How has what we eat changed?
Deprived of modern conveniences such as the internal combustion engine and all the labour-saving technology that we take for granted, the lives of the mid-Victorians revolved around manual labour. To fuel their high levels of physical activity they required far more food than we do today; women typically consumed between 3,000 and 3,500 calories per day while men consumed 4,000 – 5,000 calories, with the navvies, who built the roads, canals and bridges that created the topology of modern Britain, hitting 6 or 7 thousand calories per day. This compares with an average of around 2,200 today, a figure that we think of as normal but which, at only a relatively small percentage over BMR, is at an historic and unhealthy low.
Given their high calorie intakes you might expect the mid-Victorians to be hugely overweight but early photographs reveal that the mid-Victorians were almost universally slim and well-muscled. They had the kind of body shapes we can only achieve today by combining regular exercise with dietary restriction – a modern treadmill that most of us cannot stay on for long, as evidenced by the tidal wave of overweight and obesity that is overwhelming modern life.
In mid-Victorian England obesity was virtually unknown except in the numerically small upper-middle and upper classes. The absence of overweight and obesity was a significant factor in their near-freedom from degenerative diseases such as heart disease and cancer, but there were other important factors that contributed to their well-being.
For example, they consumed far less salt, sugar, alcohol and tobacco than we do. They did not use the high temperature cooking methods that today’s fast foods demand, and thus were not exposed to the toxins produced when dishes are grilled, deep fried and roasted. They did not consume processed foods (other than the most basic items such as bread, butter, cheese and weak beer), and did not binge on the empty calories that so many of us stuff ourselves with. Perhaps most critically, in the light of the latest recommendations from the cancer specialists, they ate 10 or more portions of fruits and vegetables per day. All in all, the mid-Victorian diet contained higher levels of vitamins, minerals and above all phyto-nutrients (nutrients derived from plants), than occur in today’s over-refined, processed and nutrient-poor foods.
The Mid-Victorians did not eat a ‘super-Mediterranean’ diet because they were virtuous, or health-conscious. It’s obvious that the health benefits they enjoyed derived from the food choices they made, but food choices depend on food availability and on pricing, both of which were very different from today. Prior to 1900, fruit and vegetables were cheap, as they were mainly grown in allotments or gardens. With the rapid growth of the rail networks and the huge gains in agricultural productivity (the ‘agricultural revolution’), large amounts of fresh produce were funnelled into the cities, where the masses now lived. In London 4lb of freshly picked cherries or a large armful of watercress cost no more than a penny (around £1.50 at today’s prices). A poor man’s breakfast would have been two chunks of stoneground bread smeared with dripping, accompanied by a large bunch of watercress and often a paper of shrimp or oysters – a meal rich in fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals, omega 3 fatty acids and phytonutrients.
They also consumed large amounts of yeast. Bread was whole-meal, generally stone-ground and made daily with yeast; due to their high calorie requirements, mid-Victorians ate 5 to 10 times more bread than we do. The weak beer they drank was unfiltered, and therefore also had a high yeast content. As synthetic fungicides did not emerge until the 1950’s almost all other foods were contaminated with yeast, some of which was visible as the spots on apples and pears, or the bloom on plums and grapes.
This high intake of yeast had multiple health benefits. Recent research has proved that yeast enhances innate immune function, leading to improved resistance to infection and a reduced risk of allergy and cancer. Modern food technology has, sadly, removed almost all the yeast from our diets, leaving us vulnerable. For those interested in the details of the mid-Victorian diet, the use of salt as a preservative had faded out by 1850 as improved agricultural productivity made over-winter food hoarding redundant. After that time salt was only used – sparingly – as a flavouring until about 1900, by which time the national diet and the national health had substantially deteriorated. Tobacco was chewed, used in snuff or roll-ups, but overall tobacco consumption was low. This changed in the late 1880’s when mass-manufactured cigarettes arrived and began to wreak havoc on public health. At first only the wealthier classes could afford them but as cigarette prices fell an epidemic of tobacco-related cancers and heart disease began to affect the entire population.