Guest Blog Entry by Frank Forencich: Don’t we want more from the Paleo than diet?Posted | 6 comments
Just back from the Ancestral Health Symposium at UCLA and my mind is buzzing with exuberance and ideas. In brief, the short story is simple: This was an outrageously inspirational event, not just for me personally, but for anyone interested in themes of health, human origins and primal living. This event will ripple all across the world; the effects will be felt for years and decades to come. This is going to have a huge downstream impact.
Because of simultaneous, concurrent presentations, it was impossible to see more than half the speakers. Not only did this present some excruciating choices, it also left everyone with only a partial view of the whole event. Consequently, everyone will now be living with a different impression of what the event was all about.
Nevertheless, the energy was incredible. People were friendly and supportive all the way around. I witnessed a whole lot of sincere teaching, sharing and genuine listening. There was expertise and curiosity in abundance and I was inspired.
In general, the preponderance of the presentations were on Paleo diet concepts. Naturally, there were differences of opinion on details, but the consensus view was that the low-fat, high-carb diets of the late 20th century were a dreadful mistake. A string of presenters made it abundantly clear: refined sugars, flour and food products contribute enormously to our modern health woes. Vegetarian diets also took a hit: most agreed that vegetarian diets simply don’t provide adequate support for good health. The scientific data and clinical reports were impressive. I will never look at a loaf of bread the same way again.
Curiously though, the strength of the conference was also its weakness. That is, a first-time observer of this Paleo scene would surely have walked away with the impression that Paleo is almost entirely about food, diet and nutrition. There was no question: diet was the central focus of this event. In fact, the conference might have well been called “The Paleo Diet Symposium.”
This is where I take issue. Powerful as the dietary evidence was, it still came across as an isolated, mono-disciplinary specialty. Several presenters drilled the biochemistry down so deep that I thought they would come out the other side of the earth. And in this sense, it wasn’t really consistent with a Paleo world view. If we know one thing about native, pre-modern cultures, it is that their orientations were inclusive and holistic. Food was obviously important to our ancestors, but they would find our focus/obsession with food to be completely out of balance.
The full range of Paleo experience was simply not represented at the conference. As far as I could tell, there was little interest in the human connection with land, tribe or the animal world (refreshing exceptions included Mark Sisson speaking about play and Erwan Le Corre talking about moving naturally).
Obviously, Paleo diet studies are vital. Public health is in serious decline and a large measure of this is the result of grain and carbohydrate over-consumption. Clearly, we need to be speaking up and making this case to the public at large. But by focusing exclusively on nutrition, we make a fundamental error and keep our minds stuck in a modernized, Western orientation. We attribute a systemic problem to a single cause. Our field begins to look and feel narrow, mono-disciplinary and reductionistic; this is a classic rookie mistake.
So I would pose a couple of questions: Don’t we want more from the Paleo than diet? Isn’t there more to be learned from the last 2 million years than a formula for eating? If all we take from the Paleo is a recipe book or a chemical prescription, we’re missing a much larger and potentially more valuable lesson. In fact, if all we do is mine the Paleo for nutritional, health and weight loss advice, we become guilty of yet one more form of unconscious cultural imperialism. In this case, we don’t invade other countries and tyrannize their people. Instead, we raid the past, take what we want and leave the rest behind. This is more of the same behavior that got us into our modern predicament in the first place.
I believe that it’s time that we listened to the full range of what the Paleo has to offer. Yes, let’s talk about food, but let’s not get carried away with substances and their effect on the body. Let’s keep it whole. Like good Paleo hunters and gatherers, let’s keep our attention moving across all dimensions of our habitat and experience. Let’s talk about our relationship to habitat, to the land and to the creatures around us.
Ultimately, health is about more than getting the right substances down our throats. It’s about developing a better sense of rapport- with our bodies, with the land and with one another.
Perhaps we’ll see a broader panorama at the Second Annual Ancestral Health Symposium.
In any case, I can hardly wait.
Frank Forencich is an internationally-recognized leader in health education and performance training. He earned his B.A. at Stanford University in human biology and neuroscience and has over 30 years teaching experience in martial art, functional movement and health promotion.