What Mid-Victorians Can Teach Us About Nutrition and Health

Victorian WomanAnthropological and historical evidence provides invaluable clues about achieving good health through diet and lifestyle changes. Though I appreciate modern science and all that we’ve learned from it, strictly using science can sometimes lead to missing the big picture. Viewing nutrition and overall health through an evolutionary lens can help us keep modern findings in perspective and better understand their practical implications.

However, the Paleo paradigm we’re all so familiar with has its own shortcomings. For example, we don’t know exactly what our Paleolithic ancestors ate, and frankly, many people find it hard to relate to ‘cavemen’ who lived before modern civilizations even existed. The good news is that there are many societies that achieved and maintained excellent health even after the agricultural revolution, and ‘cavemen’ aren’t the only people who could teach us a thing or two about what to eat and how to live. A paper I found recently, entitled “How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died,” discusses the remarkable health of Britain’s working class from 1850-1880, as well as the lifestyle factors that helped them achieve it.

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During the mid 1800s, a series of economic and political forces converged to create a higher standard of public health for the British working-class than in any time before or since. Their life expectancy (from age 5, to compensate for higher rates of infant mortality) was as good as that of the modern UK, obesity was almost nonexistent, and the incidence of chronic disease (including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes) was only 10% of what it is today. These figures are even more amazing once you consider that they didn’t have the advantages of modern healthcare, including antibiotics and trauma care.

Unlike the history of pre-agricultural societies, mid-Victorian history is well-documented, so we can surmise what components of their lifestyle allowed them to be so much healthier than we are today. Here are what I consider to be the top 6 strategies for achieving health based on the lifestyle of the mid-Victorian period.

1. Move around as much as possible

Working-class people during this time period had to expend huge amounts of energy just to carry out their day-to-day tasks. This was not “exercise;” it was simply movement. Men often had to walk up to six miles a day just to get to work, where they would usually perform more physical labor. Women were on their feet most of the day as well, either with domestic chores or jobs in workshops and factories. Instead of doing Mobility WODs, they scrubbed floors, and instead of practicing kettle bell swings, they built railroads.

Unfortunately, most modern jobs require more sitting than moving, and simple movement has been replaced by “exercise,” carried out only during an allotted time and often requiring a gym membership. But as the mid-Victorians show us, there’s immense value in a lifestyle where movement is incorporated throughout the day. There are several easy ways to incorporate more movement into your day, even if you work at a desk instead of a rail yard. In this podcast I talk about my own ‘workout routine,’ which incorporates many of these techniques to keep me moving throughout the day.

2. Nutrient density is extremely important

In the Paleo community, there’s a lot of focus on avoiding food toxins like high fructose corn syrup, gluten, and vegetable oils. However, we also need to emphasize the importance of seeking out particularly nutrient-dense foods. People during the mid-Victorian period ate exceptionally nutrient-dense diets that included copious fresh fruits and vegetables, pasture-raised meats and dairy, fish, nuts, seeds, and legumes. They also routinely ate organ meats, including brains, heart, sweetbreads, liver, kidneys and ‘pluck’ (the lungs and intestines of sheep).

Another advantage they had is that due to their physically demanding lifestyle, men and women during that time period ate twice as many calories as we do today. Men could consume upwards of 5,000 calories on a workday, and women over 3,000. The sheer quantity of food they ate, combined with its superior quality, resulted in average micronutrient levels 10 times higher than those of modern diets.

Because of our drastically lower caloric intake, it’s even more vital that we actively seek out nutrient-dense foods to cram as many micronutrients as possible into a relatively small caloric load. Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include organ meats, egg yolks, greens, fatty fish, and berries.

3. Eat seasonally and locally

Part of the reason the mid-Victorians were able to consume so many micronutrients was that their produce had ripened naturally before being picked, and it hadn’t traveled across the continent to reach them. Much of the food they ate they grew themselves, and they ate food in season because it was cheaper. For example, they would eat apples regularly from August through May, but once that season ended they would eat cherries or gooseberries instead. They imported very few foods.

Eating in season ensured that their food contained as many phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals as possible, and also allowed for a greater variety of nutrients from different plants over the course of a year. To follow their example, I highly recommend shopping at farmers’ markets or growing some of your own produce. Eating wild might be even better. The fresher a food is, the more nutrients it will contain!

4. Nurture your gut bacteria

For a group of people who weren’t even aware they had intestinal flora, the mid-Victorians sure treated them well. One of the best things you can do to maintain digestive health is to eat plenty of prebiotic foods, including onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens, and leeks. As it turns out, these foods were some of the most often consumed vegetables during the mid-Victorian period.

Onions were the cheapest vegetables available and could be obtained year round, so they were a dietary staple for the mid-Victorians. Other commonly eaten vegetables included watercress, Jerusalem artichokes, carrots, turnips, broccoli, and cabbage. Maintaining healthy gut flora through prebiotic consumption was probably a big factor in protecting the mid-Victorians from chronic disease.

5. Eat fatty fish

Another circumstance that likely contributed to the good health of the mid-Victorians was the price and availability of fatty fish. Fresh herring was a staple in their diet for the simple reason that it was easily obtained, and when they couldn’t get it fresh they could find it salted and dried or canned. Sprats, eels, and shellfish were also widely consumed.

I’ve discussed at length the importance of getting pre-formed DHA in the diet, and herring, along with other cold-water fatty fish, is one of the best sources of this omega-3 fatty acid. Despite the recent ‘omega-3s cause prostate cancer’ scare, eating more sardines, mackerel, and other DHA-rich fish is probably one of the best things you can do for your health. It certainly worked for the mid-Victorians.

6. Moderate your alcohol consumption

During the mid-Victorian period, beer was popular and widely consumed, but it was significantly weaker than it is today. The alcohol content of beer consumed in the home was usually between 1% and 2%, while beer consumed in pubs was around 2-3%. Both these values are much lower than the alcohol content of modern beer, which is around 5%. Although alcohol in moderation can be beneficial, the levels that many people consume today are patently counter to good health, and the mid-Victorian tradition of watering down beer likely helped mitigate the effects of the higher volume they drank.

The end of mid-Victorian health

Unfortunately, increasing imports of white flour, sugar and other processed foods during the last part of the nineteenth century caused a swift decline in Britain’s public health. Interestingly, when the British government decided to address this public health disaster, they made the mistake of assuming that people had been unhealthy since the beginning of the nineteenth century. As you can see from the discussion above (or from reading the paper), this was not true at all, and the authors insist that this false assumption has seriously damaged health policy. Perhaps if it weren’t for this mistake, the British government would be recommending a mid-Victorian inspired diet to this day!

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  1. Dan says

    Excellent article. I’ve recently discovered all sorts of wonderful dietary clues from Google Books search, which even allows you to limit searches to the 19th century.

    Searching for things like: “diet of potatoes“, “arteriosclerosis“, “milk“, “sleep“, etc. you can find all sorts of published accounts of these aspects of life before the industrial revolution changed the world.

  2. says

    some odd conclusions in that paper (what paltry definition of vitalism! what hubris in concentrated-constituent supplement-shilling! what resignation to societal sedentism! what trust in benevolent “food and beverage industries”!), but it’s a very interesting read nonetheless. i have a suspicion that some of us heavy herbal infusion drinkers get up to those ‘pharmacological’ levels of micro/phyto-nutrients they suggest would have been normal in 1860 – on the nutrient-density scale, herbs are off the charts. as some of the “breeding nutrition out of our food” articles circulating lately have pointed out, herbs retained their nutrient density precisely because they’ve preserved their bitter, pungent, or otherwise intense flavors – either because we use them as spices, or because we fell out of the habit of eating them.

    • B says

      @ ryn: I think you are onto something. For someone who is new to paleo and doesn’t know anything about herbal infusions could you explain some of the ones you think have the most benefits in terms of getting your micro/phyto-nutrients off the charts. I have a theory that one of the causes of modern poor health is lack of nutrients thanks to our nutrient lacking food and if herbal infusions do what you say then I see that as a way for those of who can’t afford the highest quality food to still get enough nutrients.

    • michelle says

      This doesn’t seem very accurate. King edward died of a double heart attack, wealthy woman just sat around, food was adulterer so it contained toxic chemicals, milk was gross, and they’re 7 to 9 course meals had meats and fats of all kind with sugar exagerations…n kim I hope ur being sarcastic

      • paul clayton says

        Sorry Michelle, you are misinformed / uninformed. Heart disease was known in the mid-Victorian period but was relatively rare, and King Edward (you don’t say which one) did not live in the mid-Victorian era. The clue is in the name …

        Some 19th C foods were adulterated (adulterer??), but this issue has been analysed to death and is now known to have been fairly innocuous in most cases.

        Your description of the foods they ate is is just plain ignorant. The working classes (the overwhelming masses) ate a diet that contained considerably less sugar than is consumed today, and they consumed a far healthier Omega 3/6 ratio.

        What is so depressing about nutrition is that everyone thinks they are an expert, based on what they read in some magazine they browsed at a supermarket checkout. There are others who really do the research, Michelle. You should try it sometime.

  3. Kim says

    Fascinating information! It’s so interesting to learn that mid-Victorian life expectancy was the same as today’s, when comparing age 5 on. Everyone always says that it was much worse. It makes perfect sense that eating such a nutrient-rich diet would be a key factor. No wonder our average diet today has just 10% the levels of micronutrients when we fill up on such nutritionally devoid “foods”.

    I think the Paleo community is really getting the word out about how important it is to fill your diet with nutrient-dense foods. However there’s one thing I still didn’t realize. If you’re a woman of childbearing age, you have to eat lots of these foods BEFORE you become pregnant. I always thought I’d start really cramming them in after I found out, but turns out morning sickness often gives you a major meat aversion. I tried forcing myself to eat the wonderful free-range eggs I normally love, but my body had other ideas — I would puke within 5 minutes of getting the last bite down. I’m just hoping that my body managed to store up some of the “good stuff” from before, or at least enough to get me through these first 12 weeks!

    • Honora says

      The Weston A Price folks rightfully put a lot of emphasis on pre-conception diets for both prospective mothers and fathers. They note it was a tradition in cultures across the globe to promote high nutrient density foods to this group as well as pregnant women and children.

  4. Brian says

    Chris, quick question: were you able to find any info on why the researchers repeatedly mentioned the whole grains in the mid-Victorian diet? They made mention of them a few times when talking about the make-up of the diet, but they didn’t discuss them in the “What the Mid-Victorians Ate” section, which seems odd. I don’t doubt that bread was part of their diets (cheap and calorie-dense as it is), but it’d be interesting to see how much they actually consumed (compared to how much refined flour is in standard foods nowadays) and whether they relied on it as a micro-nutrient source (and if they did soaking/sprouting/fermenting to the grains to make the nutrients bio-available) or just as a calorie source.

    • mary says

      read “wheat Belly”, you will See that the whole grain of old, didn’t make it to the modern bread basket. :(

  5. David says

    The source paper is one of my most favorites ever. I like the strong language, which is seldom used in scientific papers. Some highlights:

    “It shows that medical advances allied to the pharmaceutical industry’s output have done little more than change the manner of our dying. The Victorians died rapidly of infection and/or trauma, whereas we die slowly of degenerative disease. It reveals that with the exception of family planning, the vast edifice of twentieth century healthcare has not enabled us to live longer but has in the main merely supplied methods of suppressing the symptoms of degenerative diseases which have emerged due to our failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards.”

    “Do not, therefore, look to the drug companies to provide remedies for the appalling state of our health; nor to our politicians who seem unable, in many cases, to see far beyond the brims of their parliamentary troughs. Look, instead, to the food and beverage industries, and to a lesser extent the supplement companies, who may well step up to the plate with better designed foods and nutritional programmes once the currently profoundly counter-productive regulatory system has been re-drafted.”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2672390/

  6. Curtis says

    This was very interesting point the article brought up:

    “Dripping was a preferred substitute in the days before cheap margarine.”

    “Dripping, also known usually as beef dripping or, more rarely, as pork dripping, is an animal fat produced from the fatty or otherwise unusable parts of cow or pig carcasses. It is similar to lard, tallow and schmaltz.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dripping

    They apparently used this like butter.

    • Honora says

      I nursed a lord during my overseas stint in the UK. One early evening her ladyship summoned us excitedly to the kitchen to have dripping on bread as they had had a roast. By 1981 I’d been poisoned against eating fat but also our family of 8 had had roast meat most nights for our evening meal and we came from the land of copious butter where margarine was actually available on prescription only until around 1976. The butter industry had agitated for margarine to be colored blue instead of yellow but from that time they were on their own and the protections were off. Anyway I obliged by tasting this inferior dripping stuff.

      (The lady looks Edwardian to me, jus’ sayin’)

  7. Jennifer says

    I recently re-read several Louisa May Alcott books and am now reading “Little Women” to my daughter (written in the 1860s, so a similar time period, but in the U.S. rather than Britain.) .One recurring theme in her books is that outdoor exercise, hard work, and “plain food” is the path to health. Rich food, constricting clothing/shoes, and being sedentary are excoriated nearly as much as bad morals (Alcott definitely had a Christian worldview and, I think, meant her books to be instructive). Even reading too much is likely to give one headaches, lethargy, and a bad mood, as Jo learns to her dismay in one of the vignettes in Little Women. And society girls who lie around all day and go out at night in tight “fashionable” clothing and shoes are always pale and bored, while country girls who take brisk walks are always happier and have agreeable color in their cheeks (“Eight Cousins” especially shows this). I found it all very interesting–and of course noticed it much more as an adult than I did when I read these books as a child.

  8. Diana Swinburne says

    What about the upper classes, or don’t they count? Not everyone built railroads or did laundry. Aristocrats, unfortunately, could afford refined and imported foods, and clerks sat rather than exerted themselves. Any material regarding that?

  9. says

    Your observations are something I can attest to from circumstantial evidence still common knowledge in my boyhood/youth, living on tenant farms of so called ‘landed gentry’ in the ‘Roman Wall Country’ of my native Northumberland UK, in the 40′s-50′s.
    Tradition was that we had been a Beefeater nation since before the Roman invasion 2,000 years ago and that good health and long life, barring accidents came from eating in season fresh greens, winter stored vegetables, swedes, onions etc and the fat of the land in lamb,beef and butter. Fowl and pigs were scrap and garbage eaters only eaten occasionally except for bacon and eggs daily with some form of beef. This was predominantly grass fattened.
    The average working man’s family spent 20% of wages on beef alone and worked physically all day. My own father and his brothers were horsemen, transiting to tractor drivers in the 40′s, each had four draught horses underhand and mainly walked behind a team of two for four hours each day in field and cartage work. 8 hours plus feeding, harnessing and grooming.
    Prior to this as with most country people, my parents had never been more than 40 miles from the farm. Redundant farm boy mining and other labour families had equally as physical lifestyles. I clearly recall teams of up to 40 Irish ‘paddies’ coming to single( hoe turnips) and discussions that beef daily was the only way men could really work.
    It made the world go round and gave the British Army the edge in adverse conditions.
    Darwin had discovered that Argentinian ‘ goucho troops could survive adverse conditions because of their heavy beef diet and reasoned that their stomachs were more akin to those of dogs enabling 4 days of survival without rations compared to other elite troops. Hence later iron rations and bully beef.
    Much of life in my youth had not changed for a couple of hundred years since the enclosures acts leading to surplus food and population growth and industrial revolution. Population went from 5 million to 60+ million in Britain in this time frame, with the population density almost equaling India per square mile in both people and cattle with sheep at over 40 million. Cattle at over 12 million not counting bully beef imports. The majority of the population lived on meat and milk as written by Caesar over 2,000 years ago and the Victorian era was very much a meat and milk diet

    • Beefeater says

      Angie: History lessons 3 miles from a major Roman fort, Vindolanda were that the most important building was the grain drying/storage for centurians rations were 3lb of wheat per day and each fort was required to have a years supply ahead to withstand siege. Even then it was known that wheat allowed control of the many by few.
      In the Victorian era as I understand it oats and barley were the main domesticated crops mainly for porage, horses work, and malting barley with the brew mash for mainly milk cow rations. Cattle were yarded and fed for their manure to grow and sustain cropping of vegetables etc with meat sometimes secondary.
      “Favor the multiplication of cattle for their manure sustains the richest of harvests( Quesnay) Manure is the farm bank account?
      Publications on the art and science of farming indicated that worker rations for best results needed beef daily with the ploughmans lunch being bread and hard cheese. In some areas up to 10 lbs of potatoes per day was allowed per worker but in UK countryside beef was favoured over potatoes, especially if the work required independence of thought.

  10. John McDonell says

    Hi Chris,
    thanks very much for these thoughts, but (to me) there remains just too many significant gaps that need to be breached before we can do significant miming..

    1) They did not eat/drink large amounts of cold-refrigerated food. [because the womb is 97.8F, does it mean there are some DNA- enzymes that are specifically 98.7F-SENSITIVE? All infants in those years were breast-fed.]
    2) TO THIS DAY THIS REMAINS A SIGNIFCANT HEALTH FEATURE. IT HAS CHANGED DRASTICALLY IN ALL PRESENT SOCIETIES, but because we refuse to even consider anything unseen as influential, this continues and is even derided as silly.
    Specifically there has ben huge changes is electricity/magnetism and light. T.S. Wiley in “Lights UT’ talks of large changes since light bulbs were introduced and Robert O Becker outlines a wide-rane of profound health detriments introduced (and embraced as modern electrical/electonic inventions). All things bear an electric non-visible element and because these particles are not evenly distributed, there are numerous ionic patterns within and outside us ]Josef Oberback ‘The Fire f Life’] – all invisible. There is not only acupuncture lines, but they intersect with geothermic patterns introduced by ionic movements of flowing rock(volcanoes/landslides), water (underground streams) and air (weather).

    THESE ARE JUST SOME OF THE INFLUENCES …. we need think along the lines that we are our environment in health and not think me as independent from my space.
    sure hopes this helps …

  11. Jason says

    In the paper you cited they mention that the calorie density of their food was less than ours today and yet they were eating 50-100% more calories, not to mention butter wasn’t a staple in the diet of the working class. So I’m wondering how exactly a person would go about eating such a volume of food to satisfy those calorie requirements with the aforementioned dietary staples. Did they eat extremely fatty cuts of meat and fish or what?

    • Alex says

      Yeah, that part left me a little confused. Where did they get all their calories from? Were they high fat or high carb?

  12. Molly says

    So it’s time to hit up eBay for some old Mid-Victorian cookbooks! And I would much rather emulate a Victorian beauty than a cavewoman!

  13. says

    Hi Chris, thanks for sharing such an informative post. Really very useful tips shared regarding nutrition & health. Awaiting for more posts like this.

  14. Marco Jones says

    With the amount of calories and nutrient dense food these people were eating, shouldn’t they have been much taller? If what you say is true there would have been a whole generation of English giants (compared to the English of the time). I’ve never come across this. Has anybody?

  15. mister worms says

    I’m really interested in learning more about #1, or, the impact of natural human movement vs. “exercise.” I’ve been making my way through the Aligned and Well blog by Katy Bowman and the information about biomechanics there really clicks in the way that learning about ancestral food ways makes sense in how it affects our health.

    My impression of the paleo scene is that there’s been a lot of focus on nutrition and less on movement. And the movement that’s often talked about is Crossfit and other kind of contrived activities which are more like modern exercise inventions vs. the movement which our bodies evolved around.

    • Mark says

      You might want to look into MovNat, Exuberant Animal, or in Europe, Wildfitness. There are also a number of programs, like Fifth Ape in North Carolina, that do natural movement with a Parkour slant.

      I think the paleo CrossFit connection has as much to do with Robb Wolf’s career path than anything else.

  16. TimG says

    This article and the cited paper make me wonder if the “eat less, exercise more” paradigm is half-correct. That is, the paper leads me to consider that humans have probably evolved to generally expend much larger volumes of work than we do today. The idea that we can offset today’s typically minimal work volume with a correspondingly lower caloric intake is simplistic math and misses the evolutionary mark. It may also be that obesity is not just a result of an excess calories-in/calories-out ratio (among other causes), but also that obesity is a purposive attempt by the body to increase energy expenditure to evolutionary levels. Unfortunately, such an approach is generally counterproductive.

    In short, the idea is that generating evolutionary levels of energy expenditure for a good many folks (not all folks, since the genetic landscape is, of course, varied) is not an option; rather, it is an evolutionary requirement for obtaining proper homeostasis; the caloric intake is then increased to match the requirements.

    In contrast, a low (i.e., modern) energy expenditure cannot be simply offset by lowering caloric intake because the low energy expenditure itself is unecological for the body. Therefore, trying to tweak calories to match an unecological condition is incoherent. This is where the calories-in/calories-out mode fails; instead, the unecological condition (low energy expenditure) must be rectified first. Of course, what is “too low” an energy expenditure will vary with individual genetics, but the cited paper and a common sense look at history tells us it is much, much larger than today.

    This paradigm makes sense to me, but it also displeases me, insofar as I am, frankly, somewhat lazy and not at all inclined to want to exercise such that I would be eating 5,000 kcal/day to offset it! But, that may be the evolutionary reality of it for many of us. And certainly, such exercise would need to be done in a way that we would not suffer from the effects seen from overtraining. What is especially odd is: how did those mid-Victorians not all suffer from the negative consequences and health deterioration of overtraining, based on the apparent levels of activity they were involved in? It seems a strange question to ask, but comparing their EE to the EE of a typical overtraining athlete, I think it is an important question, and probably says something about a lack of ecology in current training methodologies.

    • Dan says

      What is especially odd is: how did those mid-Victorians not all suffer from the negative consequences and health deterioration of overtraining, based on the apparent levels of activity they were involved in?

      Well, I think they did suffer the negative consequences. I believe laborers and professional athletes had a shorter life expectancy than other, less active, professions — such as the clergy or Barristers. We might expect that the clergy or Barristers had greater access to healthcare, however it could easily be argued that the healthcare of that time probably caused more harm than good.

      I think it’s also important to recognize that there were many professions that were low EE (cobblers, opticians, watchmakers, hatters, craftsmen) and these individuals were mostly sedentary and encouraged to take part in “voluntary exercise” and get fresh air.

      In fact, “Pedestrianism” (the sport of walking) became a very popular sport, and was often considered the best exercise by the “experts” of the time. It was often believed that moderate exercise, good posture, low stress, and fresh air afforded the greatest health. From what I have read, the Victorians seemed to be well aware of the dangers of overtraining and over-exertion for both laborers and professional athletes.

  17. John says

    Hi, since I’m fairly new to the paleo lifestyle I’m an avid reader of this site. I’ve found the information contained within informative and enlightening and I’m healthier because of it. However, for the first time in reading all the great information here I’ve found an obvious and blatant mis-statement here. The comment about most of the beer consumed in Victorian England as being 1% – 2% ABV is 100% in error. I’m an avid craft beer drinker and producer and know quite a bit about the history of beer. Many of the styles of beer enjoyed today by the craft beer drinker was very popular during this age. India Pale Ale (IPA) was the most popular beer of the time and it’s nominal ABV (Alcohol by Volume) was in the 5% – 7% range. Many other styles that are popular today were also popular then, styles such as Stout, Porter, and Brown Ale were also consumed widely, none of which had a nominal ABV as low as 1% – 2%. This obvious mis-statement about the beer consumption of the Victorian age makes me concerned about the credibility of this column.

    • says

      John, just wondering if you read the PubMed article Chris referenced in the post? That author suggests that the bulk of beer consumed was low in alcohol since women and children were drinking it, and cites his references. It’s possible that article is inaccurate but I wouldn’t count that against Chris’s credibility. After all, he’s not an expert in the history of craft beer!

      • John says

        No Laura, I didn’t read the article. My comments were regarding what was posted here, not there. There’s no doubt that lots of “small” beer was consumed during this time. As we all know the water supply was in question and the process of making beer made the water drinkable (in the form of beer). But the implication here, as suggested in this quote “…but it (beer) was significantly weaker than it is today…” is that little other beer was consumed. That’s false, lots of other full strength beer was consumed and enjoyed :) . At best this comment is misleading, at worst it borders on a neo-prohibitionist position. If the topic was to be discussed fairly the health benefits of beer should have also been discussed. Turns out there’s lots of them and I see no mention of that here.

        • says

          Hey John! It looks like Chris actually did mention that alcohol can have health benefits, and linked to an article that Mark Sisson wrote on the subject. He probably didn’t discuss it in more detail here to avoid making the article too long.

          • John says

            You’re right Alyssa, does indeed mention that “Although alcohol in moderation can be beneficial,…” But none of the other benefits are mentioned at all. My biggest beef with this article is this one sentence “The alcohol content of beer consumed in the home was usually between 1% and 2%, while beer consumed in pubs was around 2-3%.” While, certainly a lot of small beer was consumed the pub consumption statement is just wrong. Not sure why a misstatement like this would be made on a site like this (a site that appeals to me partly because of its ignoring “conventional” aka government wisdom). Bottom line, beer consumption in moderation can be healthy. (talk about throwing conventional wisdom out the window!)

            • Dan says

              John,

              If you read the scientific article that Chris cited, you would see that he virtually copied that sentence verbatim from the article. I believe the reason why the medical journal got the terminology incorrect is because it was referencing 19th century data and recipes which used the word “beer” in lieu of “small beer”.

              In other words, your complaint is really directed at the authors of the original medical article — who clearly confused “small beer” with modern “beer.”

              Yes, Chris repeated that mis-statement. But I think the blame lies with the medical journal that failed to specify the distinction between small beer and beer in the first place.

              • John says

                I’m sure you’re right, that the original article is likely to be at fault. But if I were to post something to my readers I’d make an effort to verify that article’s content. I admit, that much of the stuff I’ve pointed out is kinda obscure and definitely outside the mainstream of knowledge. But, we’re not mainstream folks here are we? I’ve learned a ton from reading Chris’ material and the best I can tell he’s pretty thorough, he just missed this one and it happened to be something I’m really into.

    • Dan says

      John,

      While it’s certainly true that strong beers were popular in Victorian England, those stronger beers were not typically consumed at every meal — particularly not by women and children (that would have been crazy). Since drinking the water was unthinkable, “small beers” were used as an every day drink, in lieu of water.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_beer

      From Wikipedia:

      Small beer (also, small ale) is a beer/ale that contains very little alcohol. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favoured drink in Medieval Europe and colonial North America as opposed to the often polluted water and the expensive beer used for festivities. Small beer was also produced in households for consumption by children and servants at those occasions.

      Before public sanitation, cholera and other water-transmitted diseases were a significant cause of death. Because alcohol is toxic to most water-borne pathogens, and because the process of brewing any beer from malt involves boiling the water, which also kills them, drinking small beer instead of water was one way to escape infection. It was not uncommon for workers (including sailors) who engaged in heavy physical labour to drink more than 10 Imperial pints (5.7 litres) of small beer during a workday to maintain their hydration level. This was usually provided free as part of their working conditions, it being recognised that maintaining hydration was essential for optimal performance.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_beer

      • John says

        I think this point is close to the point I was trying to make. Yes, lots of beer (small beer) was consumed. However, normal beer consumption as would be defined today occurred just as often then. So, yes, you might say most of the beer consumed was low ABV. But what that point leaves out is that there was significantly more beer consumed in those Victorian days than is consumed today. This point also lightly touches upon the health benefits of beer, the fact that it was sanitary. But again, that’s kinda ignoring all the other great health benefits. Do you like probiotics? Guess what was filled with them in the Victorian age (and in a lot of today’s craft beer)? Chromium? Zinc? What’s the recommended source for these essential elements? Beer, of course (actually it’s the yeast, but there’s no better way to consume yeast than by having a tasty beer). Got high blood pressure? Guess what effect alcohol has on that? Did you know that beer’s glycemic index is so low that it can’t be measured? OK, hopefully I’m making my point here. It appears to me that this article makes an effort to discount the Victorian age beer consumption by saying most of it was small beer without indicating that beer consumption was much, much higher then than it is now. Additionally, the article (which I thought was about the benefits of a Victorian diet) ignores all the health benefits of that massive consumption. BTW, beer as we all know is made from grain, that evil post paleo food source, so it couldn’t be healthy, right? Please don’t take my beer advocacy as me suggesting massive beer consumption is good, just like most things in life, moderation is the key.

        • Dan says

          John,

          You have raised some excellent points on the benefits of high-quality beer. However, that was not your initial criticism. You have clearly changed your complaint over the course of your last two comments.

          Initially you said…

          John wrote:

          The comment about most of the beer consumed in Victorian England as being 1% – 2% ABV is 100% in error. I’m an avid craft beer drinker and producer and know quite a bit about the history of beer…This obvious mis-statement about the beer consumption of the Victorian age makes me concerned about the credibility of this column.

          When I explained to you that the article was indeed 100% correct — “small beer” was in fact far more widely consumed than the stronger beer you were familiar with — you agreed and then quickly changed your complaint to the fact that Chris didn’t mention any of the health benefits of beer.

          While your second complaint is valid, it’s a bit nit-picky. But, you probably owe Chris an apology since there was nothing factually wrong with the article in the first place!

          • John says

            Yes Dan, I too noticed that my comments drifted from my original point and that original point was indeed off target. I’m not a great debater and my initial comment was slightly misplaced. I still stand by the point that the 2 sentences that caught my attention and not just the 1st half of the second is in error. I made an error. Here’s the 1st 2 sentences from the article above:

            During the mid-Victorian period, beer was popular and widely consumed, but it was significantly weaker than it is today.The alcohol content of beer consumed in the home was usually between 1% and 2%, while beer consumed in pubs was around 2-3%.

            So let me clarify my position and concern. In my original comments I mentioned beers like IPA’s and Stouts. These are the beers consumed in pubs and they were not 2-3% ABV. So, yes I was in error pointing out that the majority of the beer consumed was not low ABV, it was. However, the beer consumed in pubs was at least 2x what’s stated in the article, if not 3x. So I do apologize for my error, but I do stand on my broader point that the impression I got from this that all the Victorians drank was small beer, that is still patently untrue. I got the impression that the author was trying to minimize the influence of beer on their diet, which I think is completely missing something important at best and possibly biased against beer at worst.

            • Dan says

              You raise a valid point. I believe that Chris has mentioned in his podcasts that he is not an avid beer drinker due to a gluten sensitivity. So, perhaps he wasn’t aware of the distinctions you mentioned.

              John, I’m curious. What do you think is the biggest differences between modern beer and the porters and ales from the 19th century? I only ask because I’ve noticed that the phrase “beer belly” didn’t really exist in the lexicon before the 20th century (and the phrase “pot belly” was less common).

              http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=beer+belly%2C+pot+belly&year_start=1800&year_end=2000

              Now, that can be due to any number of reasons. But, it makes me wonder. Paul Jaminet has previously pointed out that people tend to not get “wine bellies” and that (modern) beer seems to promote a pot belly. What do you think it might be about (modern) beer that gives people “beer bellies?” Do you think it’s the gluten, modern grains, or some other brewing technique or toxin? One theory is that the beer itself isn’t responsible alone. But, rather, the consumption of alcohol in conjunction with increased PUFA consumption has played a negative role in obesity and health. (Jaminet has also pointed out that Alcohol + PUFA consumption correlates with an increase in liver disease, which seems to have increased significantly after prohibition, when PUFA consumption was on the rise).

              Since you seem to know so much about beer — and most Paleo-types do not — I figure you might be able to shed some light on what it is about modern beer that makes it a less than perfect brew. My limited research suggests that our ancestors may not have been as susceptible to beer bellies, but again, that could be due to any number of reasons (such as lower PUFA consumption). Nevertheless, I’d like to hear your thoughts on how different modern beer is from “ancestral” beer!

              Looking forward to your response. Cheers!

              • John says

                Dan, thanks for asking my opinion on this. I’m not sure I really have a very good explanation on the beer belly (I definitely know more about beer than I do human metabolism and I don’t have a beer belly), but I’ll give you my thoughts anyway.

                There’s 2 big differences between the pub beers of the Victorian age and today’s big commercial beers (I won’t name them because they’re very big corporations with highly paid lawyers, but you know who I’m talking about). The obvious difference is that the beers are very different styles. Today’s big beer’s are lager beers with adjuncts (rice and/or corn typically) the pub beers in England in the 1880′s were what’s called an ale today (different yeast). I don’t know much about the recipes for Stouts and IPAs in the Victorian times, but today’s beers of those styles are typically all malted barley (which is the backbone of our big corporate beers too) with maybe some wheat or oats. Adding rice or corn to a beer lightens the body and in some ways makes a beer more drinkable. That’s why those big beer companies are so big, they make very drinkable beer. The second difference and I’m guessing the more pertinent one, is that the beers in the Victorian age were very likely unfiltered. Filtering beer removes all the yeast and any other “bugs” (bacteria) that might be living in the beer. In the Paleo world, we know that fermented foods are healthy, well, those beers of 130 years ago (and most of today’s craft beers) had all the same healthy bugs as fermented foods do today. In fact, because Louis Pasteur had just discovered that yeast was responsible for fermentation in 1866 pasteurization was not common in the Victorian age. The idea of “sanitary” brewing was still very new and I expect expensive. So not only did those old beers have live yeast they had a host of other organisms, my favorite being lactobacillus.

                Now my hypothesis on why people get beer bellies (do pot bellies come from consuming too much pot? :) ). Well, 1) I think is obvious, those people that have them drink too much (remember the beer is specially formulated to be easy to drink), eat too much and are inactive. Could the addition of healthy microorganisms help offset this behavior? I don’t know.

                Since rice and corn contain no gluten, gluten content was probably higher then than now. The whole beer and gluten debate is actually very complex though. My understanding is that a 100% barley beer has no gluten. But that’s semantics, gluten refers to gliadin and glutenin, which are wheat specific proteins. However, barley does have analogs to those proteins and as those that are gluten sensitive, those barley proteins can have a similar effect. I’m not an expert on this though and I won’t debate anyone on this.

                I do worry a bit about modern grains, especially rice and corn. They can constitute a large percentage (25% or more) of the modern, big company beer. But they are just rice and corn. I don’t recall hearing the term rice belly any time recently though.

                The brewing techniques then are not all that different than today (those techniques haven’t changed much in centuries!). Yeah, we’ve got cool stuff like stainless steel and pasteurization, but those are just refinements on the process. Beer is essentially a very natural product (a gift from god you could say). Get some partly sprouted barley wet, let it sit warm for a few days, and you have beer. The modern processes are just refinements on this.

                Your proposed idea of alcohol + PUFA being responsible for beer bellies is interesting. However, if that’s the case wine would equally contribute to big guts. Wine has the same alcohol (ethanol) and on average has 3x as much per unit volume as beer does. My experience is that I’ve not seen wine drinkers consume “mass quantities”, so it may be that on average a wine drinker is a more moderate alcohol consumer.

                I wrote a lot but I’m not sure this helps at all. Thanks again for asking my opinion. You got what you paid for :) …I’m thirsty now. I’m going to have a home brew :) I make a very nice gluten free sour sorghum beer that’s a great thirst quencher! But I may just have a Porter.

        • Dan says

          John,

          I should clarify. Part of the confusion here is that the world “beer” meant different things in the lexicon at the time:

          From The Curiosities of Ale & Beer: An Entertaining History (UK, 1886) By John Bickerdyke:

          At the present day, in the eastern counties, and indeed over the greater portion of the country, ale means strong, and beer means small malt liquor; in London beer usually means porter (i.e., the small beer of stout); while in the west country beer is the “mighty” liquor, and ale the small. In the trade, however, beer is the comprehensive word for all malt liquors.

          As we can see, at the time, only a minority of the country considered the word beer to mean “strong.” So, most people in Victorian England clearly used the word beer interchangeably with “small beer”.

          So, perhaps we can forgive Chris and the medical literature for not specifying that the terminology of “beer” at the time referred generally referred to “small beer.” Perhaps the article should have been more specific, but I think it’s all a bit nit-picky.

          • John says

            Dan, I agree, your point is being a bit “nit-picky”. The terms beer and ale have a long history. At times in the past the difference was defined as with or without hops as the bittering agent. (hmmm…did someone say bitter? I wonder if there could be some digestive benefit to that?). However, if this article has a good historic and/or scientific basis the distinction between beer and ale would disappear quickly. It would be disingenuous to use the word beer and not have it include the full spectrum of “beers” consumed at the time. As I mention above, this sentence: “The alcohol content of beer consumed in the home was usually between 1% and 2%, while beer consumed in pubs was around 2-3%.” doesn’t to articulate a the beer vs ale distinction.

  18. says

    Really interesting perspective here. It’s amazing how things have changed over time, I must agree with you that processed foods are a big part of this change. I realise that I am guilty of promoting this change as much of what I buy at the supermarket is processed in some way or another.
    You have got me thinking now. First thing I can easily do is increase movement by walking the short distances where I would normally drive my car!! :)

  19. Mary Korte says

    This article was intriguing but it seems a key component is missing. In pre-refrigeration times some food was preserved through fermentation. Often foods like butter were made from clabbered cream and things like pickles and sauerkraut were made without the aid of vinegar through natural fermentation. We are completely missing this key component to a truly healthy and nutrient dense diet today but it must have been a significant part of diets of bygone times.

    • John says

      Thank you for making this comment. It falls in line with my previous comments about beer. It, being a fermented food, is also a great source of these nutrients. I couldn’t agree with you more!

  20. paul clayton says

    Hi to all, and thanks to Chris for picking up our study. In response to some of the comments, we had so much to pack into a small space (despite the almost unprecedented generosity of the JRSM editors) that much of our research could not be included.

    I like real ale and do not need to be convinced of its many nutrient-related benefits (I have focussed in my research on xanthohumol and the CR3 and Dectin-1 agonists, which are much more interesting and more specific than the trace elements), and John is partly correct re the alcohol issue. However, what he fails to take into account is the mid-Victorian working class’ ability to indulge in discretionary spending which cannot be compared with today’s. So yes, there was strong beer, but very few working men (and it was predominantly men) could afford much of that. It was small beer for most folk, most of the time.

    No refrigeration – not entirely true. There was ice, and for part of the year there were ice-houses. But it was obviously far less available than today, so there was more fermentation, ie lots of potentially good bugs. Plus, the diet of the time contained high levels of a range of prebiotic fibers, so the mid-Victorian microbiota was very different from today’s. This undoubtedly reduced the risk of colorectal, hepatic and breast cancer, via the well-know mechanisms. To that you have to add multiple ancillary factors ie a vastly lower intake of AGE and ALE compounds, this was touched on in the papers but we have far more data which will be included in papers 4 and 5 in the sequence (due 2014).

    Re calorie intakes from different food sources, an overview of this is provided in paper 2.

    I know that some of you have your own hobby horses, but most of us who work in these cross-over sciences have to try to stick to the evidence because our work is – unsurprisingly – deeply unpopular with our medical peers and has to be highly defensible . Our papers went through (aggressive) peer review, not only by very well-established scientists but also some of the top historians specialising in 19th C Britain. But that is not the end of the story – science IS revisionism – and I and Judith welcome reasoned argument supported by fully referenced facts.

    Best,
    Paul

    • Dan says

      Paul,

      In your study, you mention that coronary heart failure was common and generally due to damage from rheumatic fever — though not degenerative. I believe this matches up with some accounts from the United States. For instance, the NEJM article, “The Burden of Disease and the Changing Task of Medicine” says that…

      From The Burden of Disease and the Changing Task of Medicine

      [During the early 1900s] doctors struggled with cancer, eclampsia, impotence, heart disease (chiefly infectious or valvular rather than atherosclerotic), and arthritis.

      I also found this account from Louis M. Warfield, A.B., M.D., of St. Louis, MO,, in 1908:

      From Arteriosclerosis: Etiology, Pathology, Diagnosis, Prognosis, Prophylaxis and Treatment (1908)

      The stress and strain of our daily life has, as one of its consequences, early arterial degeneration. There can be no doubt that arterial disease in the comparatively young is more frequent than it was twenty-five years ago, and that the mortality from diseases directly dependent on arteriosclerotic changes is increasing. Fortunately, the almost universal habit of getting out-of-doors whenever possible, and the revival of interest in athletics for persons of all ages, have to some extent counteracted the tendency to early decay. Nevertheless, the actual average prolongation of life is more probably due to the very great reduction in infant mortality and in deaths from infectious and communicable diseases.

      The wear and tear on the human organism in our modern way of living is excessive. Hard work, worry, and high living all predispose to degenerative changes in the arteries and so bring on premature old age.

      From those two accounts it would seem that degenerative heart disease became an epidemic at the end of the 19th century. However, I think most mainstream researchers probably believe that degenerative arteriosclerosis was always an epidemic that wasn’t properly recognized (perhaps often classified as “apoplexy” on death certificates). On the other hand, you would think that recognizing arteriosclerosis would be relatively easy to spot in autopsies.

      Paul, what is your take on this? Was degenerative arteriosclerosis something that went undetected in the 19th century? Or have you found any solid evidence that supports what Dr. Warfield supposedly observed in 1908? Would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

  21. greg says

    Halfway down the paper they snuck this gem in: “Stroke was mainly associated with the middle and upper classes who ate a diet in which animal derived foods had a more significant role, and who consumed as a result rather less fruits and vegetables.” Later they point out that Victorians were healthier because they ate more “fruit, vegetables, whole grains”.

    I assume you don’t buy this drivel either, but I’m surprised you didn’t call them out on this.

    And as far as the inability of us moderns to consume enough calories to get enough micro nutrients, I eat just about 4000cal per day and my body comp is improving as a result.

  22. paul clayton says

    Dan,

    Great questions, and you”re touching on the heart of the matter (weak pun intended) …
    A simple review of the frequency of coronary artery disease from 1880 to 2000 reveals that the degenerative diseases cannot be merely entropic, and this in turn tells us that the contemporary phenomenology of ageing is not intrinsic at all but a cultural artefact. (And therefore all contemporary studies of ie GWAS are undermined by terminal sample error). Mid-Victorian doctors were fine pathological anatomists and could – and did – diagnose coronary artery disease at the point of death without prejudice. They recognised it but it was very uncommon, so Warfield’s observations are very much in line with the British medical experience.

    Thank you also for taking the trouble to do the relevant research, it is refreshing to find people who are willing to look critically at the evidence base and engage in informed debate. Judith and I are always happy to debate these issues with other thinkers and to refine our own thinking. In fact this is critical as we are currently developing a medeconomic extrapolation of the mid-Vic model, and are collaborating with a team of well known medeconomists and behavioural economists to develop less insane models of healthcare than the ruinously expensive and cruelly ineffective systems on offer today; taking the form of at least one and maybe two papers that are already being requested by health care policy makers. Corroborative pieces of evidence like the references you cite are always good, but I probably don’t need to tell you that evidence that forces our models to evolve is even better.

    Best,
    Paul

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