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Gastronomic Reflections on Obesity from 1825 Paris, France

POSTED BY Pink Ribbon Cooking / June 20, 2013

Pink Ribbon Cooking

Tuesday's adoption of obesity as a disease prompted me to open a post I had been working on about the reflections of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, A court of Appeals Judge in France and a well respected gastronomic voice in early 1800's Paris and France.

In this post I reflect on a book Brillat-Savarin wrote called Physiology of Taste.  The Physiology of Taste is a reflective piece, where Brillat-Savarin shares his thoughts, referred to as meditations, on the pleasures or connoisseurship of food.  These mediations explore our physiological and psychological desires for food, liquids and how these drive our appetite.  Along the way he shares several conversations with friends and dialogs with himself.

Physilogy of Taste is often thought of as the most important book written about food.  Given our ever expanding dialog about food and the quality of research, education and contributors I can't agree with that but, without exception, this is one of the most defining and relevant explorations about our relationship with food and how it affects our behaviors and life.

Below is the post I had written prior to the AMA's position on obesity.

With the wet weather we have been having I have found time to do some office and studio cleaning.  The other day I was organizing the library and came across my desk copy of the Physiology of Taste, or, Meditations on Transcedental Gastronomy, written by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825.  This is a rather deep read and I do not expect this post will prompt its sale on Amazon to go crazy, however, it seems weight management was an issue then and little has chnaged since 1825!

In Meditation 21: On Obesity, Brillat-Savarin explores and communicates the causes of obesity in a harsh and rather frank manner.  First he offers his definition of the condition of obesity as "That state of fatty congestion in which a person's body parts gradually grow larger, without his being ill, and lose their form and their original harmonious proportions."  

In this meditation Brillat-Savarin openly admits to being a large figured man, a "gastrophore", or a centrally obese man.  With his self identification of being among those affected by food's influence his frank nature registers with me.

A dialog of a conversation between himself, three other large men and a large lady is shared.  Through this conversation a theorized central cause of obesity is communicated.  The take away form the dialog is that Brillat-Savarin theorized that the primary causes of "fatty corpulence" is, among other matters, a diet based on starches, refined and processed grains, foods and starches.  

He offers that "All animals who live on farinacious foods grow fat whether they will or no; man follows the common rule."

Brillat-Savarin summarizes his theory on the causes of obesity as follows:

  1. The natural predispositions of the indivual
  2. Consumption of excess starches 
  3. Lack of movement and exercise
  4. Lack of sleep
  5. Affects of fatigue from the diet based on excess starches
  6. Excess and our pleasure derived from food and eating ... "One of the privledges of the human race is to eat without hunger and drink without thirst."

The inconveniences of obesity are also explored.  

The reality that excess weight has a "distressing influence" which can destroy "beauty and strength of both sexes".  That excess weight and body mass can distress breathing, adveresely affects the proportion of muscle to fat and, in time can hinder the body's ability to use muscular force to rid itself of excess.  Additionally it is discussed that excess weight destroys the harmony of the body, as the growth of the body from excess food does not happen evenly.  Finally he offers that "Obesity brings with it a distatse for dancing, for taking walks, and for horseback riding, and an inaptitude for all those amusements and occupations which demand little agility or skill."

In summarizing this meditation Brillat-Savarin proposes that "We can conclude that everyone must earnestly desire to avoid obesity, who is not already overweight, and that whoever is obese must try to escape from that state."

As I reflect on this reading and the meditations associated with it I wonder why this voice has not yet been heard by us, even after nearly 200 years.  I cannot escape that I am guilty of many of the causes.  I woke up one day and was tired of being a large man, at least larger than I was meant to be.  I found myself feeling irresposible that I have a son and wife that need me and I am not doing what I can to be well.  With that said I have found my motivation and have taken foundational transformations to "escape" my state of obesity.  

The hardest part of my journey forward is just that, it is a journey.   Not a pill, a tonic or an elixir.  On my journey I must make choices everyday that put my body and wellness first.  My behaviors and my relationship with food must continue to change and improve.  I cannot escape this reality.  None of us can.  

I share my knowledge through Pink Ribbon Cooking in the hopes that others who wish to improve their health will do so.  To share that it is possible to take control.  Through our Food Philosophy, recipes, and cooking instruction it is my hope that people will be able to acquire the skills needed to cook and eat delicious, healthy and natural foods.  To share the pleasures of the table and a meal in a healthy and responsible manner.   To enjoy food for all that it can be without damaging all that we can be.

Food is wonderful as are each of us.  I look forward to improving my relationship with food and my body and I hope this post inspires the same within yourself. 

Have a great and delicious day!

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