This year I attended my first Ancestral Health Symposium, which focuses on the evolutionary mismatch between humans and our modern lifestyles. The Ancestral Health Symposium provided a wealth of interesting speakers and novel topics that you will not find covered in most mainstream health media. And I got such a kick out of meeting the celebrities of the ancestral health world whose books I’ve read and whose podcasts I have frequently listen to. Below is part one of my recap of the symposium.
Robb Wolf, It’s Not Your Fault: How You Are Wired to Eat
- Wolf discussed the mechanism of palate fatigue in humans, noting that this is an intrinsic means of controlling our food intake. Palate fatigue occurs when, after experiencing a certain amount of a particular flavor, we lose our appetites for that flavor and will stop eating it. It’s a sort of declining marginal utility theory of flavor. He argues that the high number of hyperpalatable foods today means our palates are never fatigued, enabling us to keep eating more than we should. According to him the constant novelty available today is driving high caloric intake.
- Wolf argues that moderation is not an effective diet strategy because then people will eat a little of everything and our palates will not fatigue. He notes that some people are abstainers, not moderators.
My Take: Blandness Drives Overeating, Not Novelty
On some level Wolf’s theory made a lot of sense to me, but part of it did not ring true with my experience of eating. Although hyperpalatable, foods today lack the flavors associated with key nutrients, and, as such, the palate is never satisfied. If all you eat is fast food, the only flavors you’ll experience are salty or sweet; you never experience the more complicated and nuanced flavors of whole foods. And even if you do eat a diet based in whole foods, your palate may still be limited because foods produced through conventional agriculture today have less flavor and nutrients than foods in the past.
I would argue that people do not overeat fast food because it is so hyperpalatable but because their palates are craving something more that cannot be found in such foods. They overeat in hopes of satisfying those cravings. You can have amazing novelty with a selection of whole foods available today, especially since we as a culture disregard limitations of seasonality and geography, but it is difficult to overeat whole, unprocessed foods because they are more filling and more satisfying. Moreover, I posit, once your body senses that it has received enough of particular nutrients, you will feel more satisfied and less inclined to keep eating. That does not happen with highly processed foods.
As far as I’m concerned, novelty is not the key to overeating. In fact, I might argue the opposite. On the occasions that I have dined with French families, the meals always involved multiple courses of various dishes. These occasions contained the most novelty I ever experienced in regular meals in a single sitting, and yet I probably ate less and felt more satisfied. Processed foods today seem to offer an abundance of flavors, but usually those flavors only amount to salty or sweet. The constant barrage of these two flavor profiles leads to a monotony that causes one to feel utterly dissatisfied. In my opinion that dissatisfaction, often unconscious, leads to eating more and more.
Rafe Kelley, Evolve Move Play
- The movement sessions were one of the biggest draws of the Ancestral Health Symposium for me, and I was excited to try Rafe Kelley’s Evolve Move Play after hearing him in multiple interviews.
- Kelley believes strongly in the importance of roughhousing, and that was the bulk of the session. We started off with partner exercises in which we had to attempt to swipe or kick our partner and in turn duck and avoid our partners’ swipes and kicks. This was followed by balancing games of tug-of-war and tag on street curbs.
- My favorite part of the session was tree climbing. I had not climbed a tree in many, many, many years. The trees we climbed were not too intimidating. They were low enough to the ground that they were easy to get onto and posed little risk if we happened to fall. Kelley presented challenges to us, such as trying to get from one tree to another without touching the ground. I would love to continue a tree climbing practice back home because it seems like this would be an excellent way to practice overhead motions and hanging and develop my grip strength and calluses.
Guillermo Ruiz, Phyto-biological Warfare
- Ruiz gave an interesting talk about using plants to fight illnesses. He noted that from looking at historical records that his team got insight that Native Americans were able to fight a certain illness with a particular plant with a surprising efficacy. Using that insight, his team used that same plant and found the same high rate of efficacy with regard to the same illness today.
- He spoke about plants becoming carnivorous. He explained that in order to adapt to their new diet, carnivorous plants somehow developed antimicrobial properties to help prevent the transmission of infections from the organisms they were eating. These antimicrobial properties have protective effects for humans too when consumed.
Corporatization of Medicine
Sadly, Ruiz noted that despite substantial interest in the high efficacy rates of healing that his team produced, he has been unable to secure funding because he is using an unadulterated plant for healing. He noted that in order to obtain funding, one has to isolate the effective ingredient and turn that knowledge into a pharmaceutical product. The truth seems to be cynically that unless one can make money off of healing, it’s of no import to the industry. It saddens me to think of all the cures that might be out there but are untapped simply because they won’t make the pharmaceutical industry a huge profit. It reinforced in my mind the importance of attaining knowledge of botany and herbal medicine as a life skill.
On the other hand, Ruiz noted that antimicrobial plants can lead to viral and bacterial resistance just as with pharmaceutical antibiotics. As someone who has started to research botanical medicine recently, I find this prospect terrifying. He noted that in one of his studies the client ended up building up a resistance to the botanical treatment that was used. When I approached him after the talk and mention that a number of culinary herbs have antimicrobial properties, he suggested that the key to avoiding resistance lies in the preparation method. Unfortunately, I do not think there is yet a standard for usage to ensure avoidance of resistant microbes. Another audience member brought up the issue of resistance with regard to sinus infections, and Ruiz said that the use of Xylitol could help. He suggested that using Xylitol as a nasal spray or in a neti pot could help remove more biofilm, which keep bacteria and viruses from hiding and becoming resistant to the treatment used.
Nick Mailer, How the “New Man” Sabotages First Ancestral Food
- Mailer opened with the importance of breastfeeding to babies’ health and development. He discussed how the lack of support in our society for breastfeeding and men’s desire to help in the feeding process can undermine the health of the baby.
- Mailer noted that in more tribal communities, the success of breastfeeding is undergirded by a strong support system. Breastfeeding mothers have a culture of cofeeding and sharing breast milk.
- Mailer explained that women who have never breastfed can lactate if stimulated and that women who have not lactated in years can do so again seemingly even if they’re past menopause. He mentioned Aisha Modu as an illustration of women’s substantial breastfeeding capacity. Modu is a grandmother who managed to nurse her daughter’s children when the mother died even though it had been years since Modu last breastfed,
- He argued that baby formula companies have co-opted feminist ideals of equal partnership in their advertising. They appeal to parents by emphasizing fathers’ potential role in the feeding process by using baby formula. Mailer urged men to not be White Knights and and try to help with the night feeding of babies because that can down-regulate the mother’s ability to lactate, which in turn will force them to become reliant on baby formula. He suggested that men should help in other ways such as by handling extra chores around the home and soothing the baby when it cries but to leave feeding to the mother
Stay tuned for part two of the recap to find out out what happened at the rest of the Ancestral Health Symposium, including appearances by biomechanist Katy Bowman, Darryl Edwards, Esther Gokhale, Frank Forencich, and Denise Minger!