As if you need another AHS wrap up post…

 

There have been a few wrap up posts on AHS already, some complimentary, some provocative. I will try to add my bit which will be purely my opinion on the event I have been looking forward to since last year and my impressions of it.

For those who are in the dark about what I am on about (gasp!) here is a good “AHS for dummies” round up. Also Beth has put together quite a list of AHS wrap ups for all your evolutionary medicine science and gossip needs.

Boston Gardens

To start with, I went this year in a purely observatory capacity. If you wondering why anyone would endure 24 hr flying time plus layover in 3 cities, here is my main reason. Evolutionary medicine in Australia is still for weird hippies and charlatans, not for Sydney University-trained doctors. Being in a group of passionate people, some including distinguished scientists, medical professionals and clinicians, was gratifying and encouraging.

*And before I get accused of ignoring minorities and lay folk: I see AHS as a primarily academic event designed to open the doors to new hypotheses, share scientific research and help move evolutionary medicine into mainstream consciousness. I think PaleoFX and its organisers, Keith and Michelle Norris, filled the niche of taking theory to practice very efficiently, and if I can ever afford 2 trips to the US a year (poor medical resident here) I would not hesitate to go. I think it’s fantastic that AHS is open to the lay public (let’s face it, the discerning Paleo “lay public” keep everyone on their toes) but I wouldn’t want for the conference to lose its academic edge. And if I ever want a Paleo group hug I will go to a Paleo meet up.*

Recalling my inability to sit through University lectures, I knew I couldn’t attend every talk so I tried to hedge my bets and pick from the program. Some I got right, some I didn’t. A few times, I opted to hear the “big names” only to miss out on a fascinating talk from a less known figure in the other room. I have already marked the ones I would like to download to watch on video.

The dairy debate continued in the ice-cream parlour

Rating on some memorable talks I saw in no particular order:

1. Dan Lieberman on evolutionary principles. A great talk to open up the symposium and a must-see for anyone as an Evolution 101 refresher. It set a nice tone to the event, steering it away from the romanticised hunter-gatherer image.

2. Dr Peter Attia gave an awesome lecture on cholesterol. This was probably the most sciency talk of the whole seminar and in my opinion the best. I wish I had a lecture like this in medical school! I will definitely re-watch this one on video, this time taking thorough notes. Highly recommend regardless of your knowledge level, you will learn something anyway.

3. Jamie Scott spoke about using evolutionary principles for endurance training. He effectively melted a few brains by stating a strong case for low intensity work performed in glycogen-depleted state. For the crowd largely indoctrinated enthusiastically involved in Crossfit it was a hard sell but I think he got a few converts.

4.  Dr O’Keefe on the effects of prolonged endurance exercise on cardiovascular system. He described exercise-induced cardiomyopathy in ultra-endurance athletes. As a runner himself, his position was a little biased toward running and in my view his recommended dosages (45-60 min 5 times a week) were still too high. Also he didn’t mention the significant degenerative joint effects and chronic inflammation on the body. Overall, the talk was very interesting and definitely something that running-obsessed Americans need to see (OMG, do you, people, do anything else other than run???)

5. Chris Kresser on iron overload. Chris gave a good view of haemachromatosis, its diagnosis, manifestations and treatment. Most of this material had been extensively covered in my medical school lectures (yes, believe it or not, they DO teach us something). I would have liked to hear a theory on the evolutionary explanation of haemachromatosis and Seth Roberts, I think, asked Chris that question but I didn’t gleam much from the response. Worth watching if you think that Paleo is a free pass to eat meat like it’s going out of fashion.

6. J. Stanton on hunger. JS presented very convincing evidence that hunger is a normal physiological response to the lack of nutrients to the cells (who would’ve thunk it, huh?) rather than a massive character flaw possessed universally by the fatties. It was a great complement to his series of posts on hunger (which are excellent to read). JS is, ahem, an unusual personality with a brainpower that makes the rest of us feel like schoolchildren. He was openly critical of the food reward theory during his presentation, however, when we all went out for dinner that night, he was extremely gracious and kept saying that he felt very honoured that people like Stephan (Guyenet) attended his talk. You can read Stephan’s review of this talk here.

7. Dr Terry Wahls gave an inspiring talk about managing own multiple sclerosis with MS. However, I was already familiar with her very excellent TED talk (which you should definitely see if you have been under a rock somewhere) and not sure I got much more out of this presentation.

8. Robb Wolf‘s talk about implementing Paleo diet principles at Reno municipality is inspiring to watch especially if you are interested in public policy and how to bridge the gap between a Paleo community, often seen as alternative and (let’s face it) weird, and real world. Big picture stuff.

9. Dr Emily Deans have a presentation on food and mental health. She gave a good overview of how fructose and trans fats affect us not only metabolically but also psychologically. It was fascinating to see the diametrically opposed views on sugar and mental health: does it make you happy or not?

10. Dr Andreas Eenfeld was a surprise to me. Even though he presented on carbohydrate controversy (yawn) he managed to make it entertaining (yes, really) and light-hearted. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Watching squirrels was somewhat more entertaining than a safe starch debate

By the way, I think the whole audience was tweeting. It was absolutely surreal to listen to one talk and read tweets from the next room with people raving about the speaker I was missing.

Talks I cannot wait to see on video:

1. Peter Gray on the role play in the development of social and emotional competence. Here is a great example of his work and if I knew he was in the next room I would have dumped Stephan Guyenet in a heartbeat (sorry!)
2. Ubuntu: a paleolithic perspective on human community and health by Frank Foresich
3. Oxidative stress and CHO intolerance by Chris Masterjohn
4. Paleo nutrition and the brain by David Pendergrass.

Overall impression:
It was disappointing to see a few negative posts from attendees, in particular some who felt not included due to their age, appearance, weight, or some other factor. I was not aware of any such tension during the conference, except to note that people were quite naturally gravitating towards their friends and acquaintances, and of course “Paleo celebrities”. I find this community remarkably inclusive but then I am not an idealist and generally do not expect much of people. I certainly would never anticipate Robb Wolf to come up to me and strike up a conversation. Being quite introverted, I spoke to people who approached me or were introduced by others, and relaxed in the courtyard when the crowds got too much.

I would love to come back next year and reconnect with some new and old friends.

A few thanks:
To Ann and Dave Wendell – for making the most of the Aussie-Kiwi rivalry and teasing the hell out of us.
To Victoria Prince – for feeding us home cooked meals, taking us berry picking and showing us the green and luscious part of New Jersey
To J Stanton – for challenging our brain cells and being a very exciting dinner guest
To Jude – for her Aussie accent, sense of humour and constant and inappropriate swearing
To Melissa and Dallas Hartwig – for great conversations, amazing (very well organised!) meals, unwavering support and a hefty dose of inspiration

Many more Twitter names came alive (hey, these people do actually exist) and I fear I’ll miss someone if I start naming them but I enjoyed meeting all of you.

See you all next year.

My Whole30 experience

This is going to be a pretty personal post so if you are after something scienc-y call back next week or go and geek out on the amazing series on time from New Scientist (free rego required but worth it).

Most readers here would have figured out by now that I follow a traditional primal/Paleo-ish diet based on high quality animal products, vegetables, nuts, berries and some high fat dairy. Being a part of this Paleo Internet community is amazing but I think sometimes we lose touch with the nutritional reality out there. Let’s face it: the majority of our population still believe that low fat yoghurt plus a cereal bar is a healthy afternoon snack (my rant on the big picture here). I think it’s preposterous and hilarious that my diet is viewed as extreme by those who regularly ingest food-in-a-box with ingredients that you need a degree in biochemistry to pronounce. Yeah, and I’m the weird one.

A few people who in my view do a fantastic job of bridging the gap between the real world and the real food world are Whole9Life, Diane from Balanced Bites, the original caveman Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson. What I like about them is that they recognise that most people need a simple and practical approach to changing their diet and lifestyle. I chose to do a trial run of a 30 day program The Whole30 by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig of Whole9life.

My goals for my Whole30

Weight loss was not a priority for me. I’m pretty petite and in a normal weight range but definitely not skinny. Some days I wish I looked the way I did a few years back in ‘teen % body fat (yes, I was vain enough to get it measured) but then I remember that I was running myself to the ground by training, teaching in the gym, studying and looking after my family. I ended up with some serious overuse injuries which took me out of action for more than a year. Perspective.

Although I’m Russian I am not a big drinker (despite constant references to alcohol on Twitter!) I enjoy my glass of red wine with dinner and it is about all I can normally manage before getting a bit giggly. However since our trip to Italy earlier this year I have noticed myself having wine most nights and also ordering a bottle for 2 at restaurants. Not that I was concerned but I was curious how I would go without alcohol for a month.

The only other tweak that I had to make on my Whole30 was to say au revoir to high fat dairy. I’m a bit of an artisan cheese fiend, sour cream fan, Greek yoghurt addict, you get the picture. I was interested to self-test the theory that dairy has insulinogenic properties exceeding its carbohydrate content and to see if it affects my overall wellbeing.

Impressions

The Whole30 Guide which Melissa and Dallas kindly sent me was easy-to-understand but comprehensive. It would be suitable for both rookies with little nutritional knowledge and hardcore jaded cynics like me. The science was solid but not overwhelming. I like the good cop-bad cop approach: they encourage people to try new foods, listen to own bodies (a skill many forget they possess!) and forgive indiscretions but at the same time tell you to harden the f#%^ up for 30 days. The Facebook page is great to get perspective from other peeps on Whole30 or to ask a direct question. And in case you wondering at this point, no, I’m not getting paid for this.

I was surprised how easy it was to give up alcohol. I just seamlessly replaced my glass of red with a glass of sparkling San Pellegrino and I didn’t miss the wine one bit. In the whole month I had a glass on two celebratory occasions but I checked with Dallas on Twitter and he gave me a-ok :) Now that Whole30 is over I re-introduced red wine but I feel like it has reclaimed its place as a special occasion drink a couple of nights a week rather than a staple.

I wasn’t so lucky with dairy. I hadn’t realised how much I relied on my sour cream, yoghurt and cheese for my fat sources. My downfall at the end of the first week was probably due to my failure to plan other fat sources like coconut oil/milk, avocado and fattier cuts of meat. 5 days into this lowER fat state my brain cells went into meltdown. My mood started zigzagging in step with my food intake (my partner had the lucky foresight to go overseas for that week), I had a couple of spectacular afternoon crashes requiring a nap and the old friend hunger reared his ugly head. Oh, hello, I remember all this. That is what I used to feel like every day when I conscientiously adhered to the Heart Foundation diet high in whole grains and low in fat. Anyway a few rescue tweets and Facebook messages later, I was back on track armed with cans of coconut milk, a few avocados, casserole beef cuts and nuts.

Surprisingly enough, I still found myself a little hungrier than usual for the rest of the month. I attribute my dairy tolerance (some would say dependence) to my Eastern European genes (epigenetics counts, people!).  I didn’t get any digestive upsets when I re-introduced some natural yoghurt back into my diet and it completely solved any niggling hunger issues. However I feel a lot more confidence in controlling my soft cheese cravings and also haven’t felt the need for more high fat dairy since.

An unexpected benefit of focusing more on what I eat and how I feel daily was an appetite for more vegetables. I’m not a big veggie eater. I allow that they might be good for us and generally eat them drowned in butter but I resent the ad nauseum push for 2+5 as if the lack of fruit and veg is the sole source of all our heath problems. That said, on the Whole30 I found myself looking for new varieties at the grocer and doing some veg experimentation in the kitchen.

So at the end I reckon even a pretty good diet can do with a few tweaks. It’s easy to get into a rut with your food choices and the Whole30 allowed me to bring a little more focus and awareness to my food choices.

Anyone who is still on the fence about giving up grains, sugar and industrial food should seriously consider a 30 day program like this. I really believe that cold turkey is the best approach when comes to diet for most people: better struggle for a couple of weeks than drag it out for months and fight the recurrent cravings.

Feel free to share your experiences with Whole30 or your own story of lifestyle change. How did you do it? What mistakes did you make along the way and how did you deal with them?