How Going Primal Will Make You a Better Entrepreneur: An Interview with Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple

May 13, 2013

11:00 am

This post is part of Tech Cocktail’s “Healthy Entrepreneur” series, bringing you insights on food, exercise, and sleep on Mondays and Wednesdays throughout May. The series is presented by Coromega (more info and a giveaway at the bottom).

Although the meaning of health may vary person to person, there would likely be consensus of good health around anyone capable of finishing in the top 5 at a U.S. National Marathon Championship.  Not only is this person lean (appeasing the aesthetic of good health) but so too are they spry enough to engage in an elite level of athletic performance (clearly the motor works).  But for Mark Sisson, elite fitness didn’t translate to what he considered good health.

Sisson, at the Boston Marathon in 1974.

After battling various running-related injuries, Sisson retired from running at an elite level, transitioned to triathlons- eventually giving that up as well. “I developed debilitating osteoarthritis in my ankles…at age 28. This was soon coupled with chronic hip tendonitis and nagging recurrent upper respiratory tract infections,” says Sisson in his “Case Against Cardio“.  Sisson knew he needed a new approach.

In addition to eliminating endurance sports, Sisson began eliminating certain foods once considered staples of his diet (he explains in depth in our interview below), which he credits to being “life changing”.  Not only did Sisson’s arthritis and tendonitis clear up, so too did a host of other issues including a lifelong battle with IBS and heart burn.  A new lifestyle based on old (or “Primal”) behaviors was born.

Today Sisson runs an immensely popular health website, Mark’s Daily Apple (top 3,000 website in the US), and is the author of several books including the best selling The Primal Blueprint, based on knowledge gleaned from evolutionary biology and supplemented with recent scientific findings on exercise and nutrition.

I caught up with Sisson to learn more about this Primal way of life and how it can benefit entrepreneurs.  Our conversation is below, with the transcript highlights beneath.

3 Weeks Primal

“We talk about a lot about how our ability to access good health comes as a result of our recognition that we can affect gene expression.  We can turn on genes that build muscle.  We can increase the amount of stored body fat that we burn.  We turn off the genes that cause inflammation.  We do that through some alterations in the diet.  Much of that happens through what we call ancestral eating patterns that would be emulating kind of what the hunter-gatherers for two and a half million years of evolution ate.

Clearly there’s some adaptations that our food systems, the delivery systems of produce in our daily life are slightly different than having to go out and hunt and gather this stuff.  Nevertheless, there are ways we can eliminate some foods that we used to eat and add in other foods.  Typically, in order to affect this gene expression, it takes about 21 days for the body to get the signals right and to start to up-regulate certain enzymes systems that are involved metabolizing and burning body fat and down-regulate those systems that are involved in creating inflammation or trending toward type 2 diabetes.  So we suggest that anybody take a 21 day approach.  If you’ve read the research we’ve provided and you’re of the opinion that this is potentially a great way to regain control of your own health, you can  get a lot accomplished in 21 days, hence the 21 day total body transformation challenge.”

Which Foods to Eliminate

“You should get rid of as much sugar as possible.  Not just the candy, the cookies, and the treats, but also people tend to drink a lot of sugar in the form of beverages.  Get rid of the sodas, pops, and sweet beverages – even the sweetened teas.

We’re pretty big on eliminating grains.  Grains are a very cheap source of calories that convert to glucose pretty readily in your blood stream.  They convert to sugar pretty easily.  They contain a fair number of what we call anti-nutrients, things that interfere with health.  Whether it’s the gluten that so many people are familiar with that cause sensitivities.  Or the phytates that bind up the minerals that we otherwise want to be absorbing.  Other lectins that might be causing gut inflammation and gut issues.  Getting rid of the grains is a big one.

Finally, it’s getting rid of the industrial seed oils.  The soybean oils, corn oils, sunflower, safflower, all the pressed oils that people 20 years ago were touting as heart healthy.  In fact, it turns out it was the exact opposite.”

…Foods to Favor

“Start adding back in healthy fats.  Butter is a great fat.  Avocado, macadamia nuts, extra virgin olive oil are great fats.  Fish and grass-fed beef and meats, pastured animals.  Eggs, meat, fish, and fowl.  We’re a big fan of eating vegetables as well.  We’re in alignment with a lot of other eating strategies.  It’s the elimination of the grains that is one of the big issues.”

On Adding Butter and Coconut Oil to Coffee

mark sisson abs

Mark Sisson

“Dave’s (Dave Asprey) a biohacker.  He hacks the body.  Anyway you say that, it just doesn’t sound right, does it?  He’s always looking for shortcuts that actually get even deeper into the modern science.  His Bulletproof Coffee concept which is loading coffee up with fat, there’s some research behind that that would suggest he’s not crazy.  In particular, with my coffee, I just like coffee.  I don’t want load it up with a bunch of other macronutrients when I would probably enjoy those macronutrients one bite at a time, 20 chews a piece, because I really enjoy my food.  I don’t see that necessarily as a way that I would choose to start my day off but the science does not suggest that he’s crazy.  The point is that we’re trying to train our bodies to burn fat.  Loading up coffee with fat is one way to do that, it’s one way to start your day with an ergogenic boost from a caffeine and start to stimulate the processing of free fatty acids throughout the body.  On the other hand, I like to start my day with a cup of coffee that doesn’t have that much in the way of calories.  And then I don’t eat until 1pm in the afternoon.  I do what we call a compressed eating window.  I become so good at accessing my stored body fat that I don’t need breakfast.  I don’t wake up hungry for breakfast.  My blood sugar hasn’t dropped.  My mental capacity and functioning doesn’t suffer as a result of my not eating breakfast.  One of the things that we do  with my strategy which is called the Primal Blueprint is to say “when you’re hungry, eat.  When you’re not hungry, don’t force yourself to eat.”  You’re good at accessing your own body fat stores, and that’s a good thing.”

Tips for Those Who Don’t Have Time To Cook or Extensive Budget

“On a bet I could go into just about any restaurant in any city in this country and put together a meal that would satisfy me and satisfy certain basic requirements of what would be paleo or primal.  A good example would be Chipotle to go get a primal meal for not a lot of money.   It’s not a question of when I’m on the road all bets are off.  It’s a question of becoming a mindful eater and a modern forager, learning how to forage off a menu.  It starts at home, so when you’re home you can prepare those meals. The beef need not be grass-fed, it’s not a deal breaker.  A cut of meat that you buy at Costco that is hormone and anti-biotic free is still a much better choice than a bowl of spaghetti, for instance.

Which gets to this issue that it’s really the choices we’re making are on a spectrum of best to worst.  What I try to do with Mark’s Daily Apple is kind of nudge people in the direction of better choices.  There’s no right or wrong here, but you’re probably going to have a better outcome.  You’re probably going to trend toward your ideal body composition and better even level of energy throughout the day.

For a lot of road warriors and entrepreneurs that energy level is huge.  You don’t want to show up in a meeting and drag ass.  You want to be fresh, ready to go, on, alert and responsive.  One of the benefits of this eating strategy is that you can have access to that mental faculties all the time regardless of whether or not you’ve just eaten.

You can fly across country and they don’t serve a meal on the plane, your choice is to down eight bags of crappy pretzels or just be confident that I’m able to access my stored body fat and it won’t affect my temperament, mood, productivity, I’m good to go.  That’s one of the great benefits of this is it gives you this great sense of confidence.

On Gender Differences

“There are tweaks I would make based on sex.  It’s a fair analysis to suggest that it works quicker and more obviously a greater number of men than women.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s not working on for women.  One of the first things people use as an evaluation is “okay did I lose a lot of weight that I was trying to lose on this paleo/primal eating strategy?”.  Typically what we see is that men respond incrementally faster and maybe better- half of our success stories on our site are before and after pictures of women who’ve lost 50, 75, or 100 lbs. so it’s not like it doesn’t happen, but on balance women and men have hormonal differences.

Women, if they’re trying a primal strategy and they’re stuck at a particular weight, they have to recognize that their bodies decide what the ideal body composition, not your looking at the cover of Victoria’s Secret and says, “okay that’s what.”  Ideal body composition is where your body is healthy, it doesn’t get sick, it has all the energy it needs, it doesn’t take a lot to maintain that weight, and in many cases that may be a few percentage points of body fat higher than the particular woman would like to see.  That’s gotta be okay because we do this first for health.  As an entrepreneur, or mother, or wife, I want  first and foremost to be healthy.  The looking good naked part comes later as an added benefit.  Once you’ve got your health dialed in, and you can say your health is great, and your IBS cleared up or polycystic ovarian syndrome went away, or my type two diabetes is gone.  Whatever it is.  Maybe the next step is okay, “now maybe I do want to drop a couple extra percentage points of body fat”.  That’s the point at which we say okay, now we have to start looking at caloric intake, energy usage, the types of workouts you’re doing.  Those are the kind of tweaks we can make and they’re completely doable.  It does speak to the fact that at some point the distinction between men and women and their response to this paleo eating probably is somewhat dependent on the hormal system that define maleness and femaleness.”

On the Primal Lifestyle

“The most profound initial changes in health come from changing a crappy diet into a primal diet.  Beyond that, if you don’t get enough sleep, for instance, you will negatively impact your progress toward getting healthy, and potentially negatively impact your  ability to lose unwanted stored body fat.  If you  don’t get enough sun exposure you won’t produce vitamin D in the appropriate quantities that will assist you in overcoming exposure on a daily basis to germs and foreign invaders.  Vitamin D is critical to your immune system.

I talk in The Primal Connection about the irony that we’ve built ourselves such a sterile world, that everything is sanitized and washed and overly scrutinized for its germ content, when in fact our the DNA recipes that we each hold expect us to come in  contact with germs on a daily basis to train the immune system to be good at what it does so when a true pathological onslaught happens the immune system knows how to handle it.

Ironically, up until a few hundred years ago, every bite we of food we ate contained dirt, which we populated our guts with healthy bacteria – and unhealthy bacteria, but mostly healthy – 50 trillion bacteria that reside as tenants in our bodies are working on our behalf to make sure that we stay healthy and combat disease and help us digest food.  I suggest that people take some form of probiotic or cultured food on a daily basis to help us repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria which are otherwise becoming sterile.  With a lack of healthy bacteria, we have a plethora of unhealthy bacteria in our guts that are taking over and causing disease.

I also talk in the book that the brain is wired to hear nature.  There’s certain wavelengths and decibel levels and frequencies of sounds of birds chirping and water crashing on the waves or babbling brook, that our brains are wired to hear and create a sense of calm.  Yet here we are walking down a busy street with jackhammers and cranes overhead, and taxi cabs honking, and sirens going off, and it creates this very stressful environment that we’ve created for ourselves, but we have to simply acknowledge that it exists and take steps to mitigate the damage from this disconnect.

Tips for Entrepreneurs to Live Primal

“You can install certain programs (F.lux) on your computer so when the sun goes down naturally around you, the computer turns from the typical blue light to more of a yellow light, which still allows you to work on the computer, but doesn’t interfere with the onset of melatonin, which is the hormone that allows you to go to sleep  at night.  If you’re pulling all nighters, you may not want that.  For people that work late into the night, say 8, 9 , 10 o’clock, that’s a way  to continue some work and when you do retire it doesn’t take that long for your system to adapt and for the melatonin to do its job and put you to sleep in a timely fashion.

Have a bunch of healthy, high-fat snacks around – macadamia nuts, beef jerky, cold chicken leg.  There are ways to orchestrate this and be smart about that don’t take a lot of time, thought, or money that will lead you in a direction of better health.  Even something as simple as taking a vitamin D supplement if you can’t get out because your work situation or living in Chicago in the winter.  Take a vitamin D supplement, take a fish oil supplement, probiotic, and get some of the benefits of modern technology to offset some of the detriments of modern technology.  That are now causing you to stay up late and work in a stressful situation.”

On Supplements

I think that probiotics is the number one thing.

You’re going see in the next few years gut health is going to take a huge leap in terms of its acknowledgement and its involvement in overall physical health.  Gut health in my estimation begins with making sure that you have a health gut biome, which involves typically some type of probiotic supplementation.  It could be from healthy high-fat yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and other fermented drinks, but it could also come from a simple daily probiotic capsule.”

On Selling Primal Lifestyle to Others

“I don’t try to convince anybody.  I offer a number of well thought opinions, well researched studies and approaches to this, but I’m long past the prosthelytizing or trying to convince anybody.  I have people come up and say, “hey my friend’s a vegan, convince him to eat your way,”.  I’m not interested, it’s like trying to convince someone to change religions.  People are very caught up in their eating and that part of their lifestyle and they’re sometimes militant about it.  If you are currently otherwise fit and healthy, who am I to convince you to my way.  If you’re interested, there’s all kinds of great advice over here, but it’s not my job to convince you to do otherwise.

I will say one thing in that regard which is I’ve been doing research on this for thirty years, and I’ve changed most of my diet to reflect the research.  I’ve increased the amount of fat, decreased the amount of sugar, I’ve gotten rid of the oils.  One thing I’ve kept in my diet far too long was grains.  The whole grain was something I fought for a long time.  I read a lot of research about how devastating grains were to health.  I thought, “well geeze I’ve been doing this for 45 years, I think I’m a grain eater.  I don’t have Celiac, so why I should I give up grains, it doesn’t make any sense.”  My wife had given up grains the year prior and suggested that I do a 30 day experiment and give up grains.  Well I did and it was life changing.  The IBS I had my entire life, which ran my life and I thought was due to stress, that went away.  The arthritis I had in my fingers at the age of 45 I thought was a normal artifact of being an aged athlete- that went away.  The simple heartburn I used to get- that went away.  Sinus headaches that continued after a URT infection went away.  I got fewer upper respiratory tract infections.  Instead of two or three times a year, now it was maybe once every two or three years….It wasn’t until I gave up the grains that I understood what true health looked like.  You might feel good now, but what if you could feel better.  What if you could go from good to great.

On Alcohol

“The concept of alcohol is sort of in a grey area.  The research shows that people who drink one or two glasses of red wine a night, a couple of nights a week, tend to live longer than people who don’t drink any alcohol at all.  I use that as a way of saying, “maybe there’s room for a little red wine in the Primal Blueprint, or maybe some gluten free beer.”  Bear in mind that ethanol is still a toxin, and the body probably doesn’t respond as well to ethanol as we think it does.  It’s probably better on whole that you not consume any alcohol.  But the Primal Blueprint is always about finding a lifestyle that is sustainable.  If somebody is going to tell me to give up alcohol for the rest of my life and I enjoy a glass of wine once in a while, that doesn’t appeal to me.  If somebody says that you can never have any dairy again, on principle that cavemen didn’t have access to it, that’s going to turn me off.  The Primal Blueprint is very inclusive…That doesn’t mean kill a bottle of wine every night.  That the fact that tequila has no carbs means that it’s appropriate.  It just means that in moderation these all fit into a lifestyle that we call the Primal Blueprint.”

On “Paleofantasy”

“Zuk’s book, “Paleofantasy” is based on an erroneous set of assumptions out of the block.  One of the things she says in there as rebuttals is true, but we never said them as a platform in the first place.  It’s kind of a ridiculous book.  I did a post on it on my site, debunking it…

This is not a fad diet, this is the way humans ate for two and half million years until the advent of agriculture.  This is how our bodies, our genetic recipes, expect us to eat this way to manifest the positive gene expression to create a lean, strong, fit, happy, healthy, productive human.  It’s ironic to call it a fad diet when it’s already been going on for two and a half million years.”

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When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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