The ancient history of dieting: what can we learn?

Ancient History of Dieting

Dieting and the wider issues that it speaks to are so closely intertwined with popular culture that they have become impossible to avoid. Regrettably, in the money-driven, social media society that we live in, the ideas about diets that we engage with on a daily basis are not always accurate or healthy.

By taking a look back at a simpler time in history we can dispel diet myths to better understand how the human race has developed an unhealthy relationship with dieting and identify where it all went wrong.

Origins of the ‘Diet’

There is much we can learn from dieting in ancient history. In fact, the word ‘diet’ comes from the Greek ‘diatia’ which means ‘way of living.’ In Ancient Greek society, their way of living placed significant importance on self-control and moderation.

Unfortunately, the meaning of diet in modern life has come to represent something far removed from moderation. Diet fad’s and quick fixes have plagued the health and food industries for decades now.

When we take a look at the relationship ancient societies had with food and health, there is much we can learn or perhaps rediscover in the 21st century.

Food and health in Ancient Civilisation

Diet and food played a central role in the success of empires throughout ancient history. An important aspect of the Romans, the Greeks and the Egyptians territorial dominance was their ability to keep their people well-fed and healthy, both in terms of keeping the masses happy to prevent revolt and achieving military success.

We can identify a number of similarities between these ancient societies in their practices relating to diet and food.

Broadly speaking, the diets across these ancient civilisations were varied and balanced. Inevitably, there were exceptions to this trend which were often a result of location and class. In these ancient civilisations, those who could afford it would eat a diet that included meats, grains, vegetables, fruit and dairy.

Prevalence of fish in ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt

An interesting commonality exists in the consumption of fish. Central to the ancient Roman diet were fish sauces that were eaten by all classes in society. In Ancient Greece, the Mediterranean Sea offered a fantastic supply of fish which they would routinely dine on including sea bream and sardines. Fish was also a prevalent aspect of the Ancient Egyptian diet where they would often salt fish and allow them to dry in the sun in the interest of preservation.

Fish is a low-fat, high-quality protein containing omega 3 and a number of vitamins. We can certainly learn from the reliance on fish in the ancient world by incorporating it into our diets where possible as a protein that will contribute to a healthy lifestyle.

Whether it be in a fish sauce, like the Romans, or a plate of fresh sardines like the Greeks, we all have the opportunity to enjoy fish as part of a healthy diet.

Health benefits of eating fish

  • High in omega-3 fatty acids for optimal brain function
  • High in vitamin D to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy
  • High quality protein to support muscle growth

Understanding portion size

Another important lesson we can learn particularly from ancient Greece extends to not just what we consume but how much we consume. Principles of moderation are evident throughout the history of ancient Greece in the case of both food and drink.

The Greeks romantic attitude toward food drove the view that the purpose of a meal was to satisfy the palate rather than fill the stomach. By viewing food in this way, the emphasis was placed on variety over quantity which in turn promoted a healthy and balanced diet.

These days it’s easy to let huge portion sizes become the norm, to resist this we can focus on enjoying a variety of foods rather than eating such large portions.

The Greek view on moderation is surmised by Athenian statesman Ebulus who remarked,

“Three bowls only do I mix for the temperate”

in relation to wine consumption. The Greeks routinely diluted wine in the interest of moderation and Ebulus viewed more than three bowls to be excessive.

Acknowledging individuality

An understanding of individuality was also central to the Greeks understanding of diet. The Greeks would recommend different diets to different people.

For example, Olympians understood the benefits of consuming a diet that was high in meat. The extra protein that this diet gave ancient Olympic athletes allowed them to perform better in their sport.

We can transfer this acknowledgement of individuality to our modern society to put diet and food in perspective. Individuals have different nutritional requirements and not every diet is suitable for everyone.

It is important that, like the Greeks, we find a formula that works for you and stick to it, applying the Greek principles of moderation.

Sweets in the ancient world

We can also learn a lot from the way people in these ancient civilizations enjoyed sweet treats. Inevitably, the world we live in which is filled with refined sugars and processed foods is far removed from how the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used to enjoy sweet foods.

In each of these ancient civilizations, honey was used as a natural sweetener. The use of honey was prevalent in ancient Rome and Greece and was enjoyed by the wealthiest members of society in Egypt.

In ancient Greece the last meal of the day, after sunset, would be made up of sweet foods, known as the ‘tragimata.’ This would include fresh or dried fruits and honey desserts.

Although the use of honey as a natural sweetener was a product of the limitations of ancient technology, by reducing our refined sugar intake and replacing it with naturally occurring sweeteners such as honey we can improve the quality of our diet.

Honey is also high in antioxidants and promotes heart health. However, we must remember to exercise the Greek principle of moderation as although honey is a much healthier option compared to sugar it is still high in calories.

Benefits of using honey as a natural sweetener

  • It tastes great!
  • High in antioxidants
  • Better for your health than refined sugars

Keep it local

Important lessons can also be drawn from the locality of the food that was eaten in ancient civilization. The geographical limitations of maintaining such a large empire in the Roman Empire meant they were forced to exist as locavores, eating food that could be obtained in the surrounding area. Equally in ancient Greece, the Mediterranean Sea was utilised as a local resource and in Egypt the fertile soils surrounding the river Nile afforded them the opportunity to grow a variety of crops.

The distance food travels today has a huge impact on the planet which provides these resources. By eating foods that are sourced locally we can reduce our carbon footprint and ensure that the diet we eat is not only sustainable for the continued efficiency of our bodies but also our planet.


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