The History of Man’s Eating Habits

By Michel Montignac

Egypt | Greece | Rome | The High Middle Ages | The Low Middle Ages | Modern Times | Contemporary Period

Historians are unanimous in stating that although man is omnivorous, he has been essentially carnivorous for millions of years.

From the beginning and up to the Neolithic Period, approximately 10 000 years ago, man was a nomad who lived by hunting and picking wild fruit and vegetables and his diet was basically made up of game (protein and lipids) as well as wild berries and roots (carbohydrates with low Glycemic Indexes and high fiber content.) Most authors agree on the fact that our ancestors also ate, accessorily, vegetables (leafy vegetables, vegetable shoots…) and undoubtedly, from time to time, wild cereal. These vegetables also fell into the category of carbs with very low Glycemic Indexes.

The energy primitive man expended on a daily basis was enormous, not only because he had to contend with immense physical demands but also because his living conditions were extremely precarious, particularly due to the erratic weather conditions.

One wonders how these « high-level sportsmen » were able, for millions of years, to satisfy such a large caloric demand with the limited carbohydrates at their disposal and, above all, without any of the slow sugars *, which are considered essential by modern nutritionists.

During the Neolithic Age, as these men became more and more sedentary, man’s eating habits suffered the first of the dramatic changes to come. Animal breeding allowed him to continue to have meat to eat  (although not exactly the same kind of meat) while the development of agriculture let him plant his own food and produce cereals (wheat, rye, barley …, later on pulses (lentils, peas…) and lastly, vegetables and fruit.

One would imagine that, by becoming sedentary, primitive man had started a process which would lead him on the path to improving his existence. Notwhithstanding, at a nutritional level, the contrary seems to have occurred. Compared to the hunter-food pickers of the Mesolithic Age, the farmer-cattleman had considerably reduced the variety of the food he ate. In fact, very few animals could be domesticated or bred and only certain vegetables could be grown. We could even say that the farmer-cattleman was forced to rationalize or, to put it in modern terms, to optimize his activities.

This revolution in our ancestors’ lifestyle left its mark. Firstly, it affected human health. As a result of the tendency to grow one sole crop, people’s diets became deficient; that which shortened their life span. Furthermore, agriculture (even if on well-irrigated and fertile soils such as those in Egypt and Mesopotamia) is a much more physically demanding chore than hunting for food and game as in the Mesolithic Age and even the hunting of large animals of the High Paleolithic Age.

Primitive man lived in harmony and in balance with nature. When his natural food moved from one place to another with the different species’ migratory movements or with the seasons, man migrated as well. Upon becoming sedentary, man imposed new limitations and restrictions on himself.

By abandoning his terrestrial paradise in order to master his food sources, the farmer-cattleman was forced to face numerous new risks: capricious weather conditions, the limits set by having to choose less productive and more fragile varieties and species as well as soils which were often unsuitable to his needs. The Biblical history of 7 lean years clearly illustrates the uncertainty and capricious nature of this new lifestyle.

What’s more, the emergence of agriculture and cattle breeding generated the need for these communities to develop birth and productivity policies (to put it in modern terms). Farmers, fearing that they would not have enough to eat, began to try to produce more than they actually needed and, to this end, began hiring extra hands.

Without really being aware of what they had let themselves in for, the grower and his family set a vicious circle in motion. They unknowingly set the framework for uninterrupted population growth, that which aggravated the risks and repercussions of periods of food shortages. When harvests were poor the effects became even more catastrophic.

Naturally, this article is not an attempt at retracing the detailed history of human eating habits from the times when man lived in caves. This would require more space than can be dedicated to this article and there are some excellent reference books on this subject. (1)

Nonetheless, we cannot pretend to address the problem which concerns us (the preponderance of obesity in our times and civilization) without looking back on the preceding periods and landmarks of human eating habits. Regrettably, these considerations are way too often ignored by contemporary nutritionists.

What I propose here is an analysis of the historical moments that conditioned the evolution of Western man’s eating habits. I also wish to point to the landmarks which show us where man lost his way and ended up on a path to obesity, diabetes and heart illness.    

What is evident is that, from the Neolithic Age up to Antiquity, from one country to another and from one religion to another, man’s choices of food and dietary models have varied enormously. Despite this large diversity we can, by means of an innovative angle, compare the different foods (and their nutritional value) by classifying them into food categories according to their metabolic potential*.


There are numerous figurative and written sources on Ancient Egypt which acquaint us with its agricultural and eating habits. These sources testify that, throughout all of its history, Egyptians disposed of a wide variety of food choices.

Egyptian agriculture was complemented by livestock breeding. Of all of the animals man chose to breed, the pig was probably the most common food favorite. Cows and sheep were also an essential part of Egyptians’ diet. The Egyptians, however, had a marked preference for poultry (geese, ducks, quail, pigeons, pelicans…)

They planted and harvested large amounts of cereals in the fertile Nile basin and also produced vegetables (onions, leeks, lettuces, garlic) and pulses (chick-peas, lentils…)

Considering the diversity of these resources, we could say that Egyptians’ diet was varied and well-balanced. The problem however was that supplies were not at all regular and depended on the Nile’s variations.

Furthermore, as in the following civilizations, eating habits varied from one region of Egypt to another but, above all, from one social class to another. The rich and privileged, like in the Middle Ages and Modern Times, enjoyed a much more abundant and rich diet. The poorer sectors of society had to do with cereals, vegetables and pulses.

From what we know today on the basis of highly developed modern research methods, the Egyptians apparently were not always as healthy as one would imagine, at least not those who only had access to a diet solely based on cereal (carbohydrates). Many of the papyrus and mommies analyzed give proof to the fact that life expectancy was well under 30 years of age, that the Egyptians’ teeth were often decayed and that they suffered from arthrosclerosis, heart disease and even obesity. A special hall in the Cairo Museum gives evidence to this fact. This exhibit is dedicated to a series of obese statues which testify to Egyptians’ corpulence, at least in the case of certain ethnic groups. This contrasts with the impression given by most hieroglyphs.


In the Greek world, cereals supplied 80% of people’s nutritional fuel. This food preference, more than a geographic and economic choice, was the result of policies ensuing from a particular ideology.

The Greeks were convinced that they were a civilized people. Contrary to barbarians, who limited themselves to picking wild fruit and vegetables, hunting and living off of what nature offered them freely, the Greeks had the feeling that by farming they determined their own eating habits and thus improved the human condition.

For the Greeks, meat was contemptible since it did not involve an active effort. The only thing man had to do to eat meat was to set the animals out to pasture on lands which he did not toil.

Hunting was considered a servile activity, a sign of poverty and the result of a precarious situation and, as such, undignified for a civilized man. It was the lot of populations who had no other choice; it was a marginal activity which went against the principles of the world of the Cité, the pillar of the Hellenic World.

Certain types of food —wheat bread, wine, olive oil and, to a certain degree, cheese— were the mark of civilized man’s status. Noble food was that which was not naturally available but required, in one way or another, some type of man-made process. Man’s claim to civilization was the domestication and transformation of nature by processing what he ate.

Nevertheless, whatever the philosophers of the time might have thought, daily reality in Ancient Greece did not exactly fit their ideals. The ideal dietary model of the times did not contemplate the diverse vegetable soups and stone ground cereal pottage or dried vegetables which were common peoples’ ‘daily bread’.

This is not to say that, for the population at large (excepting carnivorous soldiers in the Hellenic tradition who drew their Herculean strength from animal meat), meat was still a luxury and practically taboo since it was reserved for sacrificial rituals. Lambs were mainly bred for their wool and milk from which cheese was made. Bovines were scarce and only used as pack animals and to be milked.

Fish (and even shellfish) was, on the other hand, widely consumed even if it was not the product of human processing. The fact that fishing was a sophisticated act and not precisely an easy chore might have served to justify the fact that it was not classified as unfit for civilized men. Fish, however, might also have escaped the restrictive nutritional ideology of the times out of pragmatism. Not only was fish abundant, it was also a traditional Mediterranean dish.

Thus, although generalizations are always hard to put into perspective, one could say that the Greeks did not consume enormous amounts of proteins. To the point that one could even speculate that this deprivation among a large part of the population might have been at the root of several health problems. This might explain why it was precisely Greece that gave birth to “modern” medicine under the guidance of Hippocrates.


In Rome, meat played a much more significant role. The Romans are the recipients of an Italic tradition of pork breeding which they inherited from the Etruscans. Even if meat does not play a central role in their eating habits, meat is what supplies most of the animal protein that they consume.

Nevertheless, the Romans’ food symbol is, like that of the Greeks, bread (wheat), particularly for the Roman soldier. The emblematic foodstuff for the Soldier of the Legion is in effect wheat bread which he accompanied with olives, onions, figs and oil. Bread for the Roman Soldier was important to the point that protested when he was served meat.

This vegetarian diet, which is nonetheless fortifying, is what made these men heavyset and stout; and this is not a legend. It is to be noted that Roman soldiers were expected to respond, endure and resist. Their strength (inertia) is due to their ability to stay still and withstand under enemy attack. When the Roman army needed mobile, alert and fast combatants, it sought them out among its barbarian allies.

Joining the Roman Legion was an honor for roman peasants. It implied social freedom and allowed them to become a full-pledged citizen. Wheat bread, a noble food, is the only food up to the standards of this prestigious status.

The fact is that the Roman of the people ate very small amounts of wheat. Apart for pork, poultry and cheese, and occasionally fish, his diet was basically made up of vegetables (mainly diverse stone ground cereals.)

Wheat farming is a sign of a certain economic status, the privilege of the upper classes.  However, wheat is not solely for the privileged sectors of society, it is also the food which helps the authorities to tie the people over when famine strikes. Paradoxically, even though this is food for the rich, wheat is distributed to the poor during periods of scarcity.

As a conclusion, one could say that the Romans’ eating habits were a bit more balanced than the Greeks due to the diet’s higher protein content. Only the soldiers had a truly deprived diet. It might not be so farfetched to wonder (even if historians and analysts have not braved this correlation) if the Roman soldiers’ deficient diet might have had something to do with the fall of the Roman Empire.

The High Middle Ages

The Romans, when colonizing the Mediterranean and European regions which were inhabited by people which they considered barbarians, systematically passed on their ideology and customs to the peoples conquered. They probably met the most resistance when attempting to impose their foods and eating habits.

The Roman and Mediterranean civilizations were totally opposed in this sense. On the one hand, there was the meat, milk and butter civilization and on the other, we can observe a bread, wine and oil civilization. The agricultural and the city myth fiercely confronted the forest and village myth. The antagonism between these opposing eating habits reached a peak towards the 4th and 5th century when the balance of power turned to the benefit of the barbarians.

Whatever, even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Roman model left its mark on the peoples of its former colonies. The main vector for this integration was no other than Christianity, the true inheritor of the Roman world and its traditions whose alimentary symbols were familiar: bread, wine and oil. As soon as the Churches and monasteries were built, clergymen turned to plant wheat fields and vineyards in the surrounding areas.

Rather than talking of the conversion of the barbarians to Roman ideology, it would be more suitable to speak of a symbiosis of two cultures. Integration of Roman ideology did not really threaten barbarian traditions; one could say it even strengthened them. Hunting, pasture animal breeding, river and lake fishing, picking fruit and vegetables were elevated to the rank of noble activities on equal footing with agriculture and cultivating grapes for wine. Forestry was common and a noteworthy social practice. While vineyards were measured in wine barrels, crops in bushels of wheat, and fields in hay stacks, forests were, comparatively, measured by the number of pigs (whose ancestor is the wild boar), an exchange unit dear to the Celtic Civilization and still in vogue in the Germanic world.

The “agro-sylvo-pastoral” system supplied these populations with a very wide variety of foods. Animal protein was particularly important (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk products.) Secondary cereals (barley, einkorn, millet, sorghum, rye…) which were much more common than wheat were often accompanied by pulses (beans, string beans, peas and chick-peas).

Vegetable gardens were tax exempt and supplied an important ingredient for preparing the soups commonly used to cook the meat. The fact that animal and vegetable resources were complementary ingredients, assured the European peoples of the High Middle Ages a balanced diet.

Numerous studies on the human remains which have been discovered from this period indicate that people were apparently quite healthy. Their physiological development and growth indexes appear normal. Their bones seem in good shape and there seems to be very few deformities. Their teeth are basically healthy and not worn down. When they are worn down or rotten, it’s a sign that their diet is basically made up of stone ground cereals.

Everything indicates that, as opposed to the succeeding centuries, the High Middle Ages was not plagued with illnesses from deprivation nor malnutrition. This diversified alimentary production model of the times operated under stable demographic conditions, that which contributed to keeping periods of food shortages from reaching catastrophic proportions.

Although not a time of plenty, the High Middle Ages was not as sordid and obscure as some would have us believe. As concerns the food available, both at a qualitative and quantitative level this period was basically satisfying, anyway more so than those that followed.

The Low Middle Ages

As of the mid 10th century, the food production balance established during the High Middle Ages gradually began to lose its foothold. The agro-sylvo-pastoral system, which had functioned relatively well under stable demographic conditions, was no longer capable of satisfying community needs; even if it continued to operate in a number of regions, particularly in the mountains.

As the number of people increased, it began to get harder and harder to satisfy their needs through this subsistence economy. Apart from an increase in the number of mouths to be fed, structural economic conditions had radically changed: commerce had brought about the emergence of a true market economy.  Furthermore, landowners (keepers of political power) discovered that they could take even greater advantage of their lands by extending their crops to untilled pasture lands and intensifying peasants’ labor.

Emphasis was then made on growing cereals. Partly because they were easy to preserve and stock but also because they could contribute to satisfying demands of new commercial circuits. Europe’s agrarian landscape is gradually transformed. Deforestation becomes a systematic way with the land and enormous forests begin to disappear. Cereals became peasants’ staple food and the basis of their diet. As limits were set on chasing and pasturing rights, meat soon disappeared from peasant dishes to become the privilege of the few, the upper classes. Even if, during the Bubonic plague of the mid 14th century, population growth is what allowed Europeans to survive and helped to bring meat back to the farms, gradually, distinctions between the food which is eaten by the rich and that available to the poorer classes become more and more marked.

There are two social categories that continue to enjoy nutritional privileges: aristocrats, who are traditional meat eaters and city dwellers from all social classes. The authorities’ constant fear of rioting due to food shortages guarantee these city dwellers a wide variety of foods and meat is one of the central dishes.

This contrast between an “urban” and a “rural” dietary model is particularly noticeable at the end of the Middle Ages throughout all of Europe. In Italy this distinction had already existed for several centuries and it became particularly widespread under Roman impulse.

The “urban” model actually responds to a market economy while the “rural” model continues to be a subsistence economy. The factors which oppose these two models are both quantitative and qualitative. Urban dwellers’ white bread contrasts with peasants’ dark bread much like fresh meat (particularly lamb) found in the cities contrasts with the salted pork (cold cuts) eaten in the countryside.

Accordingly, this difference is also reflected in peoples’ health. Peasants were obviously at a double disadvantage in comparison with city dwellers. They not only suffered from malnutrition because they lacked proteins, they also had to endure extremely hard working conditions.

Modern Times

This period is marked by several events which continue to further modifying these populations’ eating habits.

Firstly, the urban phenomenon which continues to promote market economies. Cities draw more and more people. But what is more significant are the rates of population growth which, in view of insufficient scientific progress to increase production levels, bring about dramatic structural changes in food production and supplies.

Europe has approximately 90 million inhabitants by the 14th century. It grows at a 10% rate and by the 17th century it has 125 million inhabitants. During the 17th century there is a population leap and by 1750, there are approximately 150 million Europeans and almost 200 million at the beginning of the 18th century.

This unprecedented population growth is at the heart of a renewed practice of deforestation. As in the past, the lands devoted to cultivating cereals were expanded to the loss of the amount of land vowed to cattle farming, hunting and crop picking. As a result of increased farming activities, grains became the central ingredient in peoples’ diet and this reduced the variety of the foods and the amount of proteins consumed.

People began to eat less and less meat, particularly in the cities where, as we noted above, meat eating had managed to survive during the preceding period. In Naples, for example, during the 16th century approximately 30,000 bovines were sacrificed per year for a population of 200 000 people. Two centuries later, only 20,000 were killed for a population of 400,000 inhabitants.

In Berlin, in the 19th century the ratio of meat consumed per inhabitant was twelve times lower than in the 14th century. In the Languedoc, at the end of the 16th century, most women only bred one pig per year, at the beginning of the century they bred three pigs.

These reductions in the amount of food people consumed naturally varied from country to country and from one region to another. Reduced animal protein intake, nonetheless, left its mark and repercussions on people’s health. Numerous statistics point to the fact that this even affected people’s size. Throughout the 18th century, the soldiers enlisted by the Hapsburgs as well as Swedish recruits, seem to have been on the average shorter. In England, and particularly in London, towards the 18th century, teenagers’ were apparently shorter than their ancestors. Germans, at the beginning of the 19th century, seem to have lost some inches in comparison to the average size of the 14th and 15th century German generations.Furthermore, the more dependant people became on cereals, the more peoples’ health and mortality rates suffered as a result of the cereal crises due to bad harvests.

Several authors quote examples of the prosperous Beaucerons who, in times of severe cereal crises, sought refuge with the poor of Sologne whose more archaic, and thus more varied, food production allowed them to resist these crises. Likewise, mountain people escaped shortages insofar as their varied diets always combined agricultural, livestock, hunting and fishing products. This is why mountaineers, who ate a wide variety of foods, were bigger and stronger than most. The fact that they were healthier explains why they were much more active and enterprising than the rest.

Another factor at the root of the degradation of peasants’ diets was the transformation of the rural landholding system whereby farmlands gradually passed to the hands of the rich (gentry and bourgeoisie…) In Ile-de-France during the mid 16th century, only one third of the land still belonged to the peasantry. A century later, there were even less small landowners. In Bourgogne, in certain villages, small landowners had practically disappeared after the Thirty-Year War. Peasants whose lands were particularly fertile and close to the cities were the first to be dispossessed. The servility imposed on the peasantry together with the hardship of their work, noticeably aggravated their living conditions; even if this allowed for the surplus production which was sold and exported to the more economically advanced countries.

One of the main concerns of the times, at least in France, was maintaining constant food supplies. Although, traditionally, municipal authorities were in charge of keeping up food supplies, the central government constantly feared the risk of popular rioting should there be bread shortages. This is why the King decided to stock grains to cover periods of shortage. This regulatory policy, however, was often seen as an attempt at monopolizing wheat for speculative purposes, to raise prices.

At the end of the 18th century, as the situation started to become more and more critical, public officials became increasingly aware of the bread issue (the problem of depending on wheat as the sole crop) and they sought the means of diversifying food crops. Parmentier suggested growing potatoes but, since Europeans had viewed potatoes as “pig feed” ever since this plant was first brought to Europe in the 16th century, his proposal was not well received. It was not until the 19th century that potatoes were fully integrated into people’s eating habits.

Other means of diversifying food supplies are even less successful. In Italy and the South-West of France, corn cakes were used as substitutes for barley and millet flat cakes and pottages. The problem with corn cakes was that they did not supply Vitamin PP and communities whose diets were based on corn were prone to suffer pellagra epidemics.

A good number of foods were also brought from the New World (tomatoes, Mexican beans, turkey…) however, considering the length of time it took for these foods to be adopted into people’s eating habits and agricultural practices, it is impossible to say that they drastically changed Europe’s nutritional landscape.
Apart from potatoes, which in countries such as Ireland became the basis of Irish people’s diet (incurring the same risks as with wheat in case of shortages), there are two other phenomena which deserve special attention due to their significant future impact on contemporary health issues.

There is first and foremost the introduction of sugar into the general population’s eating habits. Sugar was not something new but, while it was still produced from sugar cane, it remained an expensive and thus marginal ingredient. The French, at the beginning of the 19th century, consumed approximately 1.6 pounds of sugar per person. Thanks to the development of the process of extracting sugar from beets in 1812, sugar prices began to fall and sugar gradually became a popular food item (16 lbs a year per person in 1880, 34 lbs in 1900, 60 lbs in 1930 and 80 lbs in 1960). Even so, the French still consumed less sugar than the rest of the Western World.

The second phenomenon is the invention of the cylinder mill in 1870 which makes white flour available to one and all at reasonable prices. Since the time of the Egyptians, man has not ceased to seek the means to refine (sift) wheat varieties in order to produce white flour. At the time, wheat was coarsely sifted, the milling was simply passed through a strainer. This basically served to remove part of the bran which covered the wheat grains. Our ancestors’ whole bread was then no other than what is known today as hovis brown bread, in other words, semi-whole grain bread.
This sifting operation was long and costly, (done manually) making this bread a luxury available only to the privileged few who could afford it.

The invention of the cylinder mill at the end of the 19th century and its widespread use at the beginning of the 20th century radically changed the nature of flour. Its nutritional content was dramatically reduced to the point of becoming nothing more than starch. Precious proteins, fibers, essential fatty acids and other vitamin Bs were almost totally eliminated in the process.

The fact that flour suddenly began to be disregarded at a nutritional level, did not really constitute a mayor health problem for the richer sectors since they could compensate with an otherwise varied and balanced diet. For the underprivileged classes, however, for whom flour remained the basis of their diet, eating flour which had suddenly been deprived of all nutritional value could only tend to aggravate a diet which was already sorely lacking and unbalanced.

Apart from lacking nutritional values, sugar and white flour —like potatoes— have the sad privilege of the negative effects they produce on our bodies (hyperglycemia, high blood sugar) which, as we know, are the highest risk factors of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The Contemporary Period

Our times start at the beginning of the 19th century and are characterized by a certain number of mayor events, which to diverse degrees, have had a significant impact on the way our eating habits have evolved. The Industrial Revolution provoked a rural exodus and a marked urban expansion. It also signaled the triumph of market economy over subsistence economy as well as the phenomenal development of transportation and international trade.

Food industrialization became a gigantic business. The production of traditional food-stuffs (flours, oils, jams, butter, cheese…) that were formerly prepared manually are now the product of mass, and at times gigantic, industrial processes. The invention of conservation methods (appertisation (heat preservation), and later freezing) is, however, what allows man to condition a great number of fresh foods in the form of preserves and frozen foods. (fruit, vegetables, meat and fish…)

As customs and society evolve, women lose sight of their role as housewives, and female emancipation opens the way to the development of ready-made foods (frozen dinners, mass dishes…)

Expanding means of transportation and world trade make it possible for many more people to consume exotic products (oranges, grapefruit, bananas, peanuts, cacao, coffee, tea...) and eat fruit out of their ordinary seasons (strawberries for Christmas and apples and grapes in the spring..)

The sign of the times, which has expanded even more rapidly during the past 50 years, is the globalization of a destructured way of eating as in the US model of which the fast food phenomenon is but one aspect. Luckily, some countries have preserved a certain attachment to their traditional eating habits. This is notably the case of the Latin countries whose traditional eating customs still resist and persist. One can even observe a certain cultural revival of Latin culinary and gastronomic traditions.

Local resistances will probably not suffice to slow down the inescapable standardization (globalization) of dietary models like that of the US which has managed to penetrate all of the world’s cultures. We have seen that wherever these perverse eating habits become a common part of people’s lifestyle, as in the case of the country where they originated (the US), they provoke widespread obesity, diabetes and heart illnesses; three afflictions which encumber modern man’s existence.

This is why the World Health Organization (WHO) has been denouncing this situation since 1997, warning the world regarding what it considers a true pandemic.


* Foodstuffs’ metabolic potential is its qualitative value at a nutritional level. Traditional dietetic was content to speak of, for example, fats or carbohydrates in general. Nowadays, we know that we have to distinguish between the different foods in each of the categories. Some fats have the potential to generate heart problems (they can, for example, raise cholesterol levels) while other fats are potentially positive. This is the case of olive oil which reduces cardiovascular risk factors. Likewise, we now have to distinguish carbs by their Glycemic Indexes (GIs.) Foodstuffs with high GIs (sugar, potatoes, refined flour) are potentially negative since they can cause us to gain weight or to suffer form diabetes.

(1) Food: A Culinary History, Jean-Louis Flandrin & Massimo Montanari [Columbia University Press:New York] 1999 / Histoire de l'alimentation, Editions Fayard, 1996.

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