It has been an interesting past 5 years. I started writing and commenting on alternatives to the generally accepted wisdom of my training, in earnest, around early 2010 (my conventional training was a largely quantitative approach to health; calories count, so burn more than you consume; translated – make sure your food choices are low in fat and try to squeeze as much calorie-burning cardio into your schedule as you can). And to be fair, I probably spent much of those early writing days, in effect, just feeling my way around in the dark. There certainly wasn’t the proliferation of writers that there are now, and with the exception of a few exchanges in the comments sections (remember the days when people left comments and engaged meaningfully?), there certainly wasn’t the interconnection between people that there is now.
In 2010, in New Zealand, you could probably count the number of people thinking and writing along similar lines on one hand that had a few fingers missing due to an accident with an axe. It was a relatively lonely space indeed. I remember looking longingly at the burgeoning scene in the US, and hearing the stories of people meeting people, of my heroes meeting their heroes, of like minds meeting like minds, and thinking I want a piece of that action. My chance came in 2011 when the first Ancestral Health Society symposium came together in Los Angeles.
Heading to the States from NZ is straightforward in terms of logistics: jump on a plane and fly in a straightish line for 13 hours. But cost-wise, converting Kiwi pesos, it was stretch for me (being close to a $5k trip all up), but one I saw as an investment in my own professional development and my own sanity by way of being around a large number of healthy and vibrant human beings who wanted better for themselves and others. That investment was worth every cent of credit card interest in ways money cannot measure. These were my written thoughts upon returning from that first AHS symposium in 2011:
My original purpose for attending was always about meeting the people there, and not just the presenters. There seems to be little pockets of (re)evolutionary-minded people scattered around the globe, and we are all social media savvy. But away from our twatter-bleeping, bloggering, and Facegoogling+ (some of us even go old school and send personal emails to each other), it can seem a bit lonely at times. This was one of many very stimulating conversations I had with Emily over the days in LA… it can be very frustrating being around people who just seem not to get it.
Despite having almost instantaneous contact with a collective brains-trust, some members of which I swear possess 4-digit IQ’s, one can feel very removed and lonely. I might yet do a separate post on the content of my AHS presentation, but one of the things I touched on was our need for evolutionary-appropriate socialisation. Humans are wired up to see and read facial expressions, body language, be close to others, and experience touch… We are “emotionally tactile” creatures. The impression you can build within an instant of seeing someone in the flesh goes way beyond anything that you might derive from a blog-post, 140 character tweet, or low-res avatar.
Attending an event, such as the AHS in 2011, and repeating that trip back to the U.S. year on year ever since, has offered so much in terms of challenging and developing my thinking and understanding of all the moving and interconnected parts we try to deal with in the health space. I have walked away from some talks absolutely hating the speaker for them having just dismantled my current line of thinking, only to have one of those “oh yeah” moments of acceptance at a later date. I have had new lines of inquiry opened up, had some of my thoughts confirmed, and many, many beliefs challenged and ultimately found wanting.
But perhaps more important than the individual presentations at these events, has been the connections I have been able to build with individuals and groups, fostering collaboration, and allowing the process of researching and refining thoughts to continue long after the symposium halls have been swept out. Becoming a part of the ancestral health community has allowed the occurrence of synchronicity and serendipity, and has ultimately broadened my horizons since those early days of 2010. Of most significance for me, professionally and personally, my involvement with the American ancestral health community has become the inspiration and impetus for starting The Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand (AHSNZ) with my partner in crime, Dr Anastasia Boulais.
Inspired by the American society, we have been able to build our own society here in New Zealand, forming it around a core group of like-minded and passionate individuals, to discuss and tackle some of the core issues we face in our own region. Many of these issues are not terribly different to those being faced in other parts of the world (such is the monocultured nature of the first world), but their potential resolution may be have their own specific Kiwi nuance.
Now don’t go interpreting ‘like minds’ as a group of people who just echo each others sentiments and then all congratulate each other for a job well done. Nothing could be further from the truth. The AHSNZ is made up of a group of health professionals (doctors, dietitians, nutritionists, physical health clinicians, and researchers), more than ably supported by passionate laypersons, all who question and challenge each other. Sure, we share similar values, but each individual has their own strengths and perspectives and are not afraid to call the rest out when required.
The Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand is a broad church of individuals using evolutionary biology and human ecology as starting points of inquiry when looking at many of the modern issues we face with the health of individuals, communities, societies, and our environment. We look at our modern mismatches; a society too reliant on heavily processed foods, a society where sleep is viewed as something which gets in the way of doing other things, increased urbanisation where people lose opportunities to move due to city infrastructure design, and an attitude of infinite growth from the consumption of finite resources, all at the expense of the very environment which supports us.
It is a society which takes into account both our distant ancestry, but also that of our more proximal ancestors. We often discuss, for example, the ‘wisdom of grandmothers’ when referencing discussions around the likes of raising children. It is a society concerned primarily with the here and now rather than any misguided romantic notions of the past. We face some substantial issues in our future, not the least being those wrapped up under the catch-all banner of climate change. We are a society that will play its part in trying to stop the rot on global diversity, whether we are talking ecological or cultural diversity. In short, and to steal from Diana Rodgers and Robb Wolf, we believe sustainability > abbz.
This is a space my mind didn’t particularly occupy in 2010 when I started writing about health, though I quickly came to understand the interconnected nature of everything we are trying to achieve. Indeed, at a conference in Melbourne in 2012, I presented a slide to show how I viewed ancestral health (it was at a low carb conference where I was attempting to convey that there were more moving parts to this thing we call health than just ditching fructose from the diet).
The programme for the upcoming AHSNZ International Symposium, in Queenstown this October, really does underscore the breadth and depth of thought in the ancestral health movement in New Zealand, where there is focus not only on our distal and proximal ancestry, but on us modern humans in the here and now, and the questioning of just what legacy we are going to leave for subsequent generations; as future ancestors ourselves, what are going to be best known for?
“Looking Back, Moving Forward” aims to get people thinking and talking about some of the critical issues we face as first-world nations. And no, recreating your favourite baked goods under the latest diet rules de jour, or trying to personally answer the question “how lean is too lean?”, are not the global issues we are concerned about. What we are concerned about, however, are those critical connections between what we do to improve ourselves individually, here and now, how these strategies affect the health of our environment, and in understanding the key barriers to entry and participation for all of society.
The first session for the symposium really sets the tone of the event, looking at the key barriers to behaviour change. Why don’t people value the very same things the “converted” value? How does our modern environment drive us to making choices (the ones which benefit shareholders more than individuals) largely on autopilot, along the path of least resistance? By better understanding the interactions between personal values, and behavioural economics, we can come closer to finding ways to nudge (or shove) more people in a better direction.
We tackle the meaty topics of climate change, which inevitably feeds into discussions around transport and agriculture. How many people fear climate change discussions because of the belief they will be told to lead a car-less, meat-less existence? Is this the reality of it? We will have what will be a fascinating perspective of the public health expert in climate science squared off against that of the sustainable farmer-nutritionist in one of our sessions.
We will hear from people involved in educating health professionals, where an ancestral health perspective is being built into the curriculum; from doctors wanting to be able to use better qualitative and functional health markers to assess patients; from physical health specialists all converging on the area of improving strength in populations rather than just focusing on cardiovascular fitness; and from practitioners focused on both our social and reproductive health. We have speakers connecting the dots, linking the likes of mental health with our physical health, and sleep with nearly every modern ill we face.
We have chosen some of the best academics and clinicians in our region, not just because of their credentials, but because of their ability to communicate their important areas of research across the boundaries of academic, clinician, and layperson. One of our speakers looks at nutrition from an ecological perspective; one that is quite unique in the nutrition science field. Others aim to put to bed some of the divisive ‘nutritionalism’ that has plagued the field of diet advice for far too long. A public health specialists focus on the barriers to ‘just eat real food’ and what food policies might need to be put in place to reduce these.
Beyond the talks and the speakers, this symposium offers an opportunity similar to that which presented itself to me back in 2011. It offers the chance to travel, to be amongst like-minds and people of similar values. It offers the chance to cement thoughts and ideas, but to challenge others (as they always should be). It offers information for individuals. It offers ideas for larger groups, communities, and society at large. It offers a chance to link several ideas together; to connect dots. And it offers an engagement with health well beyond abs and gluten-, dairy-, refined sugar-free cookies. I hope people are able to look at the offering of the symposium, no matter where they are, and to take the opportunity to invest in three days which may change theirs and many other lives.
For more information on The Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand International Symposium, go to: www.ancestralhealthnz.org/symposium