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Advertisement for Liebig's Beef Wine, 1900.

Advertisement for Liebig's Beef Wine, 1900.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Dieting, eating food selectively as a means to preserve or restore health, has been an important form of treatment in many medical systems. Food was essential to early humoral medicine in Rome and Greece, which emphasised dieting as a means to establish balance in the patient's body. Ayurveda, Unani and Traditional Chinese Medicine all prescribe different types of food to patients in an effort to promote good health.

In addition, many healing traditions have observed the positive effect of a specialised diet on some diseases: classical Indian medicine, for instance, noted the role of foods rich in carbohydrates such as rice and sugar for diabetes. Before the discovery of insulin many doctors sought to control diabetes by prescribing particular dietary regimes. Doctors also developed diets to prevent diseases caused by malnutrition, such as scurvy and rickets.

In Europe the introduction of new foods from the Americas in the 1600s challenged the Galenic system of classifying foods according to humours. There were intense debates as to whether foods such as tea, coffee, chocolate or tobacco were good or bad for you. In the 1700s there was a revival of vegetarianism, and a move away from meat and alcohol towards milk, grains and vegetables. By the 1800s anti-alcohol movements were producing new soft drinks and health reformers such as John Harvey Kellogg were linking diet to ideas about healthy living in a moral as well as physical sense.

Nutritional science was developed in the 1930s and 1940s. Researchers identified the vitamins and minerals in food, and explored how they affected the body. One of the most important reasons for dieting today is obesity, which has been linked to a wide range of health problems from heart disease to depression. But obsessive weight loss has become a medical problem as well, in eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa.


S L Gilman, Diets and Dieting: A Cultural Encyclopaedia (New York, London: Routledge, 2008)



This term refers to any form of metabolic disorder characterized by extreme thirst and excess urine production.


Disease caused by a lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which is contained in fresh fruit and vegetables. Symptoms include weakness, painful joints, and bleeding gums.