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Good Old Healthy British Diet

Our modern-day dietary and exercise habits are far from ideal, to say the least. Statistical data shows that people in westernised cultures eat on average less than three servings of fruits and vegetables a day while men are predictably worse than women. It is needless to say that there are many other things we are doing wrong such as consuming disproportionately high amounts of refined carbohydrates, sugar, trans fats and saturated fats, processed foods and sitting on our rear for most of every day. We see the consequences all around us, just to mention a few examples such as unprecedented rise of obesity with its many related maladies like diabetes, arthritis or gout. In the UK alone, the burden of food related poor health, measured in terms of mortality and morbidity, is similar to that resulting from smoking. The cost to the NHS is twice the amount due to car and other accidents and more than twice that related to smoking.

It is hard to ignore the fact that modern-day British diet is a pretty sorry affair, which often gets us scratching our heads, desperately looking around for something better. We typically find inspiration on foreign shores and draw on the likes of the traditional Mediterranean diet or the Japanese diet, which are considered by many to be a better way of eating. But rather than looking far afield, what if we instead looked back in time? What if there was once a ‘Great’ British diet that could beat them all?

One intriguing study from 2009 entitled ‘How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died’, based on actual historical evidence, examined the state of health in the mid-Victorian period (1850-1880) and reported that life expectancy at the age of five was as good, if not better, than today, despite not having the big pharmaceutical firms, an elaborate healthcare system, infection control and high-tech surgical procedures common today to safeguard the health of the population. And maybe back then, they just did not need all that technology, with the incidence of degenerative diseases being a mere fraction, just 10%, of what it is today.

We just need to look at the diet and lifestyle of the times, to understand why. The working classes were very active due to the physically demanding nature of their work since practically all work involved moderate to heavy physical labour, as measured by today’s standards. Calorific requirements then were 150-200% higher than today’s, as men were typically expending 3,000-4,500 calories per day and women 2,750-3,500. Then it is not surprising that the mid-Victorians were eating much more than we do today but obesity barely existed among the working classes. Their access to tobacco and alcohol was limited, and their diets were exemplary by our modern standards, with a high consumption of seasonal vegetables and fruits (eight to ten portions a day), nuts and legumes, fish and seafood (omega-3 herring was an essential component of the working class diet), free-range meat (meat on the bone and organ meats, being the most economical), dairy products, eggs and whole grains. It is estimated that working class mid-Victorians consumed levels of many beneficial nutrients and phytonutrients ten times higher than we do today.

Unfortunately, this period did not last for too long and around 1880, everything changed. White flour, bread, fatty and salty tinned meats had become cheaper, confectionary was mass produced for the first time in history and sugar-laden condensed milk and canned fruit had become widely available. And with all of these goodies, the health of the population started deteriorating. So this raises a question – do Brits really need the Mediterranean or Japanese diets? Shouldn’t they just get back to a golden era of Great British eating, a time when they have eaten so well?