It’s the Monday morning after what has been an absolutely thrilling, engaging and, yes, tiring trip to the Boston area for the second annual Ancestral Health Symposium (AHS) that took place August 9-11, 2012 at Harvard Law School’s Wasserstein Hall (pictured to the left). Cambridge, Massachusetts is an amazingly energizing town full of such a diverse range of cultures which made it the perfect place for holding a scientific event surrounding what comprises a Paleolithic, or ancestral, lifestyle. After attending #AHS11 at UCLA last year, I was inspired to shift my diet to more of a low-carb Paleo approach to eating which put the focus of my diet on real foods as much as possible. I had already been eating better quality foods, but AHS11 reminded me why it was wise to be doing it for my health. It was exciting to come back to this event again in 2012.
There were so many awesome experiences I couldn’t even begin to share the totality of what happened in the three days at #AHS12. If you want to relive some of the highlight moments from the lectures and the conference itself, then I HIGHLY encourage you to scroll down the thousands of tweets that took place during LIVE-tweeting of #AHS12 over the three days. Video footage of all the presentations was taken and will be available for FREE online in a few months (please be patient as this takes some time to get done). It was a spectacular sight to behold and I’m honored to have had the opportunity to be there, participate in it and share in the continuing astronomical growth of the Paleo health movement happening around the world as a result of efforts like these. But if I’m going to be completely honest with you (as I always try to be), then I can’t help but share some serious concerns that I think need to be vocalized so we can address this sooner rather than later.
A good, healthy, open debate of ideas is always a positive thing no matter what you are talking about. Within the context of ancestral health, we have varying levels of interpretation about what that actually means and this was on full display at #AHS12. I don’t know if the dichotomy of differing interpretations of what Paleo is was deliberate by the organizers or not, but it presented a wide range of diverse points of view from those advocating ketogenic high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb diets for treating obesity, cancer and metabolic health issues to those advocating for “safe starches” in the diet as a cultural extension of what man has evolved to be eating for optimal health. Representation of both sides of this were strongly represented at #AHS12.
This discussion, of course, extends well beyond the consumption of carbohydrates in the diet which is only one element (albeit a very important one) in the context of the healthy nutrition debate. But that debate seems to be the most contentious and ubiquitous within the Paleo community amongst those of us who have a keen interest in the wide variety of therapeutic uses of being in a ketogenic state most of the time and those who argue that humans are not optimal when they remain in ketosis over the long-term. This is an extremely critical topic to discuss at such a conference dedicated to sharing the science behind this. I’ll admit I was pretty disappointed to hear rumblings of what I’ll term “carbohydrate fatigue” from some of the people posting on the social media. Even one of the later presenters at #AHS12 made note of the prevalence of carbohydrate discussion that was happening there by stating at the beginning of his lecture, “Hi, I’m Stephan Guyenet and I’m not gonna talk about carbs.”
While I don’t think we need to be obsessed about the carbohydrate issue because it’s not even close to being the whole story on making our modern diets healthier, I’m still amazed at the antagonism from many in the Paleo community about low-carb diets. It seems to me there are a few from the Paleo world who would like to distance themselves from those who believe in the low-carb diet aspect of healthy Paleo living. And I’ve got a reality check for these people: a good portion of the members of this community who describe themselves as Paleo interpret that as a high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb diet. Yes, there are a sliding scales about what that means within what Chris Kresser describes as a “Paleo template.” But the end result is we are all consuming more legitimately healthy fats like butter, coconut oil, ghee, lard, olive oil and others while simultaneously eating exponentially less carbohydrates obviously from refined sources, sugars and whole grain sources (although there were a few presentations at #AHS12 that promoted consuming grains).
However, when it comes to starchy carbohydrate sources of nutrition such as white potatoes, sweet potatoes or white rice (the toxin-free “safe starches” identified as such by Paul Jaminet), there’s a definite divide between those who avoid them because they raise blood sugar and insulin levels as well as lipid numbers to unhealthy levels (even Robb Wolf shared on a Q&A panel that he recently had to return to a ketogenic diet after consuming “safe starches” messed up his numbers) and those who believe these starches provide the adequate glucose your body needs to perform and function as it was intended to. That’s quite a division within the Paleo community that doesn’t have an easy answer to bridge the chasm. One of the issues that I’m most disturbed by is this notion that eating a “very low-carb diet,” as a below-50g-daily ketogenic diet is described in the Paleosphere, leads to negative health effects including and not limited to dry eyes, sleep disturbances, thyroid issues, elevated cholesterol levels (especially LDL), increased fasting blood glucose numbers, lowered immunity to fungal infections and many more. I’ll be working on a new series of blog posts addressing some of the more common accusations being made about low-carb, high-fat diets in the coming months. But it’s interesting to note that practicing physician Dr. Cate Shanahan shared during a panel discussion at #AHS12 that she’s been putting her patients on 20-70g carbohydrates daily for years and has never seen these kind of issues happening.
My concern with the people who have “carbohydrate fatigue” and want to silence those us who consider low-carb, moderate protein, high-fat as a critical part of our Paleo lifestyle is that it will discourage people from becoming active in and enthusiastic about spreading the message to their friends, family and co-workers who so desperately need to be eating healthier than they are now. We are all in this together as a family like I said on a panel at PaleoFX12 in March and it is imperative that we are inclusive about what we believe respecting each other in the process. We are a whole lot closer in what we believe about healthy nutrition than not, so why not band together for the sake of reaching those still mired in erroneous belief that they need to eliminate fat from their diet and eat lots of “healthy” whole grains for fiber? There are bigger fish to fry out there than to nitpick on the minutia from within.
For me, if someone is able to tolerate more carbohydrates in their diet from starchy or even grain-based or sugary-based sources and can remain healthy in the process of eating that way, then why in the world would I be against their decision to consume them? I wouldn’t and I’ve long encouraged people to find what works for them and do it. At the same time, there are a lot of overweight, obese and metabolically-deranged people walking around out here in Realville who require a deliberate adjustment of their diet from the many years (decades!) of extremely poor eating. During the panel I was honored to moderate at #AHS12 called “Safe Starches: Are They Essential To An Ancestral Diet?” the point was made that there are many starch-based cultures around the world without a problem with obesity and disease. I responded that they must have adapted well to eating those foods and didn’t grow up in a typical American food environment populated by “Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Ho-Ho’s and Doritos.”
I think that’s an important point of discussion on this issue because we really don’t know what impact all of those industrialized, highly-processed, high-carb junk foods have done to the bodies of so many of us who subsisted on them as the primary source of nutrition (or lack thereof) for a majority of our lives. That’s the life that so many Americans and other westernized cultures are still living RIGHT NOW which is why I believe the low-carb version of Paleo is such a vital one to support and encourage for people who are overweight or obese, diabetic or other metabolically compromised. That describes a whole lot of people who need to find an alternative answer to the high-carb, low-fat, grain-based diets that are being recommended to them by so-called “health” authorities as optimal. Very clearly, they are not. And needlessly scaring people from even attempting to go on a much-needed high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb plan because of some specious effects that have not been vetted out by any scientific evidence is an irresponsible position to be held by anyone in the Paleo community.
While everyone doesn’t necessarily need a ketogenic diet, I believe most people would find incredible benefits focusing on a real foods-based, high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb nutritional approach to start and then make personalized adjustments as necessary from there. We should consider high-fat, low-carb as the default beginning point of a Paleo lifestyle change for people coming off the Standard American Diet (SAD) and then tinker with it and encourage testing to measure how certain foods will respond. Interestingly, the most common questions and comments people had for me at #AHS12 was about my current nutritional ketosis n=1 experiment than anything else (my 90-day update is coming up this week!). Obviously, there is great interest in how ketosis can enhance health or people wouldn’t be inquiring about it like they are.
Living ancestrally in a modern world requires us to be mindful of the historical lessons of the past while realizing that we live in a very different world now. I think all of us in the Paleo community want to pursue the best health we can possibly attain and that there are varying ways to get there. The sooner we can get those tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions more worldwide who eat a crappy diet to realize what they are doing to themselves consuming what Paleolithic man would have never recognized as “food,” the sooner we can start making changes that will benefit their health and help them live a long life to come. Aren’t we all on the same page of making that happen with this movement we call Paleo?
What do you think? Are you concerned about the divisiveness that seems to bring a wedge between the ketogenic vs. “safe starches” camps of the Paleo community? Or is there something positive that comes from representing these very different factions within the same movement? I’m very interested in what you think!