Last week I attended Paleo f(x), one of the largest conferences in the country focused on ancestral health and the Paleo lifestyle. The three-day event in Austin, Texas, brings together the top thought leaders, researchers, bloggers, and podcasters in the world of health, fitness, nutrition, and lifestyle design.
If at this point you’re imagining a convention center full of buff dudes in crossfit t-shirts and vibram fivefingers… you’re pretty much spot on.
But despite the surface-level appearance, the conference far exceeded my expectations. Once I touched down in Austin, my weekend was packed to the gills with useful information, thought-provoking speakers, and opportunities to socialize with new friends. The concept of attending a conference in my free time was new to me, but I will say this much: I plan to be back next year!
So what did I learn from Paleo f(x)? Let’s start with the speakers.
Carb-Cycling, Manliness, Stress, and Psychedelics
Each day started at roughly 8:30am and ended around 5:00pm. Since it was my first year at the conference, my goal was to absorb as much information as I could. I was a sponge, and wanted to attend as many sessions as possible. And there were plenty to choose from.
It would take way too long to describe every session I attended in detail, but I can loosely summarize what I learned into three categories: Practical, Thought-Provoking, and Inspirational.
John Kiefer (Carb Cycling for Health, Performance, and Longevity) and Nate Miyaki (Feast Your Fat Away) discussed the concepts of carb cycling and intermittent fasting as a means to gain muscle mass, lose fat, and increase athletic performance. The gist of their philosophy is to skip breakfast, work out fasted (on an empty stomach), and pack a high-fat, high-protein diet into two meals each day while consuming starchy, high-glycemic carbs at night.
I’ll admit I’m newer to this concept, but apparently it’s been proven successful among the bodybuilding community. Much like my initial aversion to the Paleo “Diet” I’ve always viewed intermittent fasting with a critical eye. Should we really be skipping meals in order to improve athletic performance, especially if our goal is long-term health? But after eating Paleo for roughly a year now, I’ve noticed I’m not as hungry between meals as I used to be, especially in the morning. Maybe my body is ready to experiment with the carb-backloading concept… it’s something I’m definitely going to research further in the coming weeks.
I really liked Pat Flynn’s straightforward session on Fitness Minimalism. He defined “minimalism” as the cross-section between effectiveness (doing the right things) and efficiency (doing things right). The session was all about designing a minimalist training program for maximum results. His advice emphasized low-intensity weight training 4x/week max, brisk walking every day, and high-intensity interval training only 2x/week. And plenty of rest and recovery between highly intense sessions.
In fact, the theme of rest, recovery, stress, and fatigue came up several times throughout the conference within the context of physical activity. Pat Flynn, Eva Twardokens (Being an Athlete is Not a Certificate of Health), Joel Jamieson (Myths and Realities of Conditioning), Justin Marchegiani (Movement That Matters), and Tony Federico (One Step Back, Two Steps Forward: Using Exercise Regression to Unlock Your Movement Potential), all emphasized the interplay between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems as crucial to injury-free training. The general message was “work smarter, not harder.” And “harder” can mean more than two HIIT workouts per week. After what I’ve been through the last couple of years, this message definitely resonated with me. Rest up, listen to your body, and know why you’re going to the gym in the first place.
One of my favorite sessions was titled Cultivating the Well-Adjusted Male, featuring a panel with Robb Wolf, J. Brett Smith, Geoffrey Miller, John Durant, Christopher Ryan, and Tucker Max. An eclectic group indeed!
What I loved most about this session was the panel’s focus on the idea of masculinity itself. There was great dialogue about what it really means to “be a man,” compared with the way society looks at the concept of manliness. I liked Tucker’s perspective: “There shouldn’t be one definition of masculinity… It’s not about doing specific things [i.e. Hunting, wrestling], it’s about doing what expresses their [individual] masculinity.” The panel also emphasized the modern need (and ancestral basis) for competition, struggling to achieve a worthy goal, and male groups working together for a common purpose.
Daniel Vitalis was every bit as wacky and intelligent as I expected during his session, Re-Wilding Yourself. His position is that we’re currently living as domesticated homo sapiens, just like dogs are domesticated wolves. But rather than going back in time to live like true hunter-gatherers (we can’t; all attempts to fully re-wild a domesticated species have failed), we can continue evolving in a way that aligns with nature and sustainability. During a talk on Shamanism (Shamanism – Our Quantum Leap Forward) he also suggested the lack of psychedelic drug use in our society may actually be a cause of modern illness and mental disorders. Crazy thought, but he presented data and perspective on the topic that made me pause and consider the possibility.
One of my favorite people from the conference I had never been exposed to before was Darryl Edwards. A former investment banker, and survivor of the London bombings, he has dedicated his life to teaching people the art of primal play. On a Paleo Life Hacker panel, he offered some sage advice: “True health has to be about simplification. Our ancestors weren’t biochemists, nutritionists, etc… they just moved.”
Christopher Ryan’s talk on Paleosexuality was crazy. If you want a hint at what was discussed, google the different sexual behaviors of Bonobos vs. Chimpanzees, our two closest evolutionary relatives. Then think about how we view sex and relationships in modern society. I don’t have much to add on this topic at the moment, except to say I’ll probably be reading his book Sex At Dawn, as well as a counter-argument recommended by Daniel Vitalis, Sex At Dusk.
Kyle Maynard’s talk, First World Problems and the Lost Art of Grit, was amazing. He offered six ways we can cultivate more grittiness within ourselves, which included
- Self-efficacy – building self-belief by gaining small wins
- Self-regulation – developing an internal locus of control
- Community – being around “gritty” people, people who lift us up
If you’re not familiar with Kyle, I highly recommend checking out this video.
Finally, a panel titled Living a Happy, Intentional Life definitely left an impact on me. The panelists were Michelle Norris, Darryl Edwards, Dean Dwyer, Hilary Bromberg, and Dr. Nicole Avena. A few concepts that resonated included the idea that play is the best way to release the happiness we should all have by default. Darryl demonstrated this by leading the audience through a play exercise; when we were done, everyone in the room was smiling. Others warned about what doesn’t lead to happiness, including material wealth, “things,” and the tendency to “constantly strive for better.” I’m so guilty of this last one, it’s not even funny. Why can’t we just BE? I needed to hear this. The big takeaway message for me was to relax, play, and love the journey you’re on at the moment.
Speaking of play, there was plenty of time for fun and socializing throughout the weekend, despite the packed schedule. This lead to a pleasantly surprising discovery: The Paleo community is filled with amazingly fun and genuine people.
Here’s where I mention some of the the cool authors, bloggers, podcasters, and entrepreneurs I met at the conference. Normally I wouldn’t name drop like this, but I’m doing it to point out how normal, real, and approachable everyone was. 95% of the “big names” at the conference were friendly and generous with their time, something I don’t think you can expect at every industry conference.
First there was Jason Seib and Sarah Fragoso. I bumped into them right before the very first session, and mentioned I’ve been a big fan of their podcast, Paleo Lifestyle and Fitness. They were so cool and down to earth. When I mentioned I read Jason’s book, The Paleo Coach, he didn’t skip a beat before saying, “You’re the one! I found the guy who read it!” I’m sure they thought I was creepily stalking them when I also saw them that night at Wholly Cow Burgers, but I swear I wasn’t!
I made it a point into introduce myself to Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, of Whole9 fame and co-authors of the book It Starts With Food. This book catapulted me onto this path, and I couldn’t thank them enough. It’s still the best mass market “nutrition” book I’ve ever read, and I even bought another copy just so they could sign it. Yes, I’m that much of a Hartwig fanboy.
I also ran into Sean Croxton, John Durant, Abel James, and Daniel Vitalis, each of whom took a few seconds away from what they were doing to chat with me. I somehow found myself in a fascinating one-on-one conversation with Daniel for 10-15 minutes, which I really appreciated. We talked about his semi-nomadic lifestyle, how he maintains personal relationships, and his, ahem, views on polyamorous dating. Let’s just say Daniel makes you think.
These are all extremely successful entrepreneurs in the industry, and it was refreshing to see them all so chill and willing to shoot the shit.
But even cooler than the glad-handing of online personalities and best-selling authors was interacting with other attendees I got to know at a deeper level. In part this was due to something called the Paleo Posse, a conference-initiated concept which connected a random group of attendees before the weekend by sharing our contact information. We were given free reign to meet up and socialize, and that we did.
Our “official” plans were to meet up for dinner Saturday night, but a few of us decided to grab lunch on Friday as well. Despite this being a nutrition conference, there was a paucity of food in the area itself, so we all went to a nearby taco truck. This was where I learned lesson #1 about the Paleo community: Very few people view Paleo as diet dogma! Everyone in the group was down to eat tacos, despite the tortillas, which are not “strictly Paleo.” We also saw Robb Wolf and others order from the truck, which was refreshing to see. Now, I’m not sure if they picked the meat out of their tacos and discarded the tortillas, but I do know the truck ran out of corn tortillas right before I ordered. So I can only assume a few of them weren’t eating strict Paleo. Again, awesome. Food is meant to be enjoyed, so there’s no need to stress a strict diet. I was thrilled to see that tone set early on in the weekend.
On Saturday night, the whole crew got together. There was Steve (The Paleo Drummer), Kristen, Lisa, Adam, Morgan, Mireia, Aaron, and Jimmy Moore. Yes, that Jimmy Moore.* Despite warnings from Morgan, the local, we stopped at a suspect-looking barbecue joint a few minutes away from the conference center, and sat outside listening to some live music. The food was the definition of middle-of-the-road, but it was still a great time.
*Add Jimmy to the top of the list when discussing the humble, down-to-earth folks in the Paleo community. A successful entrepreneur and author, he’s also hilariously funny, and extremely approachable. I’ll also never feel bad about eating any amount of butter again, after seeing what this guy can do!
I really, really, enjoyed interacting with the Posse! Everyone had their own story to tell about how they came to be interested in Paleo, and no one was dogmatic or evangelical about it. It was refreshing to get to know a group of smart, intellectually curious, and health-conscious people. And if you’ve never heard a group of five or more Paleo folks ordering food at a restaurant, I highly recommend it for entertainment value alone. Can I have vegetables on the side? Is this sauce gluten-free? Do you use real butter?
Also, big thanks to my friend Jessica who gave me a tour of the Austin Whole Foods for lunch on Sunday. Definitely a must-see if you’re ever in town!
The weekend came to a close Sunday night, but not before I had the chance to take a walk with Evan Brand, host of the Not Just Paleo Podcast. Evan was a huge inspiration for me when I was recovering from my injury last year, and I spent a lot of time listening to his podcast interviews while holed up in my apartment. Like me, he’s an intellectually curious young guy, interested in exploring how to live a healthy and fulfilling life. After chatting about the conference, life, and exchanging several hugs (Evan is a huge hugger), he offered some sage advice: “Everything is the way it’s supposed to be right now. Some things will be messed up; it’s supposed to be that way. Just stay true to yourself, and you can do anything you want.” Amen, brotha.
After that inspirational walk with Evan, I got together with the remaining Posse crew for dinner at 24 Diner. One of the funniest moments of the weekend happened when Steve and I looked over at Jimmy, and saw he had unwrapped two sticks of Kerrygold Butter on the table in front of him. The food hadn’t arrived yet, so we were placing bets on whether he was eating the butter with a fork, or just anticipating adding it to his meal. Turns out it was the latter, but I’m going to selectively imagine it was really the former
We followed up dinner with a trip to Lick, an ice cream shop that serves entirely organic, no-artificial-anything added ice cream, with dairy from sustainably raised grass-fed cattle. I ordered the trifecta of Roasted Beets & Fresh Mint, Sweet Pea & Sorrel, and Dark Chocolate with Olive Oil & Sea Salt. Even Jimmy, on his 25g carbs/day ketogenic diet, had a scoop, once again enforcing the ethos of balance I recognized throughout the weekend.
Wrapping It All Up
What an amazing weekend. I only scratched the surface with this blog post, but I hope it shed some light into what Paleo is all about. You may have noticed a few themes beyond food, including:
- Continuous learning
No one is perfect, and even the “experts” will admit they don’t know everything. The best we can do is enjoy the journey we’re on, surround ourselves with great people, and eat real food.
Last weekend I was fortunate enough to experience all three.