories matters most, and so do the hormonal signals that follow.
Variation in our food choices can help ensure that we are getting a broad spectrum of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. Our ancestors ate foods based on the seasons and the geographical area where they lived.
If you are following the Primal template, adding variation to your food plan also includes timing and quantity. Our ancestors feasted when they had food available, and they fasted when food was not. Bringing this concept into our world of abundance may prove beneficial for our hormone health and natural detoxification systems. Intermittent fasting, anyone?
Who may want to try the Primal Diet?
We are all individuals with different needs, so a one-size fits all nutrition protocol is hard to come by. However, it’s hard to argue the core concepts of the Primal philosophy, allowing for different needs to be met within a basic foundation. So, how do you know if the Primal Diet is right for you?
According to the CDC, 39.8% of US adults were obese as of 2015 – 2016! Metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, overweight, heart disease, and metabolic cancers all stem from insulin dysregulation. Following a Primal eating plan focuses on foods that help the body utilize healthy fats for fuel compared to excessive levels of carbohydrates that lead to vicious cycles of blood glucose spikes.
Autoimmune diseases are now among the top causes of death or disability. The body’s attack on its own tissues stems largely from the reaction of our intestinal lining to the foods and toxins it is exposed to. Eliminating inflammatory foods from the Standard American Diet, such as processed junk, sugar, and grains, puts our body back on track to heal the gut lining and ward off autoimmunity, or put it into remission.
Food Intolerance Issues
With more people experiencing ill-health and the desire to feel better, questioning how well you tolerate certain foods is becoming a greater concern. One of the best ways to determine your response to certain foods is through an elimination protocol.
The Primal approach is a great place to start as it removes the biggest offenders; industrialized oils, sugars, grains, legumes (in large quantities), and conventional dairy.
Maximizing Quality of Life
Are you looking to live a healthy and happy life for as long as possible? The Primal lifestyle may be just the answer; especially for those open to eating a variety of foods from the Earth that are both nourishing and satisfying, balance energy levels, stabilize moods, and promote overall well-being.
Next Steps in Your Primal Diet Journey
As with most “diets” or ways of eating, they can be done well, or poorly. If you are interested in trying a Primal approach, we encourage you to check out Primal Peak’s Four Weeks of Real Food program to help guide you on your way. Don’t travel these unchartered waters alone, grab your friends and family and let me help you navigate your way.