Last weekend I attended the Ancestral Health Symposium in Los Angeles, where hundreds of jolly Paleo eaters, CrossFitters, chefs, authors, bloggers, food producers and magazine publishers came together to listen to the Paleo gurus speak. And, of course, to network. It was awesome.
I have to admit I was a bit star struck by Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, Loren Cordain, Gary Taubes, Michael Eades, Sarah Fragoso, Boyd Eaton, Pedro Bastos, Denise Minger, Staffan Lindeberg, Chris Masterjohn and that good looking cave guy from New York, John Durant, among others. Besides my rock climbing idols, these people are my heroes. They’re leading the paleo/primal/low-carb/no grain revolution, collectively selling millions of books that are slowly deconstructing conventional wisdom. Much respect and thanks are owed to all of them.
It wasn’t only the speakers I was impressed by, though. Looking around the packed audiences during the 40+ lectures, anyone could see there was something different about the crowd. Lean, muscular, attentive people with glowing skin were the overwhelming majority. It was the epitome of a Paleo crowd and I was proud to be among them. Well, that is, besides all the dorks prancing around in their 5 fingers… (No offense, guys – I just think they look funny, despite their awesome functionality.)
I met some new friends and realized once again that you don’t have to be a health professional to know a hell of a lot about nutritional science. Some of the people I talked to blew me away with the depth and breadth of their knowledge of Paleo topics, and you’ll hopefully get to read some guest blogs by them soon. Patrick Riley, one of my new friends, and perhaps my tallest friend to date, wrote this and this about the Symposium.
So what did I learn from all the keynote speakers and smarty pants audience members? Surprisingly, with such a famous array of speakers, the most memorable talk for me was Mat Lalonde’s. Maybe I’m just a sucker for slightly haughty, moderately condescending, disgustingly nerdy people, but he sort of put the whole audience in check. He reminded us that as whole-heartedly as we may believe in Paleo, the rest of the world isn’t going to take it seriously until “core scientists” do, so we can’t be going around shooting off our mouths about the “fact” that nobody is genetically adapted to eating Neolithic foods (grains, legumes, refined sugar, dairy). And other overzealous, far-fetched statements like it. Some people are more adapted than others.
He showed me that not ALL things considered anti-nutrients actually hurt us. Some lectins are fine, while others are not. Some saponins are actually good for us, while others are bad. Every food contains anti-nutrients and it’s ridiculous to say that we shouldn’t eat Neolithic foods solely because of their anti-nutrient content. We need to be more precise than that.
Robb Wolf was an amazing presenter. He’s just as funny in person as he is in his writing and podcast, and his speaking style was the most engaging of all of them: fluid, witty and to the point. His main objective was to get us to, like Lalonde, stop being so dogmatic about Paleo. Of course he believes it works, but maybe not for every single person. He encouraged us to suggest that people try it for a month, and then try veganism or some other diet for a month to see if that works better for them. I personally think he wants people to try veganism for a month after a month-long Paleo stint in order to illuminate the stark contrast between the effects of those diets, but…
Cordain was superb, once again reminding us that he has been doing this for a long time, and really knows his stuff. He’s a smart, confident guy. Here’s a quote from his abstract that I wanted to point out. “Coronary heart disease, for instance, does not arise simply from excessive saturated fat in the diet, but rather from a complex interaction of multiple nutritional factors directly linked to the excessive consumption of novel Neolithic and Industrial era foods.” It was good to hear him talk about saturated fat with a different tone than he had a decade ago.
Staffan Lindeberg, Robert Lustig and Stephan Guyenet reminded us that it’s not all about low carb. There are plenty of hunter gatherer groups who live on a very high carb diet, full of starchy tubers. Stephan Guyenet also made some interesting points about how the more palatable a food is, the more of it you’ll eat. So I’ve started to eat only raw brussels sprouts and uncooked beans in order to try to cut back on calorie consumption. Oh, and no more Doritos, of course… But seriously, he talked about these two studies where they gave obese people a very bland food source through a straw in a sterile environment and told them to eat as much as they needed to feel content. They ended up eating sometimes only 500 calories a day with no complaints of hunger, and obviously dropped some serious weight because of it. It really did make me wonder about how much less I’d eat if I didn’t have things like Paleo Banana Berry Nut Muffins to tantalize my palate.
I got to ask Pedro Bastos, who I think of as the Paleo anti-dairy guy, one of my most burning questions (for real). That is, how can he explain the success of the Maasai people in Africa, who use raw, grass fed cow’s milk as a dietary staple? His answer to my question went something like this:
The hormones (or lack thereof) are different in their cows’ milk. The Maasai have different genes that make them more able to deal with lactose, etc. And their lifestyle is totally different – they get more vitamin D, have less stress, etc. Maybe if you ate like the Maasai your whole life, you would be fine with milk.
Raw milk is different than normal, pasteurized milk for sure. Pasteurization may lead to higher release of peptides from casein which could increase gut permeability. But that’s speculative. Grass fed milk is different – it contains CLA, and has been shown to be anti-carcinogenic in rats. But in the rat studies, the CLA content was way higher than what you’d actually get in milk or cheese.
I could go on and on and tell you about all the 25 or so speakers I saw, but I’ll end here with Denise Minger. If you haven’t read her stuff, you should. She is not formally a scientist, but she has this uncanny ability to dissect and obliterate so-called scientific studies, all while keeping you fascinated by statistics. Read her careful examination of the China Study, which is what catapulted her to infamy in the Paleo world. Her talk was “How to Win an Argument with a Vegetarian,” which I thought was highly practical. It turns out that there’s a commonality between Paleo and the diets of many of the super famous, low protein/vegan/vegetarian authors and physicians. Think Dean Ornish here. Not only do they tell people to cut out or cut back on meat, they also tell them to cut out vegetable oils, refined grains and refined sugars. So perhaps it’s not the lack of meat that all the vegans and vegetarians want to believe is curing these people. It might just be the lack of Neolithic crap in their diets.
She had a lot more to say than that, and so did all the other speakers. If you want to check out their slides, you can do that here. There are a few videos of speakers here, and I think they’re planning to have all of them up eventually.
It was important for me to go to the event because I wanted to make sure all my heroes were real people. But in the end, it was just as crucial for me to be surrounded by “my people”. I didn’t have to inconvenience friends by going to the Paleo friendly restaurant. I could finally talk casually about the scientific and philosophical Paleo things I long to say every day to my normal friends. I was surrounded by books and magazines and products that all supported my way of life, and realized that this thing is really growing. It won’t be long until the norm is to eat Paleo and we’ll think people who eat “Neolithic” are the weird ones… Ok, it’s actually probably a long way off, but a girl can dream.