Thursday, June 5, 2008

"The Primal Blueprint"

I tend to visit a number of websites that promote health and well-being. One of the best is run by Mark Sisson, who blogs daily on "Mark's Daily Apple." Mark is a former long distance runner who remains in phenomenal shape by eating, exercising, and living well.

One of the cornerstones of his program, and the subject of today's post, is his advocacy for the "Primal Blueprint," which, shortly stated, is a fitness and dietetic regimen based on what we have at least extrapolated to be the ways of life of our evolutionary forbears. The logic is simple: if we are the descendents of bipedal and upright homonoids who have given us certain dietetic and lifestyle constraints and adaptations, then our bodies would best be suited by following our evolved capacities. Because our stomachs, muscles, and brains are conditioned to certain stimuli and have limited adapative capacities based on the frequency and distribution of those stimuli, then we would do well to mimic the conditions under which our physiology evolved and optimally operates.

For the most part, this renders sound advice: sleep a lot, don't be lazy and/or a workout addict, engage your mind, and spend time outdoors. Practical advice that we should all follow. However, I think the program may run aground when it comes to diet. In general, Mark advocates eating lots of fruits and vegetables (no problem there), a fair quantity of meat, and little to no sugar, grains, or dairy. I have two problems with this. First, if the diet is actually intended to mimic our primate and homonoid origins, then Mark's prescription for meat is actually quite high. Most early homonoids and primates were herbivores for the most part, and were only obligately carnivorous, as protein in the form of wild animals was quite hard to obtain. And, when obtained, most meats were consumed in large quantities over a short span of time, given the lack of available ways of curing or preserving meat. Thus, if we really wanted to mimic "Grok's" diet, we would eat large quantities of nuts, legumes, vegetables, roots, leaves, some fruit, certain bugs, easily available carbohydrate sources (corn, beets, etc.), and only occasionally binge on meat in all its various guises (liver, heart, muscle, marrow, you name it). This would usually follow extended bursts of exercise in the warmer months.

The second problem is related to the first. Many of the world's longest-lived peoples come from regions where high quantities of carbohydrates are consumed regularly: Japan (rice), the Mediterranean (pasta and corn), and Scandinavia (potatoes). This likely indicates that diet is more complex than simply mimicking a primal diet. There are likely other arbitrating factors, such as exercise, sleep, genetic insulin resistance, vitamin-richness of food, etc., that moderate life expectancy and overall health. Furthermore, it means that we can't derive normative rules for how we live from what we were, though our evolutionary past certainly provides healthy constraints (still no sugar) as to what we should, and should not, do (this leaves aside the whole question of the ethics of meat consumption in our society).

One last question: if diet is related to the "aesthetic life" in some way, then do our evolutionary origins at least partially dictate the pleasure we derive from cooking, eating, and living well? Moreover, do they at least provide the "blueprint" for how we are to enjoy the procuring and consumption of the food (both ethically and materially)?