caveman and modern healthy man

Archaeologist and chef Dr. Bill Schindler has looked at primitive behaviors to help us maximize our health.

Bill Schindler, Ph.D., is an archaeologist, primitive technologist, and chef. He brought each of these unique skill sets together to write his new book Eat Like a Human: Nourishing Foods and Ancient Ways of Cooking to Revolutionize Your Health. The book delves into how as humans, we have lost touch with where our food comes from and how it’s made, which is part of what leads to things like mindless eating. We spoke with Dr. Schindler about how to reconnect with your food in order to stay healthy, the foods that you should try to avoid, and how to navigate the grocery store.

How to eat like a human to improve your health

Processed foods are the problem

According to Dr. Schindler, eating like a human connects to technological advances. “Humans are biologically one of the weakest species on the planet, and we have one of the least efficient digestive tracks,” he explains. “So over three and a half million years, our ancestors used technology and innovation to overcome these limitations. We have introduced foods into our diet in specific ways that make them as safe and nourishing as possible in order to support the massive body and brain growth. That’s what built us as a species.”

So, what exactly does that mean, and where did we go wrong as a species? Well at first, this technology was life-changing. Humans figured out processes like cooking and fermentation, which helped diversify our diets to make sure they were made of a variety of foods that were safe, nutrient-dense, and bioavailable. “As a species,” says Dr. Schindler, “we figured out that the best way to truly nourish ourselves was if we processed some of our food outside of our bodies so that we could absorb nutrients more efficiently.” As time has gone on we have gotten increasingly better at using technology to process our food, and problems started to occur when we took these technological advances too far. “If we started processing food to make it safer, nutrient-dense, and bioavailable, the modern food industry is doing the exact opposite when they process our food,” says Dr. Schindler. “Food processing today is not for the benefit of the consumer, but is often at the expense of their health in order to increase shelf life of a food, make it less expensive and easy to mass-produce and ship, and keep it looking uniform.” Most humans have lost any sort of direct connection to the food they eat, so they often don’t even know where it’s coming from, how it’s processed, or what it’s made of.

If you can’t start from scratch, read the label

Dr. Schindler says the best place to start is in the kitchen. “Choose something that you eat all the time, or even eat every day, something like bread or macaroni and cheese, and make it entirely from scratch. That will give you a connection to that food you won’t get anywhere else.” This will help you to understand not just exactly what’s in the food you’re eating (and maybe change some eating habits — if you decide to make something like a hotdog from scratch you might never eat one again!), but it will help you be a more informed consumer.

Dr. Schindler offers this example: “If you eat bread, the healthiest, purest form of bread you can make is sourdough. If you’ve made sourdough bread from scratch, you know it is made through a combination of yeast fermentation, which makes the bread rise, and lactic fermentation, which transforms the bread into something that’s a lot safer and more nourishing for our bodies. But there is no FDA regulation when it comes to labeling sourdough bread, so when you buy it at the grocery store it’s usually nothing more than white bread with a bit of added lactic acid to make it taste sour.” If you know how sourdough is made, as soon as you turn over the loaf and see the ingredient label on the back you’ll know immediately if it’s real or not, he says. “But if you’ve never made sourdough before and just know it’s supposed to be better for you, you’re likely just going to choose whatever bread is labeled sourdough at the store.”

Surprisingly, Dr. Schindler says certain dairy products like cheese can be great for you…as long as you make it yourself, or at least know exactly how the cheese is made. He gives mozzarella cheese as an example: “Making mozzarella cheese is a real undertaking. You start by fermenting milk, and lactic acid builds up as bacteria eat the lactose in the milk. When it hits an exact pH level, you heat it up and you can stretch it. This takes eight to ten hours, and by the end of the process essentially all of the lactose has burned off, so it’s safe to consume for most people who are lactose intolerant.” Sounds reasonable enough, but then why do so many people who are lactose intolerant have an issue with pizza?

The answer is that not everyone wants to wait ten hours for their cheese to ferment, so someone came up with a hack. Dr. Schindler explains, “if you’ve ever seen a 30-minute mozzarella recipe online, you’ll notice that instead of going through that long fermentation process, which transforms the dairy into something different, you can instantly drop the pH by adding vinegar or citric acid.” This will give you something that looks, tastes, and smells almost exactly like real mozzarella cheese but is still full of lactose. “If the ingredients in your store-bought mozzarella say vinegar, lactic acid, or citric acid, it hasn’t gone through the right process. If it says cheese cultures or active bacteria on the back, then it has gone through the proper process.” Surprisingly, it’s more likely that the 89 cent cheese sticks you might put in your kid’s lunchbox are real mozzarella than the high price ball of cheese floating in water with an Italian flag on the label. “Don’t fall victim to pretty packaging,” warns Dr. Schneider.

The best and worst foods for connecting with your primitive self

For the best, Dr. Schindler has an immediate answer: “I think one of the world’s most perfect food is an egg. It’s easy to buy. It’s cheap. It’s easy to cook in a number of different ways, and it’s nutritious.” He feels the same way about real cheese. “It tastes amazing, and you can buy it almost anywhere. Just do your research — a processed cheese like American cheese isn’t real cheese. Make sure you’re getting something like swiss, or real mozzarella.”

In terms of the worst, the umbrella is a bit bigger. First, Dr. Schindler suggests removing all refined or artificial sugars from your diet and replacing them with honey or maple syrup.

But the biggest no-no on his list is anything that contains industrial nut or seed oil, like canola oil, corn oil, or sunflower oil. “The only oils we have in our house are olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil. Avocado oil and olive oil are both fruit oils. Although coconut oil is a nut oil, it doesn’t require intensive heat, pressure, or chemicals to extract.” That means in the grocery store, you’re ruling out essentially any snack foods that come out of a bag.

What to buy from the grocery store

When Dr. Schindler and his family go to the grocery store, “we don’t get anything from the canned section at all,” he says. “I’m a strong advocate of connection to our food, and when something has been canned, it not only has a ton of preservatives and chemicals in it, but you’re so far removed from the food that there’s no physical or emotional connection at all.”

When it comes to meat, Dr. Schindler’s biggest piece of advice is that if it doesn’t look like an animal, don’t buy it. “We try to buy whole chickens or a whole pork shoulder if possible, or the whole fish. From a nutritional standpoint, the blood, fat, organs, and marrow are the most nutrient-dense parts of the animal.” But he says there’s an emotional and cultural aspect to this choice as well. “If I bring home a chicken breast, it’s hard to make the association that this was once a living, breathing animal. There’s a responsibility that comes with consuming meat to connect to the animal that died in order to nourish you. If you have that type of respect for the animal, you’re less likely to waste parts of it.”

When it comes to the fruits and veggies aisle, Dr. Schindler’s answer might surprise you. While most people assume all fruits and veggies are good for us, so we can eat them with abandon, Dr. Schindler says this is the wrong approach. “We should be approaching plants in our diet the same way we’re approaching animals: from a nutritional, ethical, and sustainability perspective,” he advises. “There are certain plants that we have been told are wonderful but actually have a ton of toxins in them. Two examples of this are spinach and almonds. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with spinach if you ate it for the few weeks out of the year when it grows naturally. And if you had to individually de-shell each almond you consumed, that would be fine.” The problem, says Dr. Schindler, is that we now have spinach readily available in fresh and frozen forms, 365 days a year, and almonds available in mass quantities in butter and milk forms. These foods both contain high amounts of oxalates, which is a plant toxin that, when viewed under a microscope, looks like tiny shards of glass, Dr. Schindler explains. “If consumed in mass quantities, they can build up in our body and wreak all sorts of havoc from arthritis to kidney stones. But when these are marketed as superfoods, the uninformed consumer is just going to say, ‘the more the better.’”

If Dr. Schindler wants you to take anything away from his new book, it’s that we just need to be aware of what we’re eating. “We should never put food into our mouths that we know nothing about. That’s why I’m such an advocate for learning how to cook from scratch. Nobody’s trying to sell you something in your own kitchen.”

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