Five Questions About Eating Like a Human
In this live interview, SAPIENS Media and Public Outreach Fellow Yoli Ngandali asks archaeologist, primitive technologist, and chef Bill Schindler about his new book, Eat Like a Human: Nourishing Foods and Ancient Ways of Cooking to Revolutionize Your Health. Watch and learn about his mission to preserve and revive ancestral dietary approaches to create nourishing, ethical, and sustainable food systems.
Hello and welcome everyone. We are going to wait a couple of minutes to let everybody come on in and then we will get started. Perfect, come on in, come on in. We are just going to wait a second here. Welcome, welcome. Just another moment here. Perfect.
Hello and welcome, everyone. My name is Yoli Ngandali. And I’m the media and public outreach fellow for SAPIENS and I’m here today with Dr. Bill Schindler. Bill is an internationally known archeologist, primitive technologist and chef. He founded and, excuse me, he founded and directs the Eastern Shore Food Lab with a mission to preserve and revive ancestral dietary approaches to create nourishing ethical and sustainable food systems.
He is also an adjunct associate professor of archeology at University College Dublin. Schindler’s work is currently the focus of wired magazine’s YouTube series basic instincts and food science and he costarred in the Great Human Race in 171 countries.
Now he is here with us to talk about his brand new book, Eat Like a Human: Nourishing Foods and Ancient Ways of Cooking to Revolutionize Your Health. We are so happy to have Bill here with us today. But one more thing before we get started. I want to encourage you to click the link in the chat to join our SAPIENS newsletter.
This newsletter delivers news stories about humans in our world every Friday. If you have any questions for Bill during our time here today, please add them using the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen, and we will try to answer them at the end.
So hello, all right, nice to see you. Welcome, Bill. Thanks for being here and spending some time with us.
>> BILL SCHINDLER: It is my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
>> YOLI NGANDALI: We are going to get right into it. Hopefully we can get through quite a few questions today. Congratulations on the publication of eat Like a Human. That’s such an intriguing title. What does it mean to eat like a human?
>> BILL SCHINDLER: That’s such a great question. You know, it’s interesting that we humans have to feel like we have to hire somebody to tell us how to eat. We are the only species on the planet that feels like we have to have somebody else inform us how to eat. And meanwhile, at the same time we have been hiring all these nutritionists and doctors and there’s never been so many books and diets out there that there are right now about food.
We are more unhealthy than we have ever been as a species because of the way we feed ourselves. So it may seem so, you know, to just say oh, eat like a human, but really we have strayed an incredibly far distance away from what it does mean to eat like a human. So what it means to eat like a human is this. To me, we need to recognize that humans have one of the least FESHT digestive tracts of any animal on the planet.
And we require technology to do something to our food before we put it in our mouths and that counts for almost all the resources we consider food. On the things we need to do using these technologies, we need to accomplish three goals, one to make food safe, to make it bio available and to make food as nutrient dense as possible.
We think of ourselves humans as omnivores and we are. But what we failed to recognize is that we are not omnivores by design. We are omnivores by technology. In fact, the only food that we are probably perfectly designed to consume without any other intervention is raw dairy from our mothers, full stop, raw dairy from our mothers and that’s only for a short period of time when we are infants and we obvious lose that ability.
Just anything we eat requires some technological innovation to overcome our limitations.
>> YOLI NGANDALI: Yeah, let’s talk a little bit more about that. So in your book, you take the biological and evolutionary perspective when we are talking about technological advances, specifically in cooking and food preparation. So I have two related questions on that. Do we have the same nutritional needs as our ancient homonym ancestors, and two, why was hunting and cooking technology such a breakthrough for humans?
>> BILL SCHINDLER: Sure. So yes. I do believe that we have the same biological, the basic biological needs as our hunter-gathererer ancestors. Now there’s a lot of people who would take a statement like that and begin to pick it apart and say no, no, no, we probably have different caloric requirements because if you take an active hunter gather 40,000, one hundred thousand years ago compared to a couch potato today, there’s different caloric requirements.
And perhaps, but we are bogged down on calories when we are trying to make dietary decisions. We never even knew what a calorie was until the late 1800s when Charles Atwater invented a calorimeter. We have been doing a good job without any understanding of calories or fat or protein.
So if we can take a step away from this overused, you know, currency of calories in dietary choices and really look at the things that we need to worry about to nourish ourselves, right, things like for instance are we getting the right kinds of nutrition in the right state for our bodies? Is it the right kind of fat? Are we getting the right kind of protein and omega3 and 6? We have 18 times the amount of omega 6’s to 3’s in our diets.
And we believe hunter-gatherers had closer to a one-to-1 ratio. These come from incredibly high quality fats and other really animal sources for food. So if we really take a step away from things that are easy to calculate and are overused in dietary choices like calories and look at things like the right kind of food, food that’s digestible, food that’s safe for us, food that’s the right kinds of fat, then yes, we inhabit the same bodies essentially the same digestive tracts
as we had for probably three hundred thousand years. So I do believe we should be using our dietary past as a foundation to make modern dietary choices.
>> YOLI NGANDALI: Wow. That is very interesting. I feel like I learned a lot even from just that short little thing. You said something about making food safe. Does that mean cooking food?
>> BILL SCHINDLER: Well, it can. So remember if we are looking — if we stripped all the technologies away from our bodies, right now and literally and I use this example all the time. If I took anybody listening to this or watching this and stripped you down completely naked and threw you outside in the middle of whatever wilderness is outside of where you lived, and said live,
most of us especially at this time of year would end up dying of exposure depending where we live. But let’s say the climate was such that we could make it work, right. And just focused on feeding ourselves, I don’t care if you knew every single wild plant that was around you, the behavior pattern of all the animals that were around you.
If I said you need to live and nourish the body that you inhabit, these relatively large bodies with massively huge nutrient-needy brains, we couldn’t do it. We began to outgrow our bodies and our digestive tracts beginning three and a half million years ago when we made our first stone tools, right.
So that’s, we do things outside of our bodies to our food whether it’s cooking or fermenting or drying or curing or whatever we are doing to it before it goes into our mouths. Other animals are biologically equipped to eat the diets that they eat. And I know this kind of went around your question for a second, but let me come back to it now.
We aren’t designed to, say, eat grains, for example. Humans are not designed to eat grains. It doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to include them as a safe and nourishing part of our diet. But, in fact, it’s incredibly dangerous for us, a nut, a legume or a grain or a seed, and take a raw one of those and put it in our mouths. In fact, depending on what kind of grain, nut, seed or legume it is, it could make us very, very sick.
And in some cases if we had too many of them, it could kill us. Red kidney beans are a great example. Just three or four could land up in the hospital. . They are that toxic. We could do things to detoxify them and make them safer for our human consumption and our digestive tracts.
Carnivorous birds like ducks and geese have a crop or crop-like structure which is where the grains they consume sit and soak and ferment and sometimes even sprout before it enters the rest of their digestive tract. And the chemical and physical changes that happen in that crop make those seeds or grains safe for their consumption.
We can do those sorts of things by sprouting seeds or soaking them or even making things like sourdough bread to accomplish the same. So that’s just one example. But we have to understand especially in the plant world all plants have some toxin in them at some revel. Some are fine and benign, some will kill us outright and some build up in our bodies over time. If we don’t do the right kinds of things, they can cause us problems.
Cooking is one method of detoxification depending on what we are trying to accomplish and the resource that we have access to.
>> YOLI NGANDALI: Thank you, thank you for that explanation. I appreciate that. We are going to move into question number 3 here. Your research addresses questions about the complex relationship between humans and the food that we eat. So we talked a little bit about this.
And I found your story about sugar to be particularly motivating. What is your own relationship to foods like sugar and chocolate and what does it suggest about how we can make these safe food choices?
>> BILL SCHINDLER: Well, that relationship as you mentioned is incredibly complex. The human relationship with food is the most complex dietary relationship in all of the world. And part of that is because we have like I said earlier outgrown our digestive tract. We began to domesticate ourselves and require technologies to adequately nourish ourselves, right, beginning three and a half million years ago.
And we just got more and more complex over time. So humans have to not only ask the question what we should be eating, which is all animals whether they understand or not, ask that question of themselves. And we have to as well. They answer it very easily because through evolutionary processes, they are hardwired to listen and obey — obey isn’t the right word.
But they listen to their senses and they can choose the diet that’s right for them and their digestive tract. But we sort of screwed that up in a number of different ways over millions of years. One way is because we’ve outgrown our digestive tract and can make foods we have no busy eating safe and nourishing. But that requires to us ask that question, how should I be eating? What can I do to this food to make it as safe and nourishing as possible?
Which is what the book is all about. But there are other things that make our relationship with food complex. And I truly believe eating is one of the three truly sensual experiences in a human’s life, right. And actually in all animals’ lives. There’s three things we need to do any species needs to do to make sure they don’t go extinct. We have to be able to reproduce.
We have to protect ourselves and our offspring to make sure that happens properly and that offspring stays protected until child bearing age and can replicate that same process. And we all have to be fully nourished so that the baby comes to full term. The baby is nourished so it can take care of itself and live to child bearing age and replicate.
If you think about it, the three most sensual experiences in a human’s life or any animal’s life is reproduction or sex, nourishment and safety. And all three of those things, every sense you have are heightened. And when you do them right, they feel really, really good and when you do them wrong, they feel really, really bad. And it makes complete sense.
But with food, we don’t listen to our senses any longer. And in fact we start when we are babies getting taught to not listen to ourselves. We think about how crazy this is. Something we’ve normalized as just a part of human life, it’s insanity when you think about it from a 40,000 foot view level.
We take our kids after we’ve weaned them and put them in a highchair. And they are screaming, ravenously hungry and we put food in front of them. And the food we put in front of them, they spit it up and throw it across the room and scream and cry and have tantrums and we still continue to force it down their mouths.
What we are doing by doing that is forcing them to not listen to the senses, the senses that are a product of millions of years of evolution that have worked forever and we are forcing things like cream sterilized cream spinach from a jar and telling them they need to eat this even though their body is telling them they don’t want it.
Starting from that age, we are not listening to our senses. We are taught to listen to other people, parents doctors nutritionists. I’m not saying not to listen to doctors or nutritionists. But what I am suggesting is we have innately built into our bodies if we are in tune with our bodies and we are faced with nourishing food, I believe we have everything that we need to decide when we should start eating, when we should stop eating,
what we should eat, how much of it we should eat and all of the other decisions we need to make to nourish ourselves properly. But we force it away. And the other thing and I will get back directly to your question, I promise, is that we have food manufacturers from the modern industrial food system.
It’s not just people sitting there with knives and cutting boards and ovens. It’s also people with lab coats and test tubes that understand everything I just said and know how to tweak flavors and textures and other qualities of food to play on these evolutionary responses when we bite food to make us want to buy more and eat more.
Now we say how do we make decisions on how much sugar we should eat or if we should include chocolate in our diet. And what I tried to do in that last chapter which is all about sugar or that weird relationship we have with sugar is to, number one, take a little bit of pressure off of ourselves, right.
Food, when we nourish orselves, properly nourishment requires not only biological nourishment, we are fueling our bodies and the biological needs we have as humans, but also especially because of that complex relationship, we have to nourish our emotional needs and our cultural needs as well.
And that’s where it becomes really complicated. There is no biological requirement in our human body to have sugar. None. But there are emotional and cultural needs that can be satisfied by including it. And what I wanted it show was that, you know what? If you are going to have sugar, if you are going to have chocolate, there are ways to include it in your diet in the most nourishing ways possible.
And there are ways to do it. I have a complex relationship with it. I’m not a huge chocolate fan, so I don’t have a huge issue with chocolate. But sugar is one of those — sugar and carbohydrates in general are one of those triggers that if I had some, my body just wants more.
So I need to make sure that when we include sugar or any sweetener in my diet my family’s diet or here in the lab where we produce the foods that are in this book, one stance is we have no refined sugars whatsoever so fully unredefined sugar like high-quality maple sure or high quality raw honey, they all do the same thing to your blood sugar.
But the nice thing about the unrefined version of these sweeteners is you are at least getting something good with T there’s mineral or enzymes or something beneficial about including it in your diet. So a little bit of that sugar helps satisfy the emotional or cultural needs you might have, but also does provide something else beneficial.
>> YOLI NGANDALI: Right, right. I really like the idea of being able to eat a little bit more intuitively and really be able to understand the differences between some of these biological needs and also the cultural and social needs. Thank you so much. If anybody else has some questions for Bill, make sure to put them in the Q&A.
And so, yeah, I just want to know a little bit more about you, Bill. What is your own story and what are some important things we should know about you and your work as an archeologist, as a chef, as a technologist? Who are you?
>> BILL SCHINDLER: That’s a great question. I have always been interested in food my entire life. And one of the reasons is I just loved being in the kitchen with my mother and my grandmothers. I loved preparing food and feeding people. So I have always had that interest in food. But at the same time itched this incredibly unhealthy relationship with food my entire life.
I was an overweight kid that at the time I saw food as something that really made me, made me look a certain way so that other kids would make fun of me and then I ended up becoming an athlete in high school and college. I wrestled. My body changed and shape, I looked like an athlete, but the diet I was eating wasn’t the most nourishing one possible.
And I traded an unhealthy relationship with food for another. Now food wasn’t necessarily something that made me look a certain way. It was actually something that was preventing me from making weight and competing. When I graduated college and stopped being an athlete, and can still sit on that same unhealthy diet all the weight came back on. I had a metabolic disease and lots of issues.
And my entire life I have been asking that question, what I should be eating. And I realized that that question is unanswerable for humans without that other question, how should I be eating? And when I blended archeology and anthropology and my work in the kitchen all together, I finally was able to understand what makes the way humans feed themselves and any other animal.
Now I’m 48 years old and I have never been healthier in my entire life. That includes when I was a division I athlete and this book is the way of taking what my wife and I have learned over a combined century and share it with everyone else.
>> YOLI NGANDALI: That’s really excellent. I a.
question quick from the audience going back to sugar from Robin Shannon. Why should I not listen to my body if it says it wants sugar?
>> BILL SCHINDLER: A-hah! I knew somebody was going to ask that question. One of the other things we’ve done, though, however, is we have changed the entire food scape and landscape within which we are trying to make these decisions about how to feed ourselves.
So a lot of the things that were limiting factors for the entirety of our existence are not limiting factors anymore. So things like, I was with the Hadsa (phonetic) in Tanzania a few years ago. It was an amazing experience when I was living with them. They have literal nothing sweet in their diet except for honey.
And it’s such a chore for them to get the honey. Thankfully they are made by bees that are stingless bees. So they don’t have to worry about getting stung. This is raw honey and when they find it they have to chop it out of the tree and it takes forever and you share with everyone.
So do they relish this honey? Absolutely. But it’s incredibly difficult for them to access it. And it’s incredibly rare for them to access it. But now because of everything from, you know, the modern food industry to government subsidies on farming and the way we can ship stuff around the world and underpaid labor and all of the other things that go on in our modern food system, sugar is one of the cheapest things for us to have access to.
So we are not playing in the same — under the same rules. We are playing under the same rules. But we are playing a completely different game. The field has changed. Another great example, I will give you two that I think are really important, one, nuts. So we think of nuts as healthy and there are incredible nourishment we can get from nuts.
But nuts are essentially in the same category as legumes and seeds. They do the same thing and they have all sorts of issues that we need to be aware of. One of the issues is oxalates which are a toxin that can build up in our bodies over time and cause all sorts of issues including arthritis, pseudogout, kidney stones, calcium deposits, all sorts of issues.
Almonds are a huge, probably one of the highest foods in our diets that have oxalates in them. Now, if you think about, if anybody’s ever even just gone out and gathered nuts and cracked open the shells and pulled out the nut meat and eaten one, it’s a chore. It’s worth it. They taste good. They are filling. They have good protein and fat. But it’s a chore.
And there’s a limiting factor in being able to do that. But now we can go to a big box store and get shelled nuts in a bag for a cheap price. We tout almonds as a health food and we can eat massive quantities. We don’t have the stopgap of processing that’s required.
But what’s even worse is that now we have something called almond milk which we’ve somehow placed in the same category as milk. People are using it as a milk replacer, feeling very good about it from a nutritional or ethical or even sustainability perspective. And what it turns out it fails in all of those categories, but most importantly we are eating incredible doses of oxalates.
You can get it cheap. We drink massive quantity of almond milk. For the first time ever we have kids under the age of ten presenting with kidney stones in families where they are replacing all of their milk with almond milk. So I just say that because the sugar is a great example.
But it happens across the board whether there’s no more seasonality in plants. We are taking out the things that would have prevented us from overconsuming foods. So it’s complicated.
>> YOLI NGANDALI: Wow. We are getting closer to the end of time. I am going to do one more question from the audience real quick here from Jessica. How do you deal with the inherent fab phobia in your own research?
>> BILL SCHINDLER: Such a great question. The fat thing is a huge issue. As some of you are watching may know, the earliest example of fat in the human or ancestors’ diet comes from 3.4 million years ago where we have evidence of busting open bones from marrow. We have evidence of saturated fat in our diets for 3.4 million years. And we have consuming industrial nuts for over a hundred years.
And I along with many other people think that one of the worst things the modern Western diet, the industrial nut and seed oils, but it is a fight that has been really difficult to fight for the past 30 or 40 years because the rest of the world or the rest of the dietary world has waged this battle on saturated fat and wanted us to replace it with industrial nut and seed oils and things like margarine which are made in labs and deodorized and colored changes and all this.
It was a difficult fight. But up until more recent times it’s becoming much easier, not much easier, but it’s becoming easier now. Even the American Heart Association has come out and reversed their stance on saturated fat. So I’m finding at least in the medical community certainly some of the old-time doctors are sticking with don’t eat any butter and don’t eat any lard, but eat the nut and seed oils.
You are never going to change them. But the more difficult thing I think in that fight is we have such a plant-forward trend happening right now, and I’m not saying whether that’s good or bad. But in terms of high-quality saturated fats, they come from animal sources. And it’s more of a battle of trying to accomplish three or four different things at the same time when you say, well, you need this and yes, if you approach animals in a certain way, it can be ethical and sustainable.
And it can be nourishing. And still at the same time while rejecting the modern industrial meat industry and all this. So it is incredibly complicated. I will say I don’t have a direct answer, but it is worth the fight. And we need to be incredibly scared of industrial nut and seed oils.
>> YOLI NGANDALI: Oh, well thank you so much. We are just about out of time. Thank you, thank you Bill for being here. I appreciate you taking the time to join us and enlighten us on all of this.
>> BILL SCHINDLER: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure to talk with you. And thank you all for listening. And I hope I was able to plant a few seeds.
>> YOLI NGANDALI: To wrap things up I am going to share my screen just one more time here. All right. So to read the excerpt of Bill’s book go to SAPIENS org and the link is in the chat for that. And if this conversation has piqued your interest, please, please go buy his book.
It’s available on all major book selling platforms and linked at Eat Like a Human.com. And finally, please join us for our next event. We are going to have five questions for archeologist and author Dr. David Wengrow. The registration link is in the chat as well. We will send that out on social media.
He will be discussing his new book. That life Q&A is going to be on December 15th at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. So that’s it. That’s all, folks. Thanks again, Bill.
>> BILL SCHINDLER: Thank you so much.