New Lessons to Learn From the Ancient Mediterranean Diet

It was only a matter of time before the cult of weight loss in America met born-again Christianity.

Rick Warren, pastor at one of the country's most famous megachurches and author of The Purpose-Driven Life, has just taken on a new role: diet guru. But his signature plan has an ancient pedigree. Inspired by the first chapter of Daniel, where the prophet proves the virtues of a simple vegetarian diet over the king's fatty feasts, the Daniel Plan focuses on plant foods and regular exercise. The guidelines are available for free on the Plan's website. But if meeting them is an obligation to God, the cost of falling off the wagon is potentially very high indeed.

The moralization of obesity is all too familiar these days. As America has gotten heavier, blame has become something of a national sport. Yet the ancient roots of Warren's Plan are a reminder that the association between health and morality is nothing new. The idea that health is a marker of virtue and self-control was widespread throughout the ancient Mediterranean among not just Jews, but also Greeks and Romans.

Flipping through the memoirs of Socrates' less famous student, Xenophon, we're told that the ancient philosopher "never neglected the care of his body" and had nothing but blame for those that did (in one episode he chastises a young initiate for avoiding the gym). In the first centuries CE, Plutarch, among the most influential of ancient moralists, declared that anyone who relies on doctors after the age of sixty is ridiculous. Any man worthy of being called free should know his body well enough that late in life. Plutarch advises his readers to visit sick friends not to offer sympathy but to learn from their mistakes. If disease broadcasts a personal failure, then getting sick is frankly embarrassing.

The attitudes of Socrates and Plutarch are the product of societies where disease was seen almost entirely in terms of "lifestyle" choices. We know a lot more today about the science of microbes and viruses. But with chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer posing a greater threat to world health than infectious diseases for the first time in human history, we're facing some old quandaries. And one of the biggest is this one: How much can we blame people for getting sick?

It's easy to agree with Plutarch here: a lot. By now the havoc wreaked on the body by a lifetime of Big Macs and super-sized Cokes is obvious enough. Paula Deen, who recently announced she has adult-onset diabetes, is widely seen as paying the price for her high-fat Southern cooking. No one is forcing people to eat fast food or fried chicken.

But for a society in the midst of an obesity epidemic, self-righteousness is its own disease. The language of fault is a symptom of our collective refusal to grasp the bigger picture. The ancients might have something more to teach us here beyond the benefits of olive oil.

For one thing, our ancient authors are clear-eyed about the relationship between health and wealth. The author of a handbook on diet that was later attributed to Hippocrates imagines two audiences for his advice: people who lack the money and the time to take care of themselves on a regular basis; and people who can afford to devote themselves to their health. When Plato assigned different doctors to the free man and the slave, he was talking about two models of care. The slave's doctor barks orders like a dictator before rushing off to his next patient. By contrast, the doctors of rich elites take the time to explain to their patients what's wrong with their bodies. And not everyone was sitting around reading Plutarch. Health, the ancients knew, is a product of leisure, education and quality care.

It's true that what used to be seen as diseases of affluence have become rampant among the poor as cheap calories have flooded the market. But the basic insight that income and class determine who has time and money to take care of themselves is valid. It's no secret that access to fresh, healthy foods depends on your zip code and your tax bracket. Mississippi is not only the poorest state in the union but also the most obese. Childhood stressors, including poverty and family tensions, have recently been named risk factors for adult obesity.

But the factors that complicate the moralization of obesity aren't only about class. The truth is that it's increasingly hard for anyone to claim full responsibility for their health. Ancient philosophers saw the appetite as a mysterious, unruly force. They developed "techniques of the soul" to supplement the recommendations of doctors.

We now know even more than the ancients about our complex relationship to food. An article just published in Nature argues for classing refined sugar as a drug or toxin that, like alcohol, should be government-regulated. We're gaining a better understanding of the genetic factors that contribute to diseases like Type-2 diabetes. Excess weight, we're learning, changes the very chemistry of our bodies, casting doubt on the moral of shows like The Biggest Loser that willpower trumps all. Each day brings new evidence that debunks the ancient myth that a person's weight is just an index of their moral worth. It's up to us now to update our thinking accordingly if we want to tackle the public health crisis we're facing.

Our horizon is broader than the ancients' in another way, too. Athens may have been the birthplace of democracy. But the cities of the ancient world were hardly egalitarian, excluding women, slaves and immigrants from citizenship. The gap between rich and poor was vast. It was precisely these divides that made the pursuit of health in antiquity an elite preoccupation. Rick Warren is on the right track in creating communities that provide their members not just with tips on healthy eating but also with emotional support. But when looking for slogans, he might try a new twist on a Biblical passage: you don't have to fit through the eye of a needle to get into heaven.

Brooke Holmes is an Assistant Professor of Classics at Princeton University working on health and ethics in antiquity and a participant in The Op-Ed Project's Public Voices Fellowship at Princeton.