08 August 2011

Ancestral Health Symposium Notes

I have just attended an amazing event--the Ancestral Health Symposium. It was an incredible few days. I want to tell you all about it, but have no idea where to start, so I'll just wade in.

What Is It?

A two day conference held on the UCLA Campus on August 5 and 6. The conference featured many presentations about the "Paleo" diet and exercise (all the talks will be put online over the next few months). In some of my posts on diet, I have mentioned this philosophy, so I'll start with some of the basics.

Ancestral Framework

There is not at present a standards committee that declares what is and isn't paleo. I think of it more as a framework for thinking about what is healthy for us. The idea is that, fundamentally, humans are the product of millions and millions of years of evolution. We have both very primitive and very sophisticated chemical signaling systems in our body. Our bodies evolved through many different environments and circumstances.

In the last few hundred years, and especially in the last 30 or so years, we seem to be falling apart as a species. Worldwide, obesity and diabetes are skyrocketing. A key hypothesis behind this ancestral health movement is that the foods introduced into our collective diet, since the dawn of agriculture, and especially in the past few hundred years is literally killing us. It is becoming increasingly evident that although we are living longer, we are doing so with lower health than ever before.

Much of the press and publicity for this approach to health have focused on caveman re-enactment and Fred Flintstone slabs of beef. That is simply not the point of the Ancestral Health movement. In any event

Ancestral Diet

Defining the paleo diet is easiest to do by exclusion:
1. Eliminate refined sugar, limit highly concentrated natural natural sugars
2. Eliminate grains in general
3. Eliminate oils from seeds, e.g. canola, cottonseed, and corn oil

Within the paleo community, some say you should go further and
4. Eliminate legumes i.e. beans
5. Eliminate dairy and dairy products

What remains then is animal products (muscle, organs, and fat from animals including fish, fowl, beef, pork), vegetables (both starchy and green leafy), fruit (whole fruit, not juice), nuts.

Because so many foods have changed so much in the last 10,000 years, (the advent of agriculture), we can really only guess at the specific nutrients in paleo-man's diet. There is a general consensus in the community that it is best if the animals that you eat, eat their natural diets, e.g. grass fed beef, wild-caught fish. The community also seems to believe that omega-6 oils are more prone to oxidation than other oils, so fish oil supplementation or reduction of the omega-6 oils in the diet are important. Let's not forget the importance of sunshine.

The community tends towards some degree of variability to mimic ancient patterns e.g. there were not strawberries year round in our distant past, so eating seasonally may have value; periodic fasts without food whether for 16 hours or a few days are probably something we can handle without undue problems and that might even have benefits.

In its current incarnation the paleo community has rallied around a self-experimentation paradigm. It's not "anything goes", but rather within the above guidelines, try different approaches and see what works for you.

I will put out some more details on diet and some revisions to the E4E recommendations in the near future.

Ancestral Exercise

There is much less consensus around and focus on what constitutes true paleo exercise and how to gain benefits related to that. I would say that in general, there is less emphasis on "chronic cardio" and more emphasis on periodic intensity in exercise, as well as natural movement (running, jumping, climbing).

Interesting Talks

The conference was announced about a year ago and when tickets went on sale, I started to try to arrange my schedule, etc. I waited a little too long, so by the time I tried to buy a ticket, the conference was sold out. However, they needed volunteers, so I was able to participate as a volunteer. I was present but working for many of the talks and had down time as well to focus on them.

Here is a list of the talks that I really liked and that people seemed to be buzzing about:
Denise Minger - How to Argue with a Vegetarian
Nora Gedgaudis - lots of amazing stuff on mind-body integration
Tom Naughton - entertaining talk on bad science
Erwan LeCorre - moving naturally
Melissa McEwen - clues from the colon (humans are unique)
Emily Deans and Jamie Scott - the rainforest in your gut
Dr. BG and Tim Gerstmar - curing autism through diet
Pedro Bastos - Dairy
Robert Lustig - Fructose and Leptin
Mat Lalonde - heavy chemistry talk, but the real message was that paleo needs to go beyond caveman and have really good science
Andreas Eenfeldt - Sweden's experience with lower carb as their national paradigm
Richard Nikoley - representing the blogosphere, how he has used self-experimentation to lose 70 pounds and become a better animal

All the talks will go on the internet. They will first be uploaded in raw form, but later with some editing and polish. I have little information beyond these talks. I was either not in on the buzz, they were rehashing old material, or possibly were not well received.

In the meantime, here are some other bloggers' takes on the event.

E4E Experience

I met and spoke with a lot of people while there. I was extremely gratified and thrilled at how many were familiar with this blog. I have no illusions about its place in the blogosphere, but there were a few conversations of note.

J. Stanton of gnolls.org, author of The Gnoll Credo, saw my name tag and told me that he had sent someone to my gout post and that a month later the man was free of gout. The person had made a number of changes, but my gout post was a reference for him.

Another person I met was Krista Scott-Dixon, whose work I have perused for years. She has long been a proponent of women lifting actual weights (not the pink ones). Her dork to diva series is really good and she has put out lots of good information through the years. She is also editor-in-chief of Spezzatino. I introduced myself to her, she told me that she knew about E4E and in fact had used one of my posts (I think this one) with one of her clients. I was totally thrilled that someone who I have followed through he years was familiar with my stuff.

Finally, I shared a house for the three nights with a really cool group of people from the Bay Area including a few fellow bloggers, so check out An Omnivore's Decision and Primal Girl in a Modern World. Thanks to Tess for doing all the work to get the house lined up.

I will also thank US Wellness Meats for saving my (figurative) bacon from the fast food in the student union at UCLA. The beef sticks and jerky made me tingle in the best possible way.

I feel really energized after hearing the E4E feedback from people, listening to the amazing talks, and all the geeky discussions. Over the coming months, as the edited lectures become available, I plan to highlight some of the key ones.

Stay tuned.


  1. Thanks for your post, Tony. Well done, and I'm seconding most of your observations. Glad we connected!

  2. The idea is that, fundamentally, humans are the product of millions and millions of years of evolution. We have both very primitive and very sophisticated chemical signaling systems in our body. paleo diet cookbook