Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ancestral Health Symposium: My Experience

By Diana Hsieh

Last Friday and Saturday, I attended the first -- and hopefully "first annual" -- Ancestral Health Symposium at UCLA. It was an impressive event -- and not just due to the phenomenal lineup of speakers. The whole conference was produced by volunteers, and everything went remarkably smoothly. 600 attendees, 40 talks, and 16 posters are no small feat!

Personally, I had quite a bit of fun, particularly on the #AHS11 twitter stream. That allowed me to connect with a slew of awesome new paleo folks -- particularly some smart and funny gals. I was particularly delighted that a number of paleo bloggers told me how much they appreciated Modern Paleo's weekly blog carnival, The Paleo Rodeo. Mostly though, I was happy to find people that I liked at the conference -- friendly, smart, thinking, healthy people. That was a joy.

Speaking of those healthy people, I was darn impressed to see just how healthy and fit most people looked. Jolly took a slew of fabulous photos, so go see for yourself! The contrast with what I saw at LAX was striking.

However, I was rather surprised to see so many women wearing high heels -- often, really high heels. I don't have any objection to heels on special occasions, but they are damaging to those super-important feet. Plus, heels struck me as an odd choice for this particular conference, where minimalist shoes were standard. Perhaps I'm a bit more sensitive to this issue than most women, because I've already done serious (and likely permanent) damage to my feet by wearing wrong shoes (namely bicycle clip shoes) for just few dozen hours.

As for the talks, some covered basically familiar territory, but even those were fun to watch. Other talks were downright fascinating, covering material new to me. I got some good leads on information of importance to me personally, and I plan to follow-up with some more research. As a lovely bonus, so many rock star presenters were nothing but friendly and accessible -- Michael Eades and Robb Wolf particularly come to mind here.

I was pleased to see the birth of some real debates within the broadly "ancestral health" community, particularly on the question of the value of carbohydrates. For too long, I think, the heavy-hitters have been advocating their own views without talking much to each other about their points of agreement and disagreement. Hopefully, that's beginning to change. All of us will benefit from more direct debates and discussions on the topic of carbohydrates -- and others too, like dairy and fitness. Of course, I hope that everyone stays cool and civil, but if not, the rest of us need not follow suit.

Videos of the lectures will be posted on the web at some point -- soon, I hope! I'm looking forward to that, as I heard great things about some of the lectures that I missed. Also, some talks were so very awesome -- but also so very much like drinking from a firehose -- that I want to listen to them again. (Mat Lalonde, I'm looking at you!)

Update: Yipee! They've started posting videos of the talks here on vimeo.

I didn't take many notes, but here's a few of the lectures that stood out for me:

Boyd Eaton, MD: Ancestral Health: Past, present, and future

Eaton's lecture was about 15 minutes of science, then about 25 minutes of terrible philosophy, including innate ideas, determinism, environmentalism, and anti-modernism, plus a hefty dose of factually false romanticization of primitive cultures. This lecture was the very first event, and I was seriously concerned about the conference at that point. Happily, while I didn't agree with everything said in lectures, I saw nothing even remotely so bad again. Also, I was heartened to see that plenty of other tweeters in the audience had serious objections to his views.

Stephan Guyenet, PhD: Obesity; old solutions for a new problem

Stephan of Whole Health Source gave a top-notch presentation on food reward, a topic that I've been much interested in lately. (Personally, I've found that the only way to lose the pounds that I gained while hypothyoid is to eat a painfully un-varied diet. I hope to blog more on that later.) Stephan's basic hypothesis is that the high food reward of modern diets contributes to the growing trend toward obesity. (He doesn't think that it's the whole story, of course.) Based on his data, plus my own observations, that seems to be correct.

Unfortunately, Gary Taubes behaved like something of a jerk in the Q&A, as you can see in this video. Stephan was very low-key in relply, and he reports that Taubes apologized to him later. Stephan has posted more here, and I am looking forward to hearing his no-holds-barred criticims of Taubes.

Gary Taubes, MA: The case against sugar(s)

Taubes gave an interesting talk, particularly because he now seems to think that sugars (not carbs) are the culprit for the explosions of Type 2 Diabetes and then obesity. I'm not sure where I stand on the whole debate about carbohydrates, except to say that (1) food quality matters far more than macronutrient ratios and (2) people vary in their optimal carbohydrate intake.

Pedro Bastos, MS, MA: Milk, dairy and human health: An historical, evolutionary and global perspective

I want to listen to this talk again because I ended up far more skeptical of dairy than I've ever been before, particularly for its hormonal content and growth-promoting properties. I don't drink milk any longer, but I regularly consume high-fat dairy, particularly heavy cream, cheese, and greek yogurt. I don't have any particular sensitivity to dairy, but I suspect that I'd be better off with less of it in my diet.

Mat Lalonde, PhD: An organic chemist's perspective on paleo

More than any other, this talk was like drinking from the firehose... the kick-ass firehose of science. He gave all of us paleo-advocates good reason to be more careful in our scientific claims.

Denise Minger: How to win an argument with a vegetarian

Denise was informative, accessible, enthusiastic, and funny. Win! I don't tend to argue with vegetarians, but I am better informed than I was before, particularly about what some of the famous (and effective) vegetarian diets consist of.

Nora Gedgaudas, CNS, CNT: Primal mind: Diet and mental health

This talk was also a strong drink from the firehose, but really fascinating, particularly in the connections between diet and brain/mind health. I'm going to pick up the new edition of her book Primal Body, Primal Mind and read it sooner rather than later.

Melissa McEwen: Clues from the colon: How this organ illuminates our digestive evolution and microniche

Melissa's Hunt.Gather.Love is one of my favorite paleo-ish blogs: I always enjoy her fresh perspective, even when I disagree with her. Her talk did not disappoint. She raised all kinds of interesting questions, particularly about what might constitute optimal gut bacteria. I hope that the necesary research will be done to answer those questions.

Richard Nikoley: Self-experimentation: The best science

I was hoping that Richard would talk about how to approach n=1 experiments in a sensible and useful way, then discuss a wide variety of such experiments that people might try. Instead, he mostly spoke about his own experiences, but I'd already read those on his blog. Still, he was a very engaging speaker!

Doug McGuff, MD: Body by science

Doug began with a remarkably clear (though low-tech) explanation of cellular metabolism and ended with some very general parameters for a good workout regimen. I'm really pleased with my own switch from CrossFit to SuperSlow / Body By Science workouts, and I agree with his concerns about CrossFit. (Basically, you shouldn't want to waste a whole lot of time and effort in your workouts doing activities that don't actually contribute to your fitness, and you should want to minimize your risk of injury as you build strength.) Interestingly, Doug isn't opposed to CrossFit, particularly not for people who want to do it as a sport for fun or to burn off extra energy. He just advocates separating strength and skill training -- and developing skills with an established strength base.

In the Q&A, Robb Wolf jokingly asked, "Yeah, yeah, that's all nice, but what's your Fran time?" As I said on Twitter in reply, "Who cares about Fran! Check out his guns!" No really, check out his guns! Also, Doug said the most-retweeted line at the whole symposium, namely: "You cannot exercise your way out of a bad diet." So true!

Overall, the Ancestral Health Symposium was a great experience, and I hope that they have another, because I will attend! Major props to the organizers, speakers, and attendees for such an awesome experience! You did good!

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