On last week’s 700 Club, Pat Robertson announced that low-carb diets “violate the principles that God set down.” Finally, something Pat Robertson and I can agree on. According to Robertson—not a registered dietician—low carb diets “build up clinkers” and “you get swollen joints, you get gout.” The principle behind this, he adds, is that “carbs are the fire that burn everything completely.” Like napalm or the wrath of God, but for your digestive system.
Robertson’s nutritional advice lacks scientific support, but he’s not the first to link healthy diet to spiritual growth. Historically speaking, the first picky eaters were ancient doctors and religious leaders.
Diet wasn’t just a matter of good health. The transition from eating-whatever-you-can-drag-back-to-the cave to Greek yogurt berry parfait artistically displayed in a mason jar was in part motivated by a concern about getting closer to God. And, just like today, there were diverse opinions about how to get that heavenly body.
For those looking to inject some ancient wisdom and holiness into their routine, here are some ancient alternatives to the Paleo diet:
The Cabbage (Soup) Diet
In the ancient world, doctors didn’t have many diagnostic tools or curative technologies at their disposal. As a result, much of ancient medicine was focused on regulating food intake. In his medical journals, Hippocrates—yes, that Hippocrates—prescribed vomiting for just about everything.
If there was an ancient super food it was the humble cabbage. According to the Roman statesman Cato the Elder, cabbage cures headaches and eye pain; digestive problems and urinary infections; heart, liver, and lung pain; joint pain; and can unclog the veins of excess food. If used as a compress it will cure sores and even dislocations. But the best way to serve cabbage is to chop it and season it with vinegar and salt. In fact, says Cato, “Nothing is more wholesome.” So that’s a thousand brownie points for ordering the coleslaw at KFC, then.
In the Bible, the first human beings were vegan. According to Genesis, God gave humanity plants, seeds, and fruit of the trees in the Garden of Eden to eat. Adam tended to the garden and he and Eve ate locally sourced, organically grown vegetation. You just know they were composting.
It’s only after the Flood, when God destroys almost all of humanity, that swarmy things enter the Biblical diet. Like a remorseful father taking his children out for ice cream after a fit of rage, God allows Noah and his posse to eat meat only after all but obliterating the human race. It’s his concession to human frailty.
Over the course of the Old Testament God firms up the regulations about consuming shellfish and pork. The priestly authors responsible for Leviticus make it clear that swine, rabbits, camels, ostrich, crocodile, shellfish, non-jumping winged insects, and similar foodstuffs are off limits and “impure”. Eating clean meant something different then. But it’s worth noting: if it hadn’t been for the pesky snake we’d still be in the Garden of Eden building forts and living on a diet of tropical fruit.
The Mediterranean Diet
Jesus may not have been married or into fashion, but he indulged in some of life’s simple pleasures. He ate with tax collectors, he ate with sinners, his disciples didn’t fast, and he made wine at parties. According to Jesus himself, his enemies accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard. This is a man who liked his food.
Jesus, it appears, is a faithful follower of the Mediterranean Diet. Given his druthers he lives on a diet of wine, bread, fish, and olive oil. We never hear about him eating meat. We have to assume that he ate lamb as part of the Passover meal, but it is never explicitly mentioned. In fact, the only time he even refers to flesh eating is when he’s talking about eating himself.
The Everything in Moderation (with a Side of Shame) Diet
Ancient philosophy wasn’t just about the life of the mind; it was about mastery over the body. Moderation was key here. The worst thing a man could be was lacking in self-discipline. He was supposed to exhibit sophrosyne, or self-mastery, and overindulging in food, drink or sex was a sign that a man was weak. Ever eaten so much that you feel like unbuckling your skin? Aristotle thinks you lack character.
If all this talk of balance, shameful binge eating, and taking control of one’s life sounds familiar, it’s because it’s still very much with us. All that ‘your body is the enemy’, ‘ignore your body’s limits’, ‘mind over matter’ stuff so popular on tumblr apes the moral judgments and ideals of ancient philosophy.
The connection isn’t accidental or even particularly subtle. “Sophrosyne” is a fitspo fave. Memes featuring the word have been reposted thousands of times on fitspiration tumblrs and pinterest. Sophrosyne isn’t a diet, it’s a lifestyle.
Do it for the before and after pics. And Aristotle.
If none of these options seems appetizing, bear in mind that it can always get worse. Medieval saints like Catherine of Siena renounced food almost entirely and lived on a diet of consecrated Eucharistic bread and pus oozing from the bodies of lepers. That’s enough to put anyone—even kale shake devotees—off their food.
Pat Robertson has yet to release a book length treatment of this subject. In the meantime, low-carb dieters worried about their joints can sleep easy in the knowledge that there’s a cabbage compress for that.