Ancestral Health Symposium Review

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…

Loren 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.

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  1. Pedro

    Hi Neely,

    Thank you for including my name and my lecture among all the great names and lectures that were part of the AHS, which was a truly a marvelous experience.

    If I may, I would just like to have the opportunity to say a few things about your excellent and timely question on the Maasai:

    I didn’t say they were very different from us (from a genetic point of view that is), except for adult lactase persistence (ALP). About 60% of them (if memory doesn’t fail me) express ALP, but as far as I know that doesn’t really change the way they would react to milk, except for lactose digestion.

    My main point regarding the Maasai and other African traditional pastoralists (the Fulani are another good example of a population who drinks milk and appears to be perfectly healthy, at least according to western standards) is that these populations have a very different diet (at least until a few years ago they didn’t include western foods and we could write a whole book on the adverse effects of isolated sugar, seed oils, grains, etc – all things that you and your readers know very well – perhaps it is not milk, but the lack of other foods that are being replaced by milk that preserves their health) and lifestyle – as you said higher sun exposure and presumably higher vitamin D levels, perhaps less chronic stress, higher physical activity, lengthen period of breastfeeding, hygiene hypothesis (important in allergy and autoimmunity), less exposure to genotoxic substances, etc.

    This is very important when we discuss milk, since it is fairly well validated that milk increases IGF-1 more than any other (natural) food.

    The problem is that IGF-1 in adition to promoting normal cell proliferation, it promotes tumor cell proliferation as well as it inhibits apoptosis. And it facilitates angiogenesis, malignancy and metastasis. So, if you have suffered either epigenetic modifications or DNA mutations either because of random errors or through exposure to a genotoxic substance (and there are so many in this industrial environment where we live) and if your cell-cycle control and repair mechanisms are not working properly, by chronically increasing your IGF-1 levels you may increase your risk for cancer.

    Moreover, indeed raw milk from grass fed cows (which is what those traditional pastoralists drink) contains more CLA (which in rat studies, albeit in higher doses than we would find in dairy, has shown to have anti-carcinogenic effects) and some potentially protective peptides in the whey fraction that increase glutathione (GSH), although the amount of whey in milk is rather small, since caseins represent the biggest protein fraction in milk and the effects upon GSH that I mentioned were achieved with a whey supplement.

    Furthermore, as I have presented in my lecture, novel dairying methods have increased the IGF-1 content of milk (although I’m not sure how significant this is, since pasteurization decreases IGF-1), as well (and this is in my view particularly disturbing) the amount of estrogens. The problem with estrogens in milk is that most of them exist in the conjugated form, which we know from hormone replacement therapy drugs that they have high oral bioactivity. And rat studies and one small human study suggest that indeed estrogens in milk are absorbed.

    My take on milk and hormones is that chronic intake of industrial dairy (particularly milk) leads to chronic estrogen and IGF-I exposure (or in the case of IGF-1, it may simply be IGF-1 stimulus) that begins in utero. And in adolescence growth and development, I believe industrial milk can indeed lead to problems latter in life, because this is a period of rapid proliferation of undifferentiated (immature) epithelial cells, very sensible to estrogens and growth factors.

    Nevertheless, we most not forget that the purpose of milk is to to be the sole food of infant mammals during the most accelerated growth period in postnatal development when endogenous production of hormones is low! And this function also occurs in raw grass fed milk. That is why traditional Nilotic pastoralist are so tall. And height has been positively associated with a number of epithelial cell cancers (in part for the reasons I have outlined above)

    Regarding other potential effects of milk, again one thing is to talk about it in the context of a traditional diet and lifestyle and another it is to talk about in the context of the western diet and lifestyle.

    In biology, often 1+1 is not 2. Interaction is more important than isolated variables. As so, we need to always put things into context and my talk and my take on dairy was in the context of the western diet and lifestyle (I have learn to value not only diet but also lifestyle).

    Best wishes and sorry for the long post

    • Neely

      Hi Pedro! Thanks so much for this comment. I actually made it into a blog post – hope you don’t mind. I thought all our members would appreciate your knowledge. Here’s the link to the blog post. Thanks again!

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