Did Walt Whitman Really Promote A 'Paleo' Diet? Not Quite.

But do we really want to take nutrition advice from a 19th-century poet anyway?

Numerous headlines this week proclaim that celebrated American poet Walt Whitman was also a 19th-century proponent of the presently popular Paleo diet, but that’s not quite accurate.

The Leaves of Grass author’s long-lost health guide, “Manly Health and Training,” was discovered last year, The New York Times reports. University of Houston graduate student Zachary Turpin found the work while browsing a digitized database of 19th-century newspapers, and the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review published the 126-page guide online last Saturday.

American poet Walt Whitman lived from 1819 to 1892.
NARA/Photo Researchers via Getty Images
American poet Walt Whitman lived from 1819 to 1892.

Outlets from the Times to Time Magazine, Atlas Obscura and BoingBoing write that the guide suggests Whitman was into a Paleo diet. They suggest that his nutritional recommendations are in line with the eating trend that supposedly mimics what our Paleolithic ancestors ate. (Though critics note the Paleo diet isn’t exactly historically accurate.)

That conclusion comes from the fact that Whitman apparently really liked meat. Like, really liked meat. “Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else,” he wrote. And in another section, he recommended that people in “northern and eastern” regions subsist on “an almost exclusive meat diet.” (He noted that he didn't feel qualified to provide advice for people in warmer regions.)

But contrary to popular belief, Paleo diets aren’t supposed to be all-meat all the time. While Paleo eaters eschew grains, dairy and processed foods, vegetables are a crucial part of the diet -- you know, to provide vitamins and such. Paleo eaters also supplement their diets with nuts and fruit.

And while avoiding grains is a major tenet of eating Paleo, Whitman consistently recommends wheat-based foods for the small portion of his ideal diet that’s not meat. In his view, a “hearty man” would subsist on a “simple diet of rare-cooked beef, seasoned with a little salt, and accompanied with stale bread or sea-biscuit,” which suggests that a hearty man would have a hearty case of scurvy. (It’s also unclear why he wants the bread to be stale.)

He was also convinced that spices were bad for you, which is not only not in line with Paleo philosophy, it’s also patently untrue.

But while the poet’s nutritional advice was a little… off, some of his other health tips still ring true today. He emphasizes the importance of comfortable shoes, fresh air and getting good sleep, and warns against spending too much time sitting down or stressing yourself out with worry. We’re with you on those things, Walt.

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