Dietary Gods: Eating Well According to the Ancients

Just a few weeks ago, I received the following from Ryan Holiday:

“…in the last 6 months, I’ve lost 15 lbs and am in the best shape of my life. From adding in sprinting to my running regime, using kettle bells once a week, using a weighted vest while taking long walks, and the cat vomit exercise, I now have abs and — like I said — lost weight in places I didn’t know I was storing fat. It was all from your book and keeping to the slow-carb diet. Here’s the part I really have to thank you for: by changing the way I thought about running, I ran the fastest mile in my life, and that’s after four years of cross country and track in high school. Last Friday, I ran a 4:55 mile. A month before my 24th birthday, I shattered my all time best from track: 5:02. Being that close to breaking five minutes had always haunted me.”

Those of you who’ve read this blog for a while know that Ryan is 24-years old and works directly with Dov Charney as his online strategist for American Apparel. He takes more heat, makes more high-stakes decisions, and takes more risks in a given week than most people experience in any given quarter… and he does so with an unusual calm. Unbeknownst to most, he largely credits this ability to his study of Stoicism, among other practical philosophies.

How did this philosophical bent accelerate his physical changes?…

Ryan made the above progress, in part, because he looked at how to transform choices related to food into a vehicle for larger transformation. If you want incentives to change, losing an additional 10 pounds oftentimes just doesn’t cut it.

So let us look to the ancients.

This guest post from Ryan explores his thinking and features wisdom from Epicurus, Seneca, Epictetus, the Spartans, Montaigne and others.

Enter Ryan Holiday

I’ve been grappling with a dilemma.

It’s a philosophical problem that’s thousands of years old, but fresh in an age of obesity, eating disorders and widespread factory farming: how does eating fit into the so-called “good life”?

What does our diet have to say about our ethics and priorities? The world seems broken down into two camps: those that rarely give the connection a second thought, and those who care too much. Could there be a better way?

And so I sought out the answer in the best way I knew how—by looking to the masters.

A student once asked Epictetus how he ought to eat. This, Epictetus replied, was simple. The right way to eat is the same as the right way to live: be “just, cheerful, equable, temperate, and orderly.” He meant that meals embody the principles and the disposition of the person who eats them. Food means choices and choices mean a chance to fulfill our principles. [So think: being thankful, eating just what you need, tipping generously, caring about where it comes from and how it got there.]

Epictetus was not alone. Philosophers have been experimenting with food for centuries in hopes of finding the best ways to be healthy and to enjoy life. (Seneca, for instance, was once a vegetarian for a year.) They sought to curb the impulse to gluttony just as strongly as they fought the urge to obsess over their weight and appearance. They looked to minimize harm and to live in accordance with nature—just as we wonder about animal cruelty or shop organic today. Ultimately, they understood that everything we do—especially something with life or death implications like diet—is a platform for philosophy, that something you do at least three times a day is worth doing well.

By “well”, do I mean healthy? Or well, as in luxuriously? In fact, I mean both. In this short article, we’ll examine eating “well” through three lenses: ethics, discipline (restraint and release), and health. It’s my hope that you’ll then realize that eating well is not just compatible with the philosophic life, but an integral and essential part of it. And conveniently, it has been baked into the The 4-Hour Body and slow-carb diet lessons.

1) Ethics

The ethics of what we eat is well-trod ground, as vegetarians and vegans constantly point out.

But I think Montaigne expressed the philosophy best when he reminded himself that he not only owed kindness and justice to his fellow man, but to animals capable of receiving the same.

Notice how different this is from most attitudes about food. Justice means doing what is fair and reasoned; kindness means empathy and consideration. Most discussions about diet (from paleo to veganism) are pervasively selfish: ‘But what can I have for dessert?’ ‘Sorry, I don’t consume diary.’ ‘Am I allowed to have this?’ Rarely: ‘is eating this the right thing to do?’ We too quickly condemn what might be best for our health, or conversely assume that the optimal nutrition for us trumps any obligations we have as people. Montaigne reminds us of our real obligations, that we should always try to do what is fair and just—what we can look ourselves in the mirror and be okay with afterward.

It’s a question I faced after reading Jonathan Foer’s wonderful book Eating Animals. I knew vaguely that the horrors of slaughterhouses existed and that I could find hundreds of slaughterhouse abuse videos on YouTube in a second or read the flyers PETA gives out, but I deliberately chose not to. In avoiding them, I made the tacit admission that something was wrong, while refusing to examine that feeling further. There is the story of a Spartan King who met two of his subjects, a youth and the youth’s lover, accidentally in a crowd. Embarrassed, the subjects tried to hide their blushing cheeks, but he noticed and replied, “Son, you ought to keep the company of the sort of people who won’t cause you to change color when observed.”

By eating well, we can be proud and transparent, rather than secretly uncomfortable. For starters, by eating more naturally (protein-dense, appropriate portions), we reduce our footprint—the amount we ask of the world to give us. By caring about the quality of what we ingest, we opt out of brutal factory farming and toxic industrial agriculture—keeping excessive blood off our hands. And by eating locally, we support small businesses and entrepreneurs instead of corporate behemoths who have few qualms about poisoning and fattening us (by doing the same to their “product”) if it means greater profits.

Philosophy gives us the tools to root around within ourselves and find these inconsistencies. We can put them out in the open and resolve them. There is something deeply troubling about a system that drives us to obscure the sources of our food. It asks us to not think of what we are eating or why. I don’t arrive at the same conclusions as Foer (vegetarianism), but I made a commitment after reading it, to eat the healthiest diet I could, as honorably and justly as was possible. I’m comfortable looking in the mirror after eating meat from farms like Niman Ranch or Good Shepherd Heritage Poultry. (thanks RareCuts.com!) If I don’t have access to these, it means I must go without, which is not a problem because philosophy helps there as well.

2) Discipline (Restraint and Release)

The Stoics avoided pleasure to prepare for adversity. The Epicureans enjoyed pleasure to help get them through adversity. As with most things, the best option for most people is somewhere in between.

Treat yourself to good meals so you don’t covet and crave them (Tim’s cheat days); learn to love simple foods and they’ll become all you need to be happy. And of course, the Cynics practiced a third way: they saw through the whole charade. Food is just dead animals, they said, plants and liquids we’re eventually going to excrete. No need to get excited nor stressed.

Cumulatively, these three schools all realized that it was important to be disciplined and in control of yourself in normal situations, so that you can develop the coping skills to deal with difficult situations. Modern science adds another layer of insight when it shows us that self-control is a finite resource. Subjects who are forced to resist eating fresh-baked cookies, for example, give up on tough math problems more quickly and have trouble sticking with other tasks. This is definitely not the right attitude if you want to be introspective, dedicated and hardworking. So here we have the the real genius of Tim’s “Cheat Days” and the Epicurean concept of enjoying the little things—it’s an outlet for release that makes discipline easier.

Practicing restraint and targeted release is a deeply philosophic exercise. It means being in tune with your body and living naturally. These are two things that are increasingly difficult in a world of plenty. To be able to say “no,” knowing that what may feel good now will actually feel bad later, is to master the self. To be able to reward the self with simple pleasures is to successful navigate the fine line between self-control and self-flagellation.

Cicero wrote that “need is what provides the seasoning for any and every appetite.” He was observing a truism that was old even in his day–that the most enjoyable meals are not the most expensive or exotic, but come at some moment we never expected. After being sick for a long time, at the end of a long hard day or even, perhaps, not even food but a drink when we are incredibly thirsty. Discipline provide a bit extra seasoning we can add to every single thing that we consume. And if could make the notorious Spartan black broth digestible, it can work for us in our comfy nerfy-lives.

3) Health

Of course, eating well and being healthy go hand in hand. But philosophers have stressed this connection for reasons you may not expect.

The right diet is important not because it helps you live longer, they are quick to point out, but because it makes you a better philosopher. Think about what a better person you could be if you didn’t fucking hate yourself after gorging your face at a dinner, or feel sick and bloated with gluten, to which you’re allergic. If you felt in control of, and confident about, your body instead of lethargic and dissatisfied. Jumping these dietary hurdles is, in effect, a dress rehearsal for awareness in other areas. How much easier would it then be to be empathic, kind and generous? To focus on other people with energy that’s no longer directed at your own problems?

A healthy man can help others better and longer. Anntonius the Pious, one of the truly great Roman Emperors, kept a simple diet so he could work from dawn to dusk with as few bathroom interruptions as possible—so he could be at the service of the people for longer. And as Seneca wrote to a friend, the better you eat, the less you need to exercise, thus leaving more time for philosophy. Our keen edge, he said, is too often dulled by heavy eating and then wasted further as we drain our life-force in exercise trying to work it off. It’s ironic and sad how many people think they eat well (whole grains, carbs and fruits) but really sentence themselves to needless time at the gym. Imagine what would have come of that time if spent doing good for themselves and others.

We all know that eating healthily is good, but too often we forget why. It is not just about us. It’s about our place in the world and the role we need to fulfill. Like a soldier’s diet, our choices about food help us with the job we must do, and if we waver in our dietary decisions, we may come up empty at a critical moment elsewhere.

An Athenian statesman once attended a dinner party put on by Plato. When he met his host again, he is reported to have said “Plato, your dinners are enjoyable not only when one is eating them, but on the morning after as well.” The man’s point was that he’d felt good the next day too. He was sharp and ready to go instead of a miserable bloated mess. To me, this is a host and a guest understanding the proper role of food, health and pleasure in our lives


We live incredibly unnatural, stressful lives in increasingly unhealthy times.

The Japanese novelist and runner Haruki Murakami has a theory along the following lines: an unhealthy soul [whether deliberate or from external forces] requires a healthy body. How we treat this bit of flesh we’ve been given says a lot about what we will become on the inside.

Put in a more uplifting light, in such a crazy world, we need to utilize every positive counterweight we can. Eating well is one powerful option.

The benefits aren’t just physical, but also emotional and even existential. Some of the most important moments in my life and career have come at dinners with friends. I think back on these meals, like an Epicurean, and I can savor the the taste all over again. No matter where I am, what I am going through or how long ago it was, I always have this to turn to, to lean on, to enjoy.

By leaning on the masters, who have meditated with this topic for centuries, we find age-old but fresh perspectives. I followed their lead and began thinking philosophically about food–that is, trying to eat both naturally, reasonably and ethically–and I saw drastic changes. I am in the best shape of my life physically and mentally.

And this is why Philosophy is so important. Because it can turn a simple thing like eating into a lens for viewing the world, a path to what we all want: the good life.

(Photo courtesy: H.Koppdelaney)

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