Rules for Eating and Drinking: the Physicians of Myddfai, 1382

As part of our series on dieting in the Renaissance, I have decided to share another perspective on the topic from a medical text.  This comes from a collection of remedies known as The Physicians of Myddfai.  I use an edition from 1382.  It is Welsh, and you can find editions still in the original language through your college library or online sources like Google Play.  Without further delay here is the translated text;

 

#188. When you eat, do not eat away all your appetite, but let some desire for food remain.  Drink no water with your food, as it will cool your stomach, preventing its digesting the food, and quenching the warmth thereof.  But when you drink water, drink it sparingly, choosing the coldest water you can get.  When you have done eating, take a walk in some well sheltered level piece of ground.  When you feel inclined to sleep, do not sleep too much.  Rest on your right side, then turn to your left, and double yourself.  If you should feel pain in your stomach, , and  heaviness, put on extra clothing, in order to withdraw the extra heat from the stomach, drinking warm water, as this by producing vomiting will remove the unhealthy matter from your stomach.  Walking much before food will heat the stomach.  Much walking after food will injure the stomach, because undigested the food will fall to the inferior part of the stomach, and there generate many diseases.  Sleeping before food will make a man thin, while sleeping after food will make a man fat.  The night is colder than the day, and consequently the stomach will digest sooner by night than by day,  because the colder the weather the better the stomach will digest, as the heat falls from the extremities, and concentrates itself around the stomach.  …Also do not eat , till the stomach has become empty,  and this you may know from the sense of hunger, and the thinness of your saliva.  If you eat without hunger, the animal heat will freeze.  If you eat when hungry,  your animal spirits will be as hot as fire, and whosoever does not then take food, his stomach will fill up with insalubrity, which will produce headache.

 

I find this passage to be full of good advice, which is still repeated in our modern world.  Many books and articles on healthy eating echo pieces of this advice.  How many times have you heard that you should wait about 10-15 minutes before you eat seconds?  Even without modern science, our forebearers figured out that it takes a while before our brains were able to register that our stomachs were full, hence the advice to leave the table feeling a bit hungry.  the advice about when to excercise and sleep in relation to eating have been confirmed by modern scientific studies.  In brief, I really don’t see anything terrible dangerous or wrong in this text.  I propose that we try this method of eating for a week and be mindful of how we feel.  It might uncover a brand new perspective on food.

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A 16th Century Diet Book: Cornaro’s Discourse on the Sober Life

With the idea that losing weight  is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions, I have decided to devote the month to giving you a sense of what dieting and weight control was like in the Renaissance.  This week I will be covering what is perhaps the first diet book published, Luigi Cornaro’s Discourse on the Sober Life, first appearing in 1547.  This book outlines a plan which is now known as Calorie Restriction.

 

To begin, let’s discuss who Luigi Cornaro is.  In his book he claims to be a member of the Venetian nobility with several former Doges as ancestors.  According to Discourse on the Sober Life, he claims he had a normal habit of eating and drinking, along with its unhealthy effects until the age of forty.  This lifestyle led his doctors to give him a very discouraging prognosis, including death by age forty-one. 

 

At this point, he had some choices to make.  Cornaro concluded that “intemperance is the parent of gluttony (p23)” and embarked upon a drastic dietary change.  He believed that this change could extend his life until the age of 80, instead of what he quotes as the average lifespan for those in his class, 40-50.  He published Discourse on the Sober Life for the first time in 1547 at the age of 81.  He would also periodically republish his treatise with updates so you might also find editions which were printed in 1552, 1557, and finally in 1561 when he states his age as 95. 

His plan was simple.  He would only eat and drink what was generally prescribed to the sick and invalid.  He would also eat sparingly, or “what could easily be digested by my system readily (p 27)”.  He recommends that one “rise from the table with a desire for more food (p 27)”.  Cornaro claims that he got the idea directly from Galen, but I have not found the exact writing from that physician as of yet.   A typical daily intake of food for Cornaro weighed about twelve ounces and consisted of bread, meat, the yolk of an egg, and soup.  To this meager solid food intake he also drank 14 ounces of wine.  This was he daily intake from the age of forty until the age of seventy-six, when he increased his solid food intake by 2 oz. and his wine intake by 2 oz. due to pressures from his family.  However, he claims to have felt so badly that he only kept up his increased intake for a month.

Did this extreme measure work?  Cornaro claims that with the first year of his diet, he had regained his health completely.  He also attributes his lifestyle to the remarkable recovery he made from a coach accident which dislocated his arm and broke his leg at the age of 70.  He gives the details of his treatments in his book if you want to read more.  The final edition of Discourse on the Sober Life has an update in which he still claims to ride his horse out to his country estate an average of twice a week.  Even if this is somewhat exaggerated, it’s still pretty amazing to think of a 95-year-old man riding his own horse instead of relying on a sedan chair or carriage.

 

This idea of adhering to a strict diet plan in order to improve, preserve, and prolong life is now called Calorie Restriction.  You can find out more information about the modern practice and its community at the International Calorie Restriction Society’s website, http://www.crsociety.org.  Studies to test this diet’s effectiveness have been done on mice, dogs, and other animals but there are no current long term studies on humans to date.  The results of the animal studies do seem to indictate that it extends the average lifespan of the animal.

For those of you who might want to give it a try, you can find a get started guide at the Society’s website and you can find a copy of Discourse on the Sober Life free of charge through iBooks or a low cost version can be bought through Amazon.com.

 

Source

Cornaro, Luigi.  Discourse on the Sober Life (How to live 100 Years).  Health Research Books, reprint.  Pomeroy, WA; 2009.