WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne
We are officially one week into 2021! (Congratulations, everyone.) While the world as we know it has changed, the inspiration of a clean slate has not. Raise your hand if you’ve ever made it a New Year’s priority to change your diet! (I’m going to be honest and say I’ve raised my hand.) In today’s blog, I’d like to examine one of the most classic elements of January self-reinvention: dieting. And whether you go vegan, Paleo, or otherwise, dieting provides not only physical health but also a rich history.
When did the idea of the “diet” begin? Didn’t our ancestors supposedly just eat raw red meat all day with no concern for their cholesterol? Well, not exactly. Historians tell us that although the diets of prehistoric women and men were primarily meat, depending on the areas in which they lived, that may not have always been available. In fact, Paleolithic groups in desert areas wouldn’t have had access to massive herds of cows and buffalo and dinosaurs, much less any sort of seafood. Thus, they would have lived off of berries, nuts, and perhaps insects. On the other hand, tribes in colder areas wouldn’t have been able to cultivate fruits and vegetables, so their diets would indeed be mostly meat. From this ancient time period was born the popular Paleo diet, which is quite similar to the prehistoric meal plan.
The Paleo palate favors vegetarianism in its focus on whole foods but still places emphasis on eating lots of meats and fish. Obviously, our cave-dwelling ancestors wouldn’t have been snacking on kale salads and black bean burgers; so to learn about vegetarianism, we need to fast forward a bit.
In circa 600 BC, an Indian religion called Jainism was founded, practicing peace and instructing its followers to a life of non-violence towards all living things. Those principles lend themselves to a vegetarian lifestyle; unfortunately, as they didn’t have MyPlate back then, there isn’t any record of what they actually ate. Luckily for us, in the year 300 AD, a philosopher named Porphyry published On Abstinence From Animal Food—pulling from the brilliant minds of Pythagoras and Plotinus, the book painted a new dietary philosophy: killing animals can ruin the planet and disconnect us from our humanity.
But what about America? When did diets manage to make their way to the States? Probably the earliest known vegetarian in the colonies was Benjamin Franklin—the guy with the kite and the lightning rod who wanted the turkey to be the national bird. History tells us that he read Wisdom’s Dictates by Thomas Tyron at age sixteen, which inspired him to stop eating animals for a period of time. Ben wrote that his diet was “healthier and more ethical….[and by not eating meat] I presently found that I could save half what [my employer] paid me. This was an additional fund for buying books…” Thus introducing the idea of vegetarianism in the United States.
In 1862, a 202-pound English man named William Banting was desperate to improve his health, when he was told by Dr. William Harvey, an ENT specialist studying the effects of carbohydrates on the body, to cut out any starches, sugars, or carbs from his diet. One year later, when he had lost 46 pounds and nearly 13 inches off his waist, he wrote in his famous Letter on Corpulence how he achieved staggering improvements to his health by eliminating "bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes, which had been the main (and I thought innocent) elements of my existence”. This letter made its way to America and was the founder of the low-carb diet! (For a fascinating, detailed article about Banting’s health journey and the discovery of the effect of carbohydrates, please visit https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/know-your-fats/william-banting-father-of-the-low-carbohydrate-diet/)
In 1975, Walter Voegtlin published The Stone Age Diet, a book presenting the Paleolithic palate and principals. And although the Paleo community leaders have now denounced Voegtlin for his reportedly corrupt politics and actions, what he published still holds valuable information and truth. The Paleo diet focuses on eating the most basic and natural foods, those given to us directly from the Earth: animal and fish products, vegetables and certain fruits, seeds, and nuts. It restricts all refined sugars and grains and emphasizes the importance of meat in our diets.
It seems that nowadays, with the help of things like mommy blogs and magazines, a new diet is just at our fingertips. And since our knowledge of nutrition is ever-changing, it’s hard to know which diet--if any at all--is best. But here’s the good news! One fact never changes, and that is the importance of knowing your food. Understanding what you’re eating, where it comes from, and how it got to your plate is a vital part of eating well. Lucky for you, Reconnecting Roots had the chance to sit down with Ryan Callaghan of Netflix’s MeatEater to discuss the roots and value of knowing where your food comes from.
How does the dieting of old play a role in your modern life? Have we learned to reconnect with the importance of nutrition in all aspects? And how can we work to cultivate knowledge about the food we eat? To learn about this and much more, catch Season 2, Episode 5 of Reconnecting Roots—“Hunting: Field to Fork”. Stream anytime, anywhere (for free!) at pbs.org/show/reconnecting-roots.
And may this new year bring knowledge and peace to all life.