Diet Advice from the 16th Century

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We may think of restricted diets as a modern invention but the reverse is actually the case. Long before Weight Watchers were telling people to count points, people had cottoned on to the idea that eating less may be healthy.

When examining the diets of yesteryear, it’s important to remember that what works for some, will not work for others. What we deem as unhealthy may be perfectly healthy for someone else.

With that caveat in mind, today we will be looking at Luigi Cornaro, a 16th century Venetian nobleman who lived to the age of 82 (or 99 depending who you believe) and ate only twelve ounces (340g) of solid food a day! What’s more he published a series of books on the secret of longevity.

So who was this mystical Venetian and why did he eat so little?

Born in Padua in the late 1400s, Cornaro had something of an unusual upbringing. He was the son of a local innkeeper, who claimed to be related to the rich and noble Cornaro family of Venice. Unfortunately the inn keeper’s insistence that his family was from a noble stock soon sullied the reputation of the Cornaro’s. As his family’s reputation began to plummet, young Luigi took to business as a means of redemption.

Investing a modest stake given to him by his mother’s brother, Cornaro expanded his wealth through a series of investments, most notably in hydraulics. His returns soon surpassed even Luigi’s wildest dreams and by his late 20s, Luigi was a man of great interest in Venice. By his thirties he was patron to the local artists and commissioning exquisite Villas to live in.

Now living the high life, Luigi’s appetite for excess grew, and I’m not talking about money. Luigi ate, drank and partied at every possible opportunity. Rather than burning the candle at both ends, he just burnt the candle.

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‘A Luigi Feast’

By the age of 35 he was a physical and mental wreck. Commenting on this period of his life Luigi conceded

The excesses of my past life, together with my bad constitution—my stomach being very cold and moist—had caused me to fall prey to various ailments, such as pains in the stomach, frequent pains in the side, the symptoms of gout, and, still worse, a low fever that was almost continuous; but I suffered especially from disorder of the stomach, and from an unquenchable thirst

Such excesses broke Luigi down. At 35, his physicians told him he wouldn’t reach forty if he didn’t reform his ways. A scary message.

Following his doctor’s advice, Luigi began to try every possible tonic, liquor and potion in a quest for optimal health. According to himself, Luigi tried nearly “every known means of cure” but without any avail. As he approached the age of forty, Luigi’s health had deteriorated even further. His only remaining course of action was to embark on a temperate and orderly life. No more eating or drinking to excess and definitely no more late night shindigs. Knowing this was Luigi’s last chance, his physicians wanted him

That if I neglected to apply this remedy, in a short time it would be too late to derive any benefit from it; for in a few months I should certainly die.

Within weeks Luigi had drastically reduced his diet, taking only twelve ounces of food and fourteen ounces of new wine divided among four meals per day. Despite the reservations of his friends and family about so low a quantity of food, Luigi was soon restored to full health. At 42 he felt better than at 35 and his good health continued. Aged eighty, Luigi was still in sound mind and body and prompted by his friends to divulge his secrets, set about penning La Vita Sobria or The Temperate Life, a four volume book detailing Luigi’s life and his health advice.

La Vita Sobria

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‘The Temperate Life’ are a series of musings written by Luigi from the age of 82 to about 95 and is well worth a read (available here).

Having seen so many friends and loved ones die prematurely, Luigi implored readers to look after their health, both mentally and physically. Noting that old age is only desirable if one if active, mobile and alert, Luigi insisted everyone must be their own physician.

For Luigi this meant being willing to experiment with the diet and note what foods did and didn’t agree with you. In Luigi’s case, he discovered that foods he previously enjoyed like dry wines, certain fruits and vegetables and meats such as fish and pork were detrimental to his health. The revelation that pastries were bad for his health was a little less shocking.

On the other hand, egg yolks, veal, mutton and certain cuts of fowl aided his health. How did he know? Simple, he was mindful of how he felt after he ate.

In the case of fish, Luigi realised that he struggled to digest it without difficulty, a problem he never encountered with mutton. He combined his healthy food choices with a temperate appetite

 “I accustomed myself to the habit of never fully satisfying my appetite, either with eating or drinking—always leaving the table well able to take more. In this I acted according to the proverb: ‘Not to satiate one’s self with food is the science of health.’”

As regards his mental wellbeing, Luigi noted that whilst in the past, “it was impossible for any person to deal with me”, he resolved to change his ways in line with his new diet:

I have also preserved myself, as far as I have been able, from those other disorders from which it is more difficult to be exempt; I mean melancholy, hatred, and the other passions of the soul, which all appear greatly to affect the body.

Regarding exercise Luigi recommended not over exerting oneself, getting fresh air as much as possible and not allowing anything to affect one’s rest. In the words of Luigi:

“There is no doubt that if one so advised were to act accordingly, he would avoid all sickness in the future; because a well-regulated life removes the cause of disease. Thus, for the remainder of his days, he would have no need of either doctors or of medicines.”

Reflecting on his live at the age of 95 Cornaro wrote,

O, how glorious is this life of mine, replete with all the felicities which man can enjoy on this side of the grave! I am not troubled with passions, and my mind is calm and free from all perturbations and doubtful apprehensions. Nor can the thought of death find room in my mind, at least, not in any way to disturb me.

And all this has been brought about through my careful habit of living. How different from the lives of most old men, full of aches and pains and foreboding, whilst mine is a life of real pleasure, and I seem to spend my days in a perpetual round of amusements. . . I never knew the world was beautiful until I became old.”

If that isn’t an endorsement for living La Vida Sobra, I don’t know what is.

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