The lucky ones among you will already know about my lust for food history. I went to a lecture this week by awesome historian Steven Shapin, and discovered that I am in good company; over the past few years he has been teaching and writing about the history of dietetics and its relationship to expertise and conceptions of the self. The lecture was amazing, but that’s a story for another blog. More importantly was learning the etymology of the word ‘diet,’ and how it links to formal politics.

Historically, dietetics was concerned not with losing weight or attaining greater health, but with maintaining health. It was also known as ‘regime’, and ‘hygiene’. The important ideas were drawn from Galenic humoural theory and focussed on finding foods that complemented your own personal humoural balance. So if you were phlegmatic (cold and wet), then you should eat lots of melon. (Incidentally, this is where the phrase ‘agrees with me’ in relation to food comes from – foods that matched your humoural constitution were said to ‘agree with you’).

ANYWAY. The important thing in all this is the ideas of order, balance and regularity. The origin of diet is the Greek diaita, originally “way of life, regimen.” This gave the name to early Roman political assemblies, dieta. Many Parliaments today (including the Japanese) are still called the Diet. And the same notions of order, balance and control (over both the individual body and the body politic) mean that the word came to define individual choices about controlling our health with food and drink.

PS You can hear Shapin talking about this much more coherently on this week’s Thinking Allowed.

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