Peter Jones

Fat was not a Greek issue

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The UK obesity crisis is again in the headlines, and ‘life-style’ is the culprit. The ancients may have come up with a different analysis.

Our word ‘diet’ derives from the ancient Greek diaita, which meant ‘way of living’ and, medically, a prescribed way of life, or regimen, especially in relation to diet for the ill. But whatever deficiencies are evident in the normal diet of the ancients, a tendency to promote obesity was not among them. Sugar was unknown (honey was the only sweetener), and fats too would have been enjoyed only on special occasions. Grain-based food was the staple (wheat, barley and emmer) with vegetables of one sort or another (beans, peas, lentils, cabbage, leek), fruits, cheese and as a treat eggs and fish, all washed down with wine. Daily life was equally non-fattening, consisting mainly of the battle against nature to grow enough to stay alive; and when one was not doing that, going to war against neighbours.

For ancients it was the life of luxury that conduced to obesity. We hear of a Greek king of Egypt so fat that two people had to help him to the lavatory; long, fine needles were required to wake up one vastly fat Greek tyrant. So it was for the rich that preventive medicine came into play. The Roman doctor Celsus recommended running, walking, marching, reading aloud and hand-ball, alongside moderation in eating and drinking. Massage was thought good for toning up the body. Extremes, however, were not helpful. Athletes were not a model to follow since their condition was ‘not natural’ and led to premature ageing: Galen condemned them as ‘useless when it came to travel or military activity and even more so in political life and farming’.

Greeks were well aware of certain feelings that made one act against one’s better judgment, and often to one’s disadvantage, e.g. anger, sexual infatuation, greed. We cannot decide to be any of these, but we are aware that they lurk about. For ancients, pride, sense of honour, shame and reason were all among the means of exerting the necessary self-control.