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Food and diet in ancient medicine

Modern understanding of disease is very different from the way it was understood in ancient Greece and Rome. The way modern physicians approach healing of the sick differs greatly from the methods used by early general healers or elite physicians like Hippocrates or Galen. In modern medicine, the understanding of disease stems from the “germ theory of disease”, a concept that emerged in the second half of the 19th century, such that a disease is the result of an invasion of a microorganism into a living host. Therefore, when a person becomes ill, modern treatments “target” the specific pathogen or bacterium in order to “beat” or “kill” the disease. In Ancient Greece and Rome, disease was literally understood as dis-ease, or physical imbalance. Medical intervention, therefore, was purposed with goal of restoration of harmony rather than waging a war against disease. Surgery was regarded by Greek and Roman physicians as extreme and damaging while prevention was seen as the crucial first step to healing almost all ailments. In both prevention and treatment of disease in classical medicine, food and diet was central. The eating of correctly-balanced foods made up the majority of preventative treatment as well as to restore harmony to the body after it encountered disease.

Ancient Greek Medicine is described as rational, ethical and based upon observation, conscious learning and experience. Superstition and religious dogmatism are often excluded from descriptions of ancient Greek medicine. It is important, however, to note that this rational approach to medicine did not always exist in the ancient Greek medical world, nor was it the only popular method of healing. Along with rational Greek medicine, disease was also thought of as being of supernatural origin, resulting from the unhappiness of the gods or from demonic possession. Exorcists and religious healers were among the ‘doctors’ that patients sought out when they became ill. Sacrifices, exorcisms, spells and prayers were then carried out in order to reconcile with the gods and restore health to the patient. It was not until the time of Hippocrates, between 450 and 350 BC, that rational, observation and the humoral theory of medicine began to become highly influential. The theory of the humours or “Humorism” understood the human body to be composed of fluid (humours) and regarded disease as a result of an imbalance of the four humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood.

These humours contain qualities such as hot, cool, moist, dry, etc., which must also remain in balance. Foods can be heating, cooling, or generative of one humour. Some foods produce good juices and others bad juices and often times cooking and preparation of the foods can change or improve the juices of the foods. In addition, foods may be easy to assimilate (easy to pass through the body), easily excreted, nourishing or not nourishing. In Hippocratic medicine, the qualities in foods are analogous to the four humors in the body: too much of a single one is bad, a proper mixture is ideal. Therefore, the consumption of correctly-balanced foods and life-style of the patient was crucial to the prevention and treatment of disease in Ancient Greece.



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