The finding of arteriosclerosis in the mummified bodies of ancient Egyptians has stirred up a lot of controversy among diet gurus- with everyone claiming victory. These well-preserved individuals were mostly in their 30s and 40s- not very old by our standards. Therefore, to discover advanced hardening of the arteries was quite unexpected- especially since heart disease has long been considered a modern disease.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that tobacco played no role in the disease process. Tobacco was native to the Americas and was not introduced to the rest of the world until after Columbus. So, the Egyptians didn’t have tobacco, which is considered to be a major progenitor of heart disease.
However, the Egyptians did have alcohol, which they consumed copiously, and that included red wine. So, why didn’t it protect them from heart disease, as claimed? That’s an important question in itself, and I wish the pundits would start debating that one.
But, let’s look at the claims. Dr. Michael Eades, who advocates a low-carbohydrate diet high in meat and other animal foods, claims that the Egyptians lived on a diet of fruits, vegetables and stone-ground whole wheat bread. And he states, categorically, that this low-fat, high-carbohydrate, unrefined diet is what clogged their arteries and caused numerous other health problems, including obesity. I find it amazing, considering what people eat today- and I mean all the junk. It seems inconceivable that eating largely of fresh fruits and vegetables could lead to obesity and heart disease- even with the addition of stone-ground whole wheat.
Then, Dr. John McDougall weighed in. Dr. McDougall advocates a starch-based diet. He thinks that starches should comprise most of the calories eaten. Potatoes, yams, corn, other grains, legumes, then rounding out the plate with non-starchy vegetables and a smattering of fruit- that is his ideal diet. Note that Dr. McDougall and Dr. Eades are as polar-opposite, as reverse, as antithetical, as any two diet doctors can possibly be. Dr. McDougall claims that the mummies were of the rich and royalty of Egypt and that they ate a rich diet loaded with animal foods- the very foods that Dr. Eades espouses.
So, what is the truth? To find out, I think we should tap into an unbiased source, someone knowledgeable of the ways of antiquity but with no particular ax to grind. And I can think of no one better than Soledad de Montalvo.
Soledad de Montalvo was a French chef who, some decades ago, was considered the “Julia Childs of Europe.” She appeared on television cooking shows, and she authored many books on French cooking and Continental cuisine. She died in 1987, but she spent the last 10 years of her life in relative obscurity, glued to her typewriter in Switzerland, churning out articles and books of a different kind. She wrote about history- the real history of humanity- with no respect for any of the legacies and institutions that most historical writers hold near and dear. And it culminated in her magnum opus: Women, Food, and Sex in History, a 4 volume set, published in 1988, after her death.
I am fortunate to possess a set of these books, which I have read, and more than once. These books are very well referenced and documented, which is amazing when you consider the primitive conditions under which she worked (without a computer). Soledad was bombastic, irreverent, feminist, iconoclastic, but also highly educated, cultured, and eloquent. These volumes are long out of print, but if you can find a set online, buy it! You won’t regret it. She starts with two chapters about pre-civilized humanity, then goes from there into the great dynasties of the past, starting with Sumer, then Babylon, and then Egypt, and so on.
This is unlike any other history book you’ve read. Most history books are written by vassals of the State. And so, they deal with State issues, such as, who was the leader, who were his opponents, what wars were fought, who won which battle, etc. But, Soledad was more interested in the daily lives of people. What did people eat? How did they live? How were the relations between the sexes? How were children raised and treated? What was the status of women? Hence, the title: Women, Food, and Sex in History.
So, here is what she said about the diet of ancient Egypt. And again, it was well documented.
The staples of the working class were bread and beer. In fact, they were paid for their labors in bread and beer. Bread was made in all kinds of ways, including the refining of wheat into white flour. Yes, defiling grain goes back that far. Not all the grain was refined- far from it. But they did use white flour to make decadent desserts. Honey was used extravagantly. Egypt was the leading honey producer in the world at the time, yet they still had to import more from other countries, mainly Syria and Greece, to meet the local demand. They also made a sweetener from carob and dates. Butter was highly regarded, as was lard from ducks and geese. Their butter was often clarified, as is done in India. Egyptians also used a lot of heavy cream, which they called smy. They added eggs to their bread, but not chicken eggs because they had no chickens. It was either duck or goose eggs. But, even the poor had access to fruits and vegetables. The annual flooding of the Nile replenished the soils, and they were able to harvest a wide variety of fresh produce- most of the time. Leeks, garlic, onions, cucumbers, cabbage, and celery were staples, and lettuce was considered an aphrodisiac, so it was very popular. Fish and meat were highly prized by all classes, but the poor, more often than not, had to settle for fish. Fish were vastly abundant and easy to catch in the marshes alongside the Nile and also in the irrigation canals that were established for farming. Favorite fish species were the Bou and the Chep, the taste of which most people today would find repugnant, according to Soledad. But, also plentiful were eel, tigerfish, perch, and mullet, including mullet caviar. Turtles were also popular for food and were raised in immense, sprawling concentration camps. There was an annual sacrifice of pigs to the God Osiris, and for two weeks, everyone would gorge on pork daily. These were big public pork roastings where everyone got to feast, and of course, get soused. But the national dish was roast goose, which was seasoned with dill. The Egyptians originated the use of many of the culinary herbs we use today, including anise, dill, coriander, marjoram, and oregano. They were real gourmands. Hippos were eaten, and numerous kinds of cows from all over Africa were brought to Egypt to be eaten.
The slaves and the poor of Egypt had to work hard, and the building of the Pyramids was plenty arduous. The rich, however, were truly indolent. In contrast, there are plenty of rich people today, but most of them work. They’re not digging ditches or driving trucks, but they’re running companies they own, managing real estate they own, overseeing foundations they started, practicing their professions, or what-have-you: they are doing something to stay busy and productive. And, they expect their children to lead useful, productive lives as well, regardless of the family wealth. But, in ancient Egypt, it was a decadent, indulgent, Dionysian culture of the rich, and over-indulging in food was a big part of it. As in later Rome, they had food orgies in Egypt, complete with vomitoriums.
The bottom line is that Egyptians, of all classes, ate a varied and omnivorous diet. They had at least as many choices and variations in their food supply as we have today, and perhaps more. By ancient standards, they were a wealthy people, and even the poor ate well, meaning broadly. The wealthy, who could look forward to being mummified after death, were most certainly not living on fruits, vegetables and whole wheat, as Dr. Eades glibly asserts. And the fact is, neither were the poor- they weren’t McDougalites either. Dr. McDougall likes to claim the peasantry of the world- both past and present- as starch devotees like himself, but I dare say, it’s a bit of a stretch. No native, indigenous population of human beings, past or present, has ever lived exclusively on starches, vegetables, and fruits- none! Before the advent of Vitamin B12 supplements- which were an invention of the latter half of the 20th century- it wasn’t even remotely possible.
So, why was there so much arteriosclerosis among the Egyptian elite? Too much rich food and too much food, period (calorically speaking); were no doubt factors, worsened by physical inactivity. Also, it was a hot climate without refrigeration, and salt was used liberally as a preservative. Also, playing a role was too much alcohol. In so-called “moderate” amounts, alcohol supposedly deters heart disease, but in copious amounts, alcohol clearly and indisputably worsens heart disease, and the Egyptians were big drinkers. They were also heavily into hallucinogens, including mandrake, belladonna, lotus, and henbane. But, there was also the factor of their bad teeth. Sand got into, or was put into, their flour, and the resulting bread wore down their teeth severely- to nubs. That led to serious dental infections and abscesses, and of course there was no modern dentistry. And presumably, their gums also got infected, and we now know that the toxins from gingivitis can trigger arterial inflammation throughout the body. All of these factors combined to produce early arteriosclerosis.
In conclusion, I think it’s fascinating to study the ways of life of various peoples, both ancient and modern. However, the decision about what to eat should not be reduced to just imitating a particular group of people- past or present- certainly not the Egyptians, and not the Cavemen either. It's not as simple as that. Human nutrition is a vast complex subject, and I know I will never be through studying it, and hopefully with an inquisitive and open mind, which is the only way to study it.