The physiology of taste, by Brillat-Savarin

Meditation XXII.


[* About twenty years ago I began a treatise, ex professo, on obesity. My readers must especially regret the preface which was of dramatic form. I averred to a physician that a fever is less dangerous than a law suit; for the latter, after having made a man run, fatigue, and worry himself, strips him of pleasure, money, and life. This is a statement which might be propagated as well as any other. ]

I WILL begin by a fact which proves that courage is needed not only to prevent but to cure obesity.

M. Louis Greffulhe, whom his majesty afterwards honored with the title of count, came one morning to see me, saying that he had understood that I had paid great attention to obesity, and asked me for advice.

“Monsieur,” said I, “not being a doctor with a diploma, I might refuse you, but I will not, provided you give me your word of honor that for one month you will rigorously obey my directions.”

M. Greffulhe made the promise I required and gave me his hand. On the next day, I gave him my directions, the first article of which demanded that he should at once get himself weighed, so that the result might be made mathematically.

After a month he came to see me again, and spoke to me nearly thus:

“Monsieur,” said he, “I followed your prescription as if my life depended on it, and during the month I am satisfied that I have lost three pounds and more; but have for that purpose to violate all my tastes and, habits so completely, that while I thank you for your advice I must decline to follow it, and await quietly the fate God ordains for me.”

I heard this resolution with pain. M. Greffulhe became every day fatter and subject to all the inconveniences of extreme obesity, and died of suffocation when he was about forty.


The cure of obesity should begin with three precepts of absolute theory, discretion in eating, moderation in sleep, and exercise on foot or horseback.

These are the first resources presented to us by science. I, however, have little faith in them, for I know men and things enough to be aware that any prescription, not literally followed, has but a light effect.

Now, imprimus, it needs much courage to be able to leave the table hungry. As long as the want of food is felt, one mouthful makes the succeeding one more palatable, and in general as long as we are hungry, we eat in spite of doctors, though in that respect we follow their example.

In the second place to ask obese persons to rise early is to stab them to the heart. They will tell you that their health will not suffer them, that when they rise early they are good for nothing all day. Women will plead exhaustion, will consent to sit up late, and wish to fatten on the morning’s nap. They lose thus this resource.

In the third place, riding as an exercise is expensive, and does not suit every rank and fortune.

Propose this to a female patient and she will consent with joy, provided she have a gentle but active horse, a riding dress in the height of the fashion, and in the third place a squire who is young, good-tempered and handsome. It is difficult to fill these three requisites, and riding is thus given up.

Exercise on foot is liable to many other objections. It is fatiguing, produces perspiration and pleurisy. Dust soils the shoes and stockings, and it is given up. If, too, the patient have the least headache, if a single shot, though no larger than the head of a pin, pierce the skin it is all charged to the exercise.

The consequence is that all who wish to diminish embonpoint should eat moderately, sleep little, and take as much exercise as possible, seeking to accomplish the purpose in another manner. This method, based on the soundest principles of physics and chemistry, consists in a diet suited to the effects sought for.

Of all medical powers, diet is the most important, for it is constant by night and day, whether waking or sleeping. Its effect is renewed at every meal, and gradually exerts its influence on every portion of the individual. The antiobesic regimen is therefore indicated by the most common causes of the diseases, and by the fact that it has been shown that farina or fecula form fat in both men and animals. In the latter, the case is evident every day, and from it we may deduce the conclusion that obtaining from farinaceous food will be beneficial.

But my readers of both sexes will exclaim, “Oh my God, how cruel the professor is. He has at once prescribed all we like, the white rolls of Limet, the biscuit of Achard. the cakes of . . . and all the good things made with sugar, eggs, and farina. He will spare neither potatoes nor macaroni. Who would have expected it from a man fond of everything good?”

“What is that?” said I, putting on my stern look which I call up but once a year. “Well, eat and grow fat, become ugly, asthmatic and die of melted fat. I will make a note of your case and you shall figure in my second edition. Ah! I see, one phrase has overcome you, and you beg me to suspend the thunderbolt. Be easy, I will prescribe your diet and prove how much pleasure is in the grasp of one who lives to eat.”

“You like bread? well, eat barley-bread. The admirable Cadet de Vaux long ago extolled its virtues. It is not so nourishing and not so agreeable. The precept will then be more easily complied with. To be sure one should resist temptation. Remember this, which is a principle of sound morality.

“You like soup? Eat julienne then, with green vegetables, with cabbage and roots. I prohibit soup au pain, pates and purees.

“Eat what you please at the first course except rice aux volailles and the crust of pates. Eat well, but circumspectly.

“The second course will call for all your philosophy. Avoid everything farinacious, under whatever form it appears. You have yet the roasts, salads, and herbacious vegetables.

“Now for the dessert. This is a new danger, but if you have acted prudently so far, you may survive it. Avoid the head of the table, where things that are dangerous to you are most apt to appear. Do not look at either biscuits or macaronies; you have fruits of all kinds, confitures and much else that you may safely indulge in, according to my principles.

“After dinner I prescribe coffee, permit you liqueurs, and advise you to take tea and punch.

“At breakfast barly-bread is a necessity, and take chocolate rather than coffee. I, however, permit strong cafe au lait. One cannot breakfast too soon. When we breakfast late, dinner time comes before your digestion is complete. You eat though, and eating without appetite is often a great cause of obesity, when we do so too often.”

Sequel of the Regimen.

So far I have, like a tender father, marked out a regimen which will prevent obesity. Let us add a few remarks about its cure.

Drink every summer thirty bottles of Seltzer water, a large glass in the morning, two before breakfast and another at bed-time. Drink light white acid wines like those of Anjon. Avoid beer as you would the plague. Eat radishes, artichokes, asparagus, etc. Eat lamb and chicken in preference to other animal food; eat only the crust of bread, and employ a doctor who follows my principles, and as soon as you begin you will find yourself fresher, prettier, and better in every respect.

Having thus placed you ashore, I must point out the shoals, lest in excess or zeal, you overleap the mark.

The shoal I wish to point out is the habitual use made by some stupid people of acids, the bad effects of which experience has demonstrated.

Dangers of Acids.

There is a current opinion among women, which every year causes the death of many young women, that acids, especially vinegar, are preventives of obesity. Beyond all doubts, acids have the effect of destroying obesity, but they also destroy health and freshness. Lemonade is of all acids the most harmless, but few stomachs can resist it long.

The truth I wish to announce cannot be too public, and almost all of my readers can bring forward some fact to sustain it.

I knew in 1776, at Dijon, a young lady of great beauty, to whom I was attached by bonds of friendship, great almost as those of love. One day when she had for some time gradually grown pale and thin (previously she had a delicious embonpoint) she told me in confidence that as her young friends had ridiculed her for being too fat, she had, to counteract the tendency, been in the habit every day of drinking a large glass of vinaigre.

I shuddered at the confession, and made every attempt to avoid the danger. I informed her mother of the state of things the next day, and as she adored her daughter, she was as much alarmed as I was. The doctors were sent for, but in vain, for before the cause of her malady was suspected, it was incurable and hopeless.

Thus, in consequence of having followed imprudent advice, our amiable Louise was led to the terrible condition of marasmus, and sank when scarcely eighteen years old, to sleep forever.

She died casting longing looks towards a future, which to her would have no existence, and the idea that she had involuntarily attempted her own life, made her existence more prompt and painful.

I have never seen any one else die; she breathed her last in my arms, as I lifted her up to enable her to see the day. Eight days after her death, her broken hearted mother wished me to visit with her the remains of her daughter, and we saw an extatic appearance which had not hitherto been visible. I was amazed, but extracted some consolation from the fact. This however is not strange, for Lavater tells of many such in his history of physiogomy.

Antiobesic Belt.

All antiobesic tendencies should be accompanied by a precaution I had forgotten. It consists in wearing night and day, a girdle to repress the stomach, by moderately clasping it.

To cause the necessity of it to be perceived, we must remember that the vertebral column, forming one of the walls in the cavity containing the intestines, is firm and inflexible. Whence it follows, that the excess of weight which intestines acquire as soon as obesity causes them to deviate from the vertical line, rests on the envelopes which compose the skin of the stomach. The latter being susceptible of almost infinite distention, would be unable to replace themselves, when this effort diminishes, if they did not have a mechanical art, which, resting on the dorsal column, becomes an antagonist, and restores equilibrium. This belt has therefore the effect of preventing the intestines from yielding to their actual weight, and gives a power to contract when pressure is diminished. It should never be laid aside, or the benefit it exerts in the day will be destroyed in the night. It is not, however, in the least troublesome, and one soon becomes used to it.

The belt also shows when we have eaten enough; and it should be made with great care, and so contrived as to diminish as the embonpoint decreases.

One is not forced to wear it all life long, and it may be laid aside when the inconvenience is sufficiently reduced. A suitable diet however, should be maintained. I have not worn it for six years.


One substance I think decidedly antiobesic. Many observations have induced me to think so, yet I leave the matter in doubt, and submit it to physicians.

This is quinquina.

Ten or twelve persons that I know, have had long intermittent fevers; some were cured by old women’s remedies, powders, etc. Others by the continued use of quinquina, which is always effective.

All those persons of the same category, gradually regained their obesity. Those of the second, lost their embonpoint, a circumstance which leaves me to think the quinquina which produced the last result had the effect I speak of.

Rational theory is not opposed to this deduction, for quinquina, exciting all the vital powers, may give the circulation an impetus which troubles all, and dissipates, the gas destined to become fat. It is also shown that quinquina contains a portion of tannin which is powerful enough to close the cells which contain grease. It is possible that these two effects sustain each other.

These two ideas, the truth of which any one may understand, induce me to recommend quinquina to all those who wish to get rid of troublesome embonpoint. Thus dummodo annuerit in omni medicationis genere doctissimi Facultatis professores. I think that after the first month of any regimen, the person who wishes to get rid of fat, should take every day before breakfast, a glass of white wine, in which was placed a spoonful of coffee and red quinquina. Such are the means I suggest to overcome a very troublesome affection. I have accommodated them to human weakness and to our manners.

In this respect the experimental truth is relied on, which teaches that in proportion as a regime is vigorous, it is dangerous, for he who does not follow it literally, does not follow it all.

Great efforts are rare, and if one wishes to be followed, men must be offered things vacile, if not agreeable.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31