What Mid-Victorians Can Teach Us About Nutrition and Health | Chris Kresser
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What Mid-Victorians Can Teach Us About Nutrition and Health

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victorian diet, victorian era diet
Victorians have a lot to say about what it meant to live a healthy life.

Anthropological 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.

Could eating and living like a mid-Victorian help you achieve better health?Tweet This

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. One thing left out of this article, as far as I can see, is that in England in those days, fresh produce would have been very limited.

  2. Hi, great article, but from what I’ve heard and seen, Victorians (especially working class) were living off mainly bread and butter, fatty meats (bacon) and vegetables like potatoes. A diet like that is horrible for your health, especially your heart and cholesterol. I understand they wouldn’t be overweight, since the majority would of been doing some sort of manual labor, and burning calories quickly, but I don’t think they would have been particularly healthy.Maybe I’m just thinking about the very poor working class? Could you tell me where you got your information from? I’m trying to write an assignment and I keep getting different answers from different sites. Thankyou!

  3. Very interesting article with lots of good information; however, I’m a history major in university… the life expectancy of the Victorian era was nowhere near today. Not sure what you’re basing that information on. By 1901 it had climbed to 48 years of age as an average.

    • Odessa,

      You are referring to life expectancy at birth, which is skewed heavily by significant child mortality. Adult lifespans have not increased much over the past few hundred years.

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

      I hope you didn’t think elderly humans were a new phenomenon of the past century! 🙂

      • No, not true. Today’s figures on lifespans INCLUDES childbirth deaths (both mother and child). The current calculations cover lifespan with ALL forms of death.

        This study removes child / infant mortality rates, maternity birthing rates (death of mother), childhood infectious diseases, most infectious fatal diseases and then concludes that the Victorian era lifespan was, gosh, close to ours.

        If those elements were removed from how current calculations were done, then our lifespans would be in the high 80s!

        Also, the study purported this to be the diet of the “urban poor”. Lifespan calculations include that of ALL classes and the middle class and the upper class ate much, much better.

        The vast majority of the foods they list were not affordable by the poor, the working class, or the middle class (especially the lower middle class). A lot of the plant food was NOT available for even the upper class on a consistent basis. Why? Because (for those of you) who didn’t grow up on a farm, plant foods aren’t RIPE year round! England has ONE growing season. There weren’t any supermarkets. There was no rapid transportation to quickly move vegetables / fruits from tropical or subtropical areas to England. Refrigeration was unknown. Urban residences were lucky to have a pantry. They did not have a root cellar. Why was it called a ROOT cellar? Because the vegetables most able to be preserved were tubers. Potatoes. Turnips. Parsnips. Onions. The other plant foods that could be ready preserved were grains (breads, rules, porridge), legumes (English not much into beans other than dried peas), and sugar. Though the authors skip over this, sugar was actually, as imported VERY cheap. It was heavily TAXED by the British government until the late 1800s… The popularity of the “tea time” breaks by the upper class spilled over into the middle class and the significant reduction in the Sugar Tax led to an abrupt rise not only in sugar, but also the commercial jam and jelly industry.

        There are so many historical (and dietary) inaccuracies in this study (ever look up just who these study authors are and what they’ve done otherwise?) that it would be hilarious – if not so serious.

        And for those who say, but this was a published research study…

        No, it was an opinionated and biased (inaccurate, illegitimate historically) report published in a medical journal. There is NO requirement that journals “prove” a study before publishing it. Many journals today will accept payment to punish such “studies”.

        A true study would have first of all identified really what the Victorian era poor and working class ate. Then a control group of people would be established on this fancy Victorian Era Diet while a second group (control) would be put on a modern-day Western type diet and a third group would be on an opposite type diet, like a LCHF diet. Then the groups would be monitored, followed, tested, and examined over a period of at least 10 years and preferably around 20 years.

        A true study would have not deleted out those many major causes of death in order to falsely come up with a a fictional lifespan that SEEMS to be close to modern day lifespans (which includes those factors).

        This seems clearly to me to be the same type of thing that the imminent Gary Taubes wrote (long before his books) in the extensive NY Times article “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” (July, 2002)

        http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/07/magazine/what-if-it-s-all-been-a-big-fat-lie.html

        Books:

        http://www.amazon.com/Good-Calories-Bad-Controversial-Science/dp/1400033462/ref=sr_1_sc_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1448140901&sr=8-2-spell&keywords=Gary+Traubes

        http://www.amazon.com/Why-We-Get-Fat-About/dp/0307474259/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1448140901&sr=8-1-spell

        And from another truly advanced dietary expert (which helped result in Sweden now no longer recommending any type of low fat or high carb diet, and specifically recommending a Low Carb High Fat diet:

        http://www.amazon.com/Low-Carb-High-Food-Revolution/dp/1629145459/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1448141361&sr=8-1&keywords=low+carb+high+fat+diet+revolution

        And then there’s the comparison with the biased, agenda driven “research” done by Ancel Keys.

        http://authoritynutrition.com/modern-nutrition-policy-lies-bad-science/

        http://www.nbcnews.com/id/22116724/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/t/what-if-bad-fat-isnt-so-bad/

        http://healthimpactnews.com/2014/time-magazine-we-were-wrong-about-saturated-fats/

        http://healthimpactnews.com/2011/ancel-keys-was-wrong-about-heart-disease-and-cholesterol/

        http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303678404579533760760481486

        As to links from real historical and dietary sites from the Victorian era, if there’s a huge and cry about showing the TRUTH, I would be glad to post them (there’s a lot).

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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

    • 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.

  7. 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.

    • 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!

    • I believe you are right about the importance of fermented foods, although there is not much solid evidence for this. Fermentation certainly changes the nutrient profile of many foods, in some ways for the better and in a few ways for the worse; overall, I think on balance the positives win out. However, you need to take into consideration that the mid-Victorians ate vastly more fiber than we do today (including fermentable fibers), and so their micro biome was very different. For starters, it was shifted towards gram positive and so the gut burden of lipopolysaccharides was far lower – which is a very good thing!

  8. 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!! 🙂