Saturday, August 13, 2011

Attending the Ancestral Health Symposium 2011

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the first Ancestral Health Symposium this last weekend at UCLA.  Quite a variety of speakers from the paleo, low-carb, and traditional food camps presented.  (You can see slides, videos, and abstracts here.)

All of these camps, at their best, attempt to define with some precision the real meaning of living naturally*, i.e. acting in accordance with our biological nature rather than against it.  The paleo folks start with a practical heuristic: how homo sapiens has lived and eaten, for the longest period of time, is probably the sort of thing we are most genetically adapted to.  The traditional diet folks use a similar though less expansive heuristic: the kinds of foods that successful (i.e., relatively healthy, long-lived, vibrant) traditional cultures have eaten, and the methods by which they've prepared them, serve as a better standard of diet that the current food culture, which has failed miserably.  And the low-carbers, often by trial-and-error, have discovered that the amount of digestible carbohydrate in the Western diet is thoroughly excessive, that very little (if any) carbohydrate is necessary in the diet, and that the restriction of carbohydrates can have remarkable health benefits.  Each of these camps recognize valid insights within the others, and thus we had a meeting of the minds and of kindred spirits.

Most of what I saw at the symposium I'd already been exposed to, typically in more detail, through the blogs or books of the presenters.  The more technical presentations were both new and fascinating, but I can't really say I walked away understanding more.  I need to dust off my old chemistry and math books before I can come away from those sessions saying that I really learned something.  Yes, I can rattle off some of those explanations - but that doesn't mean I understand them.  Still, I am motivated to return to those old textbooks.  That's the biggest thing that I've taken away from this.  That, and getting out of the office for a few days to enjoy the Los Angeles weather.

A lot that I heard was worth mentioning, but I note only a few things here:

Gary Taubes, in his ongoing campaign to oppose Blind Mutual Admiration, Fluff, and thus the Nutritional Academy way, questioned Stephan Guyenet on the quality (completeness, really) of his examples justifying his explanation of obesity.  Gary was nervous, perhaps thinking, "Great.  As I see it, this just isn't up to standards.  I'm going to appear like a jerk, but I've got to call him on this."  If this was what Gary was thinking, well, kudos to him for bravery.  He's taken a lot of heat for that.  Stephan, as neurobiologist, was, I think, simply asking, "Okay, I've got just this sort of hammer, so, considering the obesity problem as nail, what can we say about it?"  Very good stuff there, at least from this layman's view.

Mark Sisson's thoughts on play were great.  I'm not so much the "hedonist" that Mark claims to be, but life, insofar as it is good, is indeed something to be enjoyed.  He got me to thinking about how so many of the things that we consider drudgery today - cooking, walking, gathering (what we'd call "shopping") - used to be sources of great joy.  Now, not so much.  That's something to be recovered.

Tom Naughton (of Fathead Movie fame, and the accompanying blog) was an absolute riot.  He gave a talk on science for the layman and how to recognize bad science (and bad science journalism) when you see it.

This was well worth the time, and, Lord willing, I'll do it again next year.

*No doubt, "Natural" is, sadly, a ruined word, except to marketers.  But this is really what the folks there were about.