Reflections on the Ancestral Health Symposium 2011

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It was a great honor and privilege to be invited to speak at the first annual Ancestral Health Symposium at UCLA this weekend, and it was a wonderful experience to meet so many new friends, re-meet so many old ones I am rarely able to see because of geographical distance, and finally meet in person people I've long considered good friends despite theretofore never having formally initiated the friendship with a physical hug or handshake.

I also feel an enormous debt of gratitude to Aaron Blaisdell, Brent Pottenger, and everyone else involved in putting on the conference for their hard work, appreciation of everyone's talents, and support.

The conference was a true success, and here are a few highlights.

A Dynamic View of Ancestry I am, first of all, thrilled with the choice of Ancestral Health for the title of the symposium and of the society it launched.  I like this better than paleo for two basic reasons.  First, reverence for ancestors is a popular theme throughout the cultures of the world and is thus clearly intuitive to humans, whereas the Paleolithic period is a modern scientific term with more limited appeal.  Second, paleo in the sense of the Paleolithic period implies something static about our past, as if we need to look to one specific period of time to understand ourselves rather than to focus on our continuous history and our emerging future.  Ancestral, by contrast, allows us to put as much of an importance on our grandparents as on our (great)345-grandparents, and to trace the emergence of genomic, microbiomic, cultural, and technological evolution that has occurred continuously through our history.

I like ancestral better than evolutionary for similar reasons.  The latter is broader and less technical than the term Paleolithic, but it doesn't have the same solid roots and broad intuitive appeal as ancestral across the time and space of human existence.

The term ancestral is, ultimately, very inclusive, and allows for people who put a greater emphasis on the agricultural transition and for people who put a greater emphasis on the industrial transition to work together.

An ancestral health paradigm, the way I see it, can be distinguished from the normative view in modern science simply by stipulating that looking to the diets and health of our ancestors can somehow offer us a framework for deciding how to act in the face of scientific uncertainty, as well as a tool among many for generating scientific hypotheses.

Melissa McEwen's talk emphasized a dynamic view of evolution, showing a great number of ways that genomic, microbiomic, cultural and technical factors have all continued to evolve over time.  Her talk brought home the point that humans are not living fossils of the primate lineage but are rather a very unique species, and that there is a great deal of variation among humans in the present, reflecting the many types of evolution that have occurred through our history and continue to occur as we enter from our present into our future.  She got a good laugh from the audience when she facetiously suggested we follow some static “Cambrian” diet of 52 million years ago, a much more ancient diet than a “Paleolithic” one.  This, of course, wasn't an attack on the paleo principle, but a tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging that humans never stopped evolving after the Paleolithic.


Framing the Picture
Dr. Boyd Eaton launched the symposium by presenting a general overview of why we should consider our evolutionary past when thinking about our approach not only to our health, but to the moral, ethical, political, and economic questions of our present.  I enjoyed Dr. Eaton's talk, though the focus on evolutionary psychology did strike me as incorporating a lot of what Stephen Jay Gould would have called “just-so stories.”  Many of these seemed plausible, but some — like the peacefulness, strict egalitarianism, and lack of in-group/out-group behavior of our ancient ancestors —  seemed less so.  It was a nice change of tone, however, to see him using these approaches to justify respecting the environment and caring about each other rather than supporting more base animal instincts like men spreading their seed far and wide and women gold-digging in their search for security.
Different Views on Violence
Tucker Max presented a very different view about the development of peacefulness, suggesting that violence has greatly declined as civilization has progressed.  I agree with him, and not just because he could put me in an awful lot of pain if I didn't.  Tucker's presentation focused on mixed martial arts (MMA), and he argued that getting in touch with the violent part of our nature can help reduce violence.  He gave as an example the fact that police with training in martial arts are much less likely to engage in brutality, because they do not panic when they face a violent situation.  Tucker argued that this sense of security leads to increased emotional stability in general.During Q&A, I asked him if he believed that MMA also helps people learn to use cognitive force to control their thoughts, and whether this contributes to emotional and psychological stability itself.  He noted that it took him getting punched in the face to find Zen, but agreed that these systems do teach many important approaches to becoming mentally centered besides preparedness for physical violence.

Politics, Primates, Hunting, and Fruit

One of the most interesting presentations I saw was by Dr. Craig Stanford, who talked about gorilla and chimpanzee diets.  Gorillas don't eat just leaves, I learned, but eat fruit whenever it's available.  They never hunt, and wouldn't even kill an animal if you half-killed it first and put it right in front of them.  They have very little tolerance for animal foods and zoos have been killing them slowly by feeding them these foods.  Chimpanzees differ from gorillas both in their hunting and fruit-eating behavior.  When fruit goes out of season, chimpanzees migrate until they find more fruit.  As a result they eat it year-round.  Most of them also do enough hunting for each chimp to be eating some 50-100 grams of meat per day.

What I really found fascinating, though, was the emphasis Dr. Stanford placed on culture, politics, and personality among chimps.  One group of chimps does hardly any hunting at all, and we don't know why.  In another group, there is one particular chimp who riles the others up for a hunt by virtue of his strong personality.  Stanford provided evidence that chimpanzees have created new cultural ways of harvesting particular foods that humans have newly introduced into an area, and one almost wonders whether there may have been some particular chimp in the past who “invented” hunting.  After a hunt, chimps use meat not only as food, but as a status symbol, and as a commodity, even trading it for sex.

Speaking of frugivores, I was quite interested to see a comparison between humans and various apes that Melissa showed in her talk.  Leaf-eating apes had very large guts, but fruit-eating apes had smaller ones, much closer to those of humans.  In showing this, she made the point that humans are adapted to foods with higher caloric density than leaves, such as cooked food, starch, and fat.  It is interesting to also note the association between smaller guts and fruit-eating in other apes, and to note that one way humans have increased the caloric density of their diet is to select fruits rich in sugar and low in toxins and aversive tastes.  This increase in caloric density is exactly what we need to fuel our large brains, and humans have been eating calorie-rich natural foods such as meat, starch, fat, and fruit for eons before the modern epidemic of obesity.

We're a Bunch of Bad Debaters

The funniest talk I saw was Denise Minger's.  I think the last time I laughed that much at a health-related talk was at David Brownstein's talk on overcoming thyroid disorders at the 2008 Wise Traditions.  She drew our attention to the paucity of information available on the web for combating vegetarian arguments relative to sources devoted to the opposite purpose, and offered ways to move beyond calling someone a hippie and telling them to shut up and eat meat, drawing attention of course to some of the few good existing web resources.  Robb Wolf pointed out during the questions and comments section that there is an enormous number of people who are looking for help, including the 38,000 people who have sent him emails he hasn't gotten to yet, and that it's a waste of time to argue with committed vegetarians.  I fully agree with this and I think most of us do — of course we often need solid intellectual arguments like the kind in this talk to help the many people on the fence, who aren't sure what to believe.

Zoos, Obesity, Carbs, Fat, and Other Highlights

I got to see Dr. Cordain present his basic view of the paleo principle, and many of us were delighted to hear him say that he doesn't think saturated fat is a problem in the context of a non-inflammatory diet.  Dr. Staffan Lindeberg gave a great presentation on his data from the Kitava Study and paleo trials, but it was especially great to meet him and talk to him in person when a circle of us were discussing Kitava in the hallway and he came up and joined our group.

I got to see Stephan Guyenet present his latest views on obesity, and to handle a little disagreement in the comments rather masterfully. I got to meet the wonderful person behind the mysterious alias “Dr. BG” and to see she and Tim Gerstmar give an interesting talk on treating dysbiosis. Dr. Seth Roberts presented some interesting self-experimentation data supporting the use of flax oil, pork fat, and butter for brain function, while Richard Nikoley presented a more general justification for self-experimentation and shared some of his results as well.

John Durant presented a history of zoos and showed how the concerns over animal health at zoos have paralleled the concerns over the health of contemporary humans, and how these institutions have emerged from promoting relatively oppressive and destructive forms of captivity to becoming places where an animal's natural habitat can be recapitulated. He made a solid case that looking back to the “wild” for any species is a useful starting point in trying to understand how to make that species healthy.

Mat LaLonde gave a talk about the importance of scientific credibility, and showed why a lot of paleo arguments don't really hold water with many scientists. He made a really important point that observations about ancestral health should be used as grounds for generating hypotheses, not confirming them. I would only add that they should also be used as a framework for informing our actions in the face of scientific uncertainty, because there is a lot more uncertainty than certainty in the field of science and we all have to make decisions on a daily basis.

I got to meet Don Matesz, and he's a great, polite, and respectful guy.  I didn't agree with everything in his talk but I thought it was, on the whole, quite balanced, and his conclusion was non-dogmatic and very much in favor of listening to your body, which I think is very fair.

There were a lot of talks by some fantastic people that I wasn't able to see, and I look forward to watching the videos once they are online.

Ultimately, the symposium was inspiring and a definitive blast, but left me with a tinge of sadness, wishing I had more time to get to know the many great people I met, but also with a tinge of hope, looking forward to next time.

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  1. Really I am impressed from this post…Thanks for posting I really like this blog ! The person who created this post is a genius and knows how to keep the readers connected.

  2. In defense of Gary Taubes:
    refined carbs cause the problem
    but you cannot cure a problem caused by refined carbs just by adding unrefined carbs to the mix
    you have to get clear of that whole high-carb situation and catch your breath
    Then, and only then, can you go back into the carb fields and see what agrees with you.
    This is the path that many low-carbers have followed. Kurt Harris describes it well.
    It doesn't mean that the original zero-carb decision was wrong; far from it.
    Just that time heals most things if you give them a rest.

  3. Anonymous said:
    The idea that an entire class of macronutrients is the one and only cause of the diseases of civilization does not seem to fit well with direction Ancestral Health is going, and the people leading the movement need to really think hard about what benefit is derived from humoring people that rely upon quotes from the gospel of Atkins.
    August 10, 2011 6:02 AM

    That particular anonymous accused someone else of sounding like religious zealotry, but talk like "the people leading the movement…" sounds like something even worse. "The movement"?


    I notice that people like Stephan, Chris, and others were put into the "science guys" category, and Gary Taubes into (presumably) the "non-science guys".

    That's very unfair, since Gary Taubes is nothing if not a "science guy". Have you actually read GC, BC? The whole book is an exposé of how the science went astray, or was mis-used, or ingored. GT may (or may not) have some important details wrong, but you have to give him credit for a tour-de-force in laying out the historical progression of the history of attempts at weight-loss, but also including a vast amount of the history into cardiac health, and much else.

    In particular, he explains exactly where and why Dr Robert Atkins fits into this picture.

    It's not about "the bible according to Taubes", or "the bible according to Atkins".

    Both of those individuals were (and still are, in the case of Taubes) seekers after truth, knowledge and wisdom. Atkins was primarily a cardiologist, not a diet-doctor. The dieting aspect was actually a bonus.

    I don't care whether you call it "Ancestral Health", "Paleo", "Low Carb", or whatever you like. These are all very imprecise names for what I hope most of us interested in this area are seeking: an ideal nutritional approach to good health, and long, fulfilling and disease-free lives for all.

  4. Hi Chris. When you said that you laughed at Dr. Brownstein's presentation, did you mean that he is a funny presenter or that his ideas are laughable?

  5. Hi Andy,

    I'm not sure I understand your question. Dr. Stanford did not dispute this. Goodall and Stanford are in agreement that chimpanzees are omnivores. Stanford did some work with Goodall and he discusses her work, but he said that Goodall, if I remember right, is a vegan and found chimpanzee hunting behavior disgusting, and this allowed him to fill a niche and study it more closely than she was willing to.

    Comments on fructose forthcoming.



  6. Chimpanzees are omnivores according to Jane Goodall. Who could know them better? Insects and meat are on their diet, using hunting tools. How could she be wrong on this?

    How about a focus on the demonization of fructose now underway. (e.g. Dr. Lustig).

    You do great work!

  7. Hi Dan,

    "A" and "the" are two different English articles with very different implications for a phrase or sentence. The use of the phrase "a dominant factor" implies that the factor being discussed is not the only dominant factor. He has said repeatedly that he believes there are other important factors. I don't know if he's ever stated whether he believes if it is "the most important factor."

    It seems to me you are citing proof-texts from Stephan as if to engage in some type of Scripture battle. I would suggest trying to get the gist of what Stephan is saying from his writings as a whole instead of trying to analyze the minutia of particular sentences and phrases. If you want Stephan's opinion about whether eating a low-carbohydrate diet using the most natural foods at a restaurant will cause obesity, I would suggest asking him in the comments on his blog. I feel quite confident he would say that this would not necessarily make one fat, and I think if you cited proof-texts from his writings that he does, in fact, believe this would make people fat, he would be scratching his head in confusion.

    JA, Jack, and The Wonderer, thank you for your comments. The Wonderer, maybe AHS 2012! And don't forget Wise Traditions this November!


  8. Thanks for the write-up, Chris. I wish the symposium had been better publicized ahead of time; I would have loved to go (not that I had the money!). I've been listening to podcast references to it and very jealous of those who got to go.
    The comments here are pretty interesting, a little too much dogmatism here and there. It seems to me that the low-carb/Atkins folks, the paleo/primal folks, the WAPF/real food folks all fall under the Ancestral Health umbrella, all have some of the truth, all have something to contribute. I listen to/read from among all these and find useful information from many sources. Atkins isn't the endpoint, but he is a good starting point for many and made a huge contribution. Since he's dead, he's not able to update his research, so give the man a break. Likewise Taubes has made huge contributions. I haven't yet finished GCBC nor started WWGF, but I am pretty familiar with his work and listen to him speak every chance I get. I think he's much more measured and careful about drawing conclusions than he's been (mis-)represented by some here. Guyenet, Matezs, et al also make their contributions. Folks, it's not necessary to pick sides or adopt a position, just keep gathering info and take what works for you.

  9. Dan,

    Im baffled by the level of ignorance you bring to this discussion, and then you start putting words into peoples mouths…. "But he is clearly implicating all "commercially processed" foods".

    Come on, really!

    Can you show some level of understanding.

    How about you eat out at restaurants (= processed foods with many food additives) everyday like most people do and then we will see what kind of health you have later on……There is plenty of science on these different food additives and neolithic agents of disease. We know what many of them do to the body. If you need any links to learn about these food additives just let me know.

    I think you need to reread all of Stephans "food reward" posts. I dont think your quite understanding it. It does not apply to everyone, but it can be very helpful to many.

    I would recommend going the route outlined in the link below, instead of wasting Chris' time.

  10. BTW… I believe the term for the mans irrational behavior whilst under the 'influence' of the diabetics, would be called 'Binging', where all cares of self destruction are washed away by some bizarre common sense that intrudes upon him.

    This why one should never get food from a food bank by the way.

    There are other scenarios that could also be done with this experiment. Have the man savor the chocolate bars and concentrate on the flavor and aromas with a different group of blind people. Substitute blind men for blind women, Farmers from the bible belt, Wall street executives, people fasting for a month, Marijuana smokers who claim that they never get the munchies they just 'think' of a food to eat and they can taste it, or pregnant women… etc. etc.

  11. …and then there was Dr. Tarnower.

    Here's an experiment those who are interested in food reward concepts might want to try. Take a poor person, and put him in a room full of chocolate bars, a cot, and a one way mirror.

    In the viewing room, fill the room with twin beds and healthy blind people fed a regular diet for a month and see how many chocolate bars the man eats.

    Then substitute the blind people for diabetics who are not blind and see if the mans desire to eat chocolate bars increases exponentially, especially when the diabetics go to sleep.

  12. Chris,

    I am distinguishing between calling it a major factor and calling it a dominant factor. Is it perhaps the dominant factor for some individuals? Absolutely. Is it the dominant factor for society? It's hard to tell. I'm not sure what distinction you are making between "a" and "the" with respect to the word "dominant." Are you merely distinguishing between dominance for some and dominance for all? Perhaps I misinterpreted Stephan, but I am of the interpretation that he thinks it is the most important factor in society. I think misinformation is the most important factor in society.

    That above quote was directly from his blog post:

    "If you think you will be able to find a way to lose fat and remain in long-term health while eating mostly commercially processed food (including restaurant food), you are fooling yourself."

    If all he means by "commercially processed" is Frankenfoods and stuff with lots of sugar and white flour, he could say so. But he is clearly implicating all "commercially processed" foods, whatever that precisely means. And restaurants.

    But jumping into blaming our "affluent" society for the obesity epidemic and restaurants is exactly the sort of thing that I think gets into sketchy sociology and not hard science.

    If we want to get into the sociology of it, that's fine, but if sitting down in a restaurant is "excessively rewarding" and causes my brain to raise my body mass setpoint, I would like to see some support for that. If that's not what Stephan is suggesting, then I would like him to avoid mixing his sociological theories with his study of hard science and not have people pretend they are one and the same and expect people to lend them equal credibility. Having a clear definition of "excessive reward" would serve this purpose immensely, but now it is rather malleable and can be used to support his hypothesis no matter what people are eating, because "reward" is all about the reinforcement of consumption, so, well, if you ate too much, something must have reinforced that behavior – Food Reward!

  13. Hi Anonymous,

    Pointing it out isn't, but declaring it as fact when in many cases it is false is. Some people benefit from carbohydrate restriction and others harm their health from it. It does a great service to the lay public to point out that they might improve their health from reducing the amount of carbohydrate, but it does the lay public a great disservice to suggest that this is always the case.


  14. Chris, so pointing out that limiting carbs leads to better health is "dogmatic nonsense"? What branch of the USDA are you shilling for? Hoping others that stumble across your blog see it for what it is. Cheers.

  15. Dan,

    Stephan has not reduced the food reward hypothesis to bland vs. tasty. The absence of certain flavors is a reward factor. "Rewarding" does not mean "pleasurable" or "yummy" and he has written a whole (short) post devoted to the distinction. In his hierarchy of steps to take to lose weight, those he expects most people to follow have almost nothing to do with blandness. For example the first level is to eliminate processed comfort foods. The next is to cook your food at home. Perhaps you should comment on Stephan's blog and ask him if he really believes you will get fat if you go to restaurants and eat nothing but steak. I doubt it. He's been rather clear that eating a low-carbohydrate diet or a low-fat diet tends to produce weight loss. Stephan said food reward was *a* dominant factor, and now you're putting words in his mouth by calling it *the* dominant factor.


  16. Chris, I agree that it is an important factor, but I don't think it is dominant, unless you abstract "reward" to a point of making it sociological rather than only biological.

    But, ha, mix sugar and wheat and make cake with it and people will probably find that pretty rewarding and fatten themselves on it. I simply think that making wheat taste good is more dangerous than making steak taste good.

    I admit it's probably pretty hard to get fat on food that you don't enjoy, and if you can stay on a bland diet (difficult for most), then you will probably lose weight. But I think telling people that they need to eat bland foods to lower their bodymass set point when there are plenty of delicious foods that they can eat is misguided.

    I don't have a problem with Food Reward as a factor, but flavor is the lowest on the totem pole of rewarding qualities that encourage overeating, so I don't think it's necessary to try to keep your simple foods bland (. I think textures are more important. I think adding flavor to your potatoes isn't going to make you prone to overeating them, but whipping them probably will make it easier to overeat them.

    I don't even know if it's possible to accidentally overeat steak, no matter how rewarding I find it. It's even harder to overeat pepperoni, that evil processed meat. So, while I agree that we need to avoid easily digestible, refined foods, I want satiating, delicious foods, and I find no reason to avoid maximum flavor. Stephan thinks corporations process foods to addict us to them. Corporations process foods to make them shelf stable. And then they propagandize us to make us think they are as healthy for us or healthier for us than real foods, which are MORE REWARDING. We don't drink skim milk instead of raw whole milk because it's more rewarding, we won't eat Cool Whip instead of real whipped cream because it's more rewarding, we don't use vegetable oil and margarine instead of real butter because it's more rewarding. We don't eat cereal instead of bacon and eggs because it's more rewarding.

    Speaking of propaganda methods, look at the language of his final blog post about Food Reward: "

    First: "excessive food reward increases calorie intake and can lead to obesity"
    Then: "Currently there is a growing consensus that food reward/palatability is a major contributor to obesity."
    Lastly: "If you can read all these papers and still not believe in the food reward hypothesis… you deserve some kind of award."

    So, first if it's "excessive" it CAN lead to obesity, then there's a growing consensus that it's a MAJOR contributing factor, and finally, you are a stubborn fool if you disagree with him that it is the DOMINANT contributing factor (the title of the post).

    So, let's not pretend that Stephan is just a science guy. He has an agenda, and he's not afraid to make a leap beyond the evidence to make a strong, yet ill-defined, hypothesis, which is the same thing that Taubes is accused of doing.

    The moment you start attacking a whole ill-defined class of foods, rather than defending the health value of staple foods, you run the risk of betraying your objectivity as a scientist. So, in the future, I would recommend that Stephan avoid saying things like this:

    "If you think you will be able to find a way to lose fat and remain in long-term health while eating mostly commercially processed food (including restaurant food), you are fooling yourself."

    So the steak I get in a restaurant is inherently more fattening than the steak I make at home. And hell, even the fries wouldn't be bad if they weren't fried in vegetable oil.

  17. Fat and protein are necessary, carbs are not. We can get mired in the minutia of EFA's, etc, but the takeaway for laypeople is that avoidance of carbs = health. Is that fact irrelevant? To millions of people suffering from glucose related issues probably not.

  18. Anonymous,

    I think you are making a theoretical, academic point that is technically correct but mostly irrelevant. The requirement for essential fatty acids in a healthy adult who is not pregnant, lactating, or bodybuilding is so low that if most people tried to eat a fat-free diet they would not be able to become deficient. The requirement for saturated and monounsaturated fats is quite high, but they can be fulfilled by carbohydrate or protein. The requirement for carbohydrate is quite high, but it can be fulfilled by protein. It would, on the whole, be much easier to run a physiological deficiency of glucose by eating a high-fat, low-protein, low-carbohydrate diet than it would be to run a physiological deficiency of fat by eating a low-fat diet. None of that makes it a good idea to eat a low-fat diet or low-carbohydrate diet.

    Dan, I agree Stephan has argued that food reward is a dominant factor among other factors. You have a lot of 'ifs' that haven't been substantiated. If you can show that people eating a diet of plain wheat flour and sugar get fat, I agree that would be difficult to reconcile to Stephan's hypothesis but I suspect that experiment would fail. The list of possible reward factors in the diet is quite long but the general hypothesis can still be distilled into a few basic principles and tested experimentally. This support is clearly there. As a comprehensive explanation it is obviously lacking but I think the evidence substantiating it as a likely important factor is there.


  19. Stephan literally did a series arguing Food Reward as a "Dominant" factor in obesity, so I don't think it can be claimed otherwise.

    If wheat and sugar are the primary culprits in obesity, then Stephan's focus on "commercially processed" foods is misguided. Wheat and sugar aren't specially formulated to have addicting properties. If removing the bran from wheat is an evil commercial process, I don't see why Stephan would defend white rice.

    While he can claim "reward" isn't about taste, he'll not hesitate to say that something he assumes is bland (by comparing it to powdered milk despite it getting 30% of its calories from fat) must lack reward-value. And the list of "rewards" is incredibly long. His Food Reward hypothesis needs to be accurately defined before he can really push it as scientifically testable for populations. Otherwise it's just intuition and a few specific studies.

    Are carbs evil? No. Maybe some people do need to watch the carbs in green vegetables. I certainly doubt it. Taubes is good, but he's turning into an anti-carb zealot.

    But let's not lose site of the fact that the anti-fat zealots have the ear of the USDA, and let's not accuse Gary Taubes of overzealousness in demonizing carbs and then turn around and turn demonization of processed foods into a 3rd religion. I'm glad if Stephan convinces more people that potatoes and rice are fine, but scaring people away from "processed" foods. I'll keep my cheese, butter, bacon, sausage, etc. It's not the "process" I'm worried about; it's the ingredients.

  20. I am not advocating any "diet" but merely reiterating the fact that carbs are not a necessary nutrient. Those that try and say otherwise are wrong. Period. On that same note, carbs do make one's diet more varied and pleasurable but again, that doesn't equate to health.

    As to the point about living without any "substantial intake of dietary fat", you can live ENTIRELY without carbs but the same cannot be said of fat. One need only google the buildup of ammonia in the body after consuming protein devoid of fat to see it's inherent value.

  21. Dr. Feinman,

    I agree the conference was very positive. Thank you for commenting.


    I agree with you in principle that if we have our fair share of carb-bashers we should have our equal and opposite fair share of fat-bashers.

    I think, however, that the reason that Gary Taubes and other low-carbers were invited is because the paleo movement has associated itself rather spontaneously with some of these figures. Many people who reject Taubes' explanation of carbohydrate as the cause of obesity and perhaps most other degenerative diseases — Kurt Harris for example — nevertheless were first introduced to the work of Price and others showing the nutritional transition from primitive to modern life to result in disease through reading Good Calories Bad Calories. Ancestral Health just isn't Campbell's schtick. McDougall, perhaps, but not Campbell.

    I do think we're seeing right now, as evidence in the comments below yours, and of course over at Whole Health Source, the rigorous fleshing out carbohydrate-bashing as we speak.

    To the others commenting on the Taubes-Guyenet debate,

    I really appreciate your comments. I think everyone's being quite civil but please try to keep it that way as I think some of us are a little on edge. 🙂

    I do think Taubes targets carbohydrates per se, and just emphasizes that refined carbohydrates are worse. To the degree he focuses on refined carbohydrates, he has no difference with Guyenet dietarily. But this debate is about mechanism — the fact that refined carbohydrates have negative effects does not in and of itself show these are due to insulin spikes. And mechanism is important because it helps us generalize from one thing to another and understand what else is likely to be important.

    Regarding the comment about carbohydrates not being "vital," you can also live without any substantial intake of dietary fat. Neither of those facts provides any information on the best way to prevent or treat obesity, or what type of diet promotes maximal disease-free longevity.


  22. Carol –

    Actually, Atkins can be high in Omega-6’s because the program says specifically that “all fats except trans-fats are healthy fats.” The program encourages all fats except trans-fats.

    I think the issue with Atkins is not whether it is a good weight loss program or not; it is whether some diet book huckster should be considered a part of the scientific foundation of “Ancestral Health”.

    In fact, the diet programs of Ornish, Campbell, etc… are all just as similar to Ancestral Health as low-carb is.

    The question is either do we follow low-carb diet book authors like Atkins, Taubes, Eades, etc… in defining what Ancestral Health is all about, or do we follow the science guys like Guyenet, Harris, Masterjohn, Jaminet, etc…?

    My bias is towards the “science guys”, not the pseudoscience guys that really don’t have much interest in Ancestral Health unless it confirms their low-carb agenda.

    I will still read the science guys no matter what Ancestral Health decides to do, but if too much weight is given to the pseudoscience guys then Ancestral Health will never amount to much in affecting public attitudes and public policy. The Atkins Diet has been around for 40 years and has obviously cured the obesity problem and the diseases of civilization.

    “Carbs are not vital” guy –

    Are you saying “yea” that inane pseudoscience should be part of Ancestral Health, or are you saying “fuck you” to scientific “quibbling”? Or both?

    It is a concern among some in Ancestral Health that a significant portion of the inane pseudoscience low-carb advocacy is not much different than inane pseudoscience vegan advocacy.

  23. correction… "on-going weight loss phase has you establish what level of carbs you can eat while still losing weight" not "without gaining weight"

  24. For the Atkins bashing anonymous:

    First of all, dude or dudette… chill! Your hatred of all things Atkins is not good for your health!

    Second of all, Atkins did not outlaw an "entire class of macronutrients" (aka carbs).

    This statement, which you repeated twice, reveals your ignorance re Dr. Atkins and actually makes Dana's point that all the paleo Atkins bashers don't really know what the guy said.

    I have been re-reading the 92 Atkins New Diet Revolution… and am amazed at how much the guy knew and understood… (he was pointing out that L-carnitine and vanadium (among others) were important for optimal metabolism…) and people are saying today as if for the first time.

    But back to your complete misrepresentation… the 2-week long induction phase of Atkins has people limit carbohydrate consumption to 20 gm per day to switch their metabolisms from burning quick energy of carbs to fat-burning… you can eat veggies and salads… After that, the on-going weight loss phase has you establish what level of carbs you can eat without gaining weight… I think he recommends a 50 gm per day limit… can't really remember. Once you reach your goal weight, you add 5 gms of carbs per day til you begin gaining weight and then you drop back.

    He in no way shape or form excludes "an entire class of macronutrients." At one point in the 92 book he says an OWL meal is basically "a serving of protein with a large salad"… with all kinds of fresh veggies in the salad.

    Doesn't this sound very much like Mark Sisson's Big Ass Salad?

    The amount of anger in your post is almost comical to me… especially since you obviously have no knowledge of the Atkins diet… something I encounter all the time. The basic Atkins diet is almost identical to the paleo/primal diet. Some say the diet is high in Omega 6s because the Atkins bars and other Atkins brand foods are high in Omega 6s… but that is also ludicrous, cus Atkins bars or shakes are not part of the Atkins diet… they are just extras one can buy… but are not in the three phases of Atkins dieting at all.

  25. I really saw more good spirit and cooperation at the meeting than discord, including even my interaction with Lustig. The enthusiasm of the audience bodes well for the future (insofar as one can be optimistic at all) and I second what a good summary this is of the meeting.

  26. Carbohydrates are not a vital macronutrient group. You can comically quibble over which subset is healthier than another but there is no biological necessity for them. The body can survive indefinitely on fat and protein alone. That fact in itself trumps all of the other BS arguments. The body is a wonderful mechanism. Unfortunately it is capped off by men with claptrap brains that cannot see it's beautiful simplicity. Sure we as humans crave the glucose rush that comes with a carb fix but does that mean it's a necessary evil? Thankfully, those of us that aren't swayed by the current dogma can say no.

  27. Stephen, in one interview this year Taubes said that cheese and nuts are fattening because of the their carbs/insulinogenic properties. In another interview he said that for some people the carbs in green leafy vegetables are too much. These are not “fast carbs”. White rice is a “fast carb,” but many healthy cultures made it a staple.

    Very few scientists believe his “mountain of evidence” and very few scientific paleo/ancestral bloggers believe this “mountain of evidence.” The idea that starch causes metabolic derangement is not science. It is T. Colin Campbell all over again – a guy has a book with a lot of footnotes, so he must be right.

  28. And on it goes.

    Gary Taubes has always been very careful in saying that refined carbohydrates and added sugar are the problem. A diet high in these foods most often leads to metabolic disorders because of the repeated high doses of insulin needed to take care of the problem. However, If one eats unrefined carbs metabolic problems don't manifest.

    It's all right there in his books. The fast-carb>insulin>fat hypothesis is on firm ground. But he also says that people are not machines and that some people are tolerate carbs much better than others.

    He believes in what he writes because an overwhelming mountain of evidence points in that direction, with some exceptions accepted because of human variability.

    Are there other reasons for obesity? Sure. There are multiple reasons because we are complex biological animals, not machines.

  29. Dana – you sound almost like a religious zealot – “let me whip out my holy book and show you where you are wrong.” Maybe you should open your mind some and read some other books instead of being proud that you memorized all of Atkins’ books. Whipping out Atkins to argue the science behind Ancestral Health is almost laughable, and Ancestral Health will have a difficult time with scientific credibility as long as the low-carb fanatics are in the mix. We might as well include vegan fanatics too.

    It has nothing to do with “orthodoxy”; it is simply that condemning an entire class of macronutrient is not very enlightened or progressive, especially from an Ancestral Health / Paleo 2.0 standpoint. What the movement really, really, really, really, doesn’t need are people quoting the gospel of Atkins.

    Why do you give a damn about Ancestral Health anyways? You already have your holy books and your gospels.

    Chris – I have no problem with different views, but I am not sure so much weight should be given to the low-carbers. I think Campbell and Ornish have just as much or more in common with Ancestral Health as the low-carbers do.

    The low-carbers’ interest in “Ancestral Health” seems limited to how much it supports the claims of their prophets, sort of like Creationists only have interest in the “science” they can use to argue their position.

    The idea that an entire class of macronutrients is the one and only cause of the diseases of civilization does not seem to fit well with direction Ancestral Health is going, and the people leading the movement need to really think hard about what benefit is derived from humoring people that rely upon quotes from the gospel of Atkins.

  30. I support Ed's comments. Stephan has not said that we get fat because food tastes good, or because it is tasty. I believe he even wrote a specific post devoted to explaining how "reward" was a psychological term that did not mean the same as "pleasurable." He's never invoked this as a dominant factor in heart disease or in all degenerative disease. Certainly obesity affects those other things but this theory is about *one* of the causes of obesity.


  31. Dana,

    "And Stephan Guyenet says people get fat because food tastes good. "

    Not quite. Similar but not the same concepts. I think on issue here is we lack a culturally understandable definition of high-reward food. Think about the conceptual difference between mcdonalds French fries and the fries you try to make at home from scratch. Mcdonalds fries are much tastier. That's because they are engineered to get you coming back for more. And the effect is that at a neuro-hormonal level, your hunger increases and your metabolism drops.

    Stephan has mentioned that his diet would be considered very bland by most — he finds plain sweet potato to be almost too sweet — but he is accustomed to it and finds it plenty tasty.

    "and his little hypothesis doesn't explain the skinny, heart-disease-ridden people of India, who last I checked were *not* eating bland food"

    Well, a couple of things. It's not just his hypothesis, it's been under research since before he ever heard of it. Secondly, it so happens I think that Stephan has outlined a number of causes of heart disease on his blog in the past, which include stress, micronutrient deficiency, excess omega-6 oils, etc. Obesity is associated with heart disease, true, but he has never asserted that high reward food is a direct cause. And finally, spicy is not the same as high reward. Also, Stephan has mentioned that restaurant and other commercially prepared food are awful tough to beat in terms of reward vs cooking at home. The hypothesis is that you can have two diets with equal macronutient ratios, but add, say, MSG to one of them, and that persons hunger will go up and/or metabolism drop in order to pack on a few more pounds. Even good home cooking — more likely in India — is tough to cause the high level of weight gain across society like we see in America.

    I hope this has added to the conversation.

  32. Chris, thanks, that's just what I wanted.

    Taubes says something interesting in his 2002 NYT article.

    'Which comes first — the obesity, the elevated insulin, known as hyperinsulinemia, or the insulin resistance — is a chicken-and-egg problem that hasn't been resolved. One endocrinologist described this to me as ''the Nobel-prize winning question.'''

    Taubes' basic problem is that he doesn't know enough about vitamins and minerals. Not his fault, of course. The literature is vast and horribly confusing. But the endocrinologist he refers to doesn't know enough either, or he'd say 'none of them comes first, they're all due to micronutrient deficiencies'.

    I think if Stephan could find the link between food reward and micronutrient deficiency, he'd get a Nobel Prize.

  33. Responses to Debbie, Aaron, Nico, Pete B, Meredith, Aravind, Nick, and comments to Jane and the anonymouses asking about the Guyenet-Taubes exchange.

    Hi Debbie, Great meeting you too! Thanks!

    Aaron, Thank you for your comments, very agreed on all. Thank you also for the support, invitations, and suggestions for professional projects. I look forward to staying in touch. To our ancestors!

    Anonymous, I like it when different views are presented, even if some are wrong.

    Nico, exactly!

    Pete B, you're welcome and thank you. Here's to next time!

    Meredith, welcome, and thanks!

    Aravind, you're welcome. Thank you for your interest and appreciation, and for the good conversations. I definitely enjoyed meeting you.

    Nick, I'm a little confused by your analysis. I did not mean to label Don's approach as something different because of his conclusions. I agree that listening to your body and experimenting on yourself are concepts with a lot in common. I used that term in a positive light, not to diminish Don's approach. Seth and Richard just presented their own results. Don's talk was much more intellectually ambitious, laying down many concepts and principles, so there was more to disagree with, but there was plenty I agreed with too.

    To Jane and the anonymouses asking about the exchange between Gary Taubes and Stephan Guyenet, in addition to the link someone posted to Stephan's account, here's what I remember:

    Taubes mentioned some scenarios — not sure if this was the Pima — where you had fat mothers and starving children, and he said it clearly wasn't because they were witholding very rewarding chocolate bars from their children. He brought up the Pima as an example where reward factors did not increase, and Stephan pointed out that they did in fact increase even though the reward factors were not concentrated compared to our present diet. He said that it was worth noting that a substantial portion of the unrewarding liquid diet he cited in his talk was sugar. Taubes asked how it could then not be called rewarding. Stephan said because of the blandness, lack of flavor and texture, and noted that unrewarding doesn't mean containing NO reward factors because their combinations are often important. Taubes brough up other cases in Mexico where he said the reward factors didn't increase, and Stephan said he'd have to analyze the change in detail and he wasn't familiar with those cases, but that on the whole in obesity transitions there were sometimes increases in carbs and sometimes decreases in carbs. Taubes said there were two hypotheses, and Stephan should familiarize himself with the data that do not support his own hypothesis rather than looking only at the data that do, which he said is generally a good thing to do in science. Stephan thanked him for the advice. That's what I remember.


  34. Don't make me break out the Taubes book and refute a bunch of nonsense, people. Really don't. Because I do own it.

    We could go back and forth all day about whether carbs *cause* obesity but they certainly do *contribute* to it once the proper underlying conditions are in play. Some people think that if they just yell loudly enough that Taubes is full of it, the rest of us will stop believing him. They tried the same thing with Atkins. And hey, I will concede that neither man can possibly be correct in everything they say. But if this pans out the way the thing with Atkins did, well, Atkins's detractors largely DID NOT READ WHAT HE HAD TO SAY. And I should know, because I own three editions of his diet book. And have read them.

    When you're willing to read, then fine, let's talk about it. If you aren't willing to read, then sorry, some of us are never going to cave in and jump over to your side of the argument because, frankly, we find this whole situation disgusting.

    And Stephan Guyenet says people get fat because food tastes good. Funny. The types of foods that make me fat don't taste as good as the foods that don't make me fat–and his little hypothesis doesn't explain the skinny, heart-disease-ridden people of India, who last I checked were *not* eating bland food, not even the ones on ancestral diets.

    I like Guyenet *and* Taubes, for different reasons, and I'm sorry there was friction. But I'm beyond fed up with this Puritan streak throughout the "ancestral health" movement, such that if you're enjoying yourself in your path toward better health, you cannot possibly be doing it right. That's just crazy.

  35. Hi Chris,

    I'm struck by the fact that Don Matesz is characterized as someone who talks about listening to his body and Richard and Seth are characterized as people who 'self experiment'. It seems that in Don's case, we don't like the conclusions, but in Seth's and Richard's we do, so we label them differently.

    I don't like what Don asserts either. But I do have a reaction to the self experimentation concept being somehow okay when it involves results and an 'ancestral' point of view. My vegetarian friends claim that they are much healthier and happier since they became vegetarians.

    Just a thought.

  36. Chris,

    I wanted to thank you for your incredible presentation and generosity with your time for Q&A afterwards. Also, the hallway discussion with you, Melissa, Stephan, Kamal (from PH), and Staffan Lindeberg was amazing and I felt honored to be a part of it. I really enjoyed our "n=1" discussion as part of that overall conversation, not to mention your presentation recap for Lindeberg. Awesome!

    Warm regards,

  37. Well, aren't YOU an interesting guy. I really enjoyed reading this. And I found you by clicking on a recipe for low carb onion rings on Facebook, and then seeing your site linked on the page of the person who thought up the onion ring recipe. I'm a Gary Taubes fan and have read a lot about Paleo in its various forms… I'll keep coming back here. You keep writing good content! 🙂

  38. I believe another popular contradiction to Taubes’ Pima argument is the claim that the Pimas still living in Mexico eating their high-carb ancestral diet are lean and healthy compared to the Pimas in the US eating a more modern diet. The example of the Pimas actually shows that “carbs” are not a decisive factor in the diseases of civilization, but apparently Taubes refuses to see any of this.

  39. Was Taubes trying to say the Pima Indians prove Stephan wrong? Because they were quite fat in the early 1900s?

    I wonder if Taubes realises something very significant happened around that time. In 1880, roller mills were introduced. Suddenly the old brown-speckled flour became white. The mineral-rich bran and germ could now be completely removed.

    According to Stephan, Americans were at their leanest in the late 1800s. So the epidemic of obesity started just after roller mills were introduced.

  40. Thank you, Chris, for your talk and for this summary. Well done, in both cases. I wish we'd had the chance to meet. Next time, hopefully!

  41. @J.McMahon Esq
    Why do you feel the need to get your cholesterol below 200? Lots of people with cholesterol under 200 suffer from heart disease (and many other diseases). What makes 200 such a magic number?

  42. I have been a vegetarian for nearly twenty years, Im a long distance swimmer and kayaker, I cycle to work and every where else I can my body fat is very low and Im ony 39 yet my cholesterol was still high. I tried everything to get below 200 and finally started taking a natural supplement called Cardiol and that did it, in a month I was in the safe zone.

  43. "they should also be used as a framework for informing our actions in the face of scientific uncertainty, because there is a lot more uncertainty than certainty in the field of science and we all have to make decisions on a daily basis."

    YES! Not nearly enough has been written on this point. This is where M.D.s and "skeptics" who argue that scientific evidence as found in mainstream research can be the only source of legitimate knowledge are wrong.

  44. Can someone fill me in here. (I'm just a curious fellow, not committed to anything in particular.) What was it that Taubes, et al. said that was so controversial? And what was the retort that many found so convincing? I ask because I read GCBC and found it pretty persuasive. If there is a reason why carbohydrates may not be so bad (other than Omega-6 being pretty bad too), I'd love to know!

  45. In regards to scientific credibility, I don’t think it helps Ancestral Health though to mix in people like Taubes, Eades, Naughton, etc… that are stuck on an entire class of macronutrient being the one and only agent of the diseases of civilization, especially when these people do not have the scientific background to provide worthwhile debate. From what people are saying, Taubes was a dick and kept harping on a stupid argument.

    If low-carb pseudoscience is going to be given a forum, then maybe T Colin Campbell et al should have been invited as well – vegan pseudoscience is as much or more “Ancestral” as low-carb pseudoscience.

  46. Thanks, Chris, for the detailed and contemplative write-up. I'm glad to hear you echo my own statements made in conversations with my colleagues about why "Ancestral" is such an appropriate term, especially when compared to the static-implying term "paleo". Paleo as a term harkens the term "EES" which means "Environment of Evolutionary Selection" used by evolutionary psychologists (e.g., Tooby and Cosmides") to mean the time frame during which human psychology was largely shaped. This time frame is surprisingly similar to the paleolithic (plio-pleistocene) era.

    I also agree with your addition to Mat Lalond's position, that we should use knowledge about our ancestors (behavior, health, culture, etc.) as a guide to follow in the face of uncertainty. Indeed, there is so much more that we don't know than that we know, so it is important to follow useful guiding principles to inform our actions and decisions. It all goes back to the ancient medical maxim "do no harm". I see a lot of harm being done by the established medical, pharmaceutical, and agricultural industries, and the governmental policies that are being formed and enforced in their favor. The ancestral heath movement is trying to as quickly as possible the scientific explanation for this harm and what the proper behaviors and choices should be, while at the same time giving us a "prescription" to follow based on our ancestors and traditional cultures in the meantime.

    Thanks again for your wonderful talk. Was very glad to meet you. I'll be in touch.

    To our ancestors!

    1. In another group, there is one particular chimp who riles the others up for a hunt by virtue of his strong personality. Stanford provided evidence that health advise chimpanzees have created new cultural ways of harvesting particular foods that humans have newly introduced into an area, and one almost wonders whether there may have been some particular chimp in the past who "invented" hunting.

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