WTF IS Wellness? Part 3: Diets & Muesli

WTF IS Wellness? Part 3: Diets & Muesli

We said we’d jump in, so let’s go. Part three.

This is the point where we actually see the term “wellness” written, proper. With the first example stemming from a diary entry by Sir Archibald Johnston in 1654:

“I… blessed god… for my daughter’s wealnesse.”

  His spelling left a little to be desired, but you get the gist.

Originally the word wellness was defined as the opposite of illness. Whilst still true to a degree today, our modern understanding of wellness is a lot more encompassing than the absence of illness.

It’d be another couple of hundred years, around the 1800s, before Hippocrates’ idea of humourism was totally replaced. The three-pronged intellect of Pasteur (antibiotics) Lister (antiseptics, though really we owe Avicenna a nod for that) and Koch (improved laboratory science) dispelled much of the Ancient Grecian wisdom and set us up for the impending boom of wellness as an idea. Various important touchstones occurred around the 1800s which served as vital launchpads towards our modern understanding of wellness. Homeopathy (1790s), Hydrotherapy (1860s), Osteopathy (1870s) and Chiropractic (1890s) were all developed within the space of a hundred years – crucial developments, but unnecessary to expound on for the sake of brevity.

It’s apt to point out that, of course, people across history have eaten specific food as a way to improve health. Garlic has been used for its uplifting properties for millennia, just as citrus fruits were found to prevent sailors from getting scurvy in the 1700s. But there was no real scientific underpinning as to why these foods aided our wellness. 

With that said, in the late 1800s, we saw the first diet craze emerge in relatively modern times. Diets as a means to lose weight had existed for centuries before this, but they were never sustainable enough to last a lifetime. As tends to be the case in history, the diet came from one of the most unlikely sources: an undertaker, named William Banting.  Having struggled with his weight for decades, so much so that the BBC state “he was apparently so fat he had to go down the stairs backwards.” Banting turned to various medical practitioners as he attempted to get his weight under control as a means to improve his wellness. One suggestion in particular made a remarkable impact on his life. As the weight dropped and his health improved, those around him sought to find out exactly how Banting had lost so much weight so quickly. So, the undertaker took it upon himself to document his thoughts and diet in the 1863 work Letter on Corpulence.

Think of it as the Victorian Atkins diet – put simply, low carbs (and a hearty, daily, glug of alcohol, as was deemed somewhat essential at the time). The letter became a roaring success, so much so that Banting soon began charging for later editions of his seminal letter. It was clear from the popularity of the Banting diet (so much so that the Swedish word ‘banta’ still remains the main verb to describe “being on a diet”) that, by the turn of the 20th century, wellness by means of diet was something percolating in our collective consciousness. By extension of this, if we cross the pond to Switzerland, we’re introduced to another proponent of altering diet to benefit health: Max Bircher-Benner (yes, of Bircher Muesli fame). There’s a lot we could say, but for the sake of brevity, Bircher-Brenner was one of the first scientifically trained physicians to espouse the benefits of raw fruit and vegetables as a vehicle for wellness. After treating himself with a diet of uncooked fruit and veg for his own jaundice, he realised the rejuvenating properties of a vegetarian diet, something totally alien to wider society at the time.

Though his medical peers scoffed at his unusual approach to diet, the idea took hold with the wider society. So much so that he opened a sanatorium in Zurich in 1904, one of the first semi-modern retreats that people would attend as a means to improve their health. As expected, given our contemporary understanding of wellness, individuals who attended were prevented from indulging in alcohol, coffee, chocolate and tobacco, as well as being encouraged to take cold showers, sleep for long periods of time and undergo regular and regimented physical activity. These are just two individuals, Banting and Bircher-Brenner, who helped to flick the needle of wellness as the idea of holistic health emerged as something attainable for individuals outside of the upper classes in the late 19th, and early 20th, centuries. Around these times, let’s say 1900 for the sake of putting a stake in the ground, there were only four essential nutrients recognised within food: carbohydrates, protein, fat and minerals.

Without the additional knowledge of vitamins and the like, present within all diets but not yet discovered, individuals chose – just as many still do today – their food based on availability and price above all else. Most of the average person’s physical activity came about through their work rather than as a means to improve wellness, as individuals were still dealing with the hangover of religion’s intense focus on attaining a place in the good part of the afterlife, rather than the hot, painful one.

Okay, deep breath, we've tiptoed into the early 1900s now. Almost within “grandparent was born” territory.

In our next instalment, we’ll take a look at the discovery of vitamins, the Western adoption of wellness as a key component of a healthy lifestyle (essentially “rediscovering” what Hippocrates had championed thousands of years prior), and highlight some of the key names who contributed to the creation of the wellness industry as we know it today.

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