Those nice folk at Profile Books have allowed us to reproduce the first chapter of Louise Foxcroft‘s fantastic book on the history of dieting, published earlier this year. Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting Over 2000 Years (Profile, 2012) gives a whirlwind overview of how the practice of dieting has changed over time.
The Greek word diaita, from which our word ‘diet’ derives, described a whole way of life rather than referring to a narrow, weight-loss regimen. It provided an all-round mental and physical way to health, basic to one’s very existence and success. Greek and Roman physicians knew that how the body functioned was largely dependent on what an individual ate, and that different foods could affect people in different ways. The whole foundation of Western medical science relied on diatetica, the fundamental healing therapy of a regimen of certain foods. Being too fat, or too thin, was therefore seen as a sure sign of an unhealthy body, an imbalance of its essential ‘humours’ (of which there were four: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm). Fat women, for example, were said to find it difficult to conceive, and recent medical studies have confirmed this. Fat men were believed more likely to die earlier, and modern cardiological science has again shown this to be true.
The Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates (c.460– 370 BC) relied on experience and philosophy to discern the truth about human frailties and was as uncompromising about our bodies as he was rational about his prescriptions. His Corpus Hippocraticum recommends the observation of nature and the study of evidence in the search for causes of disease. There were two main areas to study: alimentation (the nourishment of life) and the environment we inhabit. Hippocrates understood that the underlying principles of health were food and exercise, or work, and that a high food intake meant that a lot of hard work was needed for it to be properly assimilated. A failure to balance an excess of either would upset the body’s metabolism and disease would surely follow. ‘Man,’ he wrote, ‘cannot live healthily on food without a certain amount of exercise.’ Walking was considered a natural exercise and, even though it ‘partakes somewhat of the violent kind’, if you did it after eating it would prevent the accumulation of abdominal fat, especially if you walked extra fast. More ‘violent’ exercise, including running long distances and gradually increasing your exertions, helped to burn off excess food in the body and was thought ‘suitable for people who eat too much’, along with the ‘induction of vomiting’ which he considered especially beneficial.
Click this link to download, ‘The Origins of the Diet’, Chapter 1 of Calories and Corsets.