My Trip To The Ancestral Health Symposium 2012 or Dana Goes to Harvard

My Trip To The Ancestral Health Symposium or Dana Goes to Harvard

Went to the Ancestral Health Symposium, the big paleo diet-and-exercise (and to a lesser extent low carb) conference in Boston. It was fascinating but overwhelming.  Just so much information, much of it quite technical, and often no more than five minutes between sessions.  Plus my stupid sleep disorder was acting up; I was not my perkiest, most intellectually able self.  I also missed all one morning’s lectures because I hadn’t gotten to sleep before dawn.  Still, I learned a lot, and have a whole bunch of new avenues for reading.  Here are some random thoughts and factoids from my kaleidoscopic impressions:

* You’ve never seen such a good-looking group of people outside of Hollywood.  When was the last time you were in a group of hundreds of Americans, perhaps 1% of whom were overweight? The vast majority of attendees were slim, muscular, and healthy-looking.  Not only are they all eating well and exercising, but the ranks of the paleo peeps are drawn heavily from folks who have always been athletic.  They do tend to wear funny shoes, though, if they wore shows at all.

*  The big split in the paleo community is between those who feel that much of the benefit of, and especially the weight loss caused by, paleo nutrition has to do with carbohydrate restriction and lowered insulin levels, and those who are adamant that no, no, that’s not it, and paleo dieters need to eat “safe starches” — sweet potatoes, winter squashes, stuff like that.  Frankly, it works my last nerve.

Why?  Because it is so obvious to me that most of the low carb community came to carbohydrate restriction after years, often a lifetime, of obesity.  Many have been morbidly obese.  We have had food addiction problems.  Many of us were gym class dropouts, tired and klutzy, the last chosen for games.  The paleo community, on the other hand, has grown largely from a movement among athletes, and especially those who do Crossfit.

Different genetics, folks.  Yeah, if you’ve always been thin and athletic and bursting with energy, I’m betting you can eat sweet potatoes and winter squash and lots of fruit and all that stuff, and be just fine, especially since you’re axing the wheat, the legumes, the sugar, the processed food, and eating plenty of animal protein and fat.  Hooray, and have fun.  That doesn’t mean that “safe starches” are great for those of us who have struggled all our lives with screwed up metabolisms, for those of us who have compromised blood sugar, hypoglycemia, diabetes, PCOS, any hyperinsulinemic health problem.

Maybe we would have been okay with those safe starches had we been raised on a paleo diet, though my experience tells me that some people hit the genetic lottery and some don’t.  But even if we all could have been slim and athletic and healthy if we’d been raised paleo, it doesn’t matter.  It’s a fruitless speculation.  We can’t go back in time and not eat all that sugar.  We can’t erase the years spent eating a low fat diet loaded with grains.  We can only go forward, and for many of us that means going forward with a damaged carbohydrate metabolism and adopting a low carb diet.

Can we all accept the really, really obvious fact that people are different, and stop quarreling about it?  Please?

* Good lecture about what ancestral fitness really meant.  The point was made that, from an evolutionary standpoint, “fitness” simply means passing on as many of your genes as possible.  If you had a dozen kids, kept most of them alive, raised them till they could survive and reproduce without you, then died by age forty, you were, by evolutionary standards, far more fit than a person who had one kid but lived to a hearty 85.  When we’re talking about evolution as a guide to diet and exercise, it’s important to remember that evolution does not select for – or against – those who live to a healthy old age.  (Sorry if you’re unhappy about the idea of evolution, but it’s the driving concept behind the paleo movement.  No getting away from it, really.)

This means that we need to differentiate between traits and behaviors that helped our ancestors pass on their genes, and those that generally kept them well.  They’re not necessarily the same thing.  For instance, our hunter-gatherer ancestors no doubt saw gaining a few pounds as a good thing.

* One of the changes on the way from proto-hominid to human was the shift from knuckle-walking to true bipedalism – walking upright.  The great benefit of that shift is that walking on two legs uses vastly less energy than knuckle-walking, allowing more energy for our big ol’ brains.  We did lose speed, however, since we lost the ability to gallop.  (I speculate that it also led to our being better hunters, since we could see farther.  But that is, I repeat, a speculation) Our hunter-gatherer ancestors walked an average of 9-15 kilometers per day.   I like to walk, but rarely walk that much, except on vacation.  Perhaps I should walk more?

Mark Sisson from
Mark Sisson from

* Mark Sisson really is as fit and good-looking as the photos on his blog.

* Mathieu Lalonde, PhD spoke about nutrient density.  He kept seeing lists ranking the nutrient density of foods that put plant foods at the top, and rated animal foods quite low.  Further investigation turned up the fact that many of the people who compile these lists start with a bias toward a plant-based diet.  They weight their rankings in favor of plant-based antioxidants and fiber, while downgrading for saturated fat and cholesterol content. Lalonde decided to compile such data based only on those nutrients identified as “essential,” the definition of “essential” in nutrition being “That which we must derive from food or we will eventually die.”  That list includes 8 amino acids, a couple of fatty acids, and a goodly list of vitamins and minerals.

Based on that definition – essential nutrients per mass of food – grains and beans were sorely lacking, while meat, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds were found to contain everything we need. 

I was happy to see that, of the common meats tested, pork had the best nutritional profile; I’ve been defending pork for a long time now.  And it turns out that bacon is quite nutrient dense.  Have another slice!

Peter Ballerstedt
Peter Ballerstedt
* Peter Ballerstedt, PhD, who spoke on this year’s Low Carb Cruise,  is a forage agronomist – in other words, he studies grass, hay, and other non-grain, leafy crops, the sort of thing that cows, sheep, and other ruminants graze upon.  He had some pretty cheerful news: Most meat, even grocery store meat, is substantially grass-fed, and while the numbers vary quite a lot, often grocery store meat has reasonably good fatty acid profiles when compared to grain-finished meat.

* Georgia Ede, MD, did an interesting talk about the risks and benefits of plant foods.  She pointed out that, despite the fact that we can’t hear them scream, plants don’t want to be eaten any more than animals do.  Plants fight back chemically.  She had a long list of phytochemicals that have both health benefits and risks.  (For instance, I have seen it posited that soy beans developed estrogens in an attempt to sterilize things that were preying on them.  Interesting thought, no?)  The difference, she said, is that animals stop fighting back once you’ve killed them.

* There were several talks about policy – bans on various raw and traditional foods, regulations that hamstring small agriculture, and the fight to make small-scale farming – things like back yard poultry raising (recommended!) widely legal.

* Chris Kresser, M.S., L. Ac. (I don’t know what that latter one means) gave a fascinating talk about iron, and its role in metabolic syndrome.  I knew that it was posited that one of the reasons women of childbearing age are nearly immune to heart disease is because they lose blood regularly.  I also knew that donating blood is, statistically speaking, good for your health.  Turns out that giving a pint of blood once every six months – just twice a year! – can markedly improve markers of metabolic syndrome, because it helps prevent iron overload.

The take-home message here is that unless you know you’re prone to iron-deficiency anemia, don’t go loading up on iron, and especially, if you take vitamins, choose an iron-free formula.  Ask your doctor to include tests of your iron status next time s/he’s running blood work.  If you’ve got too much iron, give blood if you can.  It’s a good thing to do, regardless; you will not only help others, but improve your own health.  If your iron is elevated and, like me, you cannot give blood (I had hepatitis B twenty-five years ago), ask your doctor to prescribe phlebotomy (therapeutic blood-letting.)  I’ll be talking to my doctor about this the next time I see her.

* Stephan Guyenet, PhD, spoke about digestive health and metabolic syndrome.  Apparently gut flora – you know, those bacteria that have been getting so much attention for the past few years – make a difference to metabolic syndrome and weight.  If you take lab mice with sterile intestines and implant flora from normal weight mice, they stay normal weight.  If you implant flora from fat mice, they get fat.  It was suggested that this issue of gut flora may account for the fact that children born by caesarean section, who don’t pick up their mothers’ bacteria as children who pass through the birth canal do, have a higher rate of obesity and related health issues than those born vaginally.

Guyenet spoke of an experiment where military volunteers took either one of two antibiotics or a placebo, with the idea that the antibiotics would kill gut flora.  Those who got antibiotics gained weight, those who took the placebo did not.  This may be why antibiotics are used to make livestock gain weight – they interfere with healthy gut flora.

By the way, there are ten times as many bacteria in a healthy gut as there are cells in a human body.  Yes, 90 percent of the cells in your body are not you.  You are an ecosystem.

* I learned, during the Q&A after Guyenet’s talk, that there is such a thing as a “fecal transplant” – they take feces from an animal (or, I presume, a human) with healthy gut flora and put it in the gut of an animal lacking this flora.  Disturbing to think about, but possibly useful.

* It also became clear that just eating standard grocery store yogurt probably isn’t enough to fix gut flora.  Just not a wide enough variety of bacteria.  We won’t even talk about what the proper balance of various bacteria might be.

* There were a couple of lectures about the role of fat in a paleo diet.  Nora Gedgaudas, CNS, CNT spoke about traditional cultures and how they treasured fat, and of the dramatic benefits of dietary ketosis.  Miki Ben-Dor, MBA, PhD candidate, spoke about the search for animal fat as a driver in human evolution and prehistory.  Given the (I feel unwarranted) emphasis some paleo peeps give to leanness in meat, it was nice to see the role of fat being explored.

* Dr. Terry Wahls gave a fascinating talk about her own health journey.   Dr. Wahls has multiple sclerosis, and had deteriorated to the point of needing a reclining wheel chair because she couldn’t sit up in an upright one.   She went paleo, and slowed the progress of the disease, but was still deteriorating.  With further research she developed a protocol which, while it hasn’t cured her, has caused dramatic regression of the disease.  She can walk a couple of miles, and bike with her family; that’s remarkable stuff.  If you or a loved one is facing MS, I would very much recommend looking up Dr. Wahls and her work.

* Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, gave the keynote speech, speaking with great passion (in another life he was clearly a Baptist preacher) about how mankind can participate in the environment, not destroying it, but rather working with it, to create farms that only grow richer over time.  I have seen a small-scale version of Salatin’s plan right next door; my neighbors Keith Johnson and Peter Bane publish Permaculture Activist magazine, Peter is the author of The Permaculture Handbook, and Keith and Peter teach the principles of this brilliant agricultural practice, both here in Bloomington, IN, and around the country. Their yard supports an astonishing variety of food plants, only growing more lush by the year.  If we are to feed the world without destroying the soil with grain and bean monoculture, this is how we must do it.

Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt
Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt
* Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt, a regular Low Carb Cruiser, gave a good, clear rundown of the role of insulin in weight gain/loss.  Dr. Eenfeldt is a great speaker, and has a way of making this stuff not only clear, but entertaining.

* Ditto Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It.  Few people have given more attention to the research regarding the role of insulin and carbohydrate restriction in weight control than Gary, and again, he’s a great speaker, clear and entertaining, both.  If you haven’t watched Gary give a lecture or two, go to YouTube right now.  You’ll be smarter for it, and far better able to defend yourself against people who tell you you’re crazy to eat this way.

* Lectures I was sorry I missed, either because I was listening to another lecture, or because I was struggling with insomnia:

Top of the list would be Dr. Robert Lustig, author of soon-to-be-released Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, with Sugar: No Ordinary Commodity.  Dr. Lustig is a very big name in the field.  Unfortunately, he spoke the morning I hadn’t fallen asleep till dawn. I very much hope he will speak again next year, but in the meanwhile I will watch his lecture online.

Craniofacial Dystrophy: Modern Melting Faces by  Mike Mew B.D.S., M.Sc.  I’ve known for a long time that malnutrition does sad things to facial bones. Dr. Weston Price documented the devastating effects of malnutrition on the dental arch – crooked teeth are virtually unknown among “primitive” people who eat no processed food, yet a single generation of malnutrition will yield a crop of small jaws and crowded teeth.  I’d have been very interested to hear this lecture.

There were three lectures about nutrition and cancer treatment, including one by Dr. Eugene Fine, who has been researching the effects of dietary ketosis on cancer.  I’ve heard Dr. Fine speak to the Nutrition and Metabolism Society, and was fascinated.  I’d have loved to hear all of these lectures.

* I got to see Andrew!  And Jimmy Moore!  And Gary Taubes!  And Andreas Eenfeldt!  And met super-nice people!

Worth the cost and the drive, and then some.  I’ll go again next year.  Hopefully the Sleep Gods will be with me.  And I can now honestly say I have gone to Harvard.  For three days, but hey, I was there.

Other summaries of the Ancestral Health Symposium from around the Internet:

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  1. Very interesting and motivational Dana. Thank you! L.Ac. means licensed acupuncturist, I believe. Can you tell us what the cost of attending the event was? Do you or anyone at carbsmart have any take on the Julian Bakery bread? The carb zero? Thanks alot. Jim

    • Jim: Thanks for your comments.

      We will be commenting on and reviewing Julian Bakery breads within the next few weeks INCLUDING their new formula for their Smart Carb low carb breads.

      The cost of the Ancestral Health Symposium was about $250 or so for the entire event. Well worth the information and the chance to be in such a great group of healthy people.

      One interesting comment I overheard someone say during the event was that in this group of very healthy people, you didn’t hear a lot of people coughing or sneezing. Not a scientific observation but healthy people don’t hack and wheeze.


      • Thanks Andrew! I look forward to the review of the Julian Bakery products.

        I’m surprised that the fee for the Ancestral Health symposium was so reasonable. (I thought you would have said something closer to $2500.00). Anyway, that’s much more accessible.

        Interesting observation about the health profiles of most. attendees. Somehow, I haven’t reached that point yet. Maybe I just have a little too much stress going on.

        Great info., thanks alot.


        • Jim, I think a lot of the reason that the folks at the AHS were so slim and healthy (or at least healthy looking) is that the paleo movement has come from the athletic community. Many, if not most, of these folks have been fairly trim and athletic all their lives; paleo improved matters, but they’d done well in the genetic lottery to begin with.

  2. Dana, thanks for the recap of the conference. I really appreciate your stance on this silly argument over carbs. If they work for you (generically “you”) then, fine, eat’em, but if they send your blood sugar soaring, then it’s best not to. This is nothing to argue about, but I suspect the difference between the two “sides” has something to do with being very young, fit and confident (as only the very young and fit can be) as opposed to old and wary 🙂

    L. Ac. = Licensed Acupuncturist. I’m not a proponent, but since you didn’t know, though I’d tell ya. There may be other things that this designation refers to, but I bet that’s it.

    • Ah. I’ve had plenty of acupuncture, but apparently not in states with licensure laws. My experiences with traditional Chinese medicine have been quite positive, BTW.

      Yeah, it’s a silly argument. I was never slim, energetic and athletic, not even when I was a kid, walking and biking everywhere I went. Just not in the genes, I’m afraid.

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