For those of you who couldn’t attend the first-ever Ancestral Health Symposium that happened August 5th and 6th, I’ll try not to rub it in your face that you missed out on one of the most fantastic health events in the history of the universe. I won’t tell you how you should have soul-crushing regrets about not purchasing a ticket in time, or how you should feel so ill with remorse that you skip work for the rest of the week and sob quietly on your bedroom floor, lamenting. Because that would just be mean.
But seriously, you should have been there because this thing was all sorts of awesome.
For anyone who hasn’t read the smorgasbord of blog posts chronicling the symposium (or the live Tweeting from fast-fingered folks like Lindsay Starke, Diane Sanfilippo, and Jimmy Moore), here’s the gist. Six hundred attendees and an impressive lineup of speakers converged at UCLA for an epic two days of presentations. Superstars Brent Pottenger and Aaron Blaisdell deserve mega kudos for putting this thing together, and for extending their generosity in more ways that can reasonably expected of mortal beings (Brent played chauffeur for disoriented, diva-like presenters, and Aaron opened his lovely home to a bunch of paleo loonies who dribbled wine and steak juice all over the floor).
Fifty volunteers—whipped into docility by the fabulous Gavin Impett—manned the cameras, conducted interviews, endured merciless teasing, and otherwise ensured that nothing went kaboom during the event. These folks worked incredibly hard behind the scenes and somehow, by either elbow grease or sorcery, made the whole symposium run with nary a hitch. Considering this is the first time this event took place and no one really knew what to expect, the seamlessness of it all was pretty amazing. Great job, guys.
The pre-symposium potluck for presenters and volunteers was also fantastic. Here’s a picture of me and interviewer-volunteer Alyssa Rhoden, which is the sole piece of visual evidence I have that I was there. For anyone who needs more proof of my existence, there are other pictures floating around the interwebs too, in which I’m half-blinking or doing weird things with my face.
Seeing as I’m fashionably late to the AHS blogging parade, I’ll try not to rehash too much of what’s already been said. The recorded presentations are being uploaded here for your viewing pleasure, and if you want a detailed account of each lecture, other bloggers have already done a nice job of capturing the fine points.
Stuff I really, really liked about the symposium:
Diversity. I was pleasantly surprised by the range of ancestrally-inspired diets represented there. If you’ve read much of this blog, you probably know that my own diet is an unconventional blend of raw foods, paleo, and Weston A. Price principles—and up until now, I was never quite sure there was room for me within the “ancestral health” umbrella. This symposium changed my mind about that. Some speakers (and attendees) were of the low-carb persuasion, like Michael Eades and Gary Taubes. Others were either macronutrient-agnostic or welcomed a higher-carbohydrate approach, like Stephan Guyenet and Don Matesz. I shared a fructoselicious grapefruit lunch with Danny Roddy, whose own diet experiments led him to an eating style much like mine. I met an intriguing fellow named Lex Rooker who’s been eating but nothing but raw meat for the past decade, and on the other end of the spectrum, a “lacto-ovo paleo” dieter who eats no meat or fish (more on him in a moment).
All in all, the symposium reflected a major element of the ancestral health community, which is that there is no single ‘paleo’ diet. I’m confident in saying that the symposium would be a great experience for anyone interested in using an ancestral framework to improve their health, whether or not you consider yourself “paleo” by the popular definition. There was very little of the unchallenged groupthink sometimes infusing this type of event, and plenty of encouragement to question convictions about diet and fitness. Some intellectual dueling even occurred between two well-respected figures, Stephan Guyenet and Gary Taubes. The overall vibe was more “tribe” than “cult.” And that is a very good thing indeed.
People. As much as I enjoyed watching the presentations, I think the biggest perk of the symposium was the social aspect—having so many amazing people in one place, and being able to meet them in person. If you read this blog, chances are good that there’s something not-quite-mainstream about you. Maybe you’re like me—a food outcast who picks strawberries off appetizer plates at parties while everyone else eats the pizza and cake. Maybe you feel secretly sickened walking through the food court in malls, seeing various vegetable-oil-fried meals sliding down the throats of the masses. Maybe you really like to be barefoot… all the time. Whatever your quirks are, you’re probably a misfit to some degree, and you’ve probably just learned to suck it up and live with it.
Now imagine being in a room with 600 people who are just as weird as you are. They read the same blogs you do. They loved that same podcast you listened to last week, where the one dude interviewed the other dude. They wouldn’t be caught dead taking the elevator instead of the stairs unless both their legs fell off. All you have to do is say the word “No…” and they interject with “gluten.” It’s like being surrounded with clones of yourself, except your clones happen to be awesomer, cooler, and way more interesting than you are, so conversation with them is outrageously fun.
This is what the symposium was. A gathering of like minds. A community. It was a rare and wonderful experience.
Also, everyone was really good looking. I know that’s been mentioned a few times in other blogs, and there’s a reason for that. The people at AHS looked the way humans are supposed to look: vibrant, glowing, and as alert as one can be when running on four hours of sleep. Holy hotness, Batman!
Some of the new, wonderful people I got to connect with include:
- Melissa McEwen, who is whip-smart and almost unbearably adorable;
- Chris Masterjohn, who’s a rare blend of genius and modesty;
- Stephan Guyenet, who is every bit as zen-like and intelligent as you’d expect from his blog;
- David Csonka, who is not only a hoot, but managed to rise to eminence despite his questionable upbringing as a trumpet player;
- Robb Wolf, who announced his return to low-fat veganism and spent the whole symposium eating rice cakes (just kidding, he’s legit);
- Nora Gedgaudas, who is one of the sweetest and warmest people I’ve ever met;
- Tom Naughton, who (amazingly) remained in good spirits despite sleep deprivation, LA disgruntlement, and a battery of travel snafus;
- Don Matesz and his beautiful wife, both of whom are incredibly kind and polite;
- Richard Nikoley, in all his barefooted glory, who I finally got to thank face-to-face for sailing my China Study critique all over the ‘net (also, his wife is one foxy lady);
- Danny Roddy, lover of raw fish and tropical fruit, who stole my diet but is so cool that I won’t even consider suing him over it;
- Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet, who are as intelligent and approachable in person as they are on their blog (and whose book clearly influenced the shift towards a greater acceptance of starch among many attendees);
- Andrew Badenoch (AKA Evolvify), who rocks a kilt and has a subtle Evil Genius vibe;
- Debbie Young (AKA Grassfed Momma), who can best be described as the human equivalent of sunshine;
- John Durant, whose laid-back demeanor conceals his weird obsession with hair accessories and galoshes;
- Emily Deans, who is not only brilliant but also incredibly lovely and down to earth;
- J. Stanton, who is a smarty pants with an impressive ponytail mohawk (which I’m convinced is where he stores his smarty-pantsness);
- Jack Kruse (AKA the Quilt), who is a powerhouse of ideas and knowledge, and will no doubt be making tsunami-sized waves in the health world;
- and Diane Sanfilippo, who I only saw from afar but was wearing sweet boots and had arms so magnificent they could make a grown man weep (before crushing his head with their brute strength).
Add to that list the 50 volunteers and quite a few of the amazing attendees. I’m so excited to finally have faces to put on the names of some of the blog readers here. Meeting you guys seriously made my year. To quote Stephan Guyenet: “This is like being in the internet.”
Paleo and vegetarianism: let’s be friends!
My symposium presentation was called “How to Win an Argument With a Vegetarian”—which was a play on a similarly-named Vegsource article called “How to Win an Argument With a Meat Eater.” In general, I don’t recommend debating with vegetarians who haven’t picked a fight with you first, or thumping your chest screaming “MEAT! Rawwwwr!” in an effort to drag them back onto the animal-food bandwagon. Not only is diet-proselytizing obnoxious, but when your victim is sitting unobtrusively in the corner with cup of green tea and a Thich Nhat Hanh book, attacking them makes you look like a dipwad.
Heck, the vast majority of vegetarians I know (and I know lots) are totally awesome people, whose dietary choices stem from the desire to live a compassionate life, save geriatric ol’ Mother Earth, and hopefully improve their health in the process. Even though I don’t agree that shunning animal products will make you healthier or even make your diet more sustainable, I understand the motivations for going veggie (I was one for ten years), and don’t think war-like “conversion” efforts from omnivores are warranted. As Robb Wolf commented at the end of my speech, it’s better to spend your time helping people who are already receptive to change—otherwise, you can waste a lot of time shouting into deaf ears.
But that’s not really what I want to talk about in this post.
There’s a small but existent portion of the population that will always be vegetarian. Always. Maybe their motivation is ethical. Maybe they just can’t separate the sight of steak from the image of Daisy the cow mooing tragically at the slaughterhouse. Maybe their religion mandates meatlessness. Maybe it’s an ingrained part of their culture. Maybe they share a roof with T. Colin Campbell. Or maybe they just have an aversion to animal flesh and are drawn more to the bounty of the plant kingdom. Whatever their reason, no amount of evolutionary history, Lierre Keith quotes, or “population XYZ eats meat and is healthy!” arguments will un-vegetarianize them—so issues of optimality aside, a meat-free diet is what they have to work with.
I think, up until this point, the paleo community has either ostracized these folks or dismissed them as lost causes. How could a diet that defines itself by meatlessness be compatible with an ancestral framework, in which meat has always been present and perhaps even pivotal in our evolution? How can paleo folk see eye-to-eye with the vegetarians and their grain love, soy fixation, and neolithic mock-meats made from hunks of pure gluten?
Although I’ve generally seen more “us vs. them” vitriol coming from the meat-free community than from the paleosphere, the animosity definitely goes both ways. Which brings me to the point of all this. At the Ancestral Health Symposium this month, I had the pleasure of meeting a bona-fide meat-free, lacto-ovo paleo dieter. For real. This brave soul (let’s call him Aravind, because that’s his name) came to the symposium not because he wanted to freeload off beef jerky samples, but because he tailors what most people would consider a “vegetarian” diet into an ancestral framework. No grains except white rice for him. No excess fructose. No industrial seed oils. No soy—only small amounts of traditionally-prepared legumes. The only thing that separates him from the rest of the crowd is that his sole animal products are eggs and high-quality, grass-fed dairy.
And indeed, Aravind appeared to be in mighty fine health. When I shook his hand, he neither fell over nor crumbled into a pile of sawdust. You couldn’t distinguish him from the omnivores in the room—and had he not outed himself, we’d be none the wiser to his meatlessness. He was a stark contrast to the stereotype of “pale, sunken-eyed vegetarians” we’ve all seen wandering the aisles of Whole Foods.*
*I hate using this description, I really do—because I’ve also known “regular” vegetarians who looked fantastic, and junkfoodarians who get sick less often than their health-conscious counterparts, old people who stay bright and youthful eating their daily Maple Bars, and countless other examples of where diet doesn’t seem to correlate with appearance. But as someone who spent a whole lot of time around vegetarians and vegans in the past, there’s definitely a “look” about some of them that I like to call the Veg*n Deterioration Glaze. It doesn’t strike everyone… but you know it when you see it.
Aravind represents a rare, under-discussed intersection between ancestral eating and vegetarianism. And the more I’ve been thinking about this, the more I’ve realized how lame it is that this converging point is so neglected. By bashing vegetarians because of their meat avoidance, we’re alienating a chunk of the population that would probably be really, really receptive to other principles of ancestral eating, because they’re already likely to be health conscious. Instead of giving up when someone tells you meat is a no-go, why not discuss other areas they can improve on standard vegetarianism—like switching from gluten grains to “safe starches” like tubers and rice; eliminating processed meat replacements and soy products; avoiding added sugars; reducing omega-6 intake and replacing industrial seed oils with coconut oil, grass-fed butter, or ghee; emphasizing full-fat, raw-when-possible dairy; eating shellfish if it’s not an ethical concern; sourcing eggs from pastured hens; preparing grains or legumes traditionally to reduce toxins and anti-nutrients; and so forth?
I think Aravind summed it up well in a post on Paleohacks:
Paleo is about toxin avoidance. It is not about being a meatasaur, low carber, re-enactor, etc. I am a very proud member of this community and a very strong supporter of the movement. … This community is squandering a huge opportunity to gain the support of a crowd (like me) that is completely on board with the virtues of avoiding neolithic toxins and actually would lend support to our movement.
So back to the whole “win an argument with a vegetarian” thing. If you encounter a committed vegetarian who’s sincerely interested in being healthy, debating them about meat is probably the worst thing you can do. A better approach is to seek out areas of commonality and help them make changes they’re comfortable with, helping them design the best possible diet within the bounds of vegetarianism.
(By the way: There’s a reason I’m talking about vegetarianism rather than veganism here. As I mentioned in my presentation, I think the difference between veganism and vegetarianism is much greater than the difference between vegetarianism and omnivorism, both psychologically and in execution. I think it’s possible for many folks to pull off being a vegetarian with enough planning and high-quality, non-meat animal foods, but veganism is a lot trickier to stay healthy on.)
“Neolithic Agents of Disease”: the common denominator
In the spirit of emphasizing similarities, I also want to expand on something I talked about in my AHS presentation. A common anti-paleo argument from vegans and vegetarians is that plant-based diets—particularly the low-fat, starch-based ones advocated by Dean Ornish, Neal Barnard, John McDougall, and Caldwell Esselstyn—have been “proven” to prevent or reverse chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. (“So neener, neener, nah nah; we win!”) These diets eliminate animal foods, sharply limit fat, and embrace whole grains—making them the apparent antithesis to paleo eating. Ouch! Score one for the vegans, right?
Indeed, if we look at a starch-based diet and, say, a low-carb paleo diet in terms of what they both include, we won’t find much in common. Vegetables and… well, that’s about it. But if we look at them from the perspective of what both diets systematically exclude, that’s where some interesting similarities pop up. Whether you eat a nearly-carnivorous diet or a low-fat, plant-based one advocated by Dean Ornish, you’ll be avoiding:
- All forms of processed, refined sugar, including high-fructose corn syrup
- All industrial oils (including high-omega-6 varieties like soybean and corn oil)
- Refined grains like white flour
- Fruit juice and other sugary beverages
- Industrially processed foods*
* In his book “Eat More, Weigh Less,” Ornish recommends avoiding all processed or “convenience” foods with over 2 grams of fat per serving. I can’t say that I spend a whole lot of time reading the backsides of Hungry Man dinners and Little Debbie snacks, but my limited knowledge on the subject tells me most processed foods have way more than 2 grams of fat.
Now let’s compare that “avoid” list with what Kurt Harris refers to as the three neolithic agents of disease—the modern nasties driving many of our health woes:
- Excess fructose
- Excess linoleic acid (typically from high-omega-6 oils like soybean oil)
- Wheat or gluten
Ancestral or “paleo” diets specifically eliminate all three. Incidentally, the near-vegan diets with a track record for fighting disease eliminate the first two. And in many cases, they inadvertently slash wheat intake by promoting a more diverse spectrum of grains, tubers, and legumes than the average person on an industrialized diet consumes (in which grain products are overwhelmingly wheat-based).
For example, check out this McDougall Program health clinic menu and play “spot the starches.” Notice—first of all—the liberal use of potatoes, squash, and legumes rather than grains as the meal centerpiece. But even among the grain-containing items, how many use wheat? Only nine out of 26. Instead of seeing an endless stream of bread, crackers, pretzels, bakery items, cookies, and other common wheat-based foods, there’s an abundance of rice, barley, quinoa, and corn. And that accidental reduction of wheat (if it really is uniquely problematic among grains) may contribute to the success of whole-foods, plant-based diets in treating disease.
Moving on to one final thing:
Clarification. After my presentation, I noticed the quote “Salad is what food eats” started fluttering around on Twitter, attributed to me. This was actually said by an audience member and I just repeated it into the mic for everyone else to hear. Yeah, it’s a cute phrase. But considering I eat salad and have already been “outed” as a meat-based organism, I’m not sure I really like its implications.