Did your ancestors eat better than you do?

Wartime children eating carrots on sticks.

Wartime children eating carrots on sticks.

‘Please sir, I want some more’ This phrase immediately brings to mind an image of little Oliver Twist holding out his bowl for more gruel. And perhaps this is what we think of the British diet in the past – tiny portions of food that were lacking in nutritional value and frankly unappetising. But is this true? What did our ancestors eat and could their diets actually be the key to better health for us in the 21st century?

Just for fun, the Family Detective team did a little research into the average diets of two bygone eras:

The Victorians

According to Chris Kresser in his article ‘What Mid-Victorians Can Teach Us About Nutrition and Health,’ the Victorians were generally quite a healthy bunch and their life expectancy was as good as ours is now (after compensating for infant deaths). Obesity was rare and incidents of cancer, heart disease and diabetes were 10% of what they are now. Why? Chris’s research shows that Victorians ate:

  • More foods with high nutrient value like fruits, vegetables, organic meat, nuts, seeds and offal.
  • Local, seasonal produce, bought from a local market or foraged from the countryside. Fruits and vegetables in season have a much higher nutritional value.
  • Naturally prebiotic food (good for your gut) like onions, garlic and leeks.
  • Fatty fish like herring, mackerel, as well as eel and shellfish.
  • Less alcohol – their beer was generally only 1-2% unlike our modern equivalent of about 4-5%.
  • Very little refined sugar, flour and processed foods generally.

1940s War Rations

There were undoubtedly elements of rationing that were rather grim. You may even remember being served regular meals of liver and onions or Spam, but again, it seems, Britons were healthier during rationing than they are now. So, what were your weekly rations?

  • Meat to the value of 1 shilling and sixpence, which equals around about 1/2 lb minced beef, plus 4 oz of bacon and ham. These days we’re regularly told to eat less red meat.
  • Only 2 oz of butter, 2oz of cheese, one egg (per week remember!) and 3 pints of milk.
  • Just 4 oz of cooking fat.
  • Perhaps the biggest difference of all – 8 oz of sugar, which equates to 32g per day. The current UK guidelines suggest limiting our intake to 90g a day.
  • 1 lb of jam or marmalade every 2 months.
  • 2 oz of tea – I’d struggle with this one!
  • Every 4 weeks you were allowed 12 oz of sweets and candy. That’s about 6 regular-sized Mars bars a month.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom – some people got very creative at stretching out these rations.  A while ago I interviewed my Grandma and remember her talking about using the fat from the tinned sausage meat to make the pastry for a pie (Here’s the article, with her voice: “A Welcome Ghost from the Past”). Also, foods that we would now consider ‘good-for-you’, such as local, seasonal, fruit and vegetables, were not restricted at all.

Discussion: So, what do you think? Should we try and return to the dietary habits of the past? Do you remember rationing? What did you think of it then and now? Please add your comments below: You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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