Monday, August 8, 2011

Ancestral Health Symposium 2011

This past weekend was nuts, y'all.

Months and months ago, M (a.k.a. Nom Nom Paleo) bought tickets for the inaugural Ancestral Health Symposium at UCLA. Organized by the brand-spankin'-new non-profit Ancestral Health Society, the sold-out Symposium was described by Loren Cordain as "the Woodstock of Evolutionary Medicine" -- an apt description, given the collection of eminent scientists, educators, authors and bloggers who gathered to discuss health, nutrition and fitness from the perspective of evolutionary biology.

Still, I prefer to call it "The League of Paleo Superheroes." Seriously -- it was like Comic-Con for us Paleo nerds.

M and I hit the road on Thursday, driving down to L.A. from the Bay Area in time to catch dinner at Animal with the awesome and trading-card-famous Melicious of The Clothes Make The Girl, her talented and dryly funny husband Dave, and the dynamic super-duo behind the Whole9, Melissa and Dallas.

(Click on any of the images below to enlarge.)

We ate just about everything on the menu. And no, I'm not kidding. (See M's rundown of the food here.)

I can't say enough good stuff about these guys -- their warmth, wit, charisma and humor are off the charts (as is their ability to gobble up various animal parts with abandon). 

In case you're wondering, we all ate stuff that was less than Paleo -- Melissa and Dallas included. (Sadly, corn tortillas weren't on the menu.) And yet they somehow made it to UCLA's Ackerman Ballroom (the main venue for the Symposium) bright and early the next morning, looking fine and dandy and not at all effed up from their eff-off meal.

We were feeling pretty excited about the start of the Symposium, too, as evidenced by M's big grin:

After we got ourselves registered, we ran into more of our Paleo super-pals, like Chowstalker's Patty and her husband, Ron... 

...and our ridiculously talented friends responsible for The Food Lovers Primal Palate, Bill & Haley. We think the world of these guys.

After opening remarks by UCLA's Aaron Blaisdell, the President of the Ancestral Health Society, Boyd Eaton delivered the keynote. Over a quarter-century ago, Eaton co-authored a pioneering paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that helped launch the Paleo movement, and will always command respect as a pioneer. 

Nonetheless, I felt that his presentation at the Symposium -- which argued that modern problems as far-ranging and varied as gender equality, pollution and ethnic violence are rooted in our departure from Stone Age lifestyles -- veered a bit too far into "noble savage" territory. While Eaton made some interesting points (particularly about Paleolithic nutrition), I'm not persuaded that hunter-gatherers were altogether inclusive of all people, that cavemen societies were universally more enlightened about gender equality than modern ones, or that China's government-enforced "One-Child" policy deserves a big high-five.

Another pioneer of the Paleo movement, Loren Cordain, was next, and delivered a solid presentation about the epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases in westernized countries, and how these afflictions are virtually non-existent in hunter-gatherer societies. For most Paleo geeks, there wasn't anything particularly new or earth-shattering in Cordain's talk, but the broad scope of his lecture nicely set the stage for later presentations.

Staffan Lindeberg was next. I enjoyed hearing him discuss his groundbreaking 1989 study of the hunter-gatherers on Kitava in Papua New Guinea, and how they remained untouched by heart disease, stroke, Type II diabetes, and other diseases of western civilization. Most fascinating, of course, is the fact that the Kitavans stayed free of these health issues despite their high carbohydrate intake, suggesting that food choice trumps macronutrient selection.

[The slides from this presentation can be viewed here.]

More -- LOTS more -- after the jump...

After a short break, Robb Wolf took the stage. The guy isn't just a Paleo rock star, he's also a terrifically entertaining and engaging speaker.

Robb's re-telling of his journey through the valley of veganism remains fresh and vivid, and in an academic setting, his off-color commentary ("Science -- it works, bitches" and "saturated fat used to be seen as more dangerous than bareback sex in the Mission District") were especially welcome.

There's a reason he kicks so much ass.

Besides, he sports New Balance Minimus MT10 kicks -- a favorite in my sprawling, Imelda Marcos-like shoe collection.

It wasn't all lectures, though. Half (or maybe more than half) of the fun was just strolling around during the breaks and bumping into some of our favorite weblebrities, like Henry and Jo from the fantastic and mouth-watering Paleo food blog Nutty Kitchen...

... J. Stanton of (an awesome advocate of the Paleo lifestyle) and Richard Nikoley of Free the Animal (my hand-down favorite place to go for both inspirational stories and cathartic Paleo smackdowns)... 

...Chrissy Gower of Growing Up Paleo and Sarah Fragoso of Everyday Paleo, two amazing parents who have greatly influenced the way we approach Paleo for our kids...

...Erich Krauss of Victory Belt and Erwan LeCorre of MovNat...

...and a slew of other Paleo luminaries, including Diane Sanfilippo of Balanced Bites, Caitlin Weeks (a.k.a. Grassfed Girl), Badier Velji -- The Lazy Caveman, Charles Mayfield of Paleo Comfort Foods, and Sophia Dubrovina, whose Grassfed Jerky Chews are the bomb. I could eat 'em all day.

Speaking of eating, we did plenty of it during the Symposium. M packed us a big-ass cooler crammed with meat, eggs, veggies, water, and assorted coconut products, and at lunchtime, we headed out into the sunshine to soak up some Vitamin D and fill our bellies.
After lunch, we headed back for more presentations. 

UCSF's Lynda Frassetto discussed the differences in individual responses to the adoption of a Paleo diet (her key point is that folks at risk for metabolic syndrome are more likely to respond positively to a Paleo approach to eating than those who are already relatively healthy). 

And then, Stephan Guyenet of the excellent Whole Health Source blog delivered a talk on the biology of obesity.

Guyenet's talk -- which focused on "food rewards" and the role of enhanced palatability on boosting obesity -- was fascinating. I agreed with much of what he had to say, though as someone who takes a lot of pleasure from the tastes and textures of (whole, real) foods, I found some of his proposed solutions a little depressing. For instance, Guyenet pointed out that one of history's most successful weight loss solutions was a flavorless liquid diet administered through a straw in a sterile hospital environment. I get that extreme problems may require extreme solutions, but man, does this sound awful:

During the Q&A session after the talk was done, Gary Taubes walked up to the mike and lobbed a verbal hand grenade, bluntly accusing Guyenet of cherry-picking from the available data to support his thesis that food rewards significantly contribute to weight gain, and ignoring cultures with high obesity rates despite their fairly monotonous diets. 

I get that Taubes is all about low-carb approaches as THE key to weight loss, and I respect the work he's done, but I gotta side with Guyenet. I question: (1) whether Taubes is open-minded enough consider alternative perspectives on how other factors may contribute to obesity, and (2) if a full-frontal public attack was the best way to express disagreement. Besides, I didn't get the sense that Guyenet was saying that food rewards were the sole cause of western societies' ballooning waistlines -- only that it was one of many potential factors. 

Stay classy, Gary Taubes.

(By the way, Guyenet has posted his account of the back-and-forth with Taubes here. And Grass Fed Momma's video of the incident can be found here.)

In any event, Taubes was up next at the podium. His presentation focused on the case against sugar -- a topic well-covered in his recent piece in the New York Times Magazine

After a break, Michael Eades took the podium to explain how low-fat diets are just low-carb diets in disguise -- at which point M switched into full DEFCON-1 geekout mode. 

The Doctors Eades (Michael and Mary Dan Eades) were two of the people we were most excited about meeting this weekend. Their books -- especially Protein Power -- were at the top of our reading list when we first got into Paleo eating. But the reason M was especially excited: She couldn't wait to chat with the inventors of her most prized kitchen appliance, the Sous Vide Supreme. If you haven't noticed, M is a sous vide junkie, with more sous vide recipes than you can shake a stick at.

At the break, we got a chance to mix and mingle some more. I had fun chatting with Tom Naughton of Fathead fame and Jimmy Moore, whose name is now practically synonymous with "low-carb."

M was thrilled to finally connect with her fellow Paleo pill-pusher and sister-from-another-mother, Dr. BG, who spoke at the Symposium about the "Rainforest in Your Gut"...

...and we both got to meet Cain Credicott, the dynamo behind Paleo Magazine -- along with his better half, Tammy, whose terrific photography graces the publication's pages.

Even after getting bummed out by Pedro Bastos' compelling lecture about the evils of dairy, we managed to work up a good appetite, so M and I rushed off to Jar to tear into plates of meat with a group of our new friends. (Check out M's recap of our dinner here.)

A few hours of shut-eye later, we hustled back to the UCLA campus for Day Two of the Symposium, where M met Diana Hsieh of Modern Paleo...

...before settling down for more presentations.

Robert Lustig delivered a talk that was very similar to his famous "Sugar: The Bitter Truth" lecure, but just because I'd heard it before didn't mean I didn't appreciate his message about the risks of excess fructose consumption.

[Click here for Dr. Lustig's slides.]

M, meanwhile, attended Tucker Max's presentation on MMA and its connections to ancestral health. She came back from the talk buzzing about how she wants to try MMA fighting. I don't think she's kidding.

We both enjoyed Mat Lalonde's lecture despite (or perhaps because of) his rapid-fire technobabble. I agree completely with his point that "caveman diets" give us only a hypothesis -- a starting point -- that must be subject to rigorous testing rather than magical thinking. It was a great reminder that poorly-reasoned generalizations about ancestral nutrition -- without the science to back it up -- is no different from the pseudo-scientific vegan nonsense that we all decry.

And speaking of vegan nonsense, I can confirm that the smart, funny, and button-cute Denise Minger of Raw Food SOS is indeed a REAL PERSON. She gave a lighthearted but incisive lecture on how to win an argument with a vegetarian detractor of a meat-based diet, though -- as Robb Wolf suggested at the end of the talk -- it may not be worth our time to engage in these debates. In Robb's words: "Fuck 'em." Better to invest time in helping those who want to be helped, rather than wasting efforts on those who refuse to be swayed.

[The slides from Denise's presentation can be found here.]

All this talk of food made us hungry, so at lunchtime, we made our way outside again to tuck into M's cooler.

Our brother-in-law's home-smoked turkey was the highlight of our mid-day meal, and eating it with our hands made us feel appropriately Grok-like.

Similarly awesome: The free samples of pemmican, jerky and beef snack sticks from U.S. Wellness Meats. M and I kept going back for more -- and we're definitely going to order up a bunch so we can feed our addiction. Holy moly, this stuff's good.

Back in the Ballroom, we got to hear from Melissa McEwen and John Durant -- two of the folks whose profile in the New York Times was originally responsible for turning me onto Paleo nutrition in the first place. Melissa's talk centered on the fascinating role of the colon in human health as well as the value of fermented foods. She used the human colonic microbiome to illustrate a view of evolution as a dynamic, ever-changing process. Good stuff. 

[The slides from Melissa's presentation can be found here.]

John's talk focused on zoo animals and how their treatment and resulting health are mirrored in the health issues confronting modern human beings. Much in the way that zoos are slowly being re-architected to more closely resemble the captive animals' wild habitats, humans should seek to revert back to a more natural environment and lifestyle to promote better health and wellness.

M and I had a good time listening to Richard Nikoley's discussion of his lessons in self-experimentation, too. His n=1 human guinea pig approach is one that I think everyone needs to try, especially given all the individual biological variations we learned about over the course of the Symposium.

After a late afternoon break, the focus of the talks shifted to fitness. Doug McGuff of Body by Science gave a talk on the science behind the role of exercise in human evolutionary development, performance and longevity. I was particularly interested in his distinction between "health" and "fitness," and how the two should not be conflated. It's often the case, after all, that exceptional fitness comes at the cost of optimal health.

[See the slides from McGuff's presentation here.]

Erwan LeCorre then delivered remarks about the benefits of MovNat, his approach to breaking out of the "human zoo" and using natural movements -- walking, running, jumping, balancing, moving on all fours, climbing, lifting, carrying, throwing, catching, swimming and defending -- to reclaim physical function and optimize health.

After two days of sitting on my ass listening to lectures, I was more than happy to adjourn outside for an end-of-day movement session with MovNat's Clif Harski. Chucking off my shoes, I joined dozens of others in duck-walking, jumping, bear-crawling and crab-walking around on the grass.

I didn't want the Symposium to end. (And in some ways, it isn't quite over yet -- I still have to watch the videos of the presentations I wanted to attend but missed.) I would've gladly spent a few more days hanging out in L.A. and nerding out on Paleo approaches to nutrition and fitness.

But all good things come to an end. I learned a bunch of new things and am eager to test them out on myself. And more importantly, I came away from the experience with a group of new Paleo SuperFriends. Not to get all sentimental or anything, but I miss 'em already.

(For M's recaps of the Symposium, click here and here.)