Lessons on Diet from the Ancients

I had an unusual experience recently in the waiting room of a hospital. Three people sitting across from me were discussing a program airing on the TV. I couldn’t see it on account of a column between us, but I gathered from the conversation it was a gourmet cooking show. They oohed and ahhed for several minutes, discussed how delicious the dish looked, and breathlessly shared some of the other foods the show was making them desire. After 10 minutes of this the thought hit me—these people are watching food porn.

I don’t say this to be judgmental or to cast shame on anyone. I think food can be as enticing to the senses as the naked human form and that it is perfectly acceptable, within moderation and reason, to whet our appetites with representations of either from time to time. Rather, the experience brought home for me how insidious the presence food has in our culture, and how unbalanced our relationship with it often is. We restrict the ways commodities like tobacco and alcohol are advertised because of a consensus that regularly consuming them has serious personal and social costs. Yet even in the midst of what has been called an epidemic of obesity, I suspect far too few of us have considered the possibility that food can be as habit-forming or destructive, albeit in a much more subtle and long-term way.

I’m not going to go into the health benefits of a better diet. Most of know we ought to eat better. What I want to share here is how some of the ancients though about food and our relationship to it, and how a simpler diet, geared toward sustenance rather than indulgence, increases self-discipline, improves physical and mental toughness, and generally promotes more personal tranquility.

Before I begin I would like to make clear what I mean by a simpler diet. There are all sorts of nutrition plans and fads about what foods to eat and which to avoid. I’ll leave it up to the reader to figure out those kinds of specifics. I’m concerned with the philosophy behind those food choices. So, for our purposes here, a simpler diet is one that:

  • Emphasizes food choices based on nutritional needs rather than taste desires.
  • Uses portion control to ensure that eating stops at the point of satiation (i.e., you end a meal satisfied or still slightly hungry, but never overfull).

With that, let’s see what some of the ancients had to say.


He who is not satisfied with a little, is satisfied with nothing. – Epicurus


Epicurus was a Greek philosopher whose ideas came to be known as the system of philosophy called Epicureanism. The essence of Epicurus’ philosophy is that aim of life to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain. Contrary to the Hedonists (whom Epicureans are often mistakenly lumped with) Epicurus taught that it was not indulging desires, but rather cultivating simpler tastes that would allow a person to increase the quantity and quality of the pleasure they experience. This distinction has been lost in modern times, however, so that in modern parlance an Epicurean is someone with luxurious tastes, which is the exact opposite of what Epicurus actually taught.

It doesn’t take a lot of argument to see the plain sense in Epicurus’ approach, even if we might not agree with all of Epicurus’ philosophy. If you can learn to be satisfied with a simpler diet you will:

  • Decrease the amount of food you consume and buy.
  • Decrease the amount of time you spend preparing meals.
  • Increase the pleasure you experience when you do indulge in a culinary luxury.

A place to start: An easy way to incorporate these ideas into your life is to only drink water, black coffee, or unsweetened teas. Not only will you cut calories, but after a couple of weeks you might be surprised how satisfying a plain glass of water can be.


For your body take just so much as your bare need requires, such as food, drink, clothing, house, servants, but cut down all that tends to luxury and outward show. – Epictetus

The Stoics taught that the highest good was to live a life of virtue in accordance with reason. Since our emotions and desires and often lead us astray from virtue and reason both, part of the Stoic curriculum was to train one’s self to be indifferent to the vicissitudes of life, thereby increasing the ability to make reasoned choices, even in the face of hardship.

By eating simply and denying the desire to consume indulgent foods, you will not only learn how to do things out of reasoned necessity rather than fleeting desire, but will handle situations where you are unable to obtain your wants with greater equanimity. In a world obsessed with indulging every whim, learning to purposefully deny yourself pleasure is a potent lesson.

A place to start: Limit your consumption of junk food—be it sweet or salty—to no more than a few times a week. Not only will you shed weight, but you will get the satisfaction of knowing you are stronger than your desires. You might also discover that some of the things you once though necessary are in fact anything but.


1-spartan-warrior-mantinea-close-up-bThe Spartans were about many things, toughness and discipline being chief among them. Even in ancient times the simplicity of Spartan fare was famous. The point of this simplicity was to produce citizens who were both tough (because they were accustomed to privation) and equal (because they all shared in the experience of that privation).  I think a lot of people take some of the ancient accounts of Spartan practices a little too much at face value (see the wonderful site Sparta Reconsidered). Nonetheless, here’s some of what Plutarch had to say about Spartan nutrition:

This was the object of the starvation diet. It was meagre both for the reasons given and purposely that the youth should never become accustomed to being sated, but to being able to go without food; for in this way, the Spartans thought, the youth would be more serviceable in war if they were able to carry on without food, and they would be more self-controlled and more frugal if they lived a very considerable time at small expense. And to put up with the plainest diet, so as to be able to consume anything that came to hand, they thought made the youths’ bodies more healthy owing to the scanty food, and they believed that this practice caused the bodies, repressed in any impulse towards thickness and breadth, to grow tall, and also to make them handsome; for a spare and lean condition they felt served to produce suppleness, while an overfed condition, because of too much weight, was against it.

The Spartans may have taken some things to extremes, but one thing they got right—tough conditions make tough people.

A place to start: There’s only one way to train yourself for hunger and that’s to force it upon yourself. Take up Intermittent Fasting (IF) as a means to do just that. There are a lot of different ways do IF. Some people will go a whole 24 hours without food a couple times a week. I prefer spacing my first meal of the day 16 hours after my last meal on the previous day, every day. For all the logistics of this see this great introductory article HERE. Besides all the health benefits associated with IF, not least of which is increasing the amount of stored fat you burn in a day, fasting truly does build toughness. I’ve learned just how much of hunger is psychological since taking it up as a regular practice, and being in situations where I have to delay eating rarely phase me anymore.

You can combine all of the above practices, or pick and choose which best fit your lifestyle and fitness goals. If nothing else, taking the time to consider your relationship to food can be a powerful experience all on its own. To take a page from another ancient philosopher, Socrates, it is the unexamined life which is not worth living.


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