The Food Issue
In the last two years, the annual Ancestral Health Symposium has become a gathering point for a group that could loosely be called the paleo crowd. This past year’s event, held at Harvard Law School August 8-11, included presentations by icons in the movement like Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, and S. Boyd Eaton, who co-wrote a 1985 article in the New England Journal of Medicine that, by most accounts, got the paleo ball rolling.
With that being said, a good percentage of those I spoke with at the event would object to being called paleo. Many have ditched a strict adherence to the Paleolithic era in particular in favor of their own custom-mixed paleo/primal/ancestral hybrid lifestyle. Others think paleo, in its many flavors, is partial or complete bullshit.
The Ancestral Health Society, which orchestrates the event, describes itself as a group of “scientists, health care professionals, and laypersons who study and communicate about health from an evolutionary perspective.” It seeks “...to develop solutions to our modern health challenges,” including the many so-called diseases of civilization.
It was, largely, a fit-looking and likeable group of idiosyncratic nerds getting nerdy together about health and evolution. Many a conversation was embellished with personal “n=1” research data.
There were carnivores, crusaders, academics, bloggers, booksellers, barefoot runners, a lot of skeptics, hardly any reporters, and about as many opinions on carbohydrate and starch as there were attendees. Based on a casual survey of T-shirt messages, there were a surprising number of Mixed Martial Arts enthusiasts. I spoke to a bearded fighter from Quebec who told me “there is a philosophical crossover between paleo, MMA, and libertarianism.” Another fighter explained that fighting, like hunting, is in our DNA.
EVOLUTIONARY HEALTH IS A broad framework. It encompasses exercise, mental health, social interactions, medicine, and, of course, diet—an area where, at least at the Ancestral Health Symposium, people were the most focused, and often most heated.
“Paleo, primal, ancestral, let’s call the whole thing off,” joked Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint and the Mark’s Daily Apple blog. He, along with Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet and co-producer of the Paleo Solution podcast, was part of a two-man “Paleo Q&A” panel one morning.
Despite their competing books, buzzwords, and online niches, the differences between Sisson’s and Wolf’s responses to the questions were often technical and nuanced, like two descriptions of the same mountain by climbers on different routes.