Virtuous Victuals

The maxim “you are what you eat” has defined people’s dietary philosophy for several generations: our bodies, like the foods that we eat, are chemical compositions. But, not so long ago, food was a moral category, implying a profound shift in the way that we think about our diet and ourselves.

CAMBRIDGE, MA – The maxim “you are what you eat” has defined dietary thinking for hundreds of years. The prevailing interpretation is simple: our bodies, like the foods that we eat, are chemical compositions. In order to live long and healthy lives, and to maximize our potential, we must consume the right chemicals – that is, foods with the right nutrients. Not so long ago, however, this saying was understood quite differently, indicating a profound shift in the way that we think about our diet and ourselves – a shift that has powerful implications for current health debates.

In ancient Greek and Roman medicine, prevention was key. Regimen, commonly called dietetics, prescribed a lifestyle designed to keep people healthy. Indeed, while doctors did everything in their power to cure ailing patients, dietetics was considered the most important area of medical practice. After all, with a sound diet, one would presumably never need a cure.

Dietetics was a prescription for an ordered manner of living, guiding people not only on matters of food and drink, but on all governable aspects of their lives that affected well-being, including their places of residence, exercise, sleeping patterns, bowel movements, sexual activity, and an area neglected by medicine today: emotional control.

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