Ancestral Health Symposium roundup

I had the privilege of attending the Ancestral Health Symposium, held in early August, at UCLA.

Imagine, if you will, a huge rock concert of primal health nerditude: Gary Taubes, Boyd Eaton, Robb Wolf, Melissa McEwen, Erwan LeCorre, Staffan Lindberg, Frank Forencich, Craig Stanford, Mark Sissonand many more, all under one roof.

Oh, and preservative-free grass-fed beef jerky. (Thank heaven for you jerky people because the food options at UCLA on a Saturday eat the proverbial plate of penises. Luckily I packed kale. Have cruciferous veggies and dehydrated cow, will travel.)

Several bloggers have covered the obvious highlights of the conference well. For instance:

And there’s the trenchant observation that this was probably one of the sexiest, most attractive, fittest groups to grace the UCLA conference circuit recently. Body by Meat, Veg, and Sprints — it works.

So I won’t waste too much time on a blow-by-blow account. Let’s get bigger than who said what about carbs, and who had the most barefootish shoes (or who wore no shoes at all — by the end of the conference about 20% of attendees were barefoot, but then again, it was California so they may have been hippies who just got lost on the way to the bathroom).

Frank Forencich made an excellent critique, which will form the basis of my own observations.

Basically the question is:

What is the fucking point of all of this?

Aha. Now we get interesting.

Why is studying ancestral health and primal diets important? And what do we plan to do with that knowledge?

Well, let’s back up.

Here are a couple of fundamental concepts behind the notion of “ancestral” or “primal” health.

Concept 1: Hominids evolved to eat a particular range of foods, in a particular context.

There is no ONE “ancestral” or “primal”┬ádiet. Humans do just fine on many diets that vary by region and seasonal availability. That can mean anything from all-tubers-all-the-time (as in Staffan Lindberg’s research on the Kitavans) or the blubberiffic no-veggies-no-problem diet of indigenous northern peoples.

Humans did not dominate the globe by being picky eaters.

We did, however, get very used to eating stuff that we could hunt, gather, and/or dig up. We got used to working for our dinners. We somehow forgot to invent TV right away, so we ended up getting riptshizzled by climbing trees, running from tigers, hauling logs, playing (more than you’d think) and trying not to die.

Concept 2: We lived for millions of years with this primal diet and lifestyle. High-fructose corn syrup was introduced in the mid-20th century. Hilarity ensued.

The mismatch between 99.99% of our genetic history and our currently 21st reality causes most “diseases of civilization”.

Now, most folks focus on the content of the diet. Which makes sense. You are what you eat.

Thus, many presenters covered things like the conversion of fructose to craptabolism and why that matters; how vitamin D will make you immortal; why inadequate fat will make you insane; or the importance of understanding the specific molecular structure of lectins (giant geek boner for Mat Lalonde!! *making “call me for o-chem study sessions” thumb-and-finger gesture*).

Other presenters added context by focusing on specific health effects.

Frinstance, is your GI tract healthy and are bacteria our overlords? Did you know that some people have juicy white plaque sausages in their arteries? Why are Westerners such diabetic lazy bastards? and so forth.

All of this was entirely awesome. You know that feeling (any of you born earlier than 1980) of eating Pop Rocks fizzy candy? Well that was my brain.

Still, despite the often crudely drawn nerd-porn of molecular structures and chemical conversion pathways, the overall vibe, at times, lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Actually we do sais quoi, and it came from Frank Forencich. Which is this.

It’s great — crucial, even — to focus on what we ate, and eat. This knowledge alone, if put into practice, could save millions of lives.

But humans did not live by bread organ meats alone. It is also essential to understand:

  • how we ate — with others, in a structure of mutual interdependence
  • how we got what we ate — hunting and gathering communally, reading the signs of the land and the animals, moving in all kinds of ways
  • that we played as well as worked
  • that we were intimately connected to our group, tribe, community, ancestors, stories, land, and other organisms; and our sense of self was derived from a deep relationship with all these things
  • that we lived in and through our bodies as well as in and through our perceptions and foci — our realities were comprised of what we paid attention to (think about that as you’re diddling with your Blackberry)
  • that we lived in a physical and geographic context with changing seasons, temperatures, physical sensations, light levels, vegetation, and animal populations

By the way, although hat tip to Boyd Eaton for the discussion of egalitarianism and gendered divisions of labour, next year I’d like a little less on “Man the Hunter” and a little more on “Woman the Gatherer”. Hello, did women even exist in the Paleo period? We know from studies of modern foraging societies that even top-notch hunters strike out more often than not, and women’s foraging labour typically sustains the group more consistently.

Anyway, you see where I’m going, I hope.

Don’t get hung up too much on the “what”. Ask also about the “how” and the “why”. Don’t miss the ancestral forest for the carb-and-protein trees. Human history offers us a tremendous, rich, diverse, nuanced narrative. Dig in to this conceptual buffet.

Think big. Bigger.

This primal/ancestral stuff is huge. Let us not constrain ourselves to amino acids and carbon groups (as delicious as the debates may be). Let’s not focus on whether coconut flour is “Paleo”. Let’s get contextual all up in that shit. Let’s dive into the exuberance of the big, big, BIG picture.

Let us get over ourselves and find out what our ancestors have to say. Let us shut up and listen to their histories, their stories, their bones, their insights, their genes, their movements, their social and physical geography, the undulating rhythms of their seasons and lives, and their dancing bacterial overlords.

Oh, but the grass-fed beef jerky can stay.

Did you go to AHS11? What did you think?

Are you a primal health nut or simply ancestral-curious? Tell me your thoughts.

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