You probably saw my review of The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson back in 2010. If not, let me summarize the idea – you live an old-fashioned, “Primal” lifestyle where you eat natural foods (mostly fat and protein, absolutely no grains,) take walks, run sprints, get plenty of sleep, and play.

It’s a good book, but definitely not something in line with the typical lifestyle of an endurance athlete! However, it promised some good results, so I wanted to test it out. Specifically, the fat loss diet section.

See, I wanted to finally lose that last bit of body fat and get six pack abs. Being an endurance athlete, I’m always at a low body fat percentage, but I don’t have a lot of muscle mass to show off. And it’s hard to diet during high-volume training. So sporting a well-defined six pack always seemed to elude me.

After reading The Primal Blueprint, I thought I might be able to make it work with a few changes. So I decided to see what the book’s advice would do for me.

The Primal Fat Loss Diet

Here’s the basis of the Primal Blueprint diet for fat loss:

You want to eat between 50 and 100g carbs per day for fat loss, according to Mark. The “maintenance” plan allows between 100-150g of carbs per day, but for fat loss, you have to be more strict.

If that sounds tough, you’re correct! But after years of endurance training and racing and a diet very high in carbs, I could use a change.

My Starting Point

Luckily, this diet change wouldn’t be too drastic for me. I had already eliminated most processed foods and even most grains. I wasn’t trying to eliminate grains, but if you eliminate processed foods (bread, cereal, granola bars, etc.,) you eliminate a lot of grains from your diet!

The problem though… just having a bowl of oatmeal, a whole wheat pita, and a serving of plain yogurt each day is 80g carbs! That’s a day’s worth of carbs in one meal!

And that’s not counting my daily fruit and veggie intake! (Those are carbs, too, remember?)

I had done well on my own, cutting from the typical 350g carbs per day down to maybe 150g per day, but still, that was not enough to shed the layer of fat covering my abs.

And due to certain injuries, I was on a pretty decent Primal workout style. For the most part, my workouts consisted of intense weight lifting and short bike rides and runs, for sprints and short intervals. I went on the occasional walk as well. (Nothing like the extreme hours I used to put in for my training schedule!)

My Attempt at Primal Diet and Exercise

As good as I was doing, I had to step it up if I really wanted to see results.

So on November 1, 2010, I started going Primal for real and charting everything out to make sure my carbohydrate intake was within the limits. (You can’t guesstimate this stuff!)

Here’s a sample day of eating (from when I first started) that followed Primal guidelines:

Raw almonds
Chicken breast with avocado
Plain yogurt with red raspberries and ground flax seed
Vegetable stir-fry, cooked in coconut oil, drizzled with olive oil
Cheddar cheese
Whey protein powder mixed in water
Cheddar cheese
Hamburger patty covered in natural peanut butter

That example day came out to be 1,964 calories, 125g fat, 116g protein, and 74g carbs.

Now, here’s another sample day of eating once I adjusted some of the foods in my diet:

Whey protein powder and liquid egg whites mixed in almond milk
Sliced turkey breast on lettuce and spinach
5 egg omelet (eggs, spinach, mushrooms, peppers, onions, roast beef)
Handful of raw almonds
Vegetable stir fry with lentils
Carrot sticks dipped in natural peanut butter

That’s not a specific day, just an example of a better way of doing a low carb diet. It’s all about picking the right foods that fit the Primal description, give you energy, and make you happy.

As far as training

I lifted weights on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday following a basic 5×5 strength training plan. Wednesday was a rest day, and Saturday and Sunday were for fun hiking and biking.

The training style was no problem at all. Sure, it would have been fun to throw in more sports, but it was the off-season after all.

Lessons Learned

There were two main lessons I learned…

Lesson #1: Make sure you get enough calories.

The main issue for me wasn’t really lack of energy from low carbs. I think it was more lack of energy from way too low calorie intake! I was lucky to get up to 2000 cal per day, when I’m used to 3000+ on an average day!

The low carb intake was part of it, but I felt extra run down because I just couldn’t physically consume enough calories. Luckily, I was able to fix this by expanding the foods in my diet. (You can see the changes between my two sample days posted above.)

Lesson #2: It’s very, very hard to stay under 100g carbs per day.

It’s super hard to keep carbs under 100g per day unless you eat a diet of lean meat, cheese, eggs, and whey protein powder.

Vegetables, plain yogurt, and almonds have just as many carb grams as protein. It adds up real fast.

Add in an apple, and you’re over 100g carbs! Just one piece of fruit is too much!

The 100-150g maintenance level of carbs for normal Primal living is more realistic. If you eliminate grains, you can do it. But to go under 100g per day, you have to eliminate fruit and even keep vegetable intake in check! Sounds too much like the Atkins diet to me!

Final Results

The first two days, I felt pretty good. My body certainly felt fresh and strong on the good diet and limited endurance exercise.

On day three, I still felt good, but hungry! (I don’t think I was getting enough calories, so I started to binge that night.)

Day four, I woke up tired and hungry. After breakfast, I felt a little better, but I was craving something other than meat!!

So on day four, I finally gave up! I was beat! I gave in to my temptations and had an apple and a banana that night… and felt tons better! Then I woke up feeling amazing Friday!

So yeah, after 3.5 days of this Primal fat loss diet, just the thought of meat made me want to vomit!

I only followed the diet exactly for 3.5 days. But for the next couple weeks, I was pretty close. (I can’t believe I originally planned to follow this diet for a six week test!)

In the end, I lost a net total of 7lb from November-December 2010 on somewhat of a Primal diet. And I got stronger.

So this diet and lifestyle has its merits, but it’s not for everyone.

Future Plans

As with many of the dieting strategies that are interesting but different/difficult (intermittent fasting for instance), I plan to keep using the Primal Blueprint fat loss plan, but only in limited quantities. Perhaps I will fit this in 1-3 days per week and eat normally the rest of the week. During the off-season, I can see myself using this diet to keep my weight in check.

Basically, I will take some principles from The Primal Blueprint, The Paleo Diet, Eat Stop Eat, and The Slow Carb Diet and incorporate them into my normal diet (which is close to Precision Nutrition, the best all-around diet I know of).

I’m just not convinced that a low-carb diet devoid of all grains is the best diet for an endurance athlete! And if I crave a piece of fruit, I’m going to eat one!

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  1. I’m not surprised, the theory behind the primal blueprint diet goes against almost all research on diets for competitive athletes in the past couple of decades.

  2. @Justin

    Good point. There are always outliers though so I like to double-check and test all sorts of ideas! 🙂

  3. Good article! But you missed a key component: fat. Increase the fat consumption and you will reduce the lack of carbs consequences. AND you will see your body fat decreasing.

  4. @Alejandro

    Yep, that’s where my additional calories would have needed to come from. The problem is that I have little desire for fatty foods so getting the fat calories is harder for me than you would think!

    Especially after so many years competing in endurance sports, following a high-carb diet based on the research Justin is referring to.

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