The Good, the Bad and the Bizarre of Historical Health and Fitness Advice


The health and fitness industry is insane. There’s no denying it, and it’s at its most crazy every January to coincide with the world’s outpourings of New Year’s resolutions on the back of the world’s mass influx of calories over the holidays. There’s also no escaping it, from bizarre fad diets to esoteric exercise devices-cum-torture implements (seriously, who thought a vibrating kettlebell was a good idea?), the fitness industry desperately pushes a multitude of “one-true-paths” to happiness (or rock hard abs, though they would have you believe they are one in the same) in place of hard work, dedication and consistency which are the real keys to health.

There’s an impression that this is a relatively new thing and a product of modern crass commercial culture, but it’s not. The practice of giving people terrible advice in the pursuit of health and happiness is an age old tradition that doesn’t seem to be dwindling as we come to understand more and more about the human body. So read on to discover some of the bizarre good and bad  historical health advice that people have been given.

Thomas Short on weight loss, swamps and flannel:

Thomas Short’s A discourse on the Causes and effects of Corpulency from 1727 actually does get some things bang on, like the need for exercise and labor in the pursuit of weight loss (he provides a pretty comprehensive list of why he believes this is so). That said, he also links “corpulency” to the climate in which a person lives, particularly advising against living near ‘Marshes, fens, ponds or stagnant waters’ and also advises against the wearing of flannel shirts because ‘These are exceedingly injurious to weak people’ due to increasing perspiration.” Possibly not going to be that popular an opinion in Canada…

Lord Byron and celebrity diet fads:

Not only is bizarre health advice not a new thing, neither is taking it from celebrities who have no idea what they are talking about. Lord Byron was a superb poet of the Romantic era, however when it came to dietary instruction he seems to have been fantastically misguided.

You may have heard of the the vinegar diet, which can range from “Drink some vinegar with meals” to “Drink some vinegar as your meal” and generally makes some absurd claims about how vinegar helps with weight loss. Where the former may cause issues because of it increasing the acidity of your food and is certainly unpleasant, the latter is downright dangerous. For Lord Byron, who at one point ate only potatoes dipped in vinegar, the diet was reported to have had some disastrously unpleasant side effects. He was also reported to have followed regimes that variously involved obsessively weighing himself, subsisting on biscuits and soda water, wearing heavy clothes to induce excess sweating, and advocated for such dangerous lifestyles among the fashionably wealthy.

Lord Byron is exemplary of a lot of the issues that we still encounter with celebrities giving health advice, and many now believe that he exhibited signs of what we would now describe as an eating disorder. The simple fact is that even if a celebrity is perfectly healthy (which Byron was not) that doesn’t mean they have any expertise in diet and health, and their advice should probably be avoided.

Luigi Cornaro on the sober life

Okay. It’s hard to fault Luigi Cornaro when we actually get down to it. This Italian nobleman, born in 1464, devised his diet and lifestyle at a relatively young age when he was informed by doctors that his life of excess was killing him. As a man perpetually prone to illness, Luigi turned to a life of temperance and frugality in order to treat his ill health, and at the advice of his doctor lived by a very simple set of rules which he laid down in his Four Discourses on a Sober Life: to eat only the minimum he needed to survive, and eat only food that agreed with his constitution.

Cornaro believed in caloric restriction, a diet still practiced today, that posits that the secret to long life and health is to limit the calories taken in daily, and abstain from foods that do not suit the individual’s digestion. In doing so, he claimed to not only have lived for a long time (the sources say he lived to be 98 or 102 years old), but also to have lived well with full mental clarity, good eyesight and robust health until his death.

By modern standards Cornaro’s lifestyle seems a little extreme, and there lies the bad advice. Cornaro lived on 12 ounces of food daily, supplemented with wine. This is a phenomenally low amount of food (though depending on the quality and type of food, could vary in over-all calories) and for many people would not produce the longevity and health benefits Cornaro achieved. At one point, at the badgering of his loved ones, he increased his food intake up to 14 ounces, but found:

This increase, had, in eight days’ time, such an effect upon me, that, from being cheerful and brisk, I began to be peevish and melancholy, so that nothing could please me. On the twelfth day, I was attacked with a violent pain in my side, which lasted twenty-two hours and was followed by a fever, which continued thirty-five days without any respite,insomuch that all looked upon me as a dead man.’

However, this was a diet that worked for Cornaro. He makes it very clear throughout his work that although an advocate for this lifestyle, he is as much an advocate for discovering what works for the individual. When you look up his work online you will find a wealth of diets and health gurus that claim his life as a proof of their beliefs, when for Cornaro it was more important to avoid excess and discover the right lifestyle for yourself, stating:

‘It follows, therefore, that it is impossible to be a perfect physician to another. A man cannot have a better guide than himself, nor any physic better than a regular life.’

Fletcherism: The Great Masticator

Like Cornaro, Horace Fletcher had a lot about his own health to give credit to his work, including a number of experiments at Yale in which he supposedly outperformed an array of college athletes while at the ripe age of 58. However, Fletcher is more often held up as a prime example of pseudo-science in health and fitness. Among his many health claims was that food must be chewed at least 100 time before swallowing, and even had special songs to which people would chew along to (originally conceived by John Harvey Kellogg, the cereal guy). This could even extend to chewing liquids, to ensure they were adequately mixed with saliva. He also advocated that a food should ideally be chewed until it disappeared entirely. He claimed “One-fifth of an ounce of the midway section of the young garden onion, sometimes called ‘challot,’ has required 722 mastications before disappearing through involuntary swallowing”. This supposedly took almost 10 mins. Fun times at the dinner table.

Fletcher also claimed that by thoroughly chewing food into oblivion a human being could subsist on a significantly lower (half or two thirds) amounts of food. This claim was in many ways key to Fletcher’s popularity, as many public institutions and several politicians as well as the military toyed with the idea of introducing Fletcherism in order to reduce overall food consumption and therefore save money. This did not really go anywhere, and Fletcher’s diet fell out of favour in his lifetime. 

Conclusion

So there you have it. Some good, some bad, often inseparable health fads, diets and  advice from history. The key point to take away from this is that feeling confused about diet and health is not a new thing, nor is unqualified people making bizarre claims to have found the secret key to longevity and health. The reality is that throughout the ages the core sound advice that has weathered the fads and extreme measures is to move a lot, eat in moderation, and look after yourself. Oh, and don’t wear flannel.

Jon Mills has been a martial artist for 15 years and a kettlebell lifter for 8. He is a Certifed Kettlebell Teacher with the IKFF and a Precision Nutrition level 1 trainer. He is the owner of blackdogstrength.com and you can contact him there.
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