The Melanie Avalon Biohacking Podcast Episode #159 - Mark Sisson
Mark Sisson is widely regarded as one of the forefathers of the ancestral health movement. A
former world-class athlete in the marathon and Ironman Triathlon, he presides over a wide-
ranging Primal enterprise, featuring the Primal Kitchen line of healthy condiments, The Primal
Health Coach Institute. He publishes daily tips at MarksDailyApple.com. Mark lives in Miami
Beach, Florida with his wife, Carrie, where he standup paddles the inland waterways, plays
Ultimate Frisbee against hotshots half his age, and enjoys his new role as a grandfather.
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10:00 - Mark's drive to be an athlete
12:40 - Carbo-loading
13:40 - fit & fast but unhealthy
18:05 - the concept of play in our history
21:00 - Energy expenditure in office workers and ancestral humans
23:10 - what is the purpose of exercise?
24:15 - intuitive and functional movement vs exercise routines
24:55 - mark's workout template
29:00 - Intense exercise can be damaging
32:20 - heart rate zones
33:30 - the black zone
35:40 - zone 2 training
38:50 - heart rate monitoring
39:40 - how are we truly informed for longevity?
42:15 - living to an old age in the contemporary age
43:50 - How do we know what foods are right for us?
44:30 - fiber, fruit vs vegetables
52:20 - becoming more carnivore
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58:00 - organ meats
1:00:10 - food cravings and nutritional deficiencies
1:02:15 - primal kitchen
1:08:40 - how do we know when to quit?
1:13:30 - life's painful lessons
1:16:50 - the importance of community
Melanie Avalon: Hi, friends, welcome back to the show. I am so incredibly excited about the conversation that I'm about to have. When it comes to this show, I get to interview a lot of really incredible guests. But this is about as excited as I get for guests. So, that is saying a lot. I am here with honestly a legend, in the whole, I was going to say paleo, primal, holistic health world, Mark Sisson. Okay, I'm going to just backtrack and tell my story a little bit. So, about 10 years ago, I adopted a Whole Foods paleo-type diet. And one of the very first resources that I really dived into was the work of Mark Sisson. He has an online website that is just full of so much information. I would read all the blog posts, all the comments, I learned so much. Since then, I have read every single book as they release. He's a multiple New York Times bestseller. And I've become good friends with people who know him well. So, Elle Russ has been on the show multiple times. She's a great friend. And Brad Kearns as well, who is his coauthor, but never have I met the man himself. This is just really an amazing moment and there are so many directions that we could take this in. So, I'm just really excited to see where it's going to go. So, Mark, thank you so much for being here.
Mark Sisson: Hey, it's my pleasure to be here, Melanie. Looking forward to the discussion.
Melanie Avalon: I lived in LA for about 10 years and during that time, I had what I call the dark time which was a year or two, where I was struggling with a lot of health issues and I really didn't go out much I really just camped out in my apartment working on podcasting and things like that. But I went twice to your previous restaurant endeavor. I went to Primal Kitchen once and it was fabulous by myself, because again, I wasn't really going out much. And then I went a second time and it was closed. I didn't know that it was [laughs] going to be closed, which is actually a topic maybe we can get into later, because I'm really, really curious about your life and your life as an entrepreneur, what you've learned in that journey.
To start things off, my audience is probably very, very familiar with you. But I'm really curious. I was reading your recent books and you do talk a lot about your life when you were an athlete, and the trials for the Olympics, and Ironmans, and all that stuff. You talk about how you actually didn't really have fun doing any of that. And so, I was wondering, so that part of your life, how long was it, why were you doing it? What was your intrinsic motivation and what was the epiphany that you had, if there was a single epiphany that makes you so radically change your life and go on the new trajectory that you're on now?
Mark Sisson: Well, I didn't know this was going to be a psychotherapy session. What made me want to engage in so much pain for so long? It goes back to my childhood. I was born in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. It's a fishing village—a small fishing village. My father was an artist, not a fisherman. But he was a painter and an artist and supported the family actually selling his paintings. I went to school there, was raised there. I was a small, scrawny kid. I didn't really wasn't big enough to play basketball, or football, or baseball, or hockey, or any of the local popular sports. I lived about two miles from school. I just found it was much more convenient to jog to school than to take the bus. I could actually get there and more importantly get home after school faster than if I took the bus. So, I started just out of necessity as a mode of transportation, running and jogging in my early teen years.
As I got older, I went out for the track team in high school and I'd been bullied as a kid for no other reason than when you grew up in a small fishing village there's not a lot of activity for anyone to do except be territorial and all of that. So, I had a bit of an experience being bullied physically. And so, when I went off on the track team and found that I was winning the mile and the two mile in pretty much every event that every meet that we went to, the next thing I know, I'm the high point man on the track team and as a freshman in high school. That gave me enough street cred that I thought, “Well, I can pursue this running idea” and I did so. All through high school, all through college, and then for much of my early athletic career.
Early on, I was interested in health. I read Ken Cooper's book on aerobics. That was a time at which the beginning of the aerobics era. The message that he was delivering was that the more aerobic activity you did, the better it was for your heart. The better something was for your heart, the longer you would live and the healthier you would be. And so, I embraced that notion and I put in a lot of miles. And in the pursuit of those miles, I wound up having to consume a lot of carbohydrates because that was a standard operating procedure of any athlete. In order to fuel all those miles, we thought you had to carbo load pretty much every day. My life was about packing in loads of carbohydrate every day and putting in lots of miles every day from the age of 15 until the age of probably 30 pretty aggressively. As I got better and better at competition and I got faster that was a motivation to continue doing what I was doing. I was one of the best in the state, and then it was one of the best in the region, and then eventually, I was one of the best in the country at what I was doing. So, there's a lot of motivation behind. There's a lot of impetus behind that especially for someone who had been bullied and who had been-- My self-image was that of a scrawny, non-athletic person who was trying to carve out a space in in an otherwise athletic he-man world. That was the impetus. That's the psychotherapy portion of the talk today. But what happened was as I got better and better and was chasing performance, I was noticing that I wasn't that healthy. I was fit and I was fast, but I wasn't that healthy. I had irritable bowel syndrome, I had arthritis in my feet, I had tendonitis in my hips, I had upper respiratory tract infections several times a year. I always had a cold or some kind of flu. My immune system was shot, I had gastroesophageal reflux, I had a host of things. I had bad acne as a kid, all of which I assumed went with the territory, went with a high stress lifestyle of being an endurance athlete. It wasn't till later that I found out that my diet was largely the cause of all of this. But while I was doing it, I was trying to do the right thing. I was trying to read all the books on how to fuel for the miles and how to eat appropriately.
Again, there's still back in the day when the notion of a high complex carbohydrate-based diet was deemed the best possible diet. A lot of what I was eating was grain based, breads, and pancakes, and pasta, and cereal, and any other way I could cram carbs down my throat. As I got more and more inflamed from this diet and ultimately after I had to retire due to injuries, as I realized I had an aha moment first of all that my diet had been pretty antithetical to health and ultimately antithetical to performance that the miles I was putting in were probably way more than my body was ready, willing, and able to handle. But I think most importantly, the real aha moment came when I realized that all I was doing every day in the training was managing discomfort.
When you play a game, a game involves some and just the word play involves some amount of joy and sense of satisfaction beyond a feeling of self-satisfaction for having run at fast time. Games even if you're at a championship level soccer team or football team, basketball team, the players are having fun even under the highest amounts of pressure. They're having fun. They're working hard, but they're having fun while they're doing it. In an endurance contest and particularly long distance like marathons and triathlons, which I eventually became a triathlete, what you're doing is you're just managing discomfort. What you're doing is you're pushing your body to a point at which it's very uncomfortable. And hopefully with the training, you adapt to that level of discomfort such that you can push even harder the next time. But you're always pushing up against a wall of discomfort. If it's too comfortable, you won't be racing well, you won't be performing well, you'll be jogging instead of running, you will be easy cycling instead of all out cycling.
The idea that I wasn't that looking back on a career where it was about managing discomfort, every single workout, every single race, and it was only after it was over that I could sit back and go, “Okay, I feel good now.” It's almost like, you hit your head with a hammer and it's horrible, but it feels good when you stop, right? Now, when you talk about racing at the elite level, it becomes even more interesting in that everybody who shows up at the starting line that day, at least the top 20 competitors, they're all probably, equally, genetically gifted. They're probably all equally trained and they probably all want it enough. The winner that day really comes down to who is willing to dig such a deep hole for himself and drag everyone into it that he or she wins the race literally by attrition. Because people drop off the bat and can't keep up. He's inviting them to share his discomfort or her discomfort. And so, it's a pain festival really. And again, when I had this aha moment years after I retired, I'm like, “What was I thinking? Jesus.” Again, a pursuit, if you're talking about enjoying your life that's a tough one to argue on behalf of. So, there you have it. That's my assessment of my time as an endurance athlete.
Melanie Avalon: Okay, I have some follow up questions from that. One, so you're mentioning this concept of play. Was play something that hunter-gatherers would do? It sounds like with endurance sports that's something that from an evolutionary perspective, we would have never engaged in as a thing.
Mark Sisson: No, 100% right. No, it would be such a waste of energy, precious human energy to think about training with a mindset of going to the well every day or five days a week. To answer your first question, yes, our ancestors and our ape predecessors play ss a huge factor in development and growth. And humans are wired to play throughout their entire life not just as children. We hear this mantra in child development about kids are, you’re supposed to let them play, and experiment, and fall down, and they develop social skills in addition to physical skills, certainly, wires the brain for planning. And as an ancestral human being that includes planning how to hunt an animal that you're going to eat. A lot of our ancestors, we hear the stories about the hunters tracking and running after the beast for two hours before they kill it. Well, it's not all running, some of its walking, some of its hiding and crouching, some of it is skipping from one hiding stone to the next. It's not a linear all out run at max capacity for two hours. It was a game in and of itself. The hunt became a game as much as anything else.
A lot of the early tribal events were based around games that men and women and children would play, all of which helped with social skills with learning, with development, with enjoyment of life, with breaking the monotony of an otherwise tedious existence, et cetera, et cetera. Yes, play is an integral part of humans. The reason that it is one of the 10 Primal Blueprint laws that I want everybody to play as often as much as they can. Back to my own experience, I realized that throughout much of my endurance career, I wasn't playing much. I couldn't really take a chance on playing a pickup basketball game, or even a pickup baseball game for fear of pulling a hamstring or twisting an ankle. I couldn't ski for the same reasons. So, there was not a lot of play in my life for that 15-year period.
Melanie Avalon: Well, I really love hearing this, because I am a self-identified type-A workaholic, who feels guilty a little bit about playing. If I can reframe it as something beneficial for my health and longevity that's a win all around. This touches on something else that you talked about. I'm not going to remember from which book everything was, because like I said, read all your books. But you talk about the physical activity of a modern-day hunter-gatherers like the Hadza and how it's actually-- Do they burn a similar energy expenditure to office workers?
Mark Sisson: Yeah, it's not like it's a big deal. There's this assumption that the Hadza as well as a number of athletic pursuits at the highest elite level burn some inordinate amounts of calories every day. Michael Phelps, famously consuming 11,000 calories of food a day. He wasn't burning close to that. Even if you trained five hours a day, which you couldn't do every day, but if you could, you wouldn't do it at 1,000 calories an hour. You would do it at 600 or 800 calories an hour. And even that, it's a 3,000-calorie expenditure. Your body would probably just say at the end of the day, “All right, there's no time to do anything else. I'm just going to sleep or rest,” which is what these top athletes do, so it's interesting to find out that the caloric energy expenditure from one pursuit in life across the board to another from ancestral living in the elements to office work to being a competitive athlete, there's not a tremendous variation in calories burned.
Now, it might be on a daily basis, there might be some variations. But if you add up the weekly average output or the output for entire week and then divide that by seven days, you'll come up with a number that's not that disparate from one group to the next. One of the take-home messages there which has been highly talked about in the last five or 10 years in our circles is, you can't exercise away a bad diet. It's not a good idea to try to lose weight by exercising, The Biggest Loser and Jillian Michaels notwithstanding. It doesn't work. And if it does work in the short term, it's certainly not sustainable.
What does exercise look like and how is it best incorporated into your life? Well, if you get the fact that exercise needn't be a rigorous form of weight loss or calorie burning that in fact, exercise is truly about the movement. It's about putting the muscles and the joints of your body through different planes and ranges of motion over time. If you understand that concept, then you get to say, “All right, so, some of the things that I used to think were frivolous like playing, like chasing after my dog with a frisbee or playing pickup basketball in the driveway with my kids.” That all counts. That's not just play. It's actually movement that is fulfilling the requirements of your body to move through different planes and ranges of motion throughout the day.
Melanie Avalon: How intuitive is that? For example, so, something I've been doing for years is, I actually typically wear wrist weights and sometimes ankle weights just during the day, even when I'm running groceries and stuff, because I figure then I'm just maximizing the way I would naturally be using my muscles, but I'm making it more difficult for them. But I don't really do because you have so many examples of functional movement and also like regimen and exercises and such in your books to do. So, how important is it to actually have a workout routine versus just moving, and lifting things, and being more intuitive?
Mark Sisson: Starting about 15 years ago, I came up with this basic template, this basic workout strategy, which was move as often as frequently as you can at low levels of aerobic output, lift heavy things twice a week, and sprint once a week. And so, that template is I would say, the basic routine for an optimized fitness/health program. Because you want to understand that at some level, the fitter you get, the more you can compromise your health. I was an example of that as a marathoner. I was very fit, but I was very unhealthy. With this template of move around a lot at a low level of activity that encompasses the play that could encompass lots of walking breaks, or easy cycling, or any number of other activities. Yoga, tai chi, just basic stretching, all of this counts.
The lift heavy things twice a week is basically, I would say, the minimum amount necessary to build and/or maintain muscle mass. We can talk about the importance of muscle mass, especially as we get older and the intention of warding off the vagaries of sarcopenia, which is what most older people suffer from. It's a loss of muscle. You want to maintain muscle mass or build muscle mass, and then sprint once a week. And sprinting doesn't have to be running sprinting. It can be any all-out high-level activity. It could be on the elliptical, it could be on the bike, it could be swimming, certainly, it could be running in the grass. I've got a new machine that I love tremendously at my gym here. It's a rope pull machine. And so, I do four sets of all out 62nd poles on that once a week but it's the concept.
Again, if we look at the clues that we get from evolution and our ancestors, yeah, they moved all the time. They were always moving around, and walking, and migrating, and squatting, and standing, and sitting, and doing all sorts of different physical activities. The concept of a sofa didn't exist and they were carrying things. And then this lifting heavy things once in a while, they would lift a heavy carcass and bring it, a hundred-pound piece of leg from an animal 10 miles back to camp. Lifting heavy things twice a week was part of the strategy. And then I like to think that our ancestors were always on the edge of danger and that they might have had to run really fast all out once a week and sprint really hard. If it wasn't running away from something was going to eat you, maybe it was running towards something that you were going to eat. They're idyllic, iconic.
Who knows what our ancestral life was actually like on a day-to-day basis? But we can pull from modern day hunter-gatherers that with those sorts of tenants move around a lot as often as you can, change positions as often as you can, so sit, stand, kneel, stretch, have a stand-up desk, but don't stand at the desk all day, etc., etc. Lift heavy things twice a week which for a lot of people means go to the gym and do your workout. And then sprint once a week, which I just described. Those are what I would say the basic elements for an optimized health span and you'd be pretty darn fit, if you went after those aggressively. Now, can you do more? Absolutely, I do more. I do a fair amount more than that. But I also know that if I do too much more, I'm at the effect of it. I get burned out. I literally get burned out because understand that intense exercise is a stressor. While a little bit of stress is good and we can talk about hormesis if you want, but a little bit of stress is good, but a lot of stress piled up day after day is bad. It's finding this balance.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah. You talked about something in your book that I did not realize, but that intense exercise actually causes DNA to leak into our bloodstream, I believe and then our immune system can react to it like bacteria. Is that correct?
Mark Sisson: Yeah, that's a simplified explanation. But yeah, anything that in my days of hard training, I ran my heart up to max, probably, four times a week. I don't mean just for a few seconds or minutes at a time. Sometimes for 30 or 40 minutes at a time. I was in that red zone that they talk about now in all the cardio endurance training manuals. Like don't be in this zone more than X number of minutes per week. Well, I was in it, sometimes, four or five times a week. That sort of stress, it literally tears your muscles down. It's an undue stress on your heart. I pay for it now. I have an enlarged left ventricle, which-- Don't feel bad for me because every runner that ran as much as I did over the years that I did and its millions of people have the same issue. This is why AFib is such a big epidemic almost among former runners aged 55 to say 75. We assumed at the time the more you did, the better. And the harder and faster you ran, the better it was for your longevity. It turns out that was just way too much destruction, too much damage, too much trauma on the body. And yes, some of us were able to survive, literally, the training and then race well. But many of us are paying a price for having gone that hard for that long.
Now, you can say, “Well, the best in the world.” If you're the best in the world at what you're doing, then you're willing to pay the price. But if you're not competitive then I would ask, “Okay, what's the carrot at the end of that stick for you? Why are you pushing yourself so hard?” I see a lot of, what I would call, age group athletes who push themselves way too hard. And especially, for their genetic predisposition and background, you look at some people, you are running six marathons a year and no offense, but you're not running them very fast, why don't you find another sport? I don't mean to be critical about that. Marathons are not fun. You can say that you enjoy the challenge and you run with friends. But they're not fun, and you are managing pain, and you are creating a disruption in your body and your metabolism. You got to pay a price. So, the question really is, what is the end game here for you as an endurance athlete or as a weightlifter, when your age group or as a CrossFit athlete is trying to compete in the games? There's a fair amount of damage that one can do to oneself that may not look like much in the short term. But in the long term can manifest as like, “Shit, I wish I hadn't done that back in the day.”
Melanie Avalon: I have a really big foundational question, but before that two quick questions about the heart zone. One, do you know what heart zone is achieved from sauna use?
Mark Sisson: [laughs] No. Because it's an artificial-- It's not really creating any sort of an aerobic benefit. That's your body trying to dissipate heat. I would not use my heart rate in the sauna as contributing to any training benefit. It's more of a hormetic experience. There are hormetic benefits from sauna, heat shock protein and stuff like that. But as a training element, I would discount sauna entirely.
Melanie Avalon: Question two. You talked about the red zone, but is there the black zone, the black hole zone with fat burning and becoming glycolytic versus fat burning?
Mark Sisson: Yeah. One of the great revelations that Brad and I had years ago and was supported by the science, and this friend of ours, Phil Maffetone, who really pioneered the concept was that many, many athletes run, or cycle, or perform way too many miles at too high a heart rate and not enough miles at a very high heart rate. They might run in this one zone that is neither aerobic or truly anaerobic. It's what we call a no man's land or the black hole of training. And they do it because that's probably where they raced, that's probably the heart rate at which they race. But if you do it every day, you don't build the component parts to get better. Racing, and again managing this discomfort involves becoming really good. First of all, you have to develop muscle strength, you have to develop what we call, capillary perfusion, you have to encourage your body to produce more capillaries to supply blood to muscle fibers, you have to increase the number of mitochondria in your muscles, and you can double it under certain circumstances, blackhole training doesn't even come close to doubling it. You can even improve the efficiency of some of the mitochondria you already have because mitochondria has its own DNA.
The training of the blackhole would be like training, most of the time at 80% to 92% of your max heart rate. And that's what I spent much of my career doing. What it does is it certainly gives you the mental fortitude to practice hurting but it doesn't look at the component parts of training, which would say, “Okay, let's take some time and just build an aerobic base.” While we're building the aerobic base, let's focus on the aerobic base, let's focus on becoming really efficient at burning fat so that we can extract more and more energy from fat and depend less and less on energy coming from stored muscle glycogen. And to do that, we do a lot of training at a number that we've derived from lab tests. That is, for the most part, it’s 180 minus your age and do not exceed that number for most of your miles. Well 180 minus your age. If you're a 40-year-old guy, and you got 140 beats a minute that's the most I can train at. Jesus, I can't even go that fast doing that. That's like 13-minute miles from me. I can run seven-minute miles.
Well, true. But what that means is, if you can't run, if you can only run 13-minute miles at 180 minus 40, your age at a max of 140 beats per minute, what it means is you're not going to burning fat. The idea is to get 95% of your energy from fat, which is an aerobic function entirely. It does not depend on the glycogen. We create the strategy where as you spend more and more time training at a heart rate of 140 or less in this case, the 13-minute miles become 12-minute miles, and the 12-minute miles become elevens, and the elevens become tens, and the next thing you know it, you are running eight and a half minute miles at that same 140 beats a minute, so you become more efficient at burning fat. So, now, when you get in a race and you want to race it 165 or 170 beats a minute, much greater proportion of your energy is coming from fat and much less of it as a proportion is coming from glycogen.
Which means you race faster and the guy that you're racing against or the gal that you're racing against who is right across from you is probably burning a lot more glycogen than you are and he's going to hit the wall sooner than you will. You're training the aerobic part of that very specifically to focus on capillary perfusion, on mitochondrial biogenesis creating more mitochondria, accessing stored fat more readily and quickly, and eventually learning how your brain can thrive on the ketones that come from burning fat and not depend on liver glycogen. So, that's part one of an endurance strategy that would say, “Build an aerobic base first and to do that you're going to have to throw your ego out the window and be okay jogging 12-minute miles for a while or riding your bike at 13 miles an hour instead of 20 miles an hour until you develop the system.”
Then we can start to layer on some high intensity, some interval training, some weight training, and things that they're not in the black zone or in the blackhole, or the no man's land, because now you're above that level. But you're not spending a half an hour at it, you’re spending minutes at a time or sometimes 10 minutes at a time doing that. And by putting these component parts together, then when you get to that race or that event, where you want to perform maximally then you can race in that blackhole heart rate zone, but now you're much better suited to do it and you're not just beating yourself up every day.
Melanie Avalon: And is that something that definitely requires actual heart rate monitoring or can you intuitively know if you're in this zone?
Mark Sisson: It pretty much requires heart rate monitoring until you get intuitive about it. So, you have to know through experience where that zone is and what it feels like. I can tell you that you can be in that zone at least at the lowest end of the zone as long as you can carry out a conversation without gasping with somebody that you're running with or cycling with, then you're in that zone. Once you have the gasps [gasps] and start to [gasps] catch up before [gasps] you talk, you're out of that zone.
Melanie Avalon: Okay. So, now, my big question. It's a little bit more of an epistemological question, but we keep talking about how hunter-gatherers lived and how that can inform in part our decisions that we make today. If reproduction was the end goal of hunter-gatherers and arguably, their life wasn't set up for longevity, how do we know what to be informed about with our choices today, if it wasn't set up for longevity anyways, their lifestyle?
Mark Sisson: No, that's a great question. Really a great question. I don't have the answer other than many of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, if they survived the regular onslaught from a marauding tribe, a warring tribe hunting animal, animals that were hunting them, poisonous plants, literally, stepping on some sharp object and getting an infection. The number of things that could kill somebody while they were still in great health was overwhelming. And so, the average lifespan was as they say, in the 30s or whatever. But if you survived all of that there was a good chance you could live to 90 or 94. And so, we do know that many of our ancestors were able to live not many. But those who lived, who survived all the other traumatic events and riggers were able to live well into their 90s. That does inform us. That just suggests that we've removed all these other extraneous factors, all these animals that are going to kill us in the middle of the night or we have antibiotics if we get an infection now.
Theoretically, we don't have that many wars where we're being invaded by other tribes anymore. And all that does is we use lifestyle as the prime indicator of whether or not you do make it to those 90s. I would say that I'm the biggest proponent of our sole reason for being here is to pass the genetic material along to the next generation and to set that generation up for success. I'd say setting that generation up for success includes, it takes a village, aunts and uncles and grandparents. But yeah, I just feel our DNA, the genetic recipe that we each have really does want us to be strong, lean, fit, happy, healthy, productive, loving over as long a period of time as possible. Now, is that Dave Asprey’s 160 years or whatever? No, no. Ain't going there. But if you get me to 90 and I'm still mobile, I'm going to be a very happy camper.
Melanie Avalon: Do you think that's actually a parallel to something else you talk about? You talk about how if a person makes it to 80 today, then their rate of-- [crosstalk]
Mark Sisson: Yeah. Likelihood of getting to 90 is pretty significant. Yeah.
Melanie Avalon: So, back then with the hunter-gatherers, the cap that you had to make it to is not getting killed compared to today where you make it to 80. I'm thinking that chronic disease is probably that thing that you're passing. If you made it to 80, then you probably don't have the things happening of chronic disease.
Mark Sisson: 100%. If you make it to 80 in good health, then you-- I don't know what the number is you got a 60 or 70% chance of making it to 90. If you make it to 80 and you're just hanging on by a thread, we won't talk about that. But if you're at 80 and in good health, then you can easily predict another good 10 years.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah, that is so, so fascinating. Another big question about how do we know what we know. You talked about in your career as an endurance athlete and your diet that you were following, the high carb diet, how you had GI distress. You said that something about how it wasn't the diet suited to you. I am so haunted by this question. I actually recently had Dr. B, who wrote Fiber Fueled on the show. And we were talking about-- He thinks that any GI distress from a high plant intake is just an indicator of a damaged gut and that's what that means. You need to learn how to eat those plants. How do we know? This question of, if the vegan versus carnivore wars. Are plants anti-nutrients or they the best thing ever? How do we know? There's just so many opinions.
Mark Sisson: Look, if I were a lay person listening to this show or listening to any show where you had on various guests and they had diverse opinions, I would be pulling my hair out. Because how do you know? That's exactly right. How do you know? I don't know if he's still around. This guy Konstantin Monastyrsky. Have you ever heard the name or read the book?
Melanie Avalon: Did he write the Fiber--
Mark Sisson: Fiber Menace.
Melanie Avalon: We've emailed before. I tried to get him on the show, but he said he wasn't doing shows much anymore.
Mark Sisson: I read the book 12 or 15 years ago and I thought, “This guy has it nailed." This is the counter argument to fiber being the great panacea for everything that ails us. I think we went through the 80s and 90s with dietary fiber being hailed as the missing link in health. And so, breakfast cereals had more dietary fiber and Metamucil started taking off. And psyllium husk became the go to broom to sweep out your colon. I would argue that that is so miscast as any sort of panacea that fiber is not that necessary and I'll get into why I think that. And I've had this discussion with Paul Saladino and with Shawn Baker, both of whom I respect very highly. Saladino, he spent time as a vegan and it wrecked his health. And now, he's carnivore. And yeah, he's even adapted his carnivore lifestyle to include fruit and honey, but to exclude vegetables. He's proposing that vegetables are anti-nutrients that are antithetical to health. We, most of us would probably do better not eating vegetables at all or that fiber in and of itself has no real nutritional benefit other than to feed certain bacteria in our gut. It's certainly been proven I think that fiber isn't-- And most people view fiber as again this giant broom, sweeping your gut clean and taking these massive poops. And a lot of vegans that I know would say, “If you don't poop after every meal, you're unhealthy.” Well, please, that's just crazy.
Let's talk about poop for a second. Fecal matter is largely dead bacteria. It's bacterial turnover from your gut. You have upwards of 60 trillion. Some might say a hundred trillion bacteria in your gut. And many of them have a lifespan of a day, or two, or three, or four. And that bacterial turnover, we have to get rid of it. Those dead bacteria have to come out of our gut. We would poop without fiber. As you can obviously understand from reading some of the reports from the carnivore people, they’re bragging about they're having the easiest, most well-formed poops of their lives having turned a carnivore. That proves that you don't need fiber to have a well-formed stool. And yeah, you can have fiber and-- Saladino would say, in fact that plants are emergency food that we really as an evolving species, we always went for the meat first, the animal flesh, the animal source of protein first. Whether it was shellfish or fish if you lived near the ocean, whether it was eggs, newts, toads, snakes, frogs, birds, or whether it was larger megafauna, whatever it was the preferred human food and the most nutritious and nutrient dense form of food comes as animal protein.
Once you've satisfied that requirement, you don't really need some additional amount of nutrition from-- Again, Saladino would say and I would agree. Many of the things that we used to look at as phytonutrients, these plant-based nutrients are actually, relatively benign, but still they're poison that the plant would put out to discourage an animal from eating it. It's a reason that to humans most plants taste bitter. Broccoli, and kale, and cauliflower, and asparagus, and all leafy greens are quite bitter to the taste, which is why we want to put butter on them, or salt, or steam them, or put dressing on them. And that's historically an indication that it's probably not good to eat. There's a reason. Now, we know or we can predict why kids don't like vegetables. Because they're probably not designed to eat vegetables. But we force them to eat vegetables because they're supposed to be good for you, right?
On the other hand, fruit. Fruit tastes great to us. Fruit is sweet. Fruit wants to be eaten. Fruit needs to be eaten in order for it to carry on its genetic mandate of passing that genetic material along to the next generation. In our true analysis of how we got here and how we evolved with a slight distaste for plant matter and an appreciation of fruit, and I don't care what community it is around the world and you might say, “Well, some of these blue zones people, they don't eat that much meat.” When you offer them more meat, they eat more meat. Because it's about access, it's not about preference. If they had access to more meat, they would prefer it. They would choose to eat it. So, gosh, that got off on all kinds of tangents. They’re about poop and about--
The fiber part of this back to the butyric acid and food for certain bacteria that reside in the gut. Certainly, some forms of fiber act as a substrate for those gut bacteria to produce those butyrates and those short chain fatty acids. On the other hand, so does collagen. And ancestrally, most people ate nose to tail. They didn't just eat the T-bone, or the prime rib, or the ribeye, the gristle and parts of the skin, and the omentum, and other parts of the animal that were high in collagenous-gelatinous material. It was that material that acted as the substrate for those bacteria in the gut to create those short chain fatty acids and feed the cells. Ergo, you get hundreds of thousands of people now who are on the carnivore diet, who are claiming all of their dietary woes are gone. They're cured. And I would suggest that's the explanation. There are a lot of people who try to eat vegetables, try to eat more fiber. If fiber is your problem, then the worst thing you could do is listen to somebody's advice and says, “Well, yes, fiber is your problem. You're not eating enough of it.”
Monastyrsky had this great thing of this theory that much of fiber from grains, the brand from grains, which was initially again sold as a benefit to health starting back from the days of Kellogg, and then throughout all of the breakfast cereal manufacturers, and then a little heart healthy emblem that somehow that fiber would sop up all of the bad cholesterol in you. Monastyrsky said, “Look, when that fiber hits your gut, it expands.” And your colon, your intestines and your colon, they're smooth muscle. They're not striated muscle. They're not designed to expand. If you expand them that's how you develop diverticula and diverticulitis. That's how you get gut problems and you get additional permeability. I'm having not just read more over the past decades, but having followed and talked to Paul Saladino and Shawn Baker, my own diet is becoming more carnivore and less plant based. One of my original claims to fame was, I was the proponent of the big ass salad. You remember back that far?
Melanie Avalon: I remember, I remember. Oh, I was there. I was there. [laughs]
Mark Sisson: Yeah. So, I was the big ass salad guy. I don't eat a big ass salad ever anymore. I'm not suggesting that people don't. For me, I'm like, “Okay.” Part of this is also back to my two meals a day strategy, which was the recognition that even I as buff and cut as I am at my age was eating too much food. I don't need to eat as much food as I even thought I needed 10 years ago or even five years ago. One of the ways to cut down on the amount of food is to cut the bulk out first and go, “Okay, I'm going to start with protein. I know I got to get my protein requirements every day. And then add in some fat, great, okay, I got some fat. And then I'm not a big fan of carbs. But if I do, it'll be fruit and a little bit of vegetables. But I really don't eat salads much anymore.” It’s just I don't like them, I love the crunchiness, I love the feeling, I love the-- If you dress them to the hilt, then you can't even know that there's lettuce in there. That's why I created Primal Kitchen, so I could have salad dressings that I can slather onto my salads and not just have to use them sparingly, but make the salad dressing, the primary taste element in that otherwise fairly bitter concoction.
Melanie Avalon: For listeners, I’ve had both Paul and Shawn Baker on the show. So, I'll put links to that in the show notes. Here's a question that haunts me about all of this, though. I think about this all the time. It's that in the nose to tail argument I don't understand if organ meats are so nutritious, especially something like liver. I don't know why people, especially even people in the paleo world and people who have “cleaned up their diet,” why people don't seem to like liver? Even for me, I went through a period of time where I was very anemic and I was like, “Okay, I never had liver.” I was like, “I'm sure I'm going to love the way this tastes because I'm anemic. This is something that would nourish my body” and I just couldn't stomach it. I don't know if that's a learned response or if there's something in these organ meats that we shouldn't be eating.
Mark Sisson: Well, I don't think that it's something that we shouldn't be eating, I do think it's a learned response. I think we have refined our tastebuds for better or worse over the years to seek out more crunchy, salty, fatty, sweet. It's just an artifact of the food production and manufacturing environment. And so, some of us have lost that taste for savory. I'm about ready to head over to Europe, when I'm in France, I will have foie gras every single day. It's one of my favorite foods in the world and it'll be in the form of pate or just a regular liver. But it's cooked a certain way. I do remember when I was, I'm going to say 12, 13 years old, I started cooking chicken livers for myself. Chicken livers and onions snd I loved that.
Melanie Avalon: It’s vitamin toxicity might be a thing.
Mark Sisson: I would highly doubt that if that's the issue. There is a body of work that suggests that if it doesn't taste good to you, don't eat it. Your body's not craving it. We had some friends back in Malibu about 15 years ago. They lived in a van down by the river. They were brilliant. They were European couple and they wrote a book called Genefit Nutrition. G-E-N-E-fit Nutrition. And their thesis was that, you craved the things that you crave for reasons that had to do with deficiencies. And so, they had a program. They would come to our house-- We hosted this program and there are 15 people signed up. And they would come for lunch and dinner every day and people would come to our house. And this couple would set out all these foods on the table and they're all raw, by the way. It would be raw liver, raw vegetables, fruit. I remember they were like crab, raw basketball crab, an actual full on 10-inch body shell basketball crab. Fish still in the skin just like you'd see at a-- like you'd pick a fish out of the restaurant.
They would blindfold you and hold these different foods up to your nose and you would pick what you're going to have for lunch. It was bizarre that what people would pick. They'd have to eat it and they'd have to eat it raw. They wound up leaving Malibu to go by an island set up a retreat somewhere. But it was really interesting concept whether or not it was legit, I don't know. So, I do think that so much of our current taste patterns are artificially engineered by the foods that we grew up on that may not have been quite appropriate for us.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah, there's a really fascinating study that I can put in the show notes. It's an old study. They couldn't do it today, because of probably ethical reasons. But they basically let babies up until a certain age self-select their meals and it was all of these foods. The entirety of the foods would cover all their nutritional bases if they selected the right combinations. But it was things like liver, and egg yolks, and the babies would intuitively just eat what they needed from everything. So, it's pretty interesting. I'm glad you brought up the Primal Kitchen stuff because I'm dying to just quickly pick your brain on some of that experience and your life as an entrepreneur. Super curious with Primal Kitchen stuff. Goal wise, I was acquired by Heinz--
Mark Sisson: Kraft Heinz.
Melanie Avalon: When you first started it, did you have goals like that? Was that not a goal? Because right now, for example, this is not even remotely the same thing. But I created an app that's doing really well and people have wanted to buy it. And I'm like, “But it's attached to my name. What if it changes and then people associate it with me still?” So, I'm super curious just about your journey what that's been like and congratulations, as well.
Mark Sisson: Well, thanks. It's been three and a half years since I sold it. It's been a long time already. But I always built it with the intent on exiting, on selling it. I was 61 years old when I started the company. I was already long in the tooth and didn't want to build something that was going to be with me for 15 or 20 years. I also recognized that the nature of the food industry is that if you prove the concept and you build it right, there's a point at which you run out of money. You either have to do an IPO or do another raise, but in order to get what I wanted was-- My mission was to change the way the world eats and that started with Mark's Daily Apple back in 2006. It continued with all of my books, which were all geared toward educating and changing the way the world eats.
It continued with the Primal Kitchen restaurants, which were, unfortunately, not sustainable. It continued with the recognition that when you clean up your diet, when you get rid of the industrial seed oils, and sugars, and the added sugars and sweeteners, and things like that, you get rid of the processed foods and processed grains. You come down to a fairly short list of things that are appropriate for every person. Meat, fish, fowl, eggs, nuts, seeds, vegetables, a little bit of fruit, maybe some starchy tubers. That's not a big list. But there are literally millions of ways to prepare these based on the herbs, the spices, methods of preparation, methods of cooking, sauces, dressings, toppings. I started with a book in 2010 called Primal Blueprint Healthy Sauces, Dressings & Toppings. I had had massive success with my first book, The Primal Blueprint and I thought this was going to crush. We printed 40,000 copies. I think we sold 8,000 copies so far.
What I got from that was that people want sauces and dressings and toppings. They don't want to read about them and make them themselves. And so, that was the impetus for Primal Kitchen. What that did was, it made me rethink how food is prepared at an industrial level in this country and how it's offered up. The first big, I think aha moment and proof of concept was to introduce a jar of mayonnaise, a 12-ounce jar of mayonnaise that costs $9.95. It costs almost three times as much as most mayonnaise that size. And to realize, there were millions of people who were like, “Oh, my God, finally someone gets me. Someone understands that I pay attention to the ingredient panel.” I'm willing and I'm able to pay that amount of money for a demonstrably better product.
In fact, our internal corporate mantra is, whatever category we enter, we want to be demonstrably the best product in that category. That means not having offensive ingredients. That means having certain ingredients that are known to be, I won't use the term, superfood, but that defined as better for you like avocado oil, for instance. And probably, the most important criteria it has to taste good. If it doesn't taste good, it doesn't matter what's in it. And that was the reason for this. Well, with Primal Kitchen if my mission was to change the way the world eats, I need it to be a billion-dollar company. And as many startups encounter, you hit a point where your original management team, the scale of manufacturing, whatever it is can't keep up with your intent for growth. And so, I knew fairly early on three years in, I was ready to start to go to market and find a buyer. We'd certainly proven that we were the new golden child in the food industry. We were the new kids on the block that we were-- Everybody knew who we were in the food industry. I needed a partner, if you will, who could express my plan and execute on my plan to change the way the world eats.
Now, if that included in gendering other competitive products that were just as good, so be it. My plan was to change the way the world eats. If I were able to do it that way both through the expansion and the resources that Kraft Heinz gave us, it was an amazing choice. I could not have picked a better partner. They’ve basically kept our entire team. They didn't fire anybody. They gave us financial resources to pick to grow even faster. They've sat back and literally watched us and said, “Holy crap, we were extremely pleased with this company and with this acquisition, and we want to learn from this, because we have 40 other brands that some of which need a little bit of work.” And so, it has fulfilled pretty much all my expectations. We're not at a billion dollars yet, but I have no doubt we'll get there.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah, I'm so, so interested in this, because I recently launched a supplement line right at the very beginning, but same thing with your mission of making the best that you can of a certain product and then having to evaluate the price point for that and everything. It's just been such a learning experience. So, you're actively still involved?
Mark Sisson: Yes. Oh, sure. Yeah. I sold it. They own 100% of the company, but I'm still the face of the brand, and the spokesperson, and I'm involved in decisions and R&D. Yeah.
Melanie Avalon: Gotcha. And then the ill-fated restaurant. You said in one of your books, I think you said there was seven times that you knew that you probably should have quit with it. I'm wondering what you've learned about that whole experience with when to quit and should we quit and why.
Mark Sisson: No, that's another-- I can only give you opinions on that. But ultimately, all of those decisions come down to your gut. In this case, my gut was that while it was a great idea and people, they love the restaurant. When we opened, people said, “Oh, my God, it's about time somebody gave this a run.”
Melanie Avalon: Yeah, I loved it by the way. It was fabulous. I was so sad when I went back. I was like, “What happened?” [chuckles]
Mark Sisson: Yeah. Well, you have no idea how sad I was. But we had plenty of business, we had great reviews, and we were losing $40,000 a month at that one location. By the way, we had another location in Indianapolis that a franchisee had bought that was having similar problems. We realized that not to cast too much blame. But I had a partner who was at the restaurant. I was the brand guy. We sold 18 franchises without an operating unit. It was one of the most successful franchises in the history of franchising. But my partner was an operations guy, and he just literally didn't do the math, and there was no way to fix these losses. When you're losing $40,000 a month on a restaurant, you can look at it as, “Well, if we really fix things up, and tidy up here, and clean it up there, and do this, and do that, maybe we can get to break even in a year.”
Well in a year, that's another $240,000 down the drain. That's six BMWs. Sorry, that's what am I saying. It's almost a half million dollars down the drain. I was thinking six months. Who wants to be at breakeven? I want to make a profit. I don't want to just work my ass off to get to breakeven. We literally had to pull the plug in order not to spend millions more on what probably based on food costs. In LA, the regulations, and the wages, and the rent, and everything made it almost impossible for it to be successful going concern. Yeah, I had to pull the plug and it was very painful, but it had to be done.
Melanie Avalon: I think it's something, because people obviously experience successes and failures in life. Is it something looking back that would you have done things differently, would you have started it not from that initial calculation error with the math or was that the way it was supposed to happen and--?
Mark Sisson: Oh, you can only look at these things as that's how it had to happen. I named it Primal Kitchen Restaurants, and I started the restaurant at the same time I started the food company, and I thought they'd be synergistic. Well, then, when I realized the food company was taking off and the restaurant was going to be dragging things down, I realized that was a mistake to name them both the same name. In addition to the other factors, I also didn't want the losses accumulating on the restaurant side to taint the brand that was Primal Kitchen on the food side. But I learned for the second time in my life. I learned that I shouldn't be in the restaurant business.
Melanie Avalon: For the second time?
Mark Sisson: Oh, I had a restaurant in 1983 for about a year that, again, it was ahead of its time. It was frozen yogurt, and a 60-foot-long salad bar, and healthy brand muffins, which were the thing back in the day. Again, very well received, but just suffered from a bad location. Oh, also suffered from the fact that we had a bank loan in 1983 at 17 and three quarters percent. For anybody who's old enough to remember the 80s and were hearing about it, you hear about inflation now hasn't been this bad for almost 40 years. Well, that was what we were dealing with was a bank loan at 17 and three quarters percent, which we felt privileged to be able to get by the way. It was, again, another financial consideration. I should have learned my lesson, then, because I had a partner in that, too, and I don't do well with partners.
There were a number of lessons, but all of these things, like, everything I've done in my life points to where I am today. I wouldn't go back and change any of it. The painful stuff, the years I spent bent over in pain, because of IBS that literally ran my life every single day, I wouldn't have come to the Primal Blueprint and my stance on grains and gluten. Had it not been for that horrible physical experience that I had? People say, “Well, if you could go back and you knew how to train-- You do now, if you could train for triathlon in a way that incorporates and embodies all of the things you talk about today, would you do it?” I'm like, “No, because it hurt too much and I only learned what I know today, because of the mistakes I made then.” To any entrepreneur, I would say, “Look, you only need one home run in your entire career.” You could have a ton of failures and one home run, even a triple makes it worth all of that stuff that you tried and failed at.
Melanie Avalon: Another super random fast question. You talk about the importance of social community and relationships in your books. Obviously, you don't have to name names, but I'm super curious, because you talk about how they say that the five people that you surround yourself with are 90 something percent responsible for your success. So, who are the five people that you historically have surrounded yourself with? What types of people?
Mark Sisson: Yeah, outside of my wife and my kids, I have not had a really close alignment. But I would say, one of my friends was one of the largest vitamin sellers in the world. My best friend and godfather of my kids. I hang around him a lot. I don't know if you know Tony Horton. Tony, and I, and this other guy, this third guy, the guy just mentioned, the three of us were single and didn't have a pot to piss in living in Santa Monica in the mid-80s. Each one of us became quite successful in our own right. I would almost say very extremely successful in our own right. And so, we lifted each other up in that regard and supported each other.
And then I've got another friend who is a trust fund guy, but always a great attitude. Even though, he was a trust fund guy, he had to be in business all the time. He had to start his own stuff because he needed to feel like he was producing or contributing. That's my core group. And then I've got new friends now, where I live in Miami. Much of what I've done over my career is to weed out the negative influences more than to find positive influences. When you say, you're the sum-- the average of the five people you hang around with most, I've weeded out a lot of bad energy in my life. But people who I thought were my friends or thought were contributing to my own greater good, but ultimately weren't. And I think that's a real particular skill to be able to say no to somebody and say, “I'm sorry. We just resonate on different wave lengths. It's not you or it's not me. It’s just this isn't going to work.”
Melanie Avalon: Well, this has been so amazing. I so appreciate your time. We didn't even get into-- Before we started recording, you're talking about how you are known as the anti-biohacking. But I will say, so I feel like I'm sort of anti-biohacking in that, I think the goal of biohacking is to create things in our life that would put our bodies in a state that would have been the way we were without modern technology. So, it's reverting back. It's like using cryotherapy to get cold exposure. So, it's not to-- [crosstalk]
Mark Sisson: No, but that's exactly my point. My point would be that biohackers for the most part don't want to do the work. They want the shortcut. They don't want to feel the pain or do the work, the cryotherapy, “Oh, I was in 320 below air for two minutes and it was awesome, dude.” Then, “Well, no, get in a 46-degree cold plunge for four minutes and then tell me how you feel.” Or, “I've got a bike and I wear these compression sleeves around your thighs and pump cold water through it in 10 minutes’ worth an hour and a half on the bike.” I'm like, “No, it's not. Get out and ride the bike for an hour and a half and then tell me how you feel.” “I think I've got a watch that tells me how I slept last night.” “Seriously? How'd you sleep last night?” “Well, I feel pretty good.” I don't know. I don't need a device to tell me how I feel.
Melanie Avalon: Yeah. Well, the last question that I ask every single guest on this show and it's just because I realize more and more each day how important mindset is. So, what is something that you're grateful for?
Mark Sisson: I am grateful for my family. I've got a wonderful family. I've got a wife of 32 years. We've been together 34, two amazing kids and now, two grandchildren as a result of that. So, I am extremely grateful for my family.
Melanie Avalon: Well, thank you so much, Mark. I am so grateful for your work. Like I said, I've been following you for so long and you are truly-- You're talking about that goal of changing the way the world eats. You are truly changing so many lives. And this has been such an honor and such a dream. So, thank you for your time and happy travels.
Mark Sisson: Thank you, Melanie. It's been a pleasure to talk with you.
Melanie Avalon: Thank you, Mark. Bye.
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