Pythagorean Diet: the revolutionary father of vegetarianism


Pythagorean Diet


I decided to write about the Pythagorean Diet just after the conference entitled “The Pythagorean Trapeza” held at the Pythagorean Museum here in Crotone, Italy; an occasion in which I participated as a speaker with a presentation (to my delight, sincerely appreciated) entitled “Health and Sustainability at the Table: the Evolution of Pythagorean Thought”. At the end of the article you will find the video with a summary.
I learned many curious things from the research I did in preparation for my talk, in addition, of course, to what emerged from the talks of other distinguished colleagues; and so I thought it would be useful to share them with you.

Let us begin by learning more about the revolutionary father of this diet.


Who was Pythagoras?

He is known to all as the inventor of the theorem about right triangles, where the square of the measure of the hypotenuse (let’s call it c) is equal to the sum of the squares of the measures of the lengths of the two right sides (a and b), hence: a2 + b2 = c2.
However, Pythagoras was much more than a mathematician, although in that sense he was exceptional, since he revolutionized mathematics and shaped the minds of the great thinkers who followed him.
For example, he was also known as an astronomer, and always enlightened: in fact, he was one of the first scientists to suggest that the Earth was not flat, but round; he also guessed that the Moon’s light was not its own, but reflected!
Such an astonishing brain could not fail to be accompanied by an extraordinary body (to quote the famous saying – coined a good 500 years later – “Mens sana in corpore sano”): perhaps partly due to genes (his mother is said to have been uniquely beautiful); but certainly due to his diet.


Was Pythagoras vegetarian or vegan?

Without a doubt, we can call him the father of vegetarianism in the West.
So much so that in the 1600’s in Paris or London, if someone decided to stop eating meat, they would say they were following a Pythagorean diet: a definition used until the 1800’s.
Today, if we want to call his diet by a more common name, it could be roughly defined as a lacto-vegetarian diet: that is, meatless, with very few foods of animal origin such as honey and occasionally dairy products; but rich in vegetables and especially in wild herbs and whole grains in the form of bread; fresh and dried fruits and nuts.


What foods did the Pythagorean diet include?

According to Diogenes, Pythagoras ate bread with honey for breakfast; for the other meals of the day he enjoyed raw vegetables, olives, generous amounts of fruit, occasionally a small piece of cheese, but always accompanied by rye or oat bread; or barley or wheat bread, but always strictly whole grain (coincidentally, exactly what I suggested in the article “As Good as Bread”).
While he also appreciated millet (his reasons were not much different from what I wrote in this article), he discouraged the consumption of wine, as it altered the mind and made learning difficult, as well as legumes, especially fava beans.
So he was a somewhat atypical vegetarian compared to today: we are on the hunt for protein; he strictly rejected it, albeit of plant origin.
Certainly, some fears were understandable. Living in a time and geographical area where death from (as yet undiscovered) favism* was far from rare, it is not surprising that fava beans were considered by Pythagoras to be something impure.

What is favism

The term favism refers to a genetic abnormality (a deficiency in the enzyme glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase) affecting certain enzymes within red blood cells that can lead to a hemolytic crisis with associated jaundice.
This disorder was initially called “fava bean disease,” a name by which it was suggested that the patient should not consume fava beans at all (but not only). In fact, the person with favism must also avoid taking certain drugs, peas, verbena, and other substances

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It is different, however, to understand the similar fate he reserved for all legumes.
They too were defined as impure, both because of their “shape” and because they were nothing more than “musical fruits“: flatulence (or other stomach ailments) irreparably ruined the concentration of his students. Some even suggest that he thought they belonged to the world of the dead: perhaps because of the strong smell they emitted.
Whatever the real reasons, legumes were forbidden, just like meat. And despite the “severe” protein deficiency (for our times), Pythagoras had a long, healthy and very active life.

Was the Pythagorean diet healthy?

Considering that on this diet he lived to the age of 75 (a considerable age for those times), traveled, formulated indispensable theorems that are still used today, taught, even coached the great Milo, and did not die of natural causes (rather of heartbreak after the revolt against his school), well, I would say that the answer is certainly affirmative.
And Pythagoras was extremely convinced of this, as he was constantly subjected to severe criticism; due to the fact that he simply did not conform to the traditional styles.

But what was the real driving force behind this decision? What drove Pythagoras to abandon the “delicacies” of that era?

Although he probably sensed that the abuse of animal protein might not be “good” for one’s health, Pythagoras advised avoiding animal flesh so as not to risk eating one’s friend or relative, since he believed in reincarnation, alias metempsicosis!
But there is more, if you will, that is more current and communicable. He and his followers pointed to a broader philosophy that emphasized the interconnectedness of all living things and the importance of harmony in the world.
Essentially, by abstaining from meat, people could achieve greater spiritual purity and enlightenment.


What can I say, Pythagoras was an inspiration in his epoch and we find he still is in modern times.
I am sure that the original motivations, would have dovetailed with today’s far more impactful ones: the abuse of meat and industrial agriculture, has generated and continues to produce irreversible environmental footprint and human health damage, without considering the atrocities suffered by the animals involved.
Just as Pythagorean thinking revolutionized reasoning, not just mathematical thinking, today we need to embrace a broader Revolution that allows for participation by all: vegans, vegetarians and especially omnivores.
There is no Planet B, we must unite and include everyone, because divided we lose, but united we win.
This is what my Revolution is aiming for, and providing the tools to fight back properly is and will remain the purpose of the site.
I do not demand that you become vegan or even that from now on you follow a sustainable diet such as the CHEtarian diet; but at least start taking small, very important steps: let’s buy food consciously, do not waste, and reduce meat consumption.
This, if we wish to leave a “breathable” world for generations to come, without forcing them to consume insects.
Pythagoras would have fully espoused this other fundamental revolution, where pollution of the soul is inextricably linked with pollution of the body, our home and our future.

Good revolution to all


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Pythagorean Diet: the revolutionary father of vegetarianism
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Pythagorean Diet: the revolutionary father of vegetarianism
Let's find out how and why a 2,500-year-old diet is still surprisingly relevant even in terms of sustainability
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CHE Food Revolution
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