`Researchers Trace Mediterranean Diet's Origin to Ancient Greek Medicine - Olive Oil Times

Researchers Trace Mediterranean Diet's Origin to Ancient Greek Medicine

Jan. 15, 2015
Leah Dearborn

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A new study of ancient Greek texts reveals that the Mediterranean diet may have been con­ceived by early doc­tors as a form of med­i­c­i­nal treat­ment.

The study, pub­lished in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology on January 6, was authored by pro­fes­sor John Wilkins of Exeter University, an expert on the his­tory of food and med­i­cine in Greco-Roman cul­ture.

Professor Wilkins describes prac­tices by Galen of Pergamon that closely mir­ror those of mod­ern Mediterranean advo­cates.

Born in 129 A.D., Galen relied heav­ily on pre­ven­ta­tive med­i­cine as a method of treat­ment. The per­sonal physi­cian to sev­eral emper­ors, he saw nutri­tion as the equal of phar­ma­col­ogy in the main­te­nance of good health over an individual’s lifes­pan.

Rather than attribut­ing ill­ness to a super­nat­ural force or deity, Hippocratic Greek doc­tors like Galen empha­sized a need for sim­ple, fla­vor­ful food to their patients. This was derived from the notion that the exte­rior prop­er­ties of a food under­scored their effect on the human body.
See Also: Articles about the Mediterranean Diet
If a fruit or veg­etable is par­tic­u­larly potent, for exam­ple, the strong fla­vor could be con­sid­ered a reflec­tion of nutri­tional value. Poor taste was there­fore not merely a culi­nary issue, but a med­i­c­i­nal one as well. As a result, added fla­vor­ing became a key com­po­nent of the early Greek diet, with stress placed on the use of olive oil and fish sauce to improve the potency of food.

According to Wilkins, Galen was known to instruct patients to sea­son their meals with spices like gin­ger or pep­per when they could afford them.

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Humorism played a large role in how nutri­tional foods were selected. The idea was that a bal­ance of the bod­ily flu­ids known as humors was nec­es­sary in order for a patient to achieve health. Manipulating diet was a pri­mary tac­tic for bring­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ate humors back to a sym­met­ri­cal level; onions or gar­lic, for instance, might be pre­scribed as a thin­ning agent to some­one whose humors were too thick.

Although some rec­og­niz­able ele­ments of today’s Mediterranean cui­sine were not yet intro­duced to Greece, (such as the South American tomato) Galen and other Hippocratic doc­tors laid much of the struc­tural foun­da­tion for how the diet is still applied nearly two thou­sand years later. Sweet and fatty foods in high quan­ti­ties were dis­cour­aged then as they are today. Meat was not always read­ily avail­able, which gave rise to a move­ment towards more plant-based meals.

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