“You are what you eat” is an idea nearly two centuries old

Probably better than two cakes of yeast.
Probably better than two cakes of yeast.
Image: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti
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In its 157 years of publication, The Atlantic Monthly has been home to some ad campaigns that, in hindsight, were not exactly in the interest of public health. This page from the Feb. 1922 issue is at once not excepted and also striking in its prescience. It’s for Fleischmann’s yeast. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Everyone knows Fleischmann’s makes a very fine yeast. Beyond that, what the copywriter is saying about food and health portends how we think about the relationship today. Before we went through a century of highly processed, infinite-shelf-life food-like creations, there was a movement that linked fresh food to health in a comprehensive way.

If you substitute “fruits and vegetables” where it says “yeast,” it’s canny.

The Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1922
The Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1922

I’m not here to plug Fleischmann’s yeast. Though, if you’re looking for yeast, look no further than Fleischmann’s yeast. For more than 140 years, recreational and professional bakers alike have trusted Fleischmann’s yeast because its bakery scientists are committed to solutions for your baking success—just kidding. This is not an ad. Use whatever yeast you like. Or none at all.

It was in 1826 that French physician and removed father of the Paleo and low-carb diets Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote:

Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Brillat-Savarin’s quote is commonly appropriated today by medical practitioners and diet-book hawks, especially those who identify as integrative or holistic. It’s also cited as the origin of the adage “You are what you eat,” which wasn’t literally found in English until nutritionist Victor Lindlahr began selling a weight-loss diet based on “catabolic foods” in the 1920s. Lindlahr was quoted in a 1923 ad for United Meat Markets:

Ninety percent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.

In 1923 the US life expectancy was 57 years. Diseases known today were unknown then. So it’s hard to measure the accuracy of a 90% estimate, but if you add a caveat and say “at least partly influenced” instead of “caused,” it’s probably about right. Few doctors appreciated that scope of nutrition’s role in health. As long as a person wasn’t obese or diabetic—diabetes being exponentially less common in the early 20th century than at present—their relationship with food was generally beyond medical reproach. In 1993 the study “Actual Causes of Death in the United States” put diet high on the list, and the anti-junk-food movement crescendoed around that time. Today practitioners are increasingly incorporating dietary modification to help address conditions from depression to eczema to asthma.

The yeast that Fleischmann’s sold, and still sells, is the same type commonly used by most brewers or bakers, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It’s a unicellular fungus that turns sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol, and delicious yeasty flavor. Medical literature no longer recommends eating it straight, as this ad suggested at the end. Nor is it physiologically sound to suggest that “your body tissues crave it.” Especially not two or three cakes per day.

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Aim high, Fleischmann’s did. The average person’s relationship with yeast never realized the intimate potential envisioned here, but the appeal to health through food did. The idea that nutrition is much more than “As long as you’re not obese, you’re eating well”—that really what we eat affects everything—is only 92 years later really becoming central as a tenet across the purviews of preventive medicine and behavioral health. For fewer pills later, better food now.

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This post originally appeared at The Atlantic. More from our sister site:

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