The History of Health Food, Part 1: Antiquity

We tend to think of health food as a modern invention, but humans have made the connection between food and well-being at least since the beginning of written history—although it's always been as much a matter of educated guesswork as solid science.

Ancient Greeks believed that good health was dependent on maintaining the balance of the body's four "humors"—black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood—and that modifications in diet could restore balance if levels got out of whack. Hippocrates, Plutarch and other thinkers wrote books on the relationship between food and health, including Galen's On the Power of Foods, a title that sounds like it could have been written last year.

Garlic, courtesy Flickr user Sebastian Mary

Belief in garlic's health properties was surprisingly widespread in the ancient world: According to legend, the Egyptian pharaohs fed it to their slaves to increase their strength and productivity (imagine the pungent perspiration of those pyramid-builders), and remnants of garlic were found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen.

An article in the Journal of Nutrition describes the health benefits attributed to garlic in other ancient civilizations, too. In China it was a part of the daily diet, and prescribed for respiratory and digestive ailments; evidence also suggests it may have been used to treat depression, headaches and male impotency.

The herb was an important part of the ancient Greek military diet because it was believed to provide strength for battle, and it was fed to early Olympians before they competed. (As the article's author suggests, it may have been one of the earliest "performance-enhancing agents" used by athletes.)

According to food historian Francine Segan, who researched ancient texts for her cookbook The Philosopher's Kitchen, some ancient Greek athletes followed what resembled an early version of the Atkins diet. One text she studied, called The Deipnosophists—a 15-volume description of an epic feast that took place around A.D. 200— tells of an Olympic runner who won several races while subsisting solely on meat. As Segan told National Geographic, "This started a meat-only craze." She added that some Greek Olympians abstained from eating bread right before a competition, in contrast to the common modern-day practice of carb-loading.

Although the Atkins diet was an unintentional retread of the ancient Greek fad, the last few decades have seen an increased interest in ancient theories of healthy eating, especially traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic diets. I even found a book, called The Kemetic Diet, based on ancient Egyptian practices (the name derives from Kamit, the ancient word for the land we now call Egypt).

The author, Muata Abhaya Ashby, writes that good health, as the ancient Egyptians saw it, relies not only on food for the body but food for the soul and mind—a theory, he points out, that was a precursor to later ideas of holistic medicine. Physical disease, he continues, is caused by digesting impurities, which must be cleansed through the specific alkaline vegetarian diet outlined in the book (although most ancient Egyptians ate meat). A mainstay of the plan is drinking kamut wheatgrass juice, which comes from an ancient grain, and which Ashby claims acts as an "alkaline flush" in the body.

Ashby notes that the ancient Kamitans were the healthiest people of their time. Of course, they still only had an average life expectancy of 40, so I don't know how ringing of an endorsement that is.

Check back soon for more installments in this series.

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