Getting primal with Mark Sisson

Mark Sisson, creator of the Primal Living Diet, stands for a meditative moment in the yard of his hillside home in Malibu.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve probably heard of the primal/paleo diets.

They urge us to “eat like a cave man” (or cave woman) and dine like our early ancestors did, consuming a diet brimming with foraged veggies, seasonal fruit, meats and seafood. The diets have lasted past the fad stage and show true staying power. They also earned a big boost last week when the Food and Drug Administration rolled back its admonitions on cholesterol, something the primal/paleo crowd has been saying for years.

But the lifestyle goes beyond what’s on your plate, said Mark Sisson, a retired triathlete and marathoner turned founder of the Primal Blueprint diet and the popular health website Mark’s Daily Apple.

Living like a caveman is just as important, and maybe even more so.

To be sure, our ancestors had to deal with periodic stressors. Times when food was scarce. Or dodging a four-legged predator now and again.


But early humans never had to deal with the ceaseless stressors brought about by today’s 24/7 workaholic culture, Sisson said, not to mention crushing commutes, financial burdens and the tyranny of smartphones, with their never-ending need to check one more email account, one more social media platform.

“Eating primally is just one aspect of an overall lifestyle,” said Sisson, 61. “And that lifestyle is about the enjoyment of food and life and relationships and activity. And as much play as possible.”

We asked Sisson to give us a look at what a perfect day looks like on the primal lifestyle. Before you start the eye-rolling and the “Yeah if only I could afford to be self-employed and live in Malibu too” snark, know this: Sisson said he hardly ever achieves the perfect day, it’s a goal that he recommits himself to every day.

The first rule of living like a caveman?

A good night’s sleep.

“I wind down early,” Sisson said, starting at around 8 p.m. Dinner is done and he settles in for a little TV with his wife (“Downton Abbey” and “Homeland” are favorites). Then they retire for some quiet time alone and some reading. We’re talking old school. As in actual books. That’s because he believes reading on a light-emitting device, such as a tablet, tinkers with the body’s production of melatonin and can interrupt your ability to sleep. He reads by a lamp that uses a special yellow light bulb so that the body’s natural clock is unaffected — and before long he’s drifting off to sleep.

The goal, he said, is to go to bed so early and sleep so soundly that he wakes up refreshed and without an alarm clock. (“Unless I’m trying to catch a plane,” he joked, “then I set an alarm.”)

He wakes about 6:30 a.m. and prepares a mug of organic coffee, made strong in a French press. He adds a splash of heavy cream because the primal approach embraces animal fats.


Then he adds — gasp! — a spoonful of sugar.

“Everyone has that reaction,” Sisson said with a laugh early one morning in his kitchen as his two dogs scampered about. “I enjoy a teaspoonful of sugar in my coffee each day; I’m not going to deny myself. But that’s the only sugar I’ll have all day.”

What follows is Sisson’s long-standing ritual, enhanced, no doubt, by the majestic view of the Malibu canyons that rise and fall beyond an infinity pool.

“I do about 10 minutes of a gratitude exercise,” he said. “I enjoy the sensation of the wind on my face, or the sunshine, and have a real appreciation for … my family, my kids, my friends, and then I think about what I have in store for the day.”

Sisson said he ends the exercise with a thought that centers him and gently reminds him that he is responsible for his choices: “I ask myself, If today were my last day on earth would I be satisfied with what I have done?”

A little spurt of playtime follows. Sisson keeps his mind nimble by ripping through six or so puzzles — crosswords, Jumbles and Sudokus — that come with his morning newspapers.

“I try to give myself 25 or 30 minutes, at most, to finish them all,” he said. “I think my [personal record] is 18 minutes and 50 seconds.”


With his mind caffeinated and revved, it’s time to get to work. A barefoot Sisson, who also oversees a book publishing platform, uses a standing desk and a pebble mat for a dose of tactile stimulation that keeps him alert.

There’s the usual blizzard of emails and work calls. But instead of a midmorning coffee break, Sisson heads to the backyard. Balancing on a slack line strung between two palm trees about 30 inches off the ground requires all of his attention, lest he topple off.

It’s enough to make him feel like a kid again and clears his mind before he resumes his stance atop the pebble mat.

Lunchhis first meal of the dayfollows at noonish. He keeps it simple, according to his primal way of eating, often a big salad layered with meat or seafood, and a homemade dressing. (The primal and paleo diets have many similarities, and differences might seem nitpicky: The primal approach can be a little more forgiving as it allows some forms of dairy, is less restrictive regarding legumes and emphasizes overall lifestyle.)

The afternoon work session is broken up once again by a little playtime. It could be a hike. A little paddle boarding. Or a 20-minute HIIT workout — that stands for high intensity interval training. Twice a week, he logs weightlifting time at a gym.

One thing he does not do: what he calls “chronic cardio.” A former marathoner, Sisson earned a qualifying spot at the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials and finished fourth in the 1982 Ironman World Championship.


“I used to run 20 miles a day for consecutive days,” Sisson said. “But I was always injured. I was race-fit, but I was unhealthy.”

More than 30 years later, he says, “My overall fitness is way better and I’m far healthier. And this is a lot easier.”

But what about the rest of us, those of us who are chained to an office desk, no slack line in sight, no nearby hiking trail?

“I’m the first to say that I have carved out the perfect life for me,” Sisson said. “But everyone can get a good night’s sleep and wake up to a cup of rich coffee and a few minutes of gratitude.”

“Everyone can find a way to stand up a little more and move around each day,” he said, adding that he coaches newcomers to the primal lifestyle to start just by slashing the junk food and walk more, calling it the best exercise that there is.

And if you can’t, Sisson said, “Don’t you think it’s time to consider reorienting and reframing your life and how you live it?”