You might have seen the primal diet mentioned among other diets, such as keto, low-carb, and paleo, and it has been gaining popularity in the last few years.
What is it, though? What are its basic principles?
Let’s find out.
What Is The Primal Diet and What Are Its Principles?
The primal diet has been created by Mark Sisson and is based on his book “The Primal Blueprint.” His website, Mark’s Daily Apple, provides tons of information on the primal diet and lifestyle.
The Primal Blueprint concept is not only about diet, though – it has a few other key principles that are also very important. We’ll look into these at the end of the article – but let’s first check out the dietary principles of the primal lifestyle.
Eating As A Means To Achieve Optimal Gene Expression
Mark Sisson argues that if we give our bodies a chance to express their genes by properly nourishing them and by incorporating enough movement (of the right type) into our daily lives, they will flourish. What’s important is not only the food you’re eating, but also its quality.
Eating Whole, Natural, Unprocessed Foods
This one is possibly the most important principle of the primal diet – your food should be as natural as possible, meaning that processed foods are all off limits.
This is something that makes sense for a lot of people, and in the past few years there has definitely been an increased interest towards eating styles that concentrate on whole foods – paleo, keto, clean eating, Atkins (although Atkins does have plenty of side-products, such as protein bars and the like), the carnivore diet, and even some forms of veganism.
Similarly to paleo, the primal diet is based on what our ancestors before the agricultural revolution have consumed in the past. Of course, the fine details cannot be fully reconstructed as of now, and different tribes in different climates have probably had very different ways of eating and staple foods, but the emphasis is always on “minimally processed.”
Grains And Sugar Shouldn’t Be A Part Of Your Diet
Both grains and sugar don’t have their place in a primal lifestyle, as our ancestors were not exposed to them, and especially not in their modern-day processed forms. By ditching both grains and sugar, the carbs you consume will also be lower.
Protein Is A Priority
Protein is a necessity in any diet, as your body needs it to repair and rebuild itself so you need to eat enough protein. On the primal diet, protein is a priority and your meals are oriented around your protein source of choice – meat, fish (or other seafood), eggs, or a combination of those.
Vegetables Are A Staple, While Berries Can Be Enjoyed In Moderation
Vegetables are an important part of a primal eating plan, and these include green leafy vegetables, bright-colored above-ground vegetables, such as peppers and eggplants, plus some root vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, turnips. Potatoes or other high-carb vegetables aren’t normally a part of the primal diet.
Seasonal fruit, such as berries, can be enjoyed in moderation. They are a great source of antioxidants and micronutrients and can be a part of a primal eating plan.
Fat Should Be An Important Part Of Your Diet
Good sources of fat, such as animal fat, high quality extra virgin olive oil, extra virgin avocado oil, ghee, grass-fed butter and also fat from food, such as the fat found in dairy, avocados, coconut, and egg yolks, shouldn’t be feared – in fact, it’s a natural and even essential part of the primal diet. Saturated fat is not the enemy, nor is cholesterol.
On the other hand, trans fats, hydrogenated fats, and highly processed, inflammatory vegetable oils, such as corn oil and soybean oil, should be avoided.
Carbs Shouldn’t Be High
As you’ll be limiting grains, added sugar, and processed foods in general, as well as potatoes and other starchy vegetables, the carbs you consume will naturally be much lower than on the standard American diet.
Going into ketosis can be a useful instrument for weight loss and weight maintenance, but is not an absolute necessity on the primal diet (contrary to keto).
If You Want To Change How You Look, Diet Is Extremely Important – More Than Exercise
Your diet is essential if you want to improve the way you look. Although exercise is healthy and has plenty of benefits, if your diet is not on point, you won’t be able to lose weight or improve your body composition through exercise only.
Counting calories is not a must on the primal diet – Mark Sisson argues that if we fuel our bodies with the right nutrients, they’ll naturally aim to be lean and fit – but some people choose to do it in order to see where their appetite stands when they switch over to a primal lifestyle.
The 80/20 Principle
As you might have noticed if you have spent some time reading Mark’s website, the primal diet is generally less restrictive than other diets, and the list of foods that are allowed or not can even undergo slight modifications based on scientific evidence and on Mark’s observations.
Additionally, the primal diet is more flexible, as far as day-to-day decisions are concerned – the 80/20 principle is an essential part of the diet, meaning that if you nail down everything to perfection 80% of the time, in the remaining 20% you can, within reason, enjoy some freedom.
For example, if you’re currently in another country and really want to try a dish that has ingredients that aren’t “allowed” – you should go for it. Had a stressful week and plan on going out with your friends to a restaurant where you won’t be eating all primal?
If the majority of your food choices were on point during the week, there is no reason to not enjoy your dinner. That shouldn’t be an excuse for overeating, though.
What Can You Eat On The Primal Diet?
On the primal diet, you’d be eating mostly whole, natural foods without added sugar, by giving priority to high-quality protein sources such as meat or fish. Vegetables, nuts and seeds, eggs, and a small to moderate amount of seasonal fruits should be the rest of your staple foods.
To sum it up, here are the foods you can eat:
- Fish and seafood
- Vegetables, with the exception of high-carb starchy vegetables, such as potatoes (although these can be eaten in moderation)
- Nuts and seeds
- Peanuts, if you tolerate them well
- Coconuts, coconut milk, coconut water and other coconut products
- Healthy fats such as animal fats, extra virgin olive oil, extra virgin avocado oil, butter, ghee
- Moderate amount of berries, when they’re in season
- Coffee and tea
Here are the foods you can eat occasionally:
- Dark chocolate
- Red Wine
As you can see, dairy can be eaten if you’re following a primal eating plan, if you tolerate and digest it well. You should opt for high-quality fermented dairy, such as yogurt, kefir, and moderate amounts of cheese enjoyed in a sensible manner.
What Are The Foods To Avoid?
As for the foods to avoid, here is a quick summary:
- Added sugar in any form
- Processed foods
- Trans fats and vegetable oils
- Soda, including diet soda
Additionally, it’s advised to limit the consumption of rice and potatoes, but Mark Sisson notes that from the high-carb foods out there, these are generally well-tolerated by most people and have less undesirable side effects than, for example, grains.
Going Primal Is Not Only About Your Diet – It’s A Lifestyle Change
The primal blueprint, which is the concept that is the backbone of the primal diet, is a set of guidelines on how to improve the quality of your, and they go beyond diet. Here are some of the basics on how to switch to a primal lifestyle:
You don’t need hours and hours of cardio to achieve a good level of fitness – in fact, it might even be counterproductive, and provoke inflammation and unnecessary stress for your body.
Instead, try short bursts of high intensity exercise, such as sprinting, and lift weights (using full-body movements, such as squats and deadlifts, and not gym machines) a few times a week.
Walking, or hiking, are excellent low-intensity activities that you can enjoy for improving your overall stress.
Find Time To Relax And De-stress
Stress is an integral part of our busy lives nowadays, and that’s why it’s essential to find the time to relax and unwind. This can be achieved in plenty of ways – by engaging in a hobby, by going out for a walk or a hike, by playing with your kids, by spending time with your loved ones, and so on.
Just make sure it’s not a passive form of entertainment (or at least not exclusively!), such as TV or countless YouTube videos. Get creative and don’t be afraid to try new things.
Sleep is also essential for good health. Stop working at least a few hours before going to bed, and stop using screens – including your mobile phone – at least an hour before bedtime. Make your bedroom a place for sleep and relaxation only – don’t bring your laptop to bed!
Mark Sisson recommends that in addition to adopting these dietary recommendations, readers should also be mindful and use your brain. He encourages readers to engage in stimulating and creative activities outside of your daily responsibilities to help keep you energized, refreshed, productive, and creative in everything you do.
He also recommends avoiding stupid mistakes. In other words, being present and making informed, educated decisions will help keep you away from dangers, both routine and extreme. He states that cultivating risk management skills help people stay safe and sensible to eliminate what he refers to as “avoidable suffering.”
Research shows that focusing on mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical needs. The two are often co-dependent on each other.
How Does The Primal Diet Compare To Other Similar Diets Out There?
As you can see, the primal diet is not very different from a number of other diets out there, such as paleo and keto, and even has some similarities to the carnivore diet.
Let’s see how these compare to each other.
Primal vs. Keto
The primal diet is very similar to keto in many ways. Both diets put an emphasis on healthy fats and adequate protein, and in both the primal and the keto diet you mostly eat whole, natural, unprocessed foods with no added sugar. In both diets fruits aren’t a staple – berries should be eaten in moderation and occasionally.
Vegetables are an important part of both keto and the primal diet, but keto excludes all vegetables that are somewhat higher in carbs, while the primal diet only specifically limits potatoes.
Overall, the primal diet is less strict, as far as carbs are concerned – you should keep these low, which would allow your body to burn fat most of the time, but you might not be in ketosis all the time.
Contrary to that, when you’re doing keto, the most important part of the diet is to limit your carbs sufficiently in order to reach the state of ketosis and stay there for weeks at a time.
The primal diet does not necessarily have you count macros, although you’re free to do so, if you choose.
Primal vs. Paleo
Both the primal and the paleo diet are based on a hypothetical reconstruction of the diet of our ancestors, the hunter-gatherers. Both put an emphasis on protein and on vegetables, while limiting grains, sugar, and processed foods.
One of the major differences between primal and paleo is that primal doesn’t have such a strict stance on dairy as paleo – on the primal diet, high-quality dairy is permitted, if you tolerate it well, especially if it’s fermented dairy, such as yogurt, kefir, and cheese.
Potatoes, and especially white potatoes, are another food that the paleo diet limits completely, while in the primal diet eating these would be up to each person.
If your goal is to be in ketosis most of the time, of course they’d be off limits. However, if you tolerate them well and are now into a weight maintenance phase, there is no reason not to have some from time to time.
In general, paleo is the stricter diet of these two, and has a more rigid set of rules. On the other hand, the primal lifestyle is exactly that – a lifestyle more than a diet, and allows for some level of flexibility.
Primal vs. Carnivore
Meat is an important component of both the primal and the carnivore diet, and both limit grains, sugars or any sort of processed foods. That’s where the similarities stop, however, as the carnivore diet consists exclusively of meat (and sometimes other animal products, such as dairy or eggs), while the primal diet includes all sorts of vegetables and even the occasional fruit.
The primal lifestyle can be an excellent long-term strategy to achieve better health and be less stressed overall. It’s not so much a strict diet as a set of guidelines to follow, and they can be somewhat flexible, within reason.
If you switch from the standard American diet to primal, you’ll likely see a major improvement in your health, will enjoy stabler blood sugar levels, and possibly a better appetite control.
For people who are chasing a specific body fat percentage or who need quicker results in terms of weight loss, the primal diet, without counting calories, might not put them in a sufficient calorie deficit, so you might need to be mindful of that and eventually track your food.
As with any diet, the key to success is consistency – in order to see changes that last, you need to change your lifestyle and your attitude towards food, and not just “go on a diet” for a couple of weeks.
Additionally, adopting some of the other primal principles of the primal blueprint, such as getting enough sleep, training in a way that’s natural for your body, and making a conscious effort to find time to relax and unwind, would all help you enjoy better health and lower stress levels.
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