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From Humors To Self Control: The Evolution Of A Well-Balanced Diet

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
December 4, 2012

Chances are you’re familiar with the phrase “a well-balanced diet.” Two to three servings of meat, poultry or fish; three to five servings of vegetables — you know the drill. When we talk about being “well-balanced” today, we’re usually talking about the specific nutrients we put into our body.

While this might seem like a relatively new development, a product of the last fifty years of fitness programs and diet regimes, as it turns out, this idea goes back much further.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, and even into the 18th century, American colonists and Englishmen alike were concerned with maintaining a balanced diet. But to them, “well-balanced” meant something entirely different than it does now.

In her book, The Early American Table, Trudy Eden writes that people at the time (and for almost 1400 years prior) thought of themselves as being made up of four “humors,” or four basic qualities – hot, cold, moist, and dry. The goal was to keep those four qualities in balance. Because, the thinking went, everything about you was wrapped up in this balance – your health, your personality, your temperament – everything.

And what was the easiest way to keep your qualities in balance? Food. And they were very prescriptive about it, as you can see from the above sample of a second course in the month of January, prescribed by Mary Smith of Newcastle in her 1772 book, The complete house-keeper and professed cook, and included in Eden’s book.

If someone was sad or melancholy, they were considered cold. So to help balance out their temperament, they could eat warming foods. Roasted pheasant might serve as a pick me up, whereas a cold soup might whack you more out of balance.

“… [A]n angry person (also known as hot-tempered) could counter this tendency by sitting still and drinking cooling beverages and foods. These would not necessarily be foods with a cool temperature but, rather, foods possessing large amounts of phlegm or melancholy… [foods like fish, goat and legumes]. A sad person, however, considered to be leaning toward or clearly melancholy could eat warming food and get more exercise – though only a moderate amount lest he lose precious moisture,” Eden says.

By maintaining a diet that kept you in balance, you could quite literally make yourself a better person. At least that was the popular thinking of Europeans.

This philosophy did have a few obvious drawbacks. For one thing, it required you have a large variety of food to choose from. While variety may not have been an issue for the wealthy, it was far from a possibility for poor or enslaved people. And because they couldn’t get a hold of a variety of foods, they couldn’t improve themselves. They were stuck. It was a self-perpetuating cycle that ensured the powerful stayed in power.

So while it’s easy to laugh about a hot-tempered person desperately seeking phlegm-y foods, we, too, like to think that our food says something about who we are and what our place in society is. The mere act of eating healthy foods suggests that we have certain personality traits, like self-control. Think about that the next time you pass up a Big Mac and fries for a well-balanced soup and salad.

For more on the history of meals in America (and a Smörgåsbord of other topics) check out our weekly radio show and podcast, BackStory with the American History Guys. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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