Today I feel privileged to connect with the legendary Mark Sisson, the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet and bestselling book, The Primal Blueprint! Mark has been integral in turbo-charging the growth of the Primal Paleo movement. He is a prolific writer, blogger, and founder of Primal Kitchen and Primal Nutrition.
Our body’s ability to supply the cells with energy is critical to our lives. In all his work, which spans decades, Mark emphasizes the importance of metabolic health, which means that every cell in the body gets supplied with enough energy to function optimally. Metabolic flexibility is the body’s ability to extract energy from multiple sources, including fat stored in the body, and access energy from ketones to fuel the brain.
In this episode, Mark and I dive into metabolic health and flexibility, nutritional dogmatism, disordered eating and extremes, and the misguidedness of the “calories in, calories out” approach. We discuss food scarcity, intermittent fasting, impulse control, and mindset, and Mark also shares how he has managed to have a healthy, happy, and well-adjusted family despite his success.
I hope you enjoy our conversation and gain a lot from listening to it! Stay tuned for more!
“Metabolic health is a catch-all phrase that encompasses the ability of every cell in the body to function optimally with the amount of energy that it needs.”
– Mark Sisson
IN THIS EPISODE YOU WILL LEARN:
- What does metabolic health look like day-to-day?
- Mark explains how metabolic flexibility empowers people.
- Mark explains why we tend to over-eat from an evolutionary perspective.
- Most Americans are over-fed and under-nourished. Ideally, we need to figure out a strategy for eating as little as possible and staying satiated while building and maintaining muscle mass and having all the energy we need.
- You will get sarcopenia if you do not actively work against it.
- What does it take to maintain your thyroid health?
- It is much easier to avoid over-eating when you become aware of being satiated.
- Building lean muscle mass is critical.
- It is crucial to understand that men and women have different nutritional requirements.
- Why is the “calories in, calories out” approach to weight loss misguided?
- Mark explains why he advocates for a more flexible approach to food choices.
- Mark shares his secret to cultivating a healthy and happy personal life alongside his professional life.
Connect with Mark Sisson
Connect with Cynthia Thurlow
Check out Cynthia’s website
Cynthia Thurlow: Welcome to Everyday Wellness Podcast. I’m your host, nurse practitioner, Cynthia Thurlow. This podcast is designed to educate, empower and inspire you to achieve your health and wellness goals. My goal and intent, is to provide you with the best content and conversations from leaders in the health and wellness industry each week and impact over a million lives.
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Cynthia Thurlow: What an honor it was today to connect with the legendary Mark Sisson, who is the New York Times, bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet and best-selling book The Primal Blueprint.
He’s been integral in turbocharging the growth of the primal paleo movement and is a prolific writer, blogger and the founder of Primal Kitchen and Primal Nutrition.
Today, we dove deep into metabolic health, as well as flexibility, nutritional dogmatism. The role of disordered eating and extremes, how misguided calories in calories out really is and how that has derailed so many people’s quest for health. The role of food scarcity, intermittent fasting, impulse control and lastly, we dove into mindset, as well as, how he has been able to navigate, having a happy, healthy, well-adjusted family. Despite all of the incredible success he has had. I hope you will enjoy this discussion as much as I did recording it.
Cynthia Thurlow: So, Mark, it’s so nice and such a privilege and an honor to connect with you today. I know that my Everyday Wellness Podcast guests will really enjoy this conversation.
Mark Sisson: Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me, Cynthia.
Cynthia Thurlow: Absolutely. So, obviously, we share a lot of interests and one thing going through your breadth of work, which spans decades is your emphasis on metabolic health. What does that really represent to you? What does that look like on a day-to-day basis for you, Mark?
Mark Sisson: Well. I mean, metabolic health is kind of a catch-all phrase that, I guess encompasses the ability of every cell in the body to function optimally with the amount of energy that it needs. Energy is life. Our ability to supply energy to the cells is critical to our lives, critical to the enjoyment of our lives, mobility thought, all of these things come back to a central theme, which is access to the energy. Metabolic health basically describes that I talk about and I helped popularize the term Metabolic Flexibility starting about 10 years ago. When I realized that, so many people don’t have this ability to extract energy from multiple substrates. Most people for various reasons, which we can go into spend their lives in a sugar burning mode, where they’re constantly trying to stoke the fire and feed their cells energy by eating a high-carbohydrate based diet, has a litany of issues that go along with that. But the end result is that you really never get a chance to teach your body, how to extract energy from other substrates, such as fat, such as ketones and in denying your body that ability, you deny yourself, energy and life force and a good mood and a healthy metabolism in general, and a robust immune system and all of the things that sort of make for an optimized life.
Metabolic flexibility would describe your body’s ability to extract energy certainly from the carbohydrate that you eat, from the glucose in your bloodstream, from the glycogen stored in your muscles. But also, from a fat on your plate of food, or almost most importantly, from the fat stored on your body, on your hips and thighs and belly and wherever else you tend to store fat. And to access energy in the form of ketones that your liver can make, in the absence of glycogen and glucose to fuel the brain. And once you achieve this state of metabolic flexibility, you are an entirely new empowered position in your life. You can go long periods of time without having to eat, you get a handle on hunger, appetite and cravings, which for a lot of people basically directs their calendar every few hours, every day of their lives. It’s an amazing skill that we’re all born with. It’s in all of our DNA to be able to extract this energy from these different substrates. But, because of lifestyle choices that, not just we make, but our parents made for us, when we were very young, we sort of headed down this path of just being really good at burning sugar, and not good at burning fats and ketones.
Cynthia Thurlow: I think it’s a really important distinction to make. I was raised in the 70s and 80s and my mom was Italian. She was very big on “you ate three meals a day” and no snacks in between and she was crunchy before we even knew what that concept was on the East Coast. If we really look back in our grandparent’s generation, there wasn’t the advent of all these processed foods and people were more physically active.
I was looking at some photos from the 1960s that my parents had shared with me. And you really didn’t see people that were obese or overweight, and yet that has become the norm. And so there have been so many changes that have occurred over the last 40-50 years that have really been at the detriment of our metabolic health and I love that you are touching so eloquently on the fact that our bodies are designed to be able to use different types of fuels. We’re not designed to be stuck in this metabolic inflexibility where I would say most if not all of my patients over the last 20 plus years that we’re dealing with weight loss resistance, and all of the information that we were giving our patients, encouraging them to eat snacks and mini meals and concentrate on heart healthy grains. We’re doing completely the opposite of what our bodies are designed to do. We’re designed to burn fat in our bodies, we are not designed to be stuck in the just the utilization of using stored carbohydrates as a fuel substrate because it will give us those issues with cravings and energy slumps and feeling sleepy after meals and being weight loss resistant.
It’s one of those things where when we talk about as an example, intermittent fasting is one particular strategy that can be beneficial for this. People say, “Oh, it’s a fad.” It’s just something that’s new or novel. I remind them that some of the things we’re talking about date back to an ancestral health perspective. We wouldn’t be here as a species if we weren’t able to effectively utilize stored energy as a fuel to be able to fuel us through opportunities or times when there is food scarcity. And unfortunately, we’re in a state here in the United States and most westernized countries, where there’s a surplus of food at all times of the day and night. Now, we have Uber Eats, which I told my children, “If we ever have Uber Eats come to my house,” I’m going to feel like we’ve just completely given up as a family. But I think it’s important for people to understand that our modern-day lifestyles are putting us in a disadvantaged position in terms of our health on so many levels.
Mark Sisson: Yeah. I mean, you touched on the ancestral life way and evolution. We evolved for millions of years, even before we were human, and the mammalian evolution went back 100 million years, we evolved with the default setting being scarcity, food scarcity. And we adapted these mechanisms by which we could– when there was food around, we could overeat. Our brains are literally wired to overeat. We could overeat and one of the most elegant evolutionary adaptations, we could take excess energy and store it as fuel on our bodies. I mean, if you think about the elegance of that scenario, where you don’t have to waste food. If you overeat it, you convert the excess energy, we call it calorie, the excess energy into a fuel that you carry, and might I add, conveniently located over the center of gravity. So instead of having fat on our shoulders and on our back of our neck, we typically tend to store fat around our belly, around our midsection, on the tops of our thighs and on our lower legs, on the lower part of the back and build out and up from there, because it was convenient to carry these extra calories.
Our ancient forebears would not have looked upon being 30 pounds “overweight” as a bad thing. They would have thought, “Oh, my goodness, this is great. I get to survive long periods of time now when there’s no food around.” So, the ability to store excess fuel, excess calories adds fuel, which one of the things that got us here. But it was also the ability to access that stored fuel. In the absence of food, not just for a meal or two, but for days at a time. In the absence of new food coming in, to call upon those fuel stores and burn them off in a way that was metabolically efficient, metabolically effective, didn’t cast off any reactive oxygen species, or oxidative issues. The development of this ability of the liver to produce just enough ketones to supply the brain in the absence of glucose and to keep the brain not just active, but probably in a fairly good mood most of the time even in the absence of these calories. I doubt any of our ancestors got angry, they just said, “Well, there’s no food, but I’ve got this amazing skill, that I can take this stored energy out of storage, and burn it until I find food.” We all have both of these skills. The problem is, most of us, especially in this country, suffer from not being able to burn the calories, but being still very good at storing the calories, which is exacerbated. As you eluded by, what I would call an abundance of crappy food, crunchy, salty, fatty, sweet, appealing food that is accessible all the time everywhere coupled with a lack of impulse control. I think a lot of people know that they shouldn’t be eating this often and this much, but it’s wired into our brains to do that. It takes a bit of discipline to not do that. And then, as you and I both know, once you utilize the discipline, over a period of a few weeks, it becomes easier and easier to understand how little food you actually need to have all the energy you want, to have a lot of muscle mass you need, to not get sick, and most importantly, all the food you need to not be hungry.
Cynthia Thurlow: Well, I think that’s an important distinction and you’re alluding to discipline, which makes me reflect on mindset. And I always say mindset is everything, in terms of looking at what our goals are, how we’re going to get from where we are to where our goals are? Whether it’s, “I’m going to choose no longer to snack,” whether that’s going to be, “I’m going to eat within a 12-hour feeding window.” Whether that’s, “I’m going to go lift weights.” What have you found to be some of the more pressing positive attributes when it comes to moving towards those goals and that motivation, because obviously, you are an incredible example of this. Obviously, I’ve had the opportunity to meet you in person. You probably don’t remember, I literally wasn’t paying attention and bumped into you at an event and you were so polite. But I remember after I realized who it was, I was like you really are the living example of everything that you are purporting. And that’s why, I think, it’s so important to get this information out there that it is much more challenging, as we get older, not challenging in a bad way. I always say, “I’m 50 and what I do now is a little different than what I did even 5 or 10 years ago.” But it’s continuously fine tuning what we’re doing to get us closer to our goals.
Mark Sisson: Yeah. I would say, that number one problem we have as humans, is we tend to see what we can get away with. We tend to take it right up to the edge, because why would you want to be living a restrictive monastic, dedicated lifestyle, if there were no negative implications. Both in the long term or in the short term. So, people might know that they shouldn’t eat this much, or they might know that they ought to exercise a little bit more, or they might know that they probably should do a little bit more at work. But people tend to see what they can get away with. What’s the least amount of work I can do and still keep my job? What’s the most amount of food I can eat and not gain weight? Or what’s the most amount of food I can eat and only gain a pound or two a year? We tend to live on that edge of what can I get away with rather than to pull back a little bit and say, “Well, what’s another way of looking at this?”
With regard to food, I did a thought experiment a bunch of years ago, and I’m guilty of this as well, because of the unfettered access to food and the lack of impulse control and the fact that we’re wired to eat crunchy, salty, fatty, sweet things. I certainly lived a life of what’s the most amount of food I can eat. But when I was a marathon runner, I ate 6000-7000 calories a day. I ate 1000 grams of carbs every single day. A lot of it was, the kind of stuff that I would never touch today. It was bread, rice, pasta, pizza, beer, a lot of these things I felt I needed in order to fuel the running that I was doing as a marathoner. I was doing 100 miles a week, training. I weighed 30 pounds less than I do now. I could get away with all of this, I could get away with being a glutton. But I know in retrospect, it wasn’t good for me. It was a highly inflammatory diet, it caused arthritis, it caused irritable bowel syndrome, it caused a number of defects in my immune system that allowed me to get colds and flu, five, six times a year.
All of these things weren’t apparent to me, because I wasn’t gaining weight, because I wasn’t getting fat. I could get away with eating a lot of food. I think a lot of people in the US right now, those who aren’t even– I have friends who were ostensibly very fit and very healthy, who only work out, just so they can eat more food. It’s really an interesting, existential dilemma to look at this and go, “Well, all right, so instead of looking at what’s the most amount of food I can eat and get away with it, what’s the least amount of food I can eat? What’s the minimum effective dose of food that I can eat, maintain or build muscle mass, have all the energy I want, never get sick, but most importantly not be hungry. If I can reduce the amount of food I take in and not be hungry, that’s a great thing.” That is an example of or maybe how our ancestors probably lived. And that looks like different things to different people. It might be going keto for a while. It might be intermittent fasting for a while. It might be fractal eating for a while. In other words, no meals someday, three meals other days, mixing it up.
For everybody, I would say that the one thing that most Americans share, is we eat too much food and if we could figure out a strategy to reduce the amount of food we take in, again still maintain muscle mass and be robust and have a healthy immune system, have all the energy we want, and still not be hungry and not be driven by cravings, that’s the ideal situation.
Cynthia Thurlow: I couldn’t agree more and it’s really interesting, because I was thinking thoughtfully about our discussion today and one thing that I come to find almost without exception. When people start eating, restructuring their macros, irrespective of what dogmatic principles they’re aligned with, they stop snacking and they get to a point where they’re satiated. So many people are never satiated, they just eat and eat and eat. I’ve teenagers at my house and very athletic boys and their ability to eat food all day long. And they’re eating healthy food, but they’re still growing. But for the average adult in United States, they don’t experience true satiety until they get to a point where they’re really hitting their protein macros, and they’re really eating nutrient dense foods. They’re not governed by these powerful and profound cravings. And I remind men and women that cravings are oftentimes your body’s way of communicating that you’re not meeting a need in some degree or another. I think many, many people go, their probably entire adult lifetime being led by never being satiated, and just having chronic and habitual cravings. Likely for those hyperpalatable, highly processed foods that you were alluding to which, unfortunately, are the bulk of what most Americans are consuming.
Mark Sisson: Yeah, overfed and undernourished. I mean that’s really the status of most Americans now. I read a statistic on the internet, so it must be true the other day that the average caloric intake in the American diet is 3400 calories a day. I’m like, “Holy smokes, that is literally more than twice as many calories as most people need to thrive.” Literally twice as many calories. So, if you break down the macros, and you go, “Well, okay, Mark, so what do you mean by that because that doesn’t sound right, because the even the USDA might say, 20,” what’s the number 2400 calories is sort of an average number? But how many people need more than 100 grams of protein a day. How many? Not many people. Almost nobody needs more than 150 grams of protein a day. Even if you take 150 grams of protein a day, that’s 600 calories right there. Okay, then if you just say, “All right, let’s say you get 100 grams of fat, some of it’s saturated, some of it’s monounsaturated, a little bit of Omega-3s, you get 100 grams of fat. That sounds like a big number. Well, it’s only 900 calories.
So, now with 150 grams of protein, 100 grams of fat, we’re only at 1500 calories, and if you make the rest up with carbohydrate, and we know most people don’t need more than 150 grams of carbs a day, which again, is 600 calories. I mean, we literally get where we at. We’re 2100 calories. That would fuel just about anybody, but a 6’5″ a lineman in the NFL or an overly large person. And yet, the average American intake apparently is 3400 calories a day. It is bizarre, almost in the enormity of that.
Cynthia Thurlow: Well. I think it’s Dr. Gabrielle Lyon always says that we are overfed and under muscled. And I know that we both share a passion for strength training and maintaining metabolic flexibility. Also, vis-à-vis, maintaining our musculature and how critically important this is. I remind people all the time that sarcopenia, this muscle loss of aging isn’t a question of if, but when. If you are not working against it, and you talked about that 100 grams of protein per day, being something we should all be aiming for. And I tell people, all the time that if you’re hitting 45-50 grams of protein in a meal, you’re full. At least, I should speak in the context of a woman, I eat 50 grams of protein, I’m full, I’m not looking for more food, and I will not be hungry again for four or five hours. And I think that’s really a good benchmark.
Now, in terms of strength training, obviously I know this is something that you are a proponent of as well. Do you find that a lot of people are surprised to understand that their muscles are involved in this metabolic flexibility piece as well?
Mark Sisson: I think that’s an easy explanation. That’s a two-sentence explanation and people get it. I mean, if you describe how much of what happens with the body as a result of the muscles moving through time and space, and the muscles are the ones that are employing most of the energy substrates, then you understand that. One of the dangers here is that people will say, “Oh, so that means that if I had more muscle, I can eat more food.” [Cynthia laughs] Again, we get back to that, “What is it about you wanting to eat more food?” I’ll give you an example.
We have this these discussions about thyroid health quite often, and people say, “Well, my doctor says my thyroid is low and I should start being concerned about that.” And, of course, my response is, “How do you feel?” “Well, I feel great. I have energy.” “Are you cold?” “No, not cold at all. I feel great.” “Are you losing hair?” “No, my hair is full.” “So let me get this straight, your doctor says that your thyroid is on the low end of the spectrum. It’s the low end of the normal range, and is concerned about you. And yet here you are asymptomatic and having a great time and enjoying life. I would argue that.” “Well, since my doctor is concerned about my metabolism slowing down.” I’m like, “Okay, and tell me what’s wrong about that? What’s wrong with that?” “Well, if I get too slow metabolism, then I’ll start to gain weight.” “Again, this is a false logic.” I would say that people in general, who are on the low end of the thyroid normal range, and I’m one of them, who have all the energy and who have muscle mass and who aren’t cold and who loathe cold plunges and things like that, that you’re winning because thyroid is revving your engine and a very well-tuned low RPM. And you’re not burning off excess calories, you’re not running high, you’re not running hot.
Whereas, people tend to think, “Well, I got to get my metabolism up. I got to boost my metabolism, so I can burn more calories.” “Okay, why do you want to burn more calories?” “Well, I can eat more.” Again, it’s like, okay, what is this fixation with eating? If we recognize that at some point, you’re no longer hungry. So, we go back to Cynthia’s statement that “45 grams of protein in a meal is pretty damn satiating.” It is, it’s really satiating, and there’s no reason to eat more than that. If 45 grams of protein, which again is only 180 calories, now you got some carbs there, maybe you got some other stuff going on. But it’s not a huge meal and yet it’s so satiating that if you are in tune with everything else that’s going on, you push the plate away and say, “That’s it, I don’t need another serving. another helping, or even to finish the rest of this 32-ounce porterhouse,” or whatever it is. [chuckles]
My wife, who’s very fit, but she’s been working on her butt. It’s a chick thing. In the last five or eight years, whether it’s, Nicki Minaj or the Kardashians or JLo, or whatever, but nice butts are in. So, my wife says, “That’s my new thing. I want to work on my butt.” She’s goes to a female trainer and she’s got to get 145 grams of protein a day. And my wife says, “What? That should be easy.” Jesus, that is a lot. She’s always complaining about how full she is and how stuffed she is. And she’s not eating a lot of carbs and she’s not eating a ton of fat. She’s just trying to get the 145 grams of protein in a day. It’s a lot of food, if you eat it in the context of some meat, some fish, some chicken or whatever. So, yeah, it’s pretty interesting. And she’s getting really strong, too. She did the hip thrusts that you do for the glutes.
Cynthia Thurlow: Yeah.
Mark Sisson: She did six reps of 325 the other day. I couldn’t come close to them. So, you need protein to build a muscle, but the idea that you should do all this, just so you can deserve more food or eat more food. If you think about it, if you’re really reduce it to the absurd essential elements, it’s pretty funny that we think that way.
Cynthia Thurlow: Yeah. I think it’s really the reframe that I always use with patients is, we want to maintain insulin sensitivity, like that is critically important. People may or may not understand that we actually become insulin resistant in our muscles first. And that’s why it’s so, so important to maintain lean muscle as we’re getting older. I think when I was in my 20s and 30s, I was still very focused on cardio. I think that’s even probably the dogmatic principles we were telling our patients. As I’ve gotten older, it’s been more about educating people, even if it’s bodyweight exercise to start, but really working on, the strength training piece, like what your wife is doing is incredible. I’m not even at that point yet, doing hip thrusts that heavy, so she is very strong, which I think is fantastic.
Now, when we’re talking about gender differences because I know you have a lot of content on this as well. And I think one of my favorite articles of yours was talking about the gender differences, about men versus women with fasting, I think this is an important point because there’s this kind of mindset that gender is not important as it pertains to any type of principle that we’re talking about. Whether it’s a ketogenic diet lifestyle, whether it’s low carb, whether it’s thyroid function, whether it’s intermittent fasting, strength training, etc. But there are differences. And so, one of the best articles that I read of yours recently, and actually I think this article was written a few years ago, but it was talking about the differences between men and women, even when they’re intermittent fasting, or they’re eating less often that we really do have to lean into our physiology. And you and your team did such a nice job on this, because it’s really speaking to the fact that throughout our lifetime. Again, irrespective of gender, we have to be cognizant of what our body’s primary purposes are.
When we’re younger and we’re at peak fertile years, under the age of 35, you have to do things a little differently than you do as you’re getting older, I think it becomes a little bit more deliberate. You were talking about this kind of delayed gratification that maybe when people are younger, they’re thinking, “Oh, I’m going to do X, so that I can eat more.” And then as you’re getting older, you’re like, “Well, I’m going to do X, because it actually allows me to sleep better. It allows my clothes to fit the way I want them, it allows me to have the energy to chase after kids and grandkids.” I think that’s the emphasis that I think is so important.
Mark Sisson: Yeah. There’s a point at which, I guess, you’d say, you have to hit bottom in order to make the decision. When movement becomes painful, you start to rethink your dietary intake, or you start to think maybe you should spend a bit more time in the gym. It’s sort of universal across male and female. But if we go back to the essential elements of what we’re talking about with regard to energy production, for instance, and storing energy versus burning it. The old ancient wisdom of calories in, calories out is wrong. It’s basically misguided. 2000 calories of Oreos is not the same as 2000 calories of grass-fed steak and salad.
We go back to, “Well, what does that look like?” It’s really calories stored versus calories burned. This is what we’re trying to address. And how we address that is a hormonal equation. There’re so many hormones involved in this. It’s not just some magic you eat something and it burns off. There’s a lot of hormonal input into what we’re doing. Certain types of food generate certain types of hormonal responses. The classic one is the insulin response to carbohydrate. You got insulin, you got the counter-regulatory hormone glucagon, which can produce glycogen in the absence. You’ve got leptin and ghrelin, which are working in opposites with regard to hunger and fulfillment or the sensation of hunger.
Then you’ve got testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, you’ve got a cascade of neurotransmitters. And all of these are basically signaling devices that act on receptor sites and tell the cell what to do. Do I allow access into the cell? Do I prevent access into the cell? There are so many different things going on at the level of hormones, thyroid I just described. And now when we talk about the difference between the sexes, male and female have different hormone and hormonal influences at different times of life, at different times of the month. These are not to be overlooked in this giant equation of how do I eat to optimize my body composition and my energy levels.
When we talk about men and fasting and keto, it’s pretty easy for men. Virtually all men who really aggressively go after metabolic flexibility through a ketogenic approach, or through some form of intermittent fasting combined with keto, yet some modicum of success from pretty damn good to exceptional. Women go from, “I didn’t really like it and it was uncomfortable and it didn’t make me feel right and intuitively it was wrong for me too.” Yeah, it was crazy successful. And so we have to look at the female application of this and say, “Okay, now this gets really interesting, now we’re really talking about experiment of one, now we’re talking about a whole range of variables that we have to put into this equation.” How old are you? What time of the month is it? What sort of eating history do you have in terms of your mental attachment to eating? Is your body dysmorphia? Do you have PTSD from a traumatic event earlier in your life? Which, certainly men do too, but on the female side, it impacts women differently. It really becomes a very much more complex equation for women.
Now, this isn’t to say that I can’t take a template and overlay it and say, “Start with this, but pay really close attention to how you feel, to your energy levels, to your mood, and to your thoughts, and really tweak it over time to see what works best. Maybe if your husband is working with an 18-hour window of not eating and just a six-hour window of eating, maybe that’s not going to work for you. Maybe 12 is fine, maybe there’s some adjustment that you need to make that’s going to be ideal for you at this time of your life, even at this time of the month. Sorry to be so obtuse about the whole thing. I don’t have answers here, I have partial explanations, I guess.
Cynthia Thurlow: No, you did a beautiful job. I think it really speaks to the N of 1 that we may be able to take pieces of different nutritional dogmas and eating windows, whether that’s a 12-hour broad feeding window, or if it’s a tighter feeding window and finding and experimenting what works best. What I find for so many people is that they’ve been so accustomed to being told what to do, that when I say to them experiment, it makes them very uncomfortable for a lot of different reasons. And I love that you tangentially touched on the concept of our influences, whether it’s trauma or our relationships with food, because I do see on social media, as I’m sure you do as well. I’m using fasting as one example, that a lot of people that have a disordered relationship with food are able to hide their anorexia, or their binge eating tendencies underneath the guise of binge eating. I think we really have to be, I say, we, as in collectively, those of us that are in this health and wellness space just need to be leaning into the fact that people can utilize or use this umbrella term to describe their habits and use it as a way to kind of deflect attention from what’s really going on.
I do find what’s interesting more often than not, I had more female patients that had emotional relationships with food. They ate for reasons other than just hunger. They would eat, because they were stressed, or they were trying to suppress uncomfortable feelings. And it was a way to work around that. When we talk about disordered eating, we have to actually speak very openly about it without judgment, because it seems like there are so many people that have suffered for a really long time, and maybe they haven’t been even been aware of whether it was their childhood, their early adult years have really influenced their relationship with food quite significantly.
Mark Sisson: Yeah. I haven’t talked about this a lot and I won’t go too much into it. But when I was 13-14, I was a male anorexic. I wasn’t horribly disfigured from it. But there were a couple of years where I had a problem with food, and I restricted what I ate. And I don’t know what the basis of that was, but I certainly got over it, because within about five years, I was that guy eating inordinate amounts of food. By then, I was a top endurance runner. So, I knew I was burning it off, and everything was– even I had an unhealthy relationship with food for a while in my teen years.
Cynthia Thurlow: Well, and I think it’s fairly normal to have periods of time. I know that when I was in my early 40s, I had never experienced weight loss resistance. When that happened, for me, it was, here I am, I’m on this platform talking about being healthy and fit and all these things, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t get the weight off. And for me, it was very humbling to say, “Okay, I had this experience,” it probably happened for a purpose, a pain-to-purpose situation, that’s what kind of got me into intermittent fasting, but I think for each one of us, we probably have had moments in our lives where we’ve been like, “Okay, I had this moment where this happened and now I’m using it for a greater purpose.”
One thing I do want to talk on is, because you’ve been in this space for such a significant amount of time, the degree of nutritional dogmatism that I’m seeing probably over the last four to five years, something that I find really refreshing about your opinions and content that you and your team put out, is that you really advocate for a very flexible perspective, instead of being rigidly dogmatic. I feel a lot of places on social media, Twitter being one of them, people get very rigid. I think it’s important for us to maintain some degree of giving ourselves grace and giving ourselves opportunity to try different things, because as an example, I’ve been low carb and carb cycling for a long time. I don’t do well as an example with animal-based fats, like I don’t do well with lard and tallow. Although when I eat meat, I tend to eat leaner meat, because that’s what works best for me. But if I did a really traditional ketogenic diet, like a lot of my other friends do, I probably wouldn’t be doing quite as well. I remind people all the time to experiment, to try different things, to not be so rigid. But I love that you and your message is always one of– find what works for you and embrace it.
Mark Sisson: Look, at the end of the day, what we’re here for, is to make the most of the opportunity that life gives us, and included in that is what is the most amount of pleasure, enjoyment, satisfaction, fulfillment, love, I can extract from life every possible moment. I think you can’t exclude food from that list. So, I tell people, yeah, you would look at my physique over the last 10 or 15 years, I maintain the same body fat level. I’m pretty well built for a 69-year-old guy. It’s not that I’m depriving myself of anything. I enjoy every single bite of food I put in my mouth. And when I’ve had enough, I know I’ve had enough and I’m like, great. I’m satisfied, I got it. I got the experience. I don’t need to eat more to prove that I can, or that I can get away with it. I’ve developed this intuitive sense of when enough is enough and I’m happy with that. And that’s my dream for all of my readers and adherences, I want you to have that intuitive ability, to not only know when enough is enough but to also be able to taste the cheesecake or the chocolate lava cake or whatever is striking your fancy at the time and not obsess about the guilt factor for having done so.
We talked about enjoyment and fulfillment, but how do you feel? And if you feel guilty, because you overate, that’s not a good thing. If you feel a profound sense of FOMO, because you didn’t try any of what it was that you wanted, that’s also not a good thing. So, there’s a mid-range here, where two bites of cheesecake ain’t going to kill you. Either now or later. 2000 bites of cheesecake, probably going to reduce your risk of living that long, lean, happy, healthy life you want. It’s really arriving at an area where you feel comfortable about your choices, and not just in food, but in the rest of your life, as long as you are living your life in a way that makes you feel comfortable with the choices that you make and in the event that you feel uncomfortable about the choices you make, you have the ability to forget, forgive, move on, go back to whatever. This is the essence of life.
The tagline of my company is “Live Awesome.” All of these things that we talk about are just pieces of a puzzle that you put together that create a picture of life. And it’s the working out, it’s the playing and it’s the spending time with loved ones and it’s all these little pieces that we put together that create an awesome life. So, yeah, food is part of it, but food is not all of it. And enjoyment of food is part of it. So, the dogmatic approach to food would be something that I would say, “No, absolutely watch out for that and develop this intuitive ability to make these choices and be okay with whatever choice it is that you make.”
Cynthia Thurlow: I think that’s really important. Finding some degree of freedom in your personal life and being able to have a healthy relationship with food, I think is so important. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask for, there were a lot of entrepreneurs that reached out and said, “Can you ask Mark, how he has been able to cultivate balance?” Obviously, you have a very happy healthy marriage, you have beautiful children, from what I understand, you just welcomed a new grandchild. What has been the secret or what has been the prevailing way that you’ve been able to find and cultivate balance in your personal and professional life? Because obviously, you’ve been incredibly successful. And I would imagine that having a very strong relationship with your spouse has contributed to a lot of what you’ve been able to do. But for people that are maybe younger entrepreneurs that are looking to you, and saying, “I want to be able to achieve a happy, healthy balance in my personal and professional life.” What have been some of the strategies or some of the things that have really allowed you to maintain an imbalance is elusive, I’m using that word, but that’s probably not the best way to say it. What has been the way that you’ve been able to cultivate for having a healthy, happy personal life along with a lot of professional success?
Mark Sisson: Yeah, it’s probably a book there for me, because I feel I’ve been blessed with making a lot of mistakes that turned into successes. I tell my kids that I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up until I was 47 and then I changed my mind again at 61. So, part of it is an openness. I am going to speak about this from an entrepreneurial perspective. I was always entrepreneur from the age of 12. I mowed lawns, I painted houses, I had a painting contracting business, I put myself through college doing that. I put off going to med school, because that business was so successful, I started a frozen yogurt shop in the 80s. I started a restaurant in the mid-80s. I published books early on, even before any of the stuff that most of us know about here. At every step of the way, I was passionate about what I wanted to do. I was focused on the goal, but I did not have attachment to the outcome. So, I think one of the things is to not have attachment to the outcome of your goal. Be passionate and have purpose and be mindful and be smart about the business that you’re engaging in, but don’t have an attachment to the outcome. And be open to whatever door shuts, there’s probably two more that are opening and be aware of that.
Now with regard to the balance of family, I was never one to put in 80 hours a week of work. I think that’s a huge, not just a mistake, a joke among a lot of entrepreneurs. I think it’s people who’d say they work 80 hours a week aren’t working 80 hours a week. They’re avoiding their families [chuckles] 80 hours a week or they are trying to prove themselves that they’re superhuman, and they’re doing the work. And that’s one of the things I see from a lot of the so-called business gurus on Instagram about, “You got to do the work, you got to put the time in,” blah, blah.
Now, I think you got to be smart, and you have to be balanced. I started my company, the one that eventually grew into Primal Kitchen. I started as a supplement company. In 1997, I had a wife and two kids, I had no money in the bank. I started a business that I had no necessarily any promise of success. But I was really fully intent on making it work. And ultimately, I made it work. However, I did not forego time with my kids or my wife. So, I coached Little League, I refereed soccer games, I went to every soccer practice, I went to every soccer game. And to this day, my kids who are now– my daughter is 31, my son is 28. They will remind me that the single greatest thing I ever gave them was my time.
Again, if you look at what is life and what is a successful life, if you have a successful business, but a wife, who divorces you or hates you, and kids who are removed or remote, because you put in so much time, is that really what you want out of life? If in general, if we look at what is the human experience, having a significant other, having children is probably the greatest gift and probably mandate that humans have. You pass the genetic material along to the next generation. If I really want to reduce this to base basic terms, we are here to procreate and pass the genetic material along to the next generation. And hopefully, do so in leaving them better off than we came into the world. Part of leaving them better off is nurturing and spending time with them, making them feel loved, making them feel supported, making sure that they have the skills on their own to do all these things. So back to what did my balance life looked like, I did spend time with my wife, I took vacations. I did a lot of stuff with my kids. And when I worked, I worked hard. But when I didn’t work, I was focused on spending time with a family.
Cynthia Thurlow: Well, I think that so eloquently put in. Certainly, part of the impetus for asking you that question was my own selfish desire to hear your response, because I just moved from a part of the United States where people are very driven and there were a lot of families where both parents worked and kids were being raised by other people. And there’s no judgment to any of those choices that we make. But one of the things about living in my new city is it’s a little slower pace, there’s more time for togetherness with my, now, teenagers who seem to be getting bigger by the day. And what you said about time, the most valuable thing we can give our children is our time. And I would argue it’s probably the same with a spouse or significant other. I really think it makes such a big difference, and a lot of people don’t realize.
I’m feeling this now the push-pull of parenting because I have a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old. And one is starting to look at colleges, and the other ones entering high school in August. And I was saying to my husband, it’s like, “You blink and your kids are grown up.” And so, for all those people who think they need to work 80 to 100 hours a week, you don’t. You have to be efficient with your time. After coming off of a book launch this year, we will go on vacation next week, and I told my family, “I am unplugging, and I’m really excited about it.” I think for all of us that are entrepreneurs or if we have– for any of us that have roles outside of the normal gender roles, the recognition that time is fleeting, and you really want to make sure you’re spending it the way that you should be.
Mark Sisson: Exactly, yeah.
Cynthia Thurlow: Well, I’m curious to know, what are you working on next? Are you contemplating a book? I know that you probably have a lot on your plate, even though you’re getting ready to step away and take a vacation yourself?
Mark Sisson: Yeah, so I’m pretty much always on vacation now, which is a weird concept. But I think COVID proved to me, for sure, and to a lot of other people that you can still be very productive with a laptop and a Zoom connection on a cell phone. So, I’m embarking on a four-month trip in two days. So, I’m looking forward to that. And a little bit of trepidation there because I just started a new business with my son. Speaking of the success and entrepreneurial ventures, my son is a co-founder with me in a new minimalist shoe company that we’ve started. And we’re anticipating a launch of our product somewhere around November, we think it’s going to revolutionize footwear. So, we’re very excited about that.
Cynthia Thurlow: That’s amazing. Well, I want to be respectful of your time. Enjoy your vacation, and I look forward to hearing more about your new venture. It’s been a pleasure to connect with you.
Mark Sisson: Likewise, Thanks, Cynthia.
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Cynthia Thurlow: If you love this podcast episode, please leave a rating and review, subscribe and tell a friend.