From the use of herbs to treat a wide variety of illnesses to a reliance on the Mediterranean diet and an emphasis on regular physical activity, many of the health trends that thrived in the days of Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance are alive and well today.
Literally meaning "rebirth," the Renaissance marks the period in European history that followed the Middle Ages. During this time, painting, sculpture, science, and architecture thrived, and now some say diet, fitness, and health did, too.
The Diet Code?
Much like in The Da Vinci Code, in which a symbologist uncovers a code in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Stephen Lanzalotta, a baker from Portland, Maine, and the author of The Diet Code, says he has cracked a similar code in the foods we eat and that understanding this code can help people lose weight and feel better.
The diet is based on the principles of the traditional Mediterranean diet, meaning it is replete with whole grains, protein, and fresh fruits and vegetables. "It's not about dropping 5 pounds, but about changing your life habits and leading a fuller, richer life," Lanzalotta tells WebMD.
A seasoned baker, Lanzalotta was almost run out of town when the Atkins low-carb craze erupted. But, he says, "it can't be bread that is making us fat or it would have happened a long time ago. In the Renaissance, bread was a major part of the diet."
Enter the golden ratio (1.618), a mathematical value that is has been found in architecture (such as in the pyramids of Egypt) and in nature (such as in pine cones, sunflowers, and seashells). Da Vinci is said to have used the golden ratio to proportion the human figures in his paintings like the Mona Lisa.
"The golden ratio occurs everywhere in nature and humans are part of the natural world, so it is very familiar," Lanzalotta says. However, no one has applied it to eating until now. "I applied it to baking bread and portioning ingredients as well as the diet," he says. In a nutshell, each meal should comprise one part grain carbohydrate, two parts protein, and three parts vegetables.
John Rumberger, PhD, MD, the medical director of Healthwise Wellness Diagnostic Center and a clinical professor of medicine at Ohio State University, both in Columbus Ohio, says that The Diet Code is just another play on the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean-style diet capitalizes on whole grains, protein, and good fats such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats including olive oil and lots of fresh fish, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
"This is really what happened back in the old days," says Rumberger, the author of The Way Diet.
"Today, we have a lot of choices and eat lot of processed foods, and we tend to not necessarily pick the leanest meats to eat," he says. "As a result, we have a diet relatively poor in antioxidants." Antioxidants are found naturally in many foods and beverages and are thought to help prevent diseases, such as heart diseaseheart disease and cancercancer, by fighting cellular damage caused by damaging free radicals in the body.
Antioxidants "are extremely important in terms of reducing internal stressstress and helping to maintain our health so today, we end upon in situations where people need to take supplements to replace things they would have had benefited from with a Mediterranean-style diet," Rumberger explains.
"On top of that," he adds, "[Da Vinci and others who lived in the 15th century] were busy, worked hard, and exercise is an important part of [a healthy lifestyle]."
In Vino Veritas
"When you go way back in old days, the water was not safe, so when someone said 'how about some water from the pond,' you'd say 'no thank you, I'll have wine,'" he says.
Fermentation kills bacteria, and wine is rich in antioxidants called flavonoids, which raise good cholesterol levels, he says.
But as with anything, moderation is key, he says. "One glass of wine may lower your blood pressure, but three glasses may raise it."
The best way to eat like da Vinci and the other masters is to "make wise choices in food or take appropriate supplements," he says. "All diets will fail if you don't do some form of physical activity."
And choose organic if you can, he suggests. "In the Renaissance, there was a ready availability of fresh produce and it didn't have preservatives." Today, "the problem [with organic fruits and vegetables] is the cost can be higher, but choosing organic is a much wiser choice," he tells WebMD.
Sticks and Stones May Build Your Bones
While Nautilus machines and other high-tech gym equipment may seem so modern, their roots can actually be found in the Renaissance period -- and even earlier, says Joe Mullen, a Winter Springs, Fla.-based author of several books including The Da Vinci Fitness Code.
During the Renaissance and the Stone Age, "people used stones and rocks to do anything from cover up the front of their cave to building architecture, and what was probably noticed was that these people became stronger and that their body responded to higher levels of strength with flexibility and more muscle mass and endurance," he says. As a result, strength training was born.
"It's the same principle as today, but it was modified by the invention of high-tech equipment," he says. And the golden ratio also applies to modern-day fitness, he says. "Do sets of strength exercises in numbers that adhere to the golden ratio as opposed to picking numbers at random."
"Your body will respond better because it is attuned to the same natural rhythm found in nature," he says. Do sets based around the Fibonacci numbers (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 ...), in which each term is the sum of the two previous terms (for example, 2+3=5, 3+5=8 ...). As you go farther and farther to the right in this sequence, the ratio of a term to the one before it will get closer and closer to the golden ratio, he explains. "Do 13 sets of reps instead of 15," he advises. "Your body will respond better."
Everything Old Is New Again
"Holistic medicine was the drumbeat of health in the renaissance," says James Mahoney, DO, an osteopathic doctor in South Lake, Texas, and the author of the forthcoming Dying to be Healed, a book that focus on historical health trends. "Renaissance physicians used herbals like crazy. They were the mainstay of medicinal treatment."
It wasn't until the 1900s or so when prescription drugs were developed and people started to abandon herbal medicine, he explains.
"Once that shifted, it was impossible to get herbalists back into the fold, but now the public is clamoring for herbal medicine and it's drifting back," he says.
"Getting fresh air, regular exercise, and eating well were also prescribed by doctors back then," he says.
Another Renaissance idea that is making a comeback is the siesta, or midday nap, he says. "Big corporations are starting to get that and create nap rooms."
That's not to say that all was well and good during the 15th century. "Public health was a huge issue," he says. "In the Renaissance, sanitation was horrible and open sewers were everywhere and as a result, people were drinking contaminated water." There was no control over infectious disease, so if a fluflu epidemic swept through town, anyone susceptible would die.
"We have much better public health and infection control today," he says.