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Back to basics with the primal diet

Eating more fatty meat and avoiding punishing gym sessions should be a recipe for fitness disaster. But one expert argues the opposite, claiming these are essential steps towards great health. Gabrielle Fagan finds out more about...

Primal diet
Image Credit: Supplied picture
Eating more fat and fewer carbs trains your body to burn fat, says Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint.

What if there were a health and fitness plan that not only encouraged eating healthy fats but actually advocated avoiding the gym? There is, according to health writer and triathlon enthusiast Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint. “Much of what we think we know about health, fitness and nutrition is misguided,” he says. “We should model our diet, lifestyle and behaviour after our primal ancestors from 10,000 years ago, adapting them strategically to the realities of a modern life.”

As an active endurance athlete, with experience and success in marathons and triathlons, Mark became disillusioned by the fact that his dedication didn’t seem to be paying off. “I was perpetually sick, constantly hurting, had tendinitis, arthritis, and a host of other ailments, yet I was training every day,” he says. In desperation, he investigated human health and devised an alternative strategy to suit the body’s original make-up. “Taking clues from evolutionary biology, I developed a set of instructions that allow you to control how your genes express themselves,” he explains.

“By providing the environmental inputs that our ancient, primal genes expect, we achieve the strongest, leanest, healthiest body possible.” Here are his top tips for getting fit the primal way:

Eat smart

Eating more fat and fewer carbs trains your body to burn fat, says Mark. “When you’re a fat-burner, you have access to a virtually limitless source of energy – your own body fat,” he points out. “And that fat burns cleanly, slowly, and it produces a tonne of efficient energy. A fat-burner, then, doesn’t get ravenously hungry between meals, because there’s plenty of energy right here!”

But sugar-burners, who rely on carbs, are using a perpetually fleeting source of energy. “We can only store about 500g of sugar in our bodies, with about 400g in the muscles and 100g in the liver,” he says. “That doesn’t last very long, especially if you’re unable to access your fat. Once the sugar is used up, the sugar-burner has to eat.”

However Lovely Ranganath, senior nutritionist at Healthtrendz, Dubai World Trade Centre, has a word of warning: “By restricting carbohydrates, the body and brain is forced to use fat for fuel. This pushes the body into a state of ketosis, which has been linked to health problems such as kidney damage and gout. If this sort of diet appeals to you, be sure to supplement the plan with calcium and vitamin D.”

Top tips: Eat meat, preferably pasture-raised and organic, but have it as part of a balanced diet of fruit and vegetables.

Avoid: grains, cooking oils, sugar, alfalfa, beans, peanuts, hard peas, kidney beans, soya beans and lima beans – things that must be soaked and cooked to be rendered non-toxic.

Cut the cardio

Although conventional wisdom says you should aim for 45 minutes to an hour of aerobic activity every day, Mark says this can be counterproductive and even cause you to store more fat. “Your adrenal glands secrete stress hormones as they assume you’re engaged in a stressful situation, like running from a predator or fighting for your life,” he says. “That can place excessive strain on your system and deplete the body of energy, leading to increased appetite for quick-energy carbohydrates and encourage the body to store more fat.”

Zoe Da Silva, operations manager at Urban Energy Fitness in Dubai, has seen the results of this in action: “People will beat themselves to death in the gym every morning, and yet tell me they’re still not losing any weight. They are in fact working out too hard,” she says. “We want our bodies to be in a fat-burning state when we exercise rather than a high-intensity state (where we burn more carbohydrates), which means training for longer, but in a lower heart-rate zone.” But, Zoe points out, there are so many restrictions on time for the average person these days with family and work commitments and any exercise is good and will have some benefits for our body.
Both Zoe and Mark agree that slowing down and mixing up your workouts lead to improved fitness and health. “You must establish a strong base of low-level aerobic conditioning before you can introduce more stressful, higher intensity workouts, which should only be carried out once a week,” says Mark.

Top tips: Make long workouts easier, and gradually increase the intensity of short workouts, says Mark. “Instead of following a strict schedule, align your workout decisions with your energy and motivation levels. Substitute an hour on the treadmill, for a long walk or hike, to try to maintain that elevated heart rate,” he suggests. “If you keep the pace light enough, you’ll never have to dip into your glucose stores, and you’ll burn body fat almost exclusively.” For short workouts, he advises running short sprints, or lifting weights.

Sleep well

Sleep is the foundation of health and is vital for muscle building, neuroregeneration, and for staving off degenerative diseases. “Inadequate sleep increases inflammation, reduces our ability to process carbohydrates, heightens our tendency to gain fat, makes junk food more tasty and increases our desire to eat more of it,” says Mark.
Top tips: Try to find ways to gradually deal with stress as it impacts sleep, digestion and your ability to burn fat. “Getting out in the sun and fresh air and engaging in creative outlets can help you avoid a build-up of stress, which is damaging to health,” Mark says.

Play more

The point of health and fitness is ultimately to enhance your enjoyment of life and to do activity for fun, and not to suit some crazy goal-driven lifestyle, which can often suck the joy right out of existence. “I urge you to determine the success of your fitness programme by how much fun you are having with it,” says Mark.

Top tips: “Pursue challenges which turn you on instead of worrying about the marketing hype which glorifies extreme events, such as the marathon. “Play and get physical, whether it’s doing sport or running after grandchildren, because it’s enjoyable. And remember there’s no reason why we ever should have stopped playing at some arbitrary age. Find, or rediscover, something you love to do and then do it.”