For many, modern life comes with a host of creature comforts — ready access to food (and lots of it), technology that keeps us connected, vehicles that transport us anywhere we need to go, shows and apps to keep us entertained, and cutting edge medical procedures and pharmaceuticals to keep us kicking.
Of course, we can’t even imagine functioning without many of these, but with all that’s been gained over the last several centuries, it’s hard not to notice what has been lost. Regular movement, downtime and sleep, meaningful social connection, time in nature, and minimally processed foods are no longer seamlessly integrated into our lives as they once were, much to the detriment of our overall vitality.
And yes, while we may live longer than we did 100+ years ago when the leading causes of death were things like tuberculosis and pneumonia, there has been a significant uptick in chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer — which are, to a considerable extent, preventable. All of which is to say, our lifespan may be increasing, but our health-span is not. And our lifestyles are largely to blame.
The difference between our modern lives and the way things were becomes strikingly apparent when you take a look at the daily life of the Hadza, or Hadzabe — an indigenous tribe of Tanzania that happens to be one of the last remaining groups of hunter-gatherers on the planet, and whose habits have remained essentially unchanged for the past 10,000 years.
About 200 of the roughly 2,200 Hadza that remain adhere to a strictly nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They survive on foraged plants and animals hunted with handmade bows and arrows. Living in temporary grass and stick shelters, the Hadza people represent a fascinating link to a past way of life, abandoned by much of the modern world.
For this reason, the Hadza have become a focus of study for anthropologists and scientists, who have gained meaningful insight into their daily lives, and how their habits may have a significant positive impact on physical and mental health (spoiler: the Hadza have some of the healthiest, most diverse gut microbiomes out there, which is reason enough to be curious!).
So, you may be wondering, what lessons can we learn and what realistic habits can we adopt from the Hadza to better ourselves and boost overall vitality?
Turns out, quite a few. Here are 6 ways the Hadza can teach us to live in greater harmony with nature, our own bodies, and each other — no foraging required.
1. Ditch the Nutrient-Poor Processed Foods.
The Hadza diet is primarily plant-based, including things like berries, fiber-rich tubers, baobab fruit and seeds, leafy green foliage, and marula nuts, but also contains honey (including honeycomb and even small amounts of bee larvae) and meat from birds, porcupine, and wild game. The Hadza consume no processed foods or agriculturally farmed foods — their diet is as natural as it gets! It’s high in fiber and phytochemicals, and low in processed sugars, all of which contribute to the fact that the Hadza experience almost no autoimmune diseases, obesity, diabetes, colon cancer, Crohn’s disease, and other chronic ailments.
Dr. Bill Rawls, MD, medical director of Vital Plan believes that one particularly beneficial aspect of the Hadza diet may be its relatively high levels of phytochemicals — natural chemicals found in plants, which have potent antioxidant properties and offer protection against harmful microbes, free radicals, and toxic substances. Many modern Westernized diets, on the other hand, are notoriously low in phytochemicals and often contain high levels of sugars, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats (e.g. trans fats). These highly processed diets, in turn, have been associated with everything from diabetes to heart disease to premature death.
Eliminating or greatly reducing your intake of grain-derived processed foods and sugar, and eating more nutrient-dense whole foods that our ancestors would recognize can go a long way in boosting phytochemical intake and enhancing health. Examples include berries, nuts, seeds, greens, sweet potatoes, fish, and some meats. According to Dr. Rawls, many herbs such as turmeric, rhodiola, and reishi also pack a phytochemical punch.
2. Eat a Greater Variety of Fiber-Rich Plants.
It’s believed that the Hadza people have some of the healthiest gut microbiomes on the planet — and as we now know, a healthy gut microbiome, with a high diversity of microbial species, is crucial for not only digestive health, but immune health, metabolism, and mental health, too.
In a 2017 study, researchers analyzed 350 stool samples from the Hadza and compared them to samples from 17 other cultures around the world. Results revealed that the further away people’s diets were from a Western processed diet, the greater variety of gut microbes they had. In fact, research suggests that the Hadza have around 40% more microbial biodiversity in their gut than Americans.
Experts suspect that the Hadza’s exceptionally high fiber intake is a main contributor to their robust gut microbiomes — fiber is fuel for your healthy gut microbes, allowing them to multiply and produce health-promoting compounds like short-chain fatty acids. A 2014 study revealed that a typical Hadza diet contains a whopping 150 grams of fiber per day. Most Americans, on the other hand, get just 10-15 grams per day, when the recommended minimum is 25-38 grams.
The Hadza diet consists of about 70% plant foods, including tubers that contain a range of indigestible fibers that are ideal gut fuel. But fiber alone isn’t the only important factor — for greater microbial diversity, eating fiber from a variety of plant sources, which also provide gut-friendly phytochemical compounds, is believed to help feed a diverse array of gut bacteria. So, a good basic rule is: Eat a variety of plants to cultivate a variety of beneficial gut flora. This concept is supported by research from 2018, which found that people who ate more than 30 different plant types per week had a healthier gut microbiome than those who ate fewer than 10.
Add more fiber to your diet by focusing on whole, fiber-rich plant foods such as leafy greens, berries, cruciferous veggies, Jerusalem artichoke, avocado, beans, and lentils. Light sautées and salads are a great way to include loads of different plant foods into a single meal.
3. Incorporate More Functional Movement into Your Day.
While the Hadza don’t exercise for the sake of exercising, they have no shortage of physical activity. Because they don’t grow or store any food, the Hadza go out every single day to forage and hunt. This means crafting bows and arrows, walking (and sometimes running) to hunt down animals, bending and digging to unearth tubers, reaching up to pull baobab fruit from tree branches, and carrying their load back to camp. This functional movement is sprinkled throughout their day (and happens every day), which is in stark contrast to the hours of desk-sitting TV-watching that many people in modern society engage in.
Interestingly, the Hadza also spend a considerable amount of time not moving — around 10 hours per day. But for about 20% of this downtime, they’re actually squatting and still engaging their muscles, according to a 2020 study.
To get more movement (and muscle engagement) throughout your day — which is likely more beneficial than cramming in a single intense workout session — go for periodic walks, get up from your desk now and then to do light stretching or yoga, do a few squats or pushups while your coffee reheats in the microwave, do some calf raises while working at a standing desk, pull weeds from your garden, or even just vacuum and dust your home. Any type of regular physical activity can help stimulate feel-good hormones in the brain, boost the immune system, strengthen the heart and lungs, promote a healthy weight, and boost life expectancy.
4. Don’t Just Admire Nature, Interact with It.
Unlike many of us, there is literally no separation between the Hadza and their natural environment — they’re in constant contact with the earth when walking barefoot or pulling plants from the ground, with animals when hunting, and with each other — and this is extremely beneficial for both physical and mental health.
Our bodies aren’t meant to live in sterile environments, and so this ‘oneness’ with nature is yet another reason the Hadza have such robust and healthy gut microbiomes. Time in nature is also associated with improved mood and reduced anxiety and depression, and may be a key reason the Hadza have been described as extremely friendly and happy people.
To maximize overall wellbeing, combine time spent in nature with physical activity: Head out for a nature hike, get dirt under your fingernails while gardening, or play a game of fetch outside with your pup.
5. Live in the Present Moment.
The Hadza have nailed the art of living in the moment. They actually live without calendars and have no words for days of the week or months of the year. Rather, their sense of passing time comes from seasonal shifts in plant growth and habits of animals. According to people who have spent time with the Hadza, they take each day as it comes and do not worry about the future, and they trust that their needs will be met by nature.
Of course, in modernized society full of work, family, and social obligations, this can be tough. But being more mindful and devoting our attention to the present — rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future — has clear stress-reduction benefits; and lower levels of stress, in turn, can improve everything from emotional wellbeing to heart and digestive health.
How exactly can you be more in the moment? Periodically engaging in activities like meditating, reading, journaling, crafting, building something, or engaging in any pastime that creates a sense of calm (and gets you out of your own head) can help lower your cortisol levels and promote overall wellbeing.
6. Embrace Downtime and Rest.
For how active the Hadza people are when they’re foraging plant foods or on the hunt, they also know the value of rest and still spend a considerable amount of time during the day not moving. This provides ample time to rest their hard-working bodies, socialize with each other, and experience downtime that’s (obviously) not filled with energy-sapping technology.
The Hadza also get plenty of sleep. In a recent study of 28 Hadza tribesmen and tribeswomen, researchers found that, on average, they went to bed around 10 p.m. and woke up around 7 a.m. — for a total of 9 hours of sleep. An absence of sleep-disrupting smartphones, TVs, and other technology allows the Hadza to tie their sleep patterns to the rising and falling of the sun.
Quality sleep is essential for balancing your body’s circadian rhythms and promoting overall health, as it allows every system in your body to essentially restore itself, according to Dr. Rawls. Aim for at least 7-8 hours per night — and steer clear of technology before bed, which contains blue light that can throw off your circadian rhythms and interfere with restful slumber.
While we may not want to adapt to the Hadza’s way of life entirely, we can learn valuable lessons from this tribe that may help offset some common ailments of modern life.
Eating a diverse, minimally processed, plant-heavy diet rich in fiber and phytochemicals that nourish our entire being, particularly the gut; being more intentional with how we spend our precious mental energy; and connecting with our natural surroundings are all basic habits that can go a long way in channeling the health benefits of the past without giving up the perks of the present.