The introduction and quotes for this story were taken from Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life, by Luigi Cornaro.
Louis Cornaro’s 16th century book, Discourses on the Sober Life, has also been alternatively titled, How to Live 100 Years. It is one of the greatest books ever written on hygiene.
Cornaro was a Venetian nobleman who was born in 1464 and lived to the ripe age of 102, dying in 1566. Like the majority of young gallants of his day, he lived a reckless and dissipated life; the result was that he completely broke down at the age of forty, and was given up by his physicians to die.
Taking matters into his own hands, Cornaro decided to reform his life and see what the results would be. He simplified his diet and drastically cut down on the quantity of food he consumed to the barest minimum. Within a few days he began to notice the difference, and at the end of the year, found himself completely restored to health.
Seeing this, he continued this abstemious style for the rest of his life. He limited himself to twelve ounces of solid food daily and fourteen ounces of wine. (At the time the wine was very light and usually consumed at meals like water.)
Cornaro’s book, La Vida Sobria, consists of four “discourses,” the first being written at the age of 83, the second at 86, the third at 91, and the fourth at 95. Cornaro devoted much of his time and energy to spreading the knowledge of his dietetic reform.
“…and there is no doubt that if one so advised were to act accordingly, he would avoid all sickness in the future; because a well-regulated life removes the cause of disease. Thus, for the remainder of his days, he would have no need of either doctors or of medicines.”
“Should he, when ill, continue to eat the same amount as when in health, he would surely die; while were he to eat more, he would die sooner. For his natural powers, already oppressed with sickness, would thereby be burdened beyond endurance, having had forced upon them a quantity of food greater than they could support under the circumstances. A reduced quantity is, in my opinion, all that is required to sustain the individual.”
“…I accustomed myself to the habit of never fully satisfying my appetite, either with eating or drinking — always leaving the table when able to take more. In this I acted according to the Proverb: Not to satiate one’s self with food is the science of health.”
Cornaro emphasized several points in his treatise which are perhaps too often overlooked. First, he points out that mere prolongation of life is useless unless that life is healthy and contented. A long life full of disease and misery is worse than no life at all. The object of health should be rather, to enable us to forget the body and to carry on our interests and life activities without impediment or interference because of sickness or disability, thus permitting the free and full use of our faculties and talents. Health, then, is merely a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
Cornaro himself, it seems, never actually fasted — he simply reduced the quantity of food he ate to an absolute minimum. The consequence was that it took him nearly a year to regain full health, whereas he probably could have achieved the same result much faster had he taken more drastic measures. He did, however, ultimately attain a state of excellent health for the next sixty-odd years. Indeed, there is every reason why people today could do even better, for the things which constituted the basis of Cornaro’s diet would be spurned by the modern hygienist. Bread, eggs, and the lighter meats were his staples, and practically no mention is made anywhere of fruits and vegetables.
The mere fact that Cornaro regained and maintained his health with his diet demonstrates how important a factor the restriction of quantity is; it indicates that this could be the most important single factor in the preservation of health and longevity.
“…men are blinded and besotted to such a degree, that they come to the age of forty or fifty burdened with strange and painful infirmities, which render them decrepit and useless. Whereas, had they lived temperately and soberly, they would in all probability have been sound and hearty to the age of eighty and upward. To remedy this state of things, it is requisite that men should live up to the simplicity dictated by nature, which teaches us to be content with little, and accustom ourselves to eat no more than is absolutely necessary to support life, remembering that all excess causes disease and leads to death.”
“…the heavy train of infirmities, which have made great inroads on my constitution, were my motives for renouncing intemperance, in the matter of too freely eating and drinking, to which I had been addicted, so that in consequence of of it, my stomach became disordered, and I suffered much pain from colic and gout, attended by that which was still worse: an almost continuous slow fever, a stomach generally out of order, and a perpetual thirst.”
“I resolved to try whether those foods which pleased my palate were agreeable to the stomach, so that I might judge the truth of the proverb — that whatever pleases the palate must agree with the stomach, or that whatever is palatable must be wholesome and nourishing. The issue was, that I found it to be false, for I soon found that many things which pleased my palate disagreed with my stomach. Having thus convinced myself that the proverb in question was false, I gave over the use of such meats and wines as did not suit me, and those those which by experience I found agreed well with me, having strict regard to quantity as well as quality, and contrived matters so as never to cloy my stomach with eating or drinking, and always rose from the table with a disposition to eat and drink more.”
“In less than one year, the disorders which had taken such hold on me, and which at the time seemed to be incurable, all disappeared.”
“Galen had said that the two rules for eating and drinking were not to take of either, more than the stomach can easily digest and to use only those things which agree with you.”
“…it is impossible to be a perfect physician to another. A man cannot have a better guide than himself nor any medicine better than a regular life… But for the bare purpose of keeping ourselves in good health, I am of opinion, that we should consider this regular life as our physician, since it preserves men, even those of a weak constitution, in health; makes them live sound and hearty to the age of one hundred and upward.”
“This sobriety is reduced to two things: quality and quantity. The first consists in avoiding foods or drinks which are found to disagree with the stomach. The second, to avoid taking more that the stomach can easily digest; and every man at the age of forty ought to be a perfect judge in these matters. Whoever observes these two rules may be said to live a regular and full life.”
“The fact is, large quantities of food cannot be digested by old stomachs; as man gets weaker as he grows older, and the waste of his system is slower, the natural heat is certainly less. Nor will all the food in the world increase it except to bring on fever and distressing disorders. Therefore, let none be afraid of shortening their days by eating too little. I am strong and hearty and full of good spirits, neither have I ache nor pain, and yet I am very old and subsist on very little. When men are taken ill they discontinue, or nearly so, their food. Now, if by reducing themselves to a small quantity, they recover from the jaws of death, how can they doubt but that, with a slight increase of diet consistent with reason, they will be able to support nature when in health.”
At ninety-five, Cornaro wrote, “O, how glorious is this life of mine, replete with all the felicities which man can enjoy on this side of the grave! It is entirely exempt from that sensual brutality, which age has enabled my reason to banish; thus I am not troubled with passions, and my mind is calm and free from all perturbations and doubtful apprehensions. Nor can the thought of death find room in my mind, at least, not in any way to disturb me. And all this has been brought about through my careful habit of living. How different from the lives of most old men, full of aches and pains and foreboding, whilst mine is a life of real pleasure, and I seem to spend my days in a perpetual round of amusements.”