The Hildegarde Diet

Posted on June 11, 2013 by

A reader expressed some interest in hearing more about the dietary advice of Hildegard von Bingen, my personal patroness. I thought I’d give it a go, to show you a healthy diet that works well for those of us who aren’t following the paleo one. I don’t follow her advice strictly, but her holistic view of things has been a great influence upon me. I don’t have any of my source books with me, so I just went by a German website for Hildegard fans.

Just as with paleo, it’s a whole lifestyle, and not just a list of foods, but I’ll start with the foods. The following list is not comprehensive, but it gives you a general idea of what she taught, which was that you should eat whole foods that are easy to digest.

Spelt instead of wheat, grass-fed meat over corn-fed (and no carnivorous sources), cooked vegetables over raw, fish, fruit, butter and cold-pressed oils (preferably from lighter sources like seeds), nuts, goat cheese, cream, wine vinegar, chestnuts, legumes other than peas, eggs, beer and wine, and herbal tea. She was famous for her knowledge of the cultivation and uses of herbs. I add potatoes to my list, but she’d never heard of those because she lived in the 12th century.

So, a typical menu would be:

Breakfast: Fennel tea. Perhaps with a bit of raw honey in it, but preferably unsweetened.

That was it. She thought breakfast was a decadent habit for gluttons, that was best reserved for the physically ill, pregnant or nursing mothers, or young children. She also didn’t do “snacks” or meals late at night.

Lunch: (She called this breakfast.) Porridge with whole milk or cream. Served with some other type of tea, a bit of fruit, and a hard-boiled egg.

Dinner: Vegetable soup, baked fish with buttered root vegetables and chestnut dumplings. Or venison stew. Served with watered-down wine or beer, spelt bread with butter, and a green salad with vinegar-oil dressing. (She really loved spelt.)

But in addition to eating the correct things, she taught that it was important to eat them in the correct manner. She recommended limiting your eating to 2-3 meals, with no snacks in between. She didn’t count calories, of course, but the foods she recommends won’t make you fat (and will probably make you quite thin) if you don’t gorge on them.

You should do most of your drinking with your meals, as otherwise you’ll have a tendency to take in too many fluids and dilute your body. Avoid taking in things that are very hot or very cold, such as iced drinks or burning-hot food, because these upset the stomach. You should exercise at least once per day, preferably by going for a walk after dinner, and take a nap every afternoon.

One of her favorite dietary recommendations was fasting. She thought everyone should fast in regular intervals so that they could be freed of foul humors and can spend that time in prayer and inner cleansing. Weight loss is common during fasting, but it is not the goal. The fasting tradition was a single bowl of porridge for breakfast, some vegetable soup for lunch, and more of the soup at dinner.  Unsweetened herbal tea, preferably fennel, is your main drink. No alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, chocolate, nothing.

She recommended this for healthy people to do for six to twelve days at a time, a few times per year, but I do a variation of it on Fridays. This might not sound low-calorie because of all the carbs, but it’s incredibly monotonous and quite bland and therefore reduces your appetite over the course of the fast. It totally cleans out your digestive system, without damaging the lining, which is energizing and gives you the vague sensation of floating.

I’d fast more often, but it’s only recently that I’ve acquired the conditions where I can take a nap, and it’s too exhausting otherwise. She theorized that the lack of adequate sleep and rest leads to foul humors in the body that cause sickness, obesity, and disease. She also insisted that we pray every day and take time out for reflection, study, and meditation. Time out in addition to the nap. She, herself, prayed the hours because she was a nun.

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