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Kelly Starrett: So I feel like it was about a million years ago that I discovered this incredible resource on the web, and it would turn out to be a popular health blog about all things nutrition, performance, movement. It’s called Mark’s Daily Apple, and I got to say, I’m pretty sure this thing pre-dated the video feature of the iPhone. YouTube was a nascent experiment and ultimately, it was Mark Sisson who had founded this beast. It’s not a stretch to say he’s the godfather of the primal food and lifestyle movement. It turns out, he became a New York Times Bestselling Author of the Keto Reset Diet. He’s also written a ton of other books including The Primal Blueprint, which really was credited for turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement all the way back in 2009. If you can believe it or not, people were eating gluten-free in 2009, starting to think about fats differently.
Kelly Starrett: After spending about three decades researching, educating folks on why the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness… Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real food company that created primal, paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples. Mark has been holding the door open for us for as long as I can think, and I am so thrilled to introduce him on this episode of the Ready State podcast. Mark Sisson, such a pleasure to have you on the Ready State podcast. Thanks so much, friend!
Mark Sisson: It is my pleasure to be here with you.
Juliet Starrett: We’re so happy to have you, Mark. I’ll just go ahead and get started. Back in the day before you even started Mark’s Daily Apple, you were an elite-level runner that qualified for the Olympic trials. Can you give us a little backstory of your running career, and then also sort of how you pivoted into nutrition from that.
Kelly Starrett: And let me just jump in and say, cut Mark off, and just say, this is important to understand because it gives you such context and such vision about having been a perfect product of the system to your thinking now. That’s why it’s in the podcast.
Juliet Starrett: Yeah, that’s why we’re curious about this.
Mark Sisson: Well, no, and that’s very important because as you hear the story, you’ll understand why all of the stuff got solidified in my brain and it became a passion for me. So I was a geeky kid, I was in my early teens and I was reading books about longevity for some bizarre reason. My mother I think was into that, and so I was reading Adele Davis and all the books that talked about how you could live longer lives, and one of the things that came across my reading schedule was Ken Cooper’s book on aerobics. Prior to that, I’d been recognized as a scrawny kid, grew up in a small fishing village in Maine, where the tough guys played soccer and hockey and football and baseball and basketball, and I was just too scrawny and weak for those literally. So it’s like the back of a comic book ad, but I lived a mile and a half from school and I found myself just out of not necessity, but wanting to beat the bus home I would jog the mile and a half each way to school.
Mark Sisson: So I’d jog to school in the morning, jog home from school in the afternoon. So a total of three miles in a day, but five days a week, and I started to get reasonably fit, and I started to think in terms of maybe one of the things I could do as an athlete is I could go out for the track team. Lord knows, I got the crap beat out of me in PE class by all the seniors in my class who had… “Drop down and give me 20 push-ups,” and purple nurples and being rat tail whipped with a towel and all that stuff. So spring track rolls around and I go out for the team and I wind up competing in the mile, the two-mile, and of all things, the pole vault. In several events, I won all three of those. In several of the meets, I won all three of those events.
Kelly Starrett: Yeah, that’s just like winning the shot put and the mile. That’s just crazy.
Mark Sisson: I know, so I got some great credibility there as an endurance athlete and that kind of put me on this path of learning, wanting to learn more about performance and how I could improve my running and how I could improve my stamina and so the books on longevity kind of gave way to the books on running and the books on diet and nutrition which was sort of required to go all those miles. So back to Cooper’s book which came out in 1968, the book was called Aerobics and it sort of changed the way the fitness community and the medical community looked at health and longevity because it pin pointed cardiovascular health as the key to living a long life and being healthy. It was as if running and swimming and cycling conferred some magical longevity power and prowess to anyone who undertook it. Well, that made sense to me and in fact, Cooper said, he would award you points for as many miles as you ran during the week. And the more points you had, theoretically the longer you’d live and the healthier you’d be.
Kelly Starrett: Yeah, what could go wrong with that?
Mark Sisson: And I like accumulating points, so I started racking up a whole ton of points and I started doing a lot, a lot of miles. And at the same time, I was reading books on nutrition and the conventional wisdom of the day was suggesting that a complex carbohydrate-based diet was the way to fuel all these miles because it was assumed that the body really worked on glucose and fat was sort of a luxury fuel that you only tapped into once in a while but glucose management was the real essence of what you were trying to achieve here in becoming an elite athlete. Lots of books were written about how you would carbo-load and when you would carbo-load. So, I and my contemporaries consumed copious amounts of carbs for years and years and years, and I’m talking about maybe 700-1,000 grams a day, almost minimum.
Kelly Starrett: That’s my cookie dream.
Mark Sisson: That’s a lot of bread and pasta and cereal and rice and beer and all the things that qualify as carbs, not necessarily complex carbs. Lo and behold after a bunch of years, I became captain of the track team at prep school and then I went to college and was captain of the cross country and track team there and had some great seasons, and found that the longer the distance that I was racing the better I was relative to the rest of the crowd.
Mark Sisson: And so I found myself doing marathons, was going to be a doctor and went to… I was a pre-med candidate in college and I was dead set on becoming a physician, but I decided to take three years off after I graduated from college and just pursue this running career and maximize my fitness and see what I could do to make the Olympic team for the 1980 Olympic team, which was an ill-fated thing because that was the year that Jimmy Carter, he just boycotted the Olympics on behalf of the United States. So there was no team. Anyway, so I took three years and I really pressed hard on my running and I got faster and faster, I finished fifth in the US National Championships in 1980 and I later on went on to finish fourth at Iron Man in Hawaii.
Mark Sisson: So I was a reasonably decent endurance athlete, I’ve been on the cover of Runner’s World three times. But, while I was racing well and had good times and I looked pretty fit on the outside, I was literally falling apart on the inside. I was developing osteoarthritis in my feet which was really putting a cramp in my style literally and figuratively. I had tendonitis in my hips, hip flexors notoriously shorten up for runners as you know, Kelly. And I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome that ran my life. I mean, I literally, every day I would have to figure out where the nearest bathroom was and I couldn’t be more than 10 minutes away from it. It was that bad it was horrible.
Kelly Starrett: Let me just say that I feel like you’re describing how a lot of us in our, as we have gone through the sort of apex of being 19 or 20 or 25, being able to do whatever we want, you’re describing how a lot of us feel.
Mark Sisson: Yeah, and it goes deeper and deeper. I mean, I had horrible acne, I had gastro-esophageal reflux. I had heartburn. I would get upper respiratory tract infections five, six times a year. It seemed like they never went away. I had hemorrhoids. It was literally this bizarre kind of thing where, again on the outside, I looked pretty fit and my race numbers would show that I was doing pretty well but I was literally dying and I hated how I felt. I hated the fact that I would wake up every morning with horrible cramps and then I’d have to go to the bathroom immediately. At the age of like 29, I finally just said, “This is enough of the competing.”
Mark Sisson: It’s just first of all, there was no money to be made in elite endurance activities in those days and that was a little bit ridiculous. And second, I was just kind of over this struggling and suffering and all the stuff that I was going through, which was bizarre because ironically in the initial phase, I was pursuing longevity and health and feeling good and all the things that I had read about that I thought I was headed toward on this path. So I retired in ’82 from all competition. I decided that I was going to dedicate my life to figuring out ways in which I could be strong and lean and fit and healthy and happy and productive, with the least amount of pain, suffering, sacrifice, discipline, calorie-counting, portion control and all that other negative stuff.
Mark Sisson: So I started doing research. Some of the first books I wrote were on training, because I knew training very well. So I wrote the Runner’s World Triathlon Training Book in 1981. It published in 1982. I wrote a couple of books on, one called The Ultimate Lean Routine. One was… I forget even some of the names of these books. It was some fat loss book, some things like that that really got me headed down a path of looking at evolution, which had been my favorite subject in school as a bio major, and then this emerging science of genetics. And it was starting to become clear that a lot of things that were happening whenever you did a study or a research study or biological study were happening at the level of gene expression. So I started, I really glommed onto that pretty quickly and realized that so much of what we do and who we are is a result of this gene expression. Genes aren’t just created when we’re born and kind of determine who we’re going to be and then at the end of the day, we’re fated to execute on this genome that we’re given. Genes are in fact working every second of every day, they’re rebuilding, renewing, regenerating, recreating us minute by minute based on inputs that we give these genes.
Mark Sisson: These inputs can be the food we eat, the types of exercise we choose to do, the amount of sleep we get, the amount of sun exposure we get, the amount of play we engage in, how often we use our brains, the kind of thoughts that we think can even have a manifestation on how genes express themselves. So, it was a really exiting time for me to embrace this idea that we could… that we had this immense control over manifesting a strong, lean, fit, happy, healthy body if we wanted to. We just had to find out what these hidden genetic secrets were. So that became the impetus and strategy behind my looking at the clues to be derived from evolution, because I was aware that we are humans that have evolved over the last two and a half million years as humans and then 100 million years prior to that is mammals, and so a lot of this genetic recipe that we all possess today was forged in an environment of harsh conditions, lots of running, lots of jumping, going to bed when the sun goes down, waking up when the sun comes up.
Mark Sisson: Lots of things that we’ve sort of forgotten about in our modern lives, and these behaviors could inform us in a way in which we could use them as a template to achieve the strong, healthy bodies that we pretty much all seek. I started writing about this on Mark’s Daily Apple, this silly little blog that I created in 2006.
Juliet Starrett: It was not silly, it was rad. It still is rad.
Mark Sisson: And I had this idea that I would write something every day for a year, and at the end of a year, I would have written everything there was to write about these topics that I was interested in, and then I would go about my merry way. Well, at the end of a year, what happened was I got such engagement from my readers and so many questions and so many people saying, “I think you’re onto something here, but what about this? And what about that? And have you thought about this tangent?” And so, the subject matter has just expanded exponentially since then, and we’re having a blast kind of putting together kind of unique articles on things that people hadn’t really given that much thought to over the years, and trying to coalesce into a life way that again, that serves as a template.
Mark Sisson: I’m not saying I have the way or the right way. I have a way that is really well-researched and works for a lot of people. Now, it’s millions of user experiences now.
Kelly Starrett: In full transparency, I discovered Mark’s Daily Apple when I was a first-year physio, the same time I discovered Mark Rippetoe, the same time I discovered CrossFit and Dan John. And for me, it was this happy… I mean, chance to begin to finally understand sort of this integrative approach of, “Hey, we need to train a little bit differently,” and then all the sudden you were really, and honestly, the first person who put onto my radar that all of these other components which were sort of kind of sidelined or soft or less sexy to the 26-year-old were really important. I mean, I owe so much of the foundation of my thinking to Mark’s Daily Apple. I can’t even tell you.
Mark Sisson: Well, thank you. And you’re right, a lot of people sort of want or hope that if they fix the diet, everything will be better and that’s definitely a huge part of it, but there are a lot of people who have fixer diets and done a great job fixing their diets and still have big issues with mobility. Obviously, we can talk about that or with sleep, or with stress management, or with little nuances that they would assume would go away once they got their diet right. It’s an ongoing project, being a human being and it never ends. There’s always new territory to explore and I think new ways to improve if self-improvement is one of your goals.
Juliet Starrett: So your talk about evolution and genetics reminded me that I wanted to tell you a story that I thought you’d find interesting about our cat named King Louie, and speaking of mammals, it turns out that Kelly and I gave our cat diabetes. He was diagnosed last year with diabetes and it wasn’t until after he was diagnosed we realized that cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they only eat meat. And-
Mark Sisson: Oh, you were feeding your cat like Impossible Burgers?
Juliet Starrett: Well, we were feeding our cat… Exactly. We were feeding our cat-
Kelly Starrett: Basically the same thing.
Juliet Starrett: … obviously a bunch of not meat, and we gave our cat diabetes and then go figure, we put him on a completely meat diet for six months and his diabetes was 100% cured. I don’t know, just something about your mention of evolution and genetics reminded me of how Kelly and I gave our cat diabetes.
Kelly Starrett: And imagine Juliet and I look at each other and we’re like, “What else are we doing? What other diseases are we giving each other?” We’ve poisoned our cat with cat food.
Mark Sisson: Yeah, it’s a crazy world that we live in and one of the challenges is to take a step back and recognize that we are basically animals that evolve the way every other animal evolved, and we just happen to have become an apex predator through the use of our brain, but we’re still as Art De Vany used to say, “We’re still apes in pinstripe suits,” you know? We’re still basically, we ought to be beholden to the rules of nature, one of which is eat stuff that your body evolved to consume and use best and try to avoid the man-made frankenfoods that so many of us assume are somehow made in our best interest for better health.
Kelly Starrett: You have been talking about playing and sun and being reasonable in all things. When the keto phase first hit, and it wasn’t even called keto. People were just talking about being in ketosis, you made this statement that was just so profound and really I think sort of typifies your really reasonable, long game approach because you’re like, “Hey, the goal’s not necessarily to be in ketosis, the goal is to have access to ketones and to be metabolically flexible.” So you’ve talked about metabolic flexibility before. What does that mean?
Mark Sisson: So metabolic flexibility basically describes a condition or a situation where the body is just able to extract energy from whatever substrate is available at the time, almost regardless of the workload. For example, to be metabolically flexible means to be able to burn fat off your plate of food or off your thighs or butt or belly where you stored it, being able to burn carbohydrate from the plate of food, the potatoes or the rice or pasta or whatever’s on your plate of food, or from being able to burn the glycogen in your muscles, glucose in your blood stream or the ketones that your liver makes or sometimes amino acids that are broken down as a result of cortisol. But being metabolically flexible pretty much describes this state in which you’ve built the metabolic machinery to be able to use whatever substrate is handy. And the problem is, most of us don’t get to the point of building the metabolic machinery.
Mark Sisson: We become so carbohydrate-dependent over a lifetime that the body just expects that we’re going to refuel it every two or three hours with more carbs, whether it’s orange juice, toast for breakfast or oatmeal. Steel-cut oats if you’re trying to be really healthy. A bagel at 10:00, as a snack, a whole wheat bagel, please. A sandwich at lunch, a bran muffin in the afternoon, and a plate of spaghetti and whatever for dinner and then a snack before you go to bed, and that’ll keep your blood sugar up. And as a result, you’ll never develop metabolic flexibility because the body knows how to burn sugar without any of that machinery. The basic machinery that we’re looking to build up are the mitochondria. And so when you withhold carbohydrate and you tell the body basically, you tell the brain that it’s not going to be getting a lot of glucose over the next couple of hours or days or weeks.
Mark Sisson: The body has this amazing fall back position. It says, “That’s fine, I know how to burn fat. I was born with a factory setting that allowed me to burn fat all the time. I just lost it because that part of my metabolism atrophied. It literally atrophied.” And so, if we’re going to start building the metabolic machinery, there’s a thing, a process known as mitochondrial biogenesis, and it’s the up regulating of certain gene systems that will improve and increase the number of mitochondria and improve the efficiency of those mitochondria you already have, and that’s where the fat burns. And so the more of these mitochondria you build and the more efficient they become, the more fat you can burn. The more fat you can burn, the less reliant you are on a regular source of fuel, whether it’s carbohydrate, fat, or protein. You can literally go longer periods of time without eating, without getting hungry, without getting hangry, without getting cravings, because you’re so good at burning this stored body fat.
Mark Sisson: You’ve become so metabolically flexible that you are able to again, go long periods of time with either burning fat in the muscles or, and coincidentally at the same time, the brain learns how to use ketones which are a by-product of fat metabolism that comes from the liver. And the brain uses ketones so efficiently that it offsets the brain’s need to have glucose. And so you can go literally days without eating any carbohydrate, you can go a whole lifetime without eating carbohydrate. You can go days without eating any food at all, and become what is basically a closed loop where if you become metabolically flexible, your body burns the body fat that you’ve stored, it sends some of the fat to the liver to become ketones so the brain can then function on the ketone. You don’t need carbohydrate. Whatever glucose the body… There are some cells in the body that require glucose, but the body has this elegant ability through a process called gluconeogenesis to make enough glucose for those say, red blood cells and other certain brain cells.
Mark Sisson: You become literally a closed loop. So much so that people say, “Well, if I go on a fast for five days, I’ll lose like 20 pounds of muscle mass, won’t I?” The answer’s no, because one of the things that happens, if you become metabolically flexible and metabolically efficient, is the body shifts into this protein sparing state, where it doesn’t want to get rid of amino acids. And so it taps into these amino acid pools and these reservoirs that exist in the body, so you don’t lost muscle mass. You don’t tear down muscle the way you would have in the old days if you were just a sugar-burner and hadn’t built metabolic machinery to burn fat. It’s a beautiful, elegant system and that’s why I want to really, in one of my future books, I want to talk more about this concept of the closed loop, the fact that you could get by for five days without eating anything. And I could do the math and show you you’re going to burn 100 grams, maybe 150 grams worth of fat.
Mark Sisson: You produce 750 calories worth of ketones that your brain will use and you’ll make a little bit of glucose from the gluconeogenesis, some of which by the way, comes from the glycerol that gets stripped off that triglyceride, that little fatty acid molecule. That’s the real definition of efficiency. Some of this molecule’s going to become combusted as fuel. Some of it’s going to become ketones for your brain to use and some of it’s going to become the substrate to make a glucose molecule. It’s so beautiful, it’s so elegant and I think people just don’t understand how remarkable the human body is. People get that we evolved this system of storing fat because it was an evolutionary adaptation to long periods of time without there being a source of food. But what confounds most people is, “Okay, I got the fat storage part. I get that, but how do I burn it?” Right?
Juliet Starrett: True facts. So, what this whole conversation leads me to wonder is, and I imagine some of our listeners will wonder this is first of all, how does one become more metabolically flexible? That’s part A. And then, are you of the mind that being in a metabolically flexible or efficient state helps with aging?
Mark Sisson: Yes and yes. So, how you become metabolically flexible is by withholding carbohydrates. So you withhold… For a lot of people, it’s sort of self-evident. If I don’t eat sugar, sweetened beverages, desserts, pies, cakes, candies, cookies, bread, pasta, cereal, rice, I’m cutting out all the carbs and I’m focusing on a whole food, real food diet that is basically meat, fish, fowl, eggs, nuts, seeds, vegetables and a little bit of fruit, you’re basically going to be close to keto with that eating strategy and that just happens to be the way we ate up until about 150 years ago, every one of us. So by withholding carbohydrates, the body gets the message that you’re not just going to be slamming down these sugary products and raising blood sugar and blood glucose all the time.
Mark Sisson: Again, the body goes, “I can handle this. I know how to do it, here’s what we do. We up regulate those enzyme systems and take fat out of storage, we send them to the mitochondria to combust and we create fuel systems for the muscles.” And over time, and it doesn’t take a long time. I suggest that 75-80% of the results can be achieved in three to four weeks of a ketogenic-type eating strategy. And then, once you’ve done that work and once you’ve built that metabolic machinery, the good news is you can kind of go back to adding back some carbohydrates so you don’t have to be fully keto the whole time to derive the benefits of a keto lifestyle. And again, that’s almost the definition of metabolic flexibility. One of my definitions is, “Okay, today, I didn’t eat, I felt great. Yesterday, I had three giant meals, I felt great. Tomorrow, I’m going to have lunch and dinner and I’ll probably eat 150 grams of carbs. I’ll feel great.”
Mark Sisson: All of that is evidence of metabolic flexibility. The ability to get up in the morning and start your day and not have to be hangry and not have to have something to eat. The ability to go to the gym at like 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning, do a hard workout and then come home and not have to eat, not have to do a post-workout meal, evidence of metabolic flexibility. Once you’ve built this metabolic flexibility, again, then you can sort of ease off the pedal a little bit and just say, “As long as I eat clean, wholesome foods, doesn’t really matter how much I eat, doesn’t matter when I eat as long as I feel good and I’ve got the energy I want, I’m maintaining muscle mass, I’m not getting sick. And most importantly, I’m not letting hunger run my life.” What greater level of freedom is there than the freedom from food?
Kelly Starrett: That’s truly amazing and I think really does… People are confused. Hey, intermittent fasting’s starting to be, we’re not sure why we should be fasting, what the ultimate goal is. One of the things that I think I even, I had the benefit of being a presenter at Primal Con, is one of the things which was your sort of festival around trying to get people to be able to deep dive into these concepts, for those of you who have never heard of Primal Con, is that you said always like, “Hey, it wasn’t even necessarily, you can eat tons of vegetables, tons and tons of vegetables and still kind of be in the 100-120 gram carbohydrate piece, and still be considered very low carbohydrate. You never were saying you should not eat vegetables and fruits and you should only eat fat as sort of a sustainable piece, once you become metabolically flexible.
Kelly Starrett: As people hear this message, sometimes we are concerned that, or maybe there’s some data that women maybe need a little more carbohydrate than men but moderately more. Can you speak to that?
Mark Sisson: Well first of all, agreed that one of the things we talk about with low-carb eating is that vegetables sort of are free. You can have as many vegetables as you want. The asterisk at the end of that statement is that if you get your diet dialed in and when you become metabolically flexible, one of the things that happens is you realize, “Holy shit, I was eating way too much food.” I was eating more food than I needed to, I was leaving meal time uncomfortable and it’s so funny you recall that time at Primal Con. Brad and I would sit in the back.
Mark Sisson: At Primal Con, we fed all of our guests every meal and we had this beautiful, sumptuous feast of primal food. Grass-fed steaks and pasture chickens and heaps and heaps of broccoli and vegetables and stuff like that, and I would stand back and I would watch people load their plates up, and I’m going… Brad and I would shake our heads and go, “Holy crap, I guess we haven’t really quite gotten to the point yet where the message is fully grokked,” because in my estimation, every single person at those buffet lines was overeating.
Mark Sisson: And I don’t know how they did it, but I think some of them, and they could get away with it, one of the great things about eating primally is that you tend not to gain weight. You trend more toward your ideal body composition, which is losing weight, but it was fascinating to see how much food people ate. So when we talk about this idea of hunger, appetite, and cravings and getting a handle on that, it’s a really important nuance to the whole keto lifestyle. Not just being in ketosis, but it’s really about finding that sweet spot where you eat enough to satisfy you. And again, one of the things I’ve said over the years is I don’t put put a bite of food in my mouth that doesn’t taste awesome. Every bite of food I eat, I want it to taste awesome.
Mark Sisson: So why don’t you just eat a dry kale salad, because kale is supposed to be good for me?
Kelly Starrett: Thank you, thank you. The Marie Kondo of eating, “Does it bring me joy?” I think this is so reasonable.
Mark Sisson: And it should be. It’s one of the great pleasures and I don’t know why people somehow think that… when I first read about Soylent, those guys up in your neck of the woods that were making the-
Juliet Starrett: Yes.
Mark Sisson: … powdered drink mix that would have everything that you would need, and you could mix up a drink three times a day and slam it down and get back to your programming and coding because for some reason, people don’t like to eat. I’m like, “Wait a minute, that’s not my people.” Anyway, once you realize that food is definitely fuel, it’s definitely to be enjoyed, but you also get to a point where you recognize that no matter how little food you eat at a meal, you’re still going to be okay. There’s going to be another meal around the corner. And so, I started to look at people and humanity and Americans in particular and we kind of go through this life thinking, “What’s the most amount of this food I could eat and not gain weight? What’s the biggest piece of cheesecake I can eat and not feel like crap after I’ve had it and not gain weight?” You know what I mean?
Mark Sisson: It’s like, I think a lot of people think in those terms, or even worse, people go to the gym and they’re like, “I’m going to do 500 calories on the treadmill today because I want to have a big lunch. I want to deserve my big lunch.” And I’m like, thinking to myself, “Jesus, you’re going to put yourself through all that struggling and suffering, 45 minutes on the treadmill just so you can have a few more bites of something you probably shouldn’t eat in the first place?” How crazy is that? And so I took kind of a weird thought experiment the other way and I said, “Okay, instead of seeing how much I can get away with eating, because we all have this tendency. Again, it’s human nature to see what we can get away with, right? How little work can I do and still get a paycheck? Whatever. All these different kind of ways we play with our minds.
Kelly Starrett: I love that.
Mark Sisson: Instead of thinking, “What’s the most amount of food I can eat and not have it impact me negatively?” What’s the least amount of food I can eat, maintain muscle mass or build muscle mass, have all the energy I want, never get sick and most importantly, not be hungry? And isn’t that, it’s like as Tim Ferriss used to say, it’s like the minimum effective dose of something. What’s the minimum effective dose of food that I can have and still be satisfied because again, at the end of the day, my satisfaction, my joy, the pleasure I get from eating is an important part of my day. But if you look at the cheesecake example, Cheesecake Factory gives you this giant slice that could feed a small village, and you think, “Well, that’s what they think is a serving, so I guess it must be okay to eat the whole thing.” But the reality is, you have that first bite, and it is spectacular. It’s a 10 out of 10. It hits everything, it checks all the boxes. The second bite, it’s a nine. It’s definitely a nine. By the third or fourth bite, it’s getting down to a seven or a six, and at what point do you say, “Okay, now, we’ve established what I am, now we’re just haggling over price.”
Mark Sisson: I mean, it’s like, at what point do you suggest that it’s enough? Like I can push this plate of dessert away and I got all the experience, all the positive stuff out of it I needed, and I didn’t go over the line and put myself in a misery where for three minutes of gustatory pleasure, I’m experiencing five hours of sweats and not sleeping and high heart rate and all the other crap that might go with that. So that’s almost, that’s the major skill I want to teach people, is to be confident enough in how they’re eating and how they’ve established their metabolic flexibility. Confident enough that the worst thing, that they can’t even air on the side of not eating enough because I know people and you do too. We know people who are fully keto or keto adapted and these people eat one meal a day and they’re happy and fine doing that.
Mark Sisson: I used to think, “Wow, one meal a day, you must be… have to really be mindful of how much you eat.” And I’m thinking, because you want to be sure you don’t overeat. And they’re like, “Yeah, we have to be mindful that we eat enough, because we’re just not that hungry.” And it’s not like it’s a bad not that hungry, it’s just that we’re not hangry. We’re not craving stuff. We’re satisfied with a relatively smaller portion of food and it does the trick and we’re ready, willing, and able to step away and just get on with the rest of our day.
Kelly Starrett: Okay, so we’re going to call this officially chasing the cheesecake dragon. Right? But what I hear there and maybe what I’m inferring is this somehow not only relates to my health in the immediate, and certainly in my immediate pleasure and psychological health, but I think you’re onto something around aging. Do you think there’s a component? Because if this season’s about aging and you’re saying that, “Hey, we’re making a whole bunch of oxidative eating distress errors,” do you think this is a component to living to be 100 years old and doing it better?
Mark Sisson: Absolutely. There’s a group of four or five of us. Ron Rosedale is one, Joe Mercola’s one. I’m one who have said… Michael Leeds, have said for the last 25 years. The less sugar you eat in a lifetime, the longer you’ll live. So the more you can reduce your sugar intake, whether or not you’re keto, it’s just kind of a basic fact because of this reactive oxygen species, the oxidative damage that comes from that type of metabolism so yes, by reducing your sugar, that’s the major step I would tell anybody. That’s step one. Even if you never go keto, even if you never go paleo or primal, just cut back on your sugar because that’s really what’s killing so many people. And then the next step is to understand that when you don’t eat, that’s when all the good stuff is happening in the body.
Mark Sisson: Again, people can’t quite understand this, but we eat to fill up the coal bins and be ready for the surfeit, the dearth, the lack of food coming in the next hours, days, or weeks from an evolutionary, historical perspective. But all the good stuff happens when we’re not eating. All the repair mechanisms are triggered. That’s when the gene expression happens where the genes that are involved in fixing broken strands of DNA get unregulated. That’s when the body starts to identify senescent cells or damaged cells or damaged proteins and literally consumes them and doesn’t just get rid of them because they’re bad for the health of the body. Actually uses them for energy, consumes them and that’s one of the sources of calories when you fast for long periods of time.
Mark Sisson: You’re literally munching on dead, deficient, senescent cells that you don’t need and are only causing you harm. But when you’re engaged in a pattern where you’re eating three, four, five meals a day, those cells, they’re supported. They hang around and do more damage. So if you can fast once in a while, and that’s where intermittent fasting comes in. I mean, we can talk about short term fasting which would be a compressed eating window where you eat maybe two meals a day in an eight hour window and then you don’t eat for the other 16 hours or a longer fast where you go two, three, four days without eating. And according to much research, do some fairly significant repair during those periods with no real downside. With no real like, “Oh my God, I fasted three days and lost all this muscle and it’s going to take me years to build it back.” No. “I fasted for three days, I repaired some DNA. I got rid of some senescent, some damaged cells, I had more energy. I rebuilt my metabolic flexibility.” Now, I’m ready to get back to a normal routine.
Juliet Starrett: So this is sort of related to that, but one of the things I really wanted to ask you about today is oils. I first started reading about how disgusting vegetable oil is on Mark’s Daily Apple actually. And then, I learned way more about its impact on a cellular level by reading Cate Shanahan’s book Deep Nutrition. Obviously, everything you make at Primal Kitchen is vegetable oil-free on purpose, and that’s something that you’ve been focused on. But I was just wondering if you could speak to that whole oils thing a little bit?
Mark Sisson: Yeah, so as much as I would say that sugar is the great demon that has caused a lot of stress and heartache for hundreds of millions of people, probably billions of people over the past 50 years, I think what we call industrial seed oils, these vegetable oils, notably soybean, canola, corn oil are as bad or worse in many cases. They are insidious. They are highly processed, they’re mostly saturated fats, they’re mostly Omega-6 fats which are for the most part, real inflammatory. We need some, but we tend to get 20 times as much as we need. They don’t really combust that well, they’re not burned efficiently. They are incorporated into cell membranes, and because they’re not… These are sort of damaged in the process of manufacture, they’re hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. They affect how the cell membrane works and they affect the pliability of the membrane. They literally can be implicated in damaged tissue, whether it’s the inability of that tissue to function at 100% or admit certain nutrients into the cell or even to the extent of causing premature hardening of skin, like wrinkles or arteries.
Mark Sisson: They are insidious. I think we are still years away from the general public recognizing how bad these industrial seed oils are for us. Remember, it was like 10 years ago when canola was sort of the latest breakthrough in healthy oils, and it was embraced by the health food industry. Not the least among which was Whole Foods. But now we know differently. It’s not good for you, it’s actually I think bad for you and soybean oil is as bad or worse. So, what does that mean for the average person who’s shopping in the store? You’ve got to look at the labels and you’ve got to look at… I mean, I started Primal Kitchen largely on the strength of an episode where I walked into a supermarket and I picked up a bottle of Newman’s Own, Paul Newman, my childhood hero. Cool Hand Luke, my favorite movie of all time, right?
Mark Sisson: And it’s extra virgin olive oil and vinegar dressing. And lo and behold, the label says, “May contain soybean, corn oil, canola, and…” as the first ingredient, and then water, and then, oh, yes. It has some extra virgin olive oil somewhere down there, fourth or fifth on the list. And that was like, “Oh, man. Paul, really?” And that’s when I realized that the public is being duped into thinking things are healthier than they are, partly because of marketing and partly because of the way people tend not to read labels. And that’s what really got me started in Primal Kitchen. So as you know, we use avocado oil, which is deemed by many to be the healthiest of the oils. And by the way, all these things exist on a spectrum, right? Oils are 100% fat. The difference is the breakdown of the fats, where the fats come from, whether they’re saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fats, and so on that spectrum of oils you can have avocado oil at the far end of the great, best for you stuff and extra virgin olive oil there right next to it, and then as you go down the line you get some grape seed oil.
Mark Sisson: Then some other maybe high oleic sunflower oil, then as you get further on down the line, you start to come to these nasty industrial seed oils and the best example is Crisco. I mean, Crisco was basically created to lubricate engine parts and then somebody had the great idea of like, “Oh, well, we could probably use it in place of butter and for cooking and stuff like that too, let’s try it.”
Juliet Starrett: So gross.
Mark Sisson: And the whole country, my parents grew up using Crisco. I mean, my mother cooked with Crisco. There was a can of it right next to our kitchen stove and it was there for whatever she was cooking at the time, so it’s amazing how far we’ve come, but it’s still amazing to me how far we have to go.
Kelly Starrett: My stepfather’s grandma, who was old school Swede came to visit us, and I was in high school and she was going to make kalachis. She was from Wisconsin, and she opens the cabinet and she’s like, “Where’s the lard?” And we were all products of the 80s, like eating a rice cake and Diet Coke. We were like, “Lard, that’s so bad for you!” And also I just took away that if I, you said that these oils can harden, I should stop using industrial seed oils to try to harden my six pack. I really appreciate that advice.
Mark Sisson: Well, a lot of people are using our spray avocado oil as a body lotion before they go to bed at night.
Kelly Starrett: One of the things that I appreciate, do you mind sharing your age with our audience?
Mark Sisson: I’m 66.
Kelly Starrett: Okay, and the reason that’s germane to this conversation is you have a prodigious play attitude. You have always been playing. I think anyone if they weren’t wise enough would have a hard time keeping up with you. As we shift sometimes from just diet and we’re talking about longevity and age, I think you really have nailed something in your own personal life which is play. Can you talk about that role? Because that has got to be a huge piece and you even mentioned play earlier.
Mark Sisson: Well, yeah. As an endurance athlete, and I spent the better part of 25 years training hard for competition. Even when I wasn’t racing, this is how bad that was, even when I quite competing, I still trained hard and I coached elites, right? So I coached a world-class triathlon team for a bunch of years and I would travel around the world with them to their races. I can still do their workouts with them, right? So I was in that mindset of no pain, no gain for the longest time. When I finally let go of that and I finally realized that I was wearing my body down, I had an epiphany that literally brought tears to my eyes in a bad way.
Mark Sisson: I realized that my entire endurance career, all I had been doing was managing discomfort. From the time in a race, and I was in 200 endurance contests. From the time the gun went off until the time I crossed the finish line, there was no point in that race when I could ever say, “Wow, this is fun. I’m having a blast.” It was always about, “Oh, I’m in the zone, I’m okay, I’m not dying yet. I’m ahead of these guys, but those guys are in front of me.” It was always about managing discomfort. And even when you lead a race, now you’re running in the front, now it’s like, “Holy shit, those guys are going to catch me, I better pick up the pace,” and the training was the same way. Yes, there would be moments when I would take the team off the road and don’t think ill of me, but I used to take like six guys up in the hills behind Santa Monica and we would run in Speedos and just running shoes. And we would have 20 mile runs where we couldn’t say a word to each other. We could run, we could use elbows, but there was like no communication. You’re in the moment.
Mark Sisson: Those were kind of cool. Those were meditative and zone like, but there still, it wasn’t really… I guess you could say they were playful. But I realized that there was a point at which I’m doing all this… If I want to stay fit, I’m going to lose my mind if all I do is manage pain. So I want to only have fun, for the most part when I’m moving. When I’m doing exceptional efforts, so I choose to stand up paddle. I love it, I went out yesterday in the ocean here. I did a hard hour, and the whole time, I’m just having fun. I’m looking back at the shore, I’m looking at the boats out there. I’m navigating the waves, it was pretty choppy, I’m looking down and seeing some fish. The whole time I’m out there, I’m like, I’m in the zone and having fun. And I’m never thinking, “Oh my god, when’s it going to be over?” Right? Like I used to when I was a runner. I play Ultimate Frisbee. It’s one of my favorite things to do and I play a game with 20-somethings down the street.
Mark Sisson: And these are some of the literally, some of the best in the world. Some of these guys just came back last week from the Pan-Am Championships, and one of the teams, one of the girls that shows up at our game, she was on the gold medal-winning team for the entire Pan-Am conference. So, it’s a great bunch of players and I have an awesome time. And again, for two hours, I’m out there totally involved in the moment. At no point going, “Oh, shit, I hope it’s over soon. I can’t wait to go home.” It’s like, “Oh, dang. They’re going to turn the lights off at 10:00, and I could play for another half hour.” That’s how I want to really look at my pursuits now. I’m a snowboarder, I love powder. It’s a fun pursuit. Again, you’re out there and you’re having fun. You’re not really thinking about the work even though it’s a great workout. I have a fat bike, the four and a half inch wide low inflated tires, and I go up and down the beach in Miami. There’s always a good view here, wink, wink.
Mark Sisson: And the weather’s great. I started doing e foiling, the electric foil surfboard, hydrofoil, where you fly above the water. So I’m just, I’m looking at ways to play now. I’m not interested in struggling and suffering anymore. When I do go to the gym, it’s really only contemplated to keep me from getting injured when I’m doing the fun thing.
Kelly Starrett: Yes. One of the things that is a hallmark through all of those things is balance. You are engaged in a lot of pursuits where there’s a lot of proprioceptive input and there’s a lot of balance. And one of the things that we have sold people is like, “Get on this bike, do this machine, that will take care of your heart and you’ll be insulin sensitive.” And yet, the number one reason most of us end up in nursing homes is a fall. We fracture something and then our health declines. I mean, that’s the number one predictor of death past 70 is a fall. And even Jimmy Carter was hospitalized because of his falls recently. Are you conscious that these are skills developed in play? Are you aware? Because we see that this loss of balance and security, my mother-in-law was hiking up in Tahoe and she comes to our gym. They do a lot of rolling and balance and play work and they were going to go through this old train tunnel and her friend said, “No, I’ll fall, I’m not going to go in there.”
Kelly Starrett: And Janet, who is every bit of 75 was like, “What’s wrong with you?” And she had maintained this ability, her friend knew that was over her limit. Do you think we’re getting some exercising wrong in terms of what we’re selling to people and telling people they need to do?
Mark Sisson: Absolutely. I agree. I think I’ve made a comment over the years that nobody really dies of old age. You die of organ failure, where one organ, your weakest link, gives out. And the typical scenario is just as you explained. Somebody who is in their 60s, 70s thinks that they’re too old to exercise and they’re too old to go do Pilates. They’re too old to even attempt to even get on a slack line and they just, they sort of let their muscles atrophy. So when the muscles atrophy, they lose their glucose control, as you mentioned. They lose their metabolic flexibility. They lose their mobility. And then because they are not training hard, the muscles are basically atrophying, and the muscles go, “Hey, we don’t need to be strong. Why waste precious resources remaining strong and pliable when this clown’s not going to get out of the chair?” Meanwhile, all of the organs, the heart, the lungs, liver, they back off because the heart is a command organ that just only works based on the amount of… whatever’s asked of it by the muscles.
Mark Sisson: So you decide to go out and do a sprint workout, the muscles are asking the heart to pump faster and harder and more forcefully to derive oxygen and fuel to the muscles. Well, if you don’t do those sprints anymore, the heart kind of goes, “Hey, I don’t need to beat that forcefully, I don’t need to waste my precious resources so you lose capacity. You lose cardiac capacity. Same with the lungs, if you’re not breathing deeply and not going out and doing intensity, any kind of intense work or even any kind of cardio work, the lungs go, “Hey, hey, we can just breathe a little bit, we can lose some of our vital capacity. It’s not going to cost anything because we’re never called into play anymore.” Same with the liver, same… So now, and then if you don’t work on balance, which is as you said a critical component for people over 40, I think, the scenario is typical.
Mark Sisson: You wake up in the middle of the night to take a leak, you trip over the cat, you break a hip. You go to the hospital with a broken hip. You’re lying in bed there. Of course you’re in a hospital where you get pneumonia, because that’s what they do in hospitals and because your lungs aren’t strong enough to force out the sputum and cough, the phlegm builds up and then your heart, because of the infection and everything else going on, the heart can’t keep up with it and you die of congestive heart failure. You die of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. You literally succumb to the weakest link because you didn’t think in terms of maintaining muscle mass. Lean muscle is what drives life and if you’re somebody who’s thinking about, “Well, what are the things I need to do to achieve longevity and to be healthy and to be mobile and cognitive when I’m in my 80s or 90s or 100s?” Going to the gym is definitely one of them, or finding an activity, it doesn’t have to be going to the gym, but doing some form of resistance exercise that causes you, forces you to have to work a little bit harder than you’re used to and there’s a little uncomfortable, but I say, “Try to make it fun.”
Mark Sisson: Like I say, that’s why I’m, again at 66, I’m the oldest guy on my Frisbee pitch playing Frisbee, but I’m planning on doing it until I can’t. Let’s just put it that way. Yeah. Sorry, I’m running on at the mouth here.
Juliet Starrett: No, you’re not at all.
Kelly Starrett: I love the idea of like, you’re like, “Yeah, come off a little bike ride on the beach with my fat cruiser.” Meanwhile, heart rate pegged, trying not to fall over on your face in the deep sand. Yeah, yeah, this is sneaky, sneaky Mark.
Juliet Starrett: Yeah, and I’m just so glad you said that about the resistance because that’s something that I notice among our cohort of… Kelly and I are 46 years old. We notice that people are all about going for a long run or doing their cardio workout, but the resistance piece seems to be a big hole for a lot of people, and not something they think is important.
Mark Sisson: Well, and the balance piece, and I started doing slack line about 10 years ago and I don’t have one here and I miss it, but if I see one in the park I’ll hop on for a little bit.
Kelly Starrett: Yeah, we’ve got a slack line in our side yard, and I spend a lot of time on the barbecue slack line combo. People don’t know about that couplet. You know?
Mark Sisson: Well, I mean, if you can drink a beer and slack line at the same time, I like the…
Juliet Starrett: You’re winning at life. Mark, we could probably ask you a thousand more questions, it’s so fun to talk to you, but so that we can start to wrap this up, am I correct that you are writing a new book? And if so, what is it?
Mark Sisson: Yeah, it’s called Keto For Life, and it is a book on longevity, and it’s out in December, end of December. There will be a pre-order very soon, probably by the time this is up. It’s based on the four pillars that I identify for… that you kind of, you want to build resistance, you want to actually reacquire resilience is the term I use. But metabolic flexibility for sure, one of those. Movement and physical activity, another pillar. Mental flexibility and that’s where I talk about the playful mind and being able to pivot and being able to withstand events that would otherwise might be, cause you to lose momentum in your life. And then rest and recovery, which is grossly overlooked by so many people.
Mark Sisson: I do not apologize for my eight and a half to nine hours of sleep every night. I would not brag if I was trying to get by on four or five hours. That would make no sense at all. Yeah, and it’s just, it’s a fun book. It really kind of looks at how we can kind of set ourselves up to live a longer, happier, healthier life with the least amount of pain, suffering, sacrifice and discipline.
Kelly Starrett: You’re speaking my language. I mean, one of the fun things about… Juliet can look at you and see like, handsome guy, fun, good on the beach. But I have a view of what my life looks like. Laird is exactly 10 years older than I am and you’re exactly 10 years older than Laird and I got to say, my only negative about having you in my life is that you guys set the benchmarks and the goalposts so high, so far that I’m like, “Oh my God, I have a lot of work to do between now and 55 and now and 66.” And I really feel like that has been one of the big shifts in my mind, is that I’m now playing a little bit different game. I’m playing to be 100 years old and having the capacities that I do now when I’m 100.
Mark Sisson: Well, Laird’s a great friend, awesome guy, and Laird spends his life playing. And it might not look like it to some people because of the things he chooses to call play, but that guy loves to play and so I would suggest to you and I think you got that from this conversation, you’re on your way. I mean, you’re right in the groove, and don’t ask for those 10 years to accelerate because they’re going to happen on their own, right? But if you keep doing what you’re doing and if you consider the kind of… they way you’re eating, the way you live your life as a human being, the types of exercise you’re choosing, look, mobility is huge. There’s basically two things that define quality of life when you get older. One is access to thoughts, memory, because without that, that’s a huge epidemic with Alzheimer’s and dementia. So you have to work on that. And then actual mobility, your ability to go places and do things and have fun, experience life. You don’t want to bedridden, you don’t want to be in a wheelchair or a walker.
Mark Sisson: You want to be able to move to something and move along with something. And so those two things, they really are the essential benefits of play. If you’re having fun, your brain is engaged in playful… whether it’s witty banter or whether it’s learning a new sport or learning music or something. As long as you’re using your brain and you’ve got this playful aspect of your life, then it’s not drudgery and it’s something you look forward to. And it’s just part of your life and that’s the best part of it. It’s not added, it’s not additional. I have my life and then I have my workouts, you know? No, it’s your life, and it’s a good part of it.
Kelly Starrett: Man, I appreciate it. Obviously, Mark’s Daily Apple’s an incredible resource. All of your primal books, the writing we’ll link to. Where can people… Is Mark’s Daily Apple the best place to find you? Because this is going to really resonate with so many people we know. What’s the best way to sort of learn more?
Juliet Starrett: Yeah, find you, follow you?
Mark Sisson: Yeah, yeah. So Mark’s Daily Apple is the blog and probably 4,000 archived articles on that, so good luck combing through that. If you don’t want to comb through that, the Primal Blueprint, my seminal first book still probably the best thing I’ve ever written in terms of comprehensive understanding in terms of how the human body works.
Kelly Starrett: Agreed.
Mark Sisson: Got the Keto Reset Diet, which was my most recent New York Times Bestseller. And then Keto For Life, so lots of choices, and then you can… If you want to follow me on Instagram, it’s MarkSissonPrimal. And there you have it.
Kelly Starrett: Man, thank you so much. We really appreciate it and I’ll be in Miami before too long and I can’t wait to go e foiling with you.
Mark Sisson: Yeah, no. We’ll do it, for sure.
Juliet Starrett: Thank you so much, Mark. It’s such a pleasure.
Mark Sisson: Likewise, take care guys.Back to Episode