Paleo Lovefest, Brainy Style (aka The Ancestral Health Symposium)

by lisa | 18 August 2012 16:35

What the heck is AHS?

I recently attended the second annual Ancestral Health Symposium which took place at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I followed last year’s conference online, so I was thrilled to be going and experiencing it live and in person. It was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Paleo is practically unheard of here in Switzerland, and other than the friends I have converted, I’ve felt pretty isolated in my own little nutrition obsessed world. It was such a thrill to be with a bunch of people just like me. Imagine summer camp, Woodstock and Comic-Con for science nerds all wrapped up into one. There were superheroes (no capes, but plenty of vibrams), t-shirts expressing love for all things bacon, lots of fit and vibrant paleo people and of course, plenty of delicious food (ever had a bacon truffle?). I’ll try to write a little about the lectures and panels I attended, but I won’t be able to do justice to any of it. Videos of the conference will be made available for free on youtube in a few months and you really need to watch it for yourself. Better yet, start planning to attend next year’s conference!

I was star-struck from the get go. Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, authors of It Starts With Food were checking in to the hotel at the same time we were and we rode the elevator with them (after seeing Mark Sisson stroll in to the hotel lobby). Total paleogasm, but I got used to it as the days went on and I realized that all of the paleo superstars are down to earth,   normal nice folks. (But it was still really cool)

Day 1 in a nutshell


Dan Lieberman, Ph.D.

Professor Lieberman is the Head of the Human Evolutionary Department at Harvard (cool guy who wears Luna Sandals and happens to be very smart).  Professor Lieberman kicked off Day 1 of the conference with his talk “What Are Humans Adapted For?”. He started off talking about adaptation and how we can recognize it in different environmental contexts. He went on to explain the theory and practice of defining, identifying and testing adaptations and he reviewed the evidence that many interacting adaptations can affect human fitness. He talked in depth about the issue of physical inactivity and how it is such a mismatch with our evolutionary adaptation (natural selection) to be physically active  (hey, did you know Homo erectus walked 9-15k a day? First endurance athlete!)and how this could then be related to modern health problems. At one point during his lecture he talked about how we evolved to conserve energy and that’s why we hate to exercise. Ha! I’m not lazy, I’m evolved! Professor Lieberman is a big barefoot running enthusiast and he ended his presentation by inviting people to join him on a 10k barefoot run through Boston the following morning. My husband, Chris, and three other guys (John Durant amongst them) took him up on his offer and Chris will be writing a guest post for us about this fantastic experience and some of the reasons you might want to give minimalist footwear a try.

David Sloan Wilson, Ph.D.

Next up we had Professor Sloan Wilson, professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghampton University with his talk “The EvoS Diet: Creating a Framework for Testing Hypotheses About Optimal Diet and Social Organization for a Healthy Lifestyle”. How’s that for a mouthful!  He basically told us that all Anthropolgy can tell us about diet simply leads to hypotheses and that these then need to be empirically tested by science. He also talked about the mismatch between adaptations to past environments and current environments.

Mat Lalonde, Ph.D.

This was a presentation I was really looking forward to. This guy is seriously smart and that is just plain sexy. Talk Chemistry to me baby! Mat is a professor at Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. His talk, “Nutrient Density: Sticking to the Essentials” was a huge hit with everybody. Want to know why? He told us bacon is the most nutrient dense form of pork. That’s right…bacon rocks.  And how did he figure this out? Well, he did a Ph.D.’s worth of work (in six days, that’s how smart he is) and designed a new way to look at nutrient density that could be used instead of current tools like ANDI. Based on his very scientific analysis, which I am nowhere near smart enough to explain so you’ll have to wait for the video), animal products, especially organ meats, are the most nutrient dense foods. He gave us some solid reasons to avoid grains too: immunogenic and/or allergenic proteins, unsustainable grain agriculture, and nutrient density.To sum it up, the Paleo diet beats all other diets when it comes to nutrient density. At the end of his presentation Mat was sure to thank his girlfriend for her support of his work. Like I said, he’s a smart guy.

Panel Presentation

Day 1’s panel presentation was all about food policy and regulatory hurdles to practicing an ancestral diet. The panel was composed of lawyers from Harvard’s Food Law Society. It was a fascinating discussion and left me feeling really glad to be living in Switzerland instead of under the shadow of the USDA. If you don’t know much about food policy, you really should watch this video when the presentations are made available.

Peter Ballerstedt, Ph.D.

This was a short presentation on grass-fed versus grain fed beef. I found the sustainablity points he made to be interesting. You hear a lot about cow farts contributing to global warming but Professor Ballersted told us that grass-fed meat is carbon negative because it fixes 3.2lbs of carbon for every 1lb emitted. Cool. His very best one-liner was “The problem is not the grain-fed cattle; it’s the grain-fed people”. I think we all tweeted that one!

Robb Wolf

Paleo Baby Jesus (as he was dubbed at last year’s conference) was another presenter that I was really looking forward to seeing. I met him on Day 2 (more on that tomorrow…) and was even more impressed with him than I was to start with. Robb gave a talk called “City Zero: How Markets and Evolution Can Revolutionize Medicine”. Well, “City Zero” just happens to be Reno, Nevada where I grew up and where Robb is now living. I think he is the man who will do the most to help bring paleo mainstream because he is actually really doing something of value. He is working with the City of Reno Fire and Police Departments and implementing the paleo diet as an intervention for some of their most at risk firemen and police officers. The City is obviously motivated to try anything because it costs them a fortune to retire an employee early due to heart attack, stroke or other lifestyle illness which causes disability. Guess what? It’s working. The firemen and policemen of Reno are getting healthier and decreasing their risk for disease. Huge congratulations to Robb for making this “real” for people. My hometown is lucky to have him. City Zero…and counting, I hope.

Joel Salatin the “Lunatic Farmer” 

Joel Salatin an organic farmer/author was the Keynote Speaker for the conference. Joel owns a 550 acre farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and his farm is featured prominently in Michael Pollin’s book The Omnivore’s Dilema (2006) and the documentary films, Food, Inc. and Fresh. Joel absolutely lit the room on fire even though it was the end of the day and we were all tired. He had me ready to go out and start a farming revolution. His presentation was called “Folks, this ain’t normal” and he has a new book by the same title. Go out and get yourself a copy. I know I’m going to. Here are a few of his witty observations:

Now I know why the New York Times dubbed him ‘The High Priest of the Pasture’…he presents like a Southern Baptist preacher and trust me, you will walk away a believer. Amen.

One final mention about Day 1

My brain was kind of a blur after each day of the conference. I tried to take notes everyday and I even tried my hand at twittering during the conference but I found it really hard to listen and tweet simultaneously. Total twitter newbie. When it was time to sit down and write this post, I cheated. Jimmy Moore is the most amazing guy when it comes to twittering.  He tweeted everything…seriously. I was able to go back and reread his tweets to help me remember what the heck I heard during the conference. Go check out Jimmy’s site because he has had an amazing array of guests during his stint of over 600 podcasts. It’s thanks to those podcasts that I know who a lot of the movers and shakers in the paleo world are and it’s thanks to his twitter notes that I was able to recall stuff for this post.

That’s it for Day 1 and my fingers are too tired to tell you anymore. I’ll be back with more tomorrow…the Sustainable Feast dinner where I fell in love with a goat, eating dinner with Michelle of NomNomPaleo and her husband Henry of Fitbomb, meeting and chatting one on one with Robb Wolf, and I might even find time to talk about Day 2 presentations.


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