Forget paleo, go mid-Victorian: it’s the healthiest diet you’ve never heard of

If you were to ask a member of the public to name a particularly healthy cuisine they might say the Mediterranean diet. If they really knew their stuff they might even suggest the Inuit diet. What they are unlikely to mention is the British diet of the mid-Victorian era. Yet between the years of 1850 and 1872 was a mini golden age of nutrition which, if more restricted in choice, had much in common with today’s best dietary models. Their diet may have been dull, but the mid-Victorian urban working classes ate healthily.

A common view remains that Victorian life was brutish and short. A typical life span in 1840s Whitechapel, London, was supposedly 45 years for the middle classes, with the working classes averaging 22 to 27 years. However, these statistics are misleading. For a start, the 1840s — the ‘Hungry Forties’ — was a period of famine. But the figures were also skewed by extremely high infant mortality rates (due to disease, not malnutrition). One child in five died within its first year of life; one child in three within the first five years.

Once those vulnerable childhood years were passed, mid-Victorian life expectancy was not dramatically different from our own. Starting at age five, it averaged 75 for men and 73 for women (reflecting the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth). This compares surprisingly well with present figures, averaged at 79 for men and 84 for women, and indicates that our ‘better’ life expectancy at birth mostly reflects improved neo-natal care. These are crude measures. A more nuanced comparison would be with life expectancy in today’s working and lower-middle classes (socio-economic groups C1, C2 and D) where relevant figures are around 72 and 76 years for men and women respectively. Women have gained three years thanks to family planning; but it is the men’s loss of three years that reveals the true underlying decline in public health.

Health expectancy provides valuable comparative insight. Mid-Victorians enjoyed relatively good health in old age. The elderly then, including workhouse inmates, were physically capable of working until the last few days or day of their lives. Agricultural labourers regularly worked into their 70s. Hospital capacity was limited because of home nursing and a lesser need for non-acute medical facilities. In contrast, men today can anticipate spending the last 7.7 years of their lives in a state of increasing medical dependency: for women that figure is in excess of 10 years. From this perspective, the medical gains of the last century are severely tarnished.

The implications of a better understanding of mid-Victorian health are profound. It becomes clear that, with the exception of family planning, the vast edifice of post-1948 healthcare has not so much enabled us to live longer but has merely supplied methods of controlling the symptoms of non-communicable degenerative diseases, which have become prevalent due to our failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards. Dysnutrition is arguably the largest cause of ill-health today.

Our study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (here, here, and here) shows that the majority of the Victorian urban poor consumed diets which were limited, but contained extremely high nutrient density. Bread could be expensive but onions, watercress, cabbage, and fruit like apples and cherries were all cheap and did not need to be carefully budgeted for. Beetroot was eaten all year round; Jerusalem artichokes were often home-grown. Fish such as herrings and meat in some form (scraps, chops and even joints) were common too. All in all, a reversion to mid-Victorian nutritional values would significantly improve health expectancy today.

Bunch of fresh beetroots, carrots and turnips with green leaves

This has not been hitherto understood, partly because of our faith in the advances of medical institutions and treatments. It has also been obscured by a popular insistence on seeing 1900 as the starting point for medical progress.

In the 1870s Victorian health was challenged by cheap sugar and the first generation of mass-processed high-salt and high-sugar foods. This dragged urban health and life expectancy to a nadir around 1900 — a date that consequently provides a highly misleading baseline. (The trend was even reflected in people’s height. The minimum height for infantry was lowered from 5ft 6in to 5ft 3in, then later to 5ft, in just two decades.)

Charting public health from the mid-Victorian era, our worldview changes dramatically. Mid-Victorians lived without modern diagnostics, drugs, surgery or contraception. Despite that, and because of the high nutrient density of their diet, their life spans were as good as ours and their health spans significantly longer. The dietary advantages of the mid-Victorian period have been lost to us because of our more sedentary lifestyles and over-consumption of processed and nutrient-depleted foods and beverages.

Life expectancy is falling in areas as diverse as Strathclyde, parts of Africa and the former Soviet Union, and within significant social strata in the US. The confident concept of inevitably increasing life expectancy is no longer convincing — the current pandemics of obesity and diabetes represent in many ways an acceleration of the ageing process. We need to go back to the future.

Dr Paul Clayton is a Fellow at the Institute of Food, Brain and Behaviour, Oxford. Dr Judith Rowbotham is a Visiting Research Fellow, Plymouth University, and works on a range of research initiatives in law, crime, history, including Victorian nutrition.

  • Shadeburst

    I hate the word “awesome” but what other word describes this? I’m reading through Part I of your JRSM links and it’s like reading one of those blockbuster international thrillers. For the record I despise anything New Age and avoid all food fads. If either of you have a blog I’d like to follow you.

    • Sooo fantastic!

      • Once those vulnerable childhood years were passed, mid-Victorian life expectancy was not dramatically different from our own. Starting at age five, it averaged 75 for men and 73 for women

    • Once those vulnerable childhood years were passed, mid-Victorian life expectancy was not dramatically different from our own. Starting at age five, it averaged 75 for men and 73 for women (reflecting the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth). This compares surprisingly well with present figures, averaged at 79 for men and 84 for women, and indicates that our ‘better’ life expectancy at birth mostly reflects improved neo-natal care. These are crude measures. A more nuanced comparison would be with life expectancy in today’s working and lower-middle classes (socio-economic groups C1, C2 and D) where relevant figures are around 72 and 76 years for men and women respectively. Women have gained three years thanks to family planning; but it is the men’s loss of three years that reveals the true underlying decline in public health.

  • misomiso


    Fantastic Article.

  • Stamford Raffles

    Excellent article and very interesting. Covers much of what i believe about food.

  • Heather Campbell

    I still think that paleo is the best. It not about the looks, it’s about health. Search lookingupstuff/weightloss/paleogrubs to get a great paleo cookbook. I’m using it for sometimes now, and it’s great…

    • Varika

      The problem with the so-called “paleo” diet is that…it’s not. What the modern “paleo” diet says to eat is nothing like what paleolithic peoples used to eat, for the simple fact that neither the animals nor the plants are remotely like what they were back at the time. Not to mention that the real paleolithic diet was in no way some vast monolithic structure that all paleolithic peoples everywhere ate in the same proportions, for the simple fact that very few plants OR animals have a worldwide distribution. And it’s based on a bad scientific principle, ie, that evolution stopped during the paleolithic era, instead of what we know to be the truth, that agriculture has spurred new evolutionary traits in the human species–most notably, lactose tolerance. So when I see hype that says “it’s healthiest because–!” I have great difficulty remotely believing it.

      Also, no offense to you because you don’t seem to be this type, but I have found the “paleo” crowd, like vegans, on the whole to be terribly snobbish and judgmental about other peoples’ diets, and personally, I find that to be a turn-off.

      • ‘new traits’: Not to mention the enzyme found in carb-eating peoples that is there to allow the better digestion of grains.

  • ray

    Thank you for this very compelling article.

  • Edohiguma

    Or you could just enjoy eating what you like, like my grandfather, and still almost hit 91 before you suddenly die without any major issues that plague people far younger than he was.

    • RyanH

      Did you’re grandfather like healthy food or did he have great genetics?

    • I’m guessing your uncle didn’t really like Donuts, Ice Cream and Deep Dish Pizza.

  • Kriss Deigh Armstrong

    May want to check your facts on the mortality rate of women and and babies, and the reason. Had nothing to do with the intrinsic risk of pregnancy and birth it had to do with nutrition and hygene. Lack of nutrition led to risky second and later pregnancies ( also leading to infnat morbidity and mortality ) and this is when hospital/doctor birth were on the rise and doctors and nurses didnt wash their damn hands spreading contaminants from wman to woman and baby to baby.

    • Varika

      I beg to differ on the “intrinsic risk of pregnancy and birth” aspect. The number of complications that modern obstetricians know how to handle is much more significant than was known in the Victorian era. My mother, for instance, would not have survived birthing me to give birth to my brother; the placenta remained partially attached after my birth and she began to hemorrhage. Only because the hospital had an ultrasound machine they could use to FIND the problem enabled them to intervene in time to save my mother’s life. Without that, she wouldn’t have survived long enough for an infection to develop. Ergo, that would have been a death due to the intrinsic risk of pregnancy and childbirth. Likewise, the Victorians knew little to nothing about how to handle gestational diabetes or other similar disorders, so women were dying because of pregnancies that wouldn’t today when we have the kind of hospital support we do.

      Also, children born prematurely were far less likely to survive than they are today, because the Victorians simply didn’t have the technology to incubate them when needed. A child born at five months was almost certain to die back then; a child born at five months today is likely to thrive after being released from the hospital.

      Not going to say that disease had nothing to do with it, because yeah, there were WAY more post-natal infections than we have now, too, but saying that that’s the ONLY factor is just wrong.

      • Kriss Deigh Armstrong

        The percentage of pregnancies and births requiring medical intervention ( yes in the ” modern ” era this saves lives ) was mych liwer than the women who died of childbed fever. Today those numbers are even low. Life saving measures are not the factor that has lowered the mornidity or martality rate to the HUGE lower number it now is compared to the Victorian era, it is IN FACT, hygene and nutrition. This is verifiable and doesnt take mych research to find the info. The Book the History of Medicine is one source if anyone chooses to educate themselves.

  • Simon_in_London

    “significant social strata in the US” – white people. It’s been declining for whites, while still improving for non-whites –

  • Varika

    I would suggest that these trends would indicate that we, as a society, REALLY need to engage in far more urban gardening, because it’s gotten to the point now where those onions, watercress, etc. are WAY more expensive than, say, ramen noodle soup, packed with MSG and carbs and sodium and really light on nutritional value. In short, it’s not that our NUTRITIONAL values have changed, it’s that our space prioritization and urban planning have changed. Maybe if more of the urban poor COULD grow their own, we’d see an increase in those things being valued, because a packet of seeds is still only like 50 cents.

    • LB

      Exactly – fast food and junk food is far cheaper than “real” food for the most part. There are certain staples like potatoes that might be cheap overall, but it’s still more expensive to cook from scratch than it is to just eat McDonald’s, which is just sad. I would love to eat fresh, nutritious food all the time, but I just can’t afford it. We do grow stuff in summer, but we don’t have the space or energy to grow all the food we’d need throughout the year. We have neighborhood gardens where people can use a raised bed for free, but even so, that’s not going to support an entire family all year. And many poor around here work full time jobs (or two) to make ends meet, so they just don’t have the time to tend a garden after work AND cook dinner for their family. I blame part of this on the government’s subsidization of corn and soy farms – even to the point of paying farmer’s NOT to farm just to keep prices stable. I think we’d be better served by subsidizing smaller, local farms that grow a larger variety of produce. One thing, though, at least here, farmer’s markets do give double SNAP benefits to people, so that’s a plus if you qualify. We don’t, unfortunately. Often, the poorer people around here eat better than us middle-class folks.

      • Steampunk Sweetheart

        Also,…you can SUPPLEMENT from the garden, but unless you know what your’e doing, have excellent soil or can afford to buy bagged, you are going to have a damn hard time completely replacing store-bought vegetables (never mind fruit.) Even with a big yard, even without insisting on trying to be legitimately organic (ie following the legal definition) and losing yield that way, it’s a constant battle to keep everything healthy and get rid of pests. There’s a reason any kind of market farming is a full-time job and why the big-scale commercial growers have equipment and chemicals that cost more than most people’s houses–to produce enough food even to feed one person is *hard*. Also if we ate local around here, when it comes to highly-perishable stuff we’d be screwed. You can’t get stuff in the ground until May, you’re more or less done by late October at the outside. When I was visiting a site in Nova Scotia it was even worse–they were planting in late June and had already had a killing frost by late September. Our settlers did it, but it meant eating a lot of hard-storing items like cabbage, winter squash, etc and if your weren’t any good at livestock farming, doing a lot of hunting and fishing. “Living off the land” is a lot harder outside places with year-round growing seasons.

    • Rozenkruetz

      I started doing that just last year, and already grow a large percentage of vegetables without any added costs. What we need to do is set up community gardens in subdivisions and apartment complexes, that way people can get to their food without even having to get in a car. Also if gardening was a mandatory life skill taught in high school it’d be a big help to families (self defense instead of P.E would be nice as well.)

      • Emaho

        Me, too. I model my gardening on nature using the principals of Regenerative Agriculture: saving seeds, no till, healthy aerobic compost, planting several corps (3 to 6 or more) in the same area, rarely allowing any square inch of soil to ever be bare without mulch or plants, no herbicides, no pesticides, and no fertilizers except some manure and the afore mentioned aerobic compost. BTW, the mature comes free from my neighbor’s goats and chickens.

        My inspiration to follow these practices mostly came from these two You Tube videos:

    • Gayle Bourne

      Except most of today’s urban poor live in apartments, or townhouses. They don’t even have a yard, and many work at least two jobs and have no time for gardening anyway. Planting a garden does take work and maintenance, it’s not magic.

      • DrPlokta

        You’re talking about the wrong country — the Spectator is a British publication. The British urban poor do not live in apartments or townhouses, they live in flats and terraces, and it’s much rarer for them to work two jobs than it is in the US.

        • Marissaanne2003

          Flats and terraces are apartments and like accommodations as the US ….just a different name for them….

          • RedwingBlackbird

            Garden allotments even in poor areas are still common in Britain.

          • sabelmouse

            not common enough and fought over in places, and under threat.

          • sabelmouse

            hi! did you get my reply? i made 3 comments on this thread, they’re all on my profile but not on this page.

          • Liz Trekkiemaiden Morgan

            They are provided by the councils, nothing to do with poor areas. In fact I would say it isn’t the poor that utilise them at all. Mostly retired people, and middle incomes I would say.

          • RedwingBlackbird

            I said “even” in poor areas, not ONLY in poor areas.

          • sabelmouse

            terraces are houses stuck together in a row actually and those often ace small gardens.
            council houses also comes in semi detached as in 2 houses together, usually with garden.

          • Liz Trekkiemaiden Morgan

            A terrace is a row of houses that’ are all joined both sides, they have small back gardens, and also smaller front gardens, or sometime open straight onto the pavement (sidewalk). The gardens have enough space to have lawns and flower beds ergot vergetable patches. They are not apartments!

        • sabelmouse

          what i said to marissaanne

        • Liz Trekkiemaiden Morgan

          Most people have gardens here, even the poorest! By choice many people leave their gardens to be just dumping grounds for their rubbish. It is such a shame gardening isn’t taught as a life skill. PS most couples have two jobs, per

      • Mia Brantley

        Exactly! When you leave for work at dawn, and don’t get home until dusk, when exactly are you supposed to give your plants the care they need. I tried to do a VERY small garden this year. Even pared down to a tiny plot, I couldn’t keep up with the maintenance needed to get a good return. It was very disappointing to fail like that. I can’t afford not to work. I can’t afford to work. What’s the point?

      • In the urban area I live in (next to an urban community center no less) we have urban community gardens and people work less hours because they grow their own here in Florida. They don’t have to work so hard to buy all that overpriced processed food at the “grocery” store.

        • ox_p

          You do not live in the north, my friend, so you must understand how vastly different this would be in a country where we have temperatures that plummet to -25 for two months of the year.

          • bee valentine

            No doubt there are more challenges in the north…but they were overcome by our pioneers with far less conveniences than we have today. We can learn to can, dry, dehydrate and freeze food stuffs for the winter.

    • There’s nothing particularly unhealthy about MSG or sodium.

      • Vance Turnewitsch

        Research on MSG:
        “…its injurious effect on brain neurons.”

        • lolexplosm

          “…its injurious effect when directly used on MOUSE brain neuron cells in culture”.

        • ‘Ooh, don’t you feel better after a good clear-out?’ my mother Zelma would ask, rhetorically, after leaning on me heavily…

      • Marissaanne2003

        Obviously you don’t have high blood pressure.

    • Malcolm Greaves

      So long as urban gardens are stacked on top of one another, then this is a sane idea (indoor gardending with high-powered lamps uses significantly less water). There’s nothing worse than taking a valuable plot of land in an urban environment and not using the vertical space!

    • Some Guy

      Pound for pound, onions are still cheaper than ramen. 😛

    • ox_p

      The problem is that entire societies have foundered when crops have failed, because it isn’t always easy for people to grow their own. You can eat an entire plant’s worth in one meal if you have a family. I do see where you’re coming from and think the idea has merit. I do agree that a huge problem is that processed foods and fast foods are cheaper than healthy, fresh foods.
      But the reality is that agriculture is necessary for a large society to survive. I think instead of trying to get every person to grow their own (which does not always work, weather-permitting– I live in Canada, and let me tell you, the energy bills and fire risk of having grow lights for food plants indoors would be tremendous through our long winters!) I think the government should subsidize healthy foods as opposed to unhealthy. There should be programs to make them more readily available, especially in the Far North.

    • Some Guy

      Onions cost about 30 cents a pound, which is cheaper than even the nastiest ramen noodles. Potatoes and carrots likewise cost about 30-50 cents a pound, and as little as ten cents a pound in bulk. Cabbage and celery cost pennies. A pound of the cheapest, nastiest ramen is 75 cents.

  • Christopher de Vidal

    So…………. how exactly do we “Go Mid-Victorian”? Where are some food lists and recipes and recommended quantities?

    • Jessica Milem

      There are plenty of cookbooks still around from that time. Amazon has an extensive free catalog of downloadable books, including very old cookbooks. The food usually involves some meat, including and often relying on fatty, or tough cuts, marrow and offal. It gets stretched as long as possible. Lots of high bulk vegetables like cabbage and food that stores well like carrots and onions. Added sugar was rare. You would get some bread-think whole grain hearty types that couldn’t last more than a few days before turning into a rock. Some potato, some oats or unmilled wheat.

      TL;DR- Fat was important. Meat was important but eaten less than today-it was more lamb, pork, chicken and game, much much less cow. All of the animal was used-organs, bones, blood, etc. Lots of veggies. Lots of soup. Little sugar or salt unless they preserved something. Most carbs were lightly refined if at all. Also, they worked their butts off all day so they ate plenty in the morning and ate less at night.

      • piotrugowski

        Increasing vegetables and lightly processed/raw vegetable – that would probably be single point that would make biggest difference. The other is cutting sugary/super salty snacks. (So best to combine it – ditch snacks and eat the same calories in vegetables. It will make for much bigger volume as one sweet cookie can have amt of energy of quite a lot of vegetables and provide all the needed nutrients on the way.)

        As for meat – it seems it’s frequency. Kidney’s get inflamed after eating meat. It’s not easy to process in the body. If sb eats meat once a day it’s 2-3 hr of inflamation in 24hr day. But if sb eats meat 3 times a day that’s 6-9/24. No wonder so many meat gorgers get kidney failure and chronic kidney diseases.

        • judybarnesbaker

          Kidney problems are more often caused by excess sugar, that is why it is so common in people with diabetes who have high blood sugar. Protein is only a problem if the kidneys are already damaged. Protein needs to be restricted in the case of damaged kidneys, but water must also be restricted and nobody blames water for causing the damage. A low carb, ketogenic diet can also cure fatty liver disease, frequently associated with diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

          • It seems to me that there might be a causal flip here. People with diabetes urinate excessive amounts of sugar, which can damage the kidneys. That doesn’t mean eating sugar damages the kidneys, it means having diabetes damages the kidneys.

            As logical as it might seem, there is no evidence that eating sugar in-and-of-itself causes diabetes. Eating excess sugar can make you overweight though, and that is linked with diabetes, but that’s as close to a causal link between sugar and kidney disease as there is.

          • Simon Krix

            Just a correction. People with diabetes excrete sugar through their kidneys for one reason only: the of sugar in their bloodstream is too high, which the body recognises as a problem. Higher than normal levels of sugar in the bloodstream are especially damaging to your heart, eyes, nerves and extremities. If a diabetic person keeps their sugar level to a normal range, they don’t urinate more frequently than a normal person. By the way, we’re talking about glucose here, which comes primarily from eating any carbohydrate (not just sugar). Also, type 2 diabetes can basically be caused by eating too much sugar over many years (I’m simplifying this a little). Type 1 is an auto-immune disease with an unknown cause. Source: I’m Type 1 diabetic.

          • I know you said you were simplifying it, but AFAIK “type 2 diabetes can basically be caused by eating too much sugar over many years” is not proven. Being overweight increases your risk of diabetes, but I am unaware of any study which shows that sugar consumption specifically is linked to developing diabetes (as logical as it may seem).

        • “No wonder so many meat gorgers get kidney failure and chronic kidney diseases.” Where is that information coming from? There’s some evidence that red meat is not great for people with existing kidney disease, but I’m not aware of any that says that the kidney’s of healthy people are damaged by it in any way. See:

          • Some Guy

            There is a LOT of woo in this thread, I’m noticing.

          • Oralia Acosta

            I SEE Some Guy is a MONSANTO plant! You wouldn’t know woo if it bit you in the ass! And if you keep eating the GMOs (I’m almost betting you don’t!), it will soon!

          • Some Guy

            Look out guys, shill for big organic here! (Jesus, can you BE more predictable?)

            Your lunacy is self-evident.

          • Oralia Acosta

            …and your IGNORANCE is GLARING! Coming from a Monsanto plant, I take your comment very serious! Haha! Don’t get Jesus involved, either!

          • Some Guy

            You got me, I am a Monsanto plant. Specifically, I am GMO talking corn…and I am coming for your soul. (Muhahahaha)

          • Oralia Acosta

            ‘Tis not for you!

          • Simon Krix

            Like I said… simplifying… but when a person is older and their pancreas no longer produces insulin at the rate it once did when they were younger, then eating highly sugary foods causes a period of abnormally high blood sugar (hyperglycaemia) for a period of time. This is diabetes type II. You can argue that the person’s age is a partial cause of that, rather than purely a bad diet, and I take that point, but I didn’t want to bore you with pages of caveats.

          • As far as I can tell, what you’re saying is, getting older causes diabetes in some people, and eating sugar when you have diabetes causes blood sugar spikes. Both of those things are true. Neither means eating sugar will give you diabetes.

            The older people don’t suddenly get diabetes when they eat sugar, and stop having it when they don’t. Diabetes is a medical condition which changes how your body reacts to carbohydrates, you have the condition whether you are actually eating those carbs this moment or not.

          • Simon Krix

            You’re wrong I’m afraid. Diabetes type 2 is characterised by hyperglycaemia. If your pancreas isn’t keeping up with your carbs intake to the point where you have abnormally high blood sugar, then you have diabetes type 2. If you then eat less carbs, and your blood sugar drops to normal, then you no longer have it.

          • This is just not true. Diabetes is a change in how your body produces and responds to Insulin. When you don’t consume carbs you have a much lower need for Insulin, so the symptoms abate, but your body’s ability to produce and respond to Insulin does not change.


          • Simon Krix

            That’s reasonable. I accept your argument.

          • Oralia Acosta

            You’re correct Simon!

      • Oralia Acosta

        It’s somewhat Keto with the exception of more fruits and veggies. I know they ate from nose to tail — and nothing was wasted. I would not suggest eating grains, especially wheat as it is NOT the same as it was back then. We have far too much literature and examples of what type of havoc is wreaked on the human system by consuming grains and wheat. Oh, and don’t buy into “gluten-free” breads or pastries as it is not only the gluten but the gross hybridization, not to mention GMO that is bad for the human gut and body. If you’re really interested, I highly recommend Dr. William Davis’ book “Wheat Belly,” and, “Grain Brain” by Dr. David Perlmutter.

        • There’s no evidence GMO is bad for anyone, or that it causes any noticeable effects to anyone. It’s such a broad concept that any effect which was noticed would to a specific modification, not the abstract concept of modifying plants.

          • elfel

            You’re welcome to eat it Zack, you can call me anti-science all you want. The truth is probably we’ll never know because any side effects can easily be attributed to something else. It’s apparent that scientists can be bought so the overwhelming figure of “88% of scientists” believe it is safe” is somewhat untrustworthy. How many of those 88% have some invested interest? What we do know is that ALL the original studies were done by the corporation that was looking for financial gain and control of the market. We do know they wouldn’t let anyone look at their studies for years. We do know that the pesticide used is more than likely carginogenic. We do know that Monsanto has essentially infiltrated the government so that they can get approval for their products. We do know they have spent untold millions to defeat any labeling.
            You even say “it’s such a broad concept……modiflying plants.” Well how do we know which are good and which are bad? Should we just trust the companies involved? Are they even necessary?

          • Oralia Acosta

            Wrong Zack, i wish it weren’t the case! EDUCATE yourself before you post! Have you not noticed the rise in diabetes, stomach issues, CANCER, VIOLENCE, high blood pressure, etc? Shootings, suicides…need I go on? The body is not designed to eat GMO crap! And what about the glyphosate which is a KNOWN CARCINOGEN! Like I wrote before, educate yourself!

          • Glyphosate is a probable carcinogen in animal models. There is no evidence that it’s doing anything to humans though, much less the long list of random aliments you listed. Even if it is, pesticides are not the same as genetically modified organisms.

            As far as your other claims:

            – The suicide rate has been essentially constant since 1980.

            – Deaths due to firearms peaked in 1992, our current levels are lower.

            – Diabetes rates rising are almost certainly due to people getting fatter. There is a lot of evidence that people get fatter when they eat sugar and excessive carbohydrates, none that it has anything to do with GMO. The same goes for high blood pressure.

            – Cancer mortality rates have been falling for decades.

            – I can’t think of any stat which would say the world is more violent now than it has been in the past. War is certainly a much bigger problem in that regard than what people eat:

          • Wolf Baginski

            There are complications with any pesticide, not just glyphosate, added between the lab and the field. There is a lot of extra chemistry besides the active ingredient, and the material supplied to the farmer is very concentrated. So the farmers, in the UK, have special training. There are rules on where they can store the chemicals. And there are rules on the interval between applying the chemical and harvesting the crop.

            One common additive is a wetting agent. It helps the droplet of water/chemical mixture stick to the plant leaf and get taken up, rather than bouncing off and landing on the soil. We have to pay attention to the droplet sizes. otherwise we’re wasting expensive chemistry.

            So the guy in the lab, working on testing the pure chemical, can be misled. The glyphosate supplied to the farmer is about 35% active ingredient, the rest solvents and other chemistry, and it added to water at 1 part in 20 or less. We have to wear protective clothing to apply any pesticide. We can’t store the chemicals in the same building as foodstuffs.

            But you can go into the supermarket and buy glyphosate to kill weeds in your garden, and take the spray bottle off the shelf, drop it in the basket with your food, and away you go.

            Anyway, there’s a lot of science in farming. It works. And I remember, some 25 years after the first use of selective herbicides, how ignorant the schoolteachers still were of what the chemicals did. And that was a secondary school in a generally rural area.

            Science has been part of farming since at least 1843, and some of the experiments from then are still running, and are visible from orbit. We do these things because we know they work.

          • Liz Trekkiemaiden Morgan

            Boy – you know how to make pesticides/herbicides sound like a good thing – not!! Maybe 100 years ago the level of scientific intrusion into farming methods was good and improved things, but we have reached the level that all that matters is profits to the bean counters. The cost to our health, the animals, the environment is inconseqential to them. We need to return to much simpler and earlier farming methods, no CAFO’s, no antibiotics and hormones added to feeds, grass-fed cattle, rotated crops, seed banks replenished etc etc. Wheat was “tweeked” inthe 60’s – now 99% of all the world’s baked flour goods come from this version. Since then gluten intolerance and sensitivity has increased exponentially. Even though it was done with high moral intentions, history will show it was not a wise move.

          • Everything about this shits me to tears…

        • Malcolm Greaves

          Actually, there’s tremendous, overwhelming evidence that genetically modified food is as safe as non genetically modified food.

          • Helmut_Schmidt69

            I think they said that about saturated fat, and myriad other dietary fads. We don’t have a clue how or why food functions as it does. That’s the whole point of this article. “Science” with respect to health has been total BS for well over a century. It is foolish to believe any of these studies, let alone use your many superlatives for what is also obviously BS.

          • bee valentine

            Who provided the “evidence”? Researchers working for corporations that have a vested interest? Go back over the history of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other toxic products and you will see back peddling every time their toxicity becomes undeniable.

          • Malcolm Greaves

            Pesticides have nothing to do with GMO food. Pharmaceuticals are completely irrelevant here as well. You are uneducated and spreading fear.

        • Some Guy

          Wheat belly is woo. GMOs are not “bad for the gut” or the body. You’re indulging in orthorexic nonsense that has nothing to do with nutrition.

          And “gross hybridization” has been carried out on grains for literal millennia.

          • Oralia Acosta

            I see the GMOs have gotten to you, Some guy! I am free to indulge in anything I please, mostly, I STILL reason and think straight, thanks in LARGE part to my diet, and I KNOW what’s good and what isn’t. I am taking control of my health, you can call it what you will, but I am better off for it. On the FACTUAL side, there is FAR too much evidence that GMOs are NOT good — though much of it has been supressed or ignored! Are you a plant for Monsanto? Hmmm?? Incidentally, it is precisely the “gross hybridization” that has taken place in grains, namely wheat, that has caused the massive health issues we experience when we eat wheat. Additionally, you could stand to get your facts straight, “gross hybridization” is VERY different from a GMO product which has it’s genetic structure changed and is INSERTED WITH FECES in the process! So, when you eat GMOs, you are literally eating shit! If you like that, fine, however, that doesn’t change the facts! You could really stand to read the books I mentioned earlier and educate yourself! Good luck!

          • Some Guy

            Rant, rant, rant. Done spewing and frothing at the mouth? Now that you’ve gotten that out of your system: Wheatbelly is woo.


          • Oralia Acosta

            …well I don’t have it, and you probably do! Woooo wooo! You’ve no idea what’s coming out of my mouth, now do you? Just like you have no idea of what’s what…unless of course, you are a Monsanto plant! Rant, rant right back at you, only your rant is full of IGNORANCE!

          • Some Guy

            Lady, that makes two of us who have no idea what’s coming out of your mouth. You seem in need of urgent psychiatric care.

          • Oralia Acosta

            You ate it, the GMOs — I can read the effects!

          • Some Guy

            More “intelligent” “facts,” I see.

          • Oralia Acosta

            Oh I pointed out the facts in my initial comment, facts from well-known doctors who use DOCUMENTED trials and reviews from their peers — did you fail to read them? CAN you read? and there’s tons more “proof” you can research, just look up Jeffrey Smith’s review of GMOs, which I’m kindly posting below. The rest us up to you, you can keep eating that shit, it’s your body and mind — as for me and most knowledgeable people, we choose not too! Have a nice GMO full life!

          • Some Guy

            There’s actually not a shred of “proof” any more than there is “proof” of bigfoot. You have flunked out of Google university. Take your google and your gmo free kale and slink off, dear.

          • ox_p

            Ignore the lunacy. 🙂

          • Fungi

            That devolved down into sexism very quickly, now didn’t it?

          • Oralia Acosta

            More than sexism, it’s insults, that says it all. When someone debates WITH FACTS, then intelligent conversation can take place. Otherwise, you have this!

          • Some Guy

            Right. it’s very “factual” to refer to someone as a “shill” when you can’t defend your psychotic woo beliefs.

          • Some Guy

            Pointing out that a crazy-acti9ng person might be crazy is “sexist?” Exactly how?

      • Modular Magus

        … Nicely put & this represents more or less a lower carb, higher fat (LCHF) diet. Today with those I advise, dropping the refined carbs isn’t the main problem – it’s getting people to accept that the proportion of fat in their diet will increase… they’ve been so brainwashed!

  • “The minimum height for infantry was lowered from 5ft 6in to 5ft 3in, then later to 5ft, in just two decades.”

    Would that be the two decades that included the Great War? George Orwell described seeing the impressive physiques of the marching soldiers being sent off early in the war, followed later by less physically impressive men, and on and on, until weak looking and presumably much shorter men were being sent off.

    It seems more likely that the tall men who were initially recruited weren’t disappearing due to diet, but being killed off by their generals in the trenches of Europe.

    (It’s also possible that during this time there was a growing awareness that height was a poor predictor of capability as a soldier – but I’m speculating.)

    Not necessarily disagreeing with an otherwise interesting article, just questioning that little piece of the puzzle.

  • LB

    I really enjoyed reading this one. I hate when people assume men and women died so young back then because of how the numbers are skewed. The statistics never tell you how high infant mortality was and never explain how that skews the data. Unfortunately, at least here in the US, it’s difficult to actually eat the way they did because the cost to eat those kinds of foods is actually more than the cost of fast food. Produce is expensive and good luck finding joints or other specialty meat products like offal. You’ll pay more for that, if you can even find it, than for a steak. Until we stop subsidizing things like corn and soy, this won’t change. Our government doesn’t care about the health of the nation – if they did, they’d subsidize smaller farms that grow a variety of produce rather than single-crop farms such as the above mentioned.

  • So basically, the Victorians ate Paleo for the most part. You know what? Quit trying to shoot the Paleo movement down when you don’t even know what it is.

    • ox_p

      The thing is, this article doesn’t prove that the Victorians ate paleo for the most part. Sugar existed in England from the 1600s on. There are many mentions of cakes and bread in the Victorian diet. Yes, the poorest of the poor might not have always been able to afford them, but plenty of people ate these things. This article is interesting, but definitely does not go in-depth to discuss the variety of foods that the whole populace actually consumed. People domesticated wheat hundreds of thousands of years ago, and bread was not problematic to diets until relatively recently (there are many theories on that, including that modern wheat has been modified and is no longer as good for us). Either way, I don’t think this article “proves” anything about the “paleo” diet. It merely mentions some foods that some Victorians ate, with no compelling citations or evidence about how pervasive these foods were, and nothing more than a correlative suggestion as to how it affected health.

      • Liz Trekkiemaiden Morgan

        I think the point is they didn’t each much in the way of processed foods, except flour and sugar which are processed. The flour was different back then, and the amount of sugar minimal compared to what is consumed per capita today. Every thing came from the greengrocer, butcher and dairy. Tinned food started in the 1860’s – for the poorest.

  • Just read Sally Fallon’s cook book on how to eat like this today. Great article.

  • Jenuinearticle

    Soooo meat and vegetables. Why is that hard to figure out?

    • Jenuinearticle

      Just watch episodes of “The Wartime Kitchen & Garden” on Youtube.

  • Jan Townsend

    As well as eating more natural foods these were also organic, not grown with petrochemical pesticides or herbicides. Animals were not fed on unnatural foods and were not kept in cages or huge sheds.

    • Callipygian

      The late Victorians, esp. in cities, had a problem with food adulteration — that is, food that contained non-food ingredients. They also had fewer and inferior preservation and distribution methods, and were much more seasonally dependent which often meant inadequate fruit and Vitamin C in winter.

  • Robb Wolf

    Despite the title, this actually sounds remarkably similar to a “paleo” diet. Also interesting, the long disclaimer about infant mortality and life expectancy…pretty much the same as when discussing hunter gatherer societies.

    • Some Guy

      Only without the bizarre aversion to beans and wheat.

  • sautterron
  • Bob The Builder

    This couldn’t be less accurate if it tried. Where are your citations, Paul.

    • Bempa68

      Are what you ask for not in these links? “Our study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (here, here, and here)”

  • Jayne Frost

    It’s fascinating to see that since this era we’re losing allotments, gardens have got smaller and our ability to grow our own food has become much harder. We’re saddled with nutritionally inadequate foods that are full of chemicals which make it much harder to maintain good health. Our beverages would have been beef broth, made from bones. Now we have non-nutritious tea and coffee, the caffeine from which can cause so many health issues. Back then the ‘buzz word’ would have been ‘organic’ but that was considered normal food…not something costing a fortune that was outside the budget of most families. Bring back the decent sized gardens and the ‘dig for victory’ rally cry…victory over ill health and poor nutrition. I’m pleased I’ve read this article..thank you to the authors. I’m off to find a butcher who can sell me a marrow bone….

    • a s

      Caffeine doesn’t cause any known health issues in normal doses, and the worst coffee will do to you is keep you up at night.

      (People constantly try to prove caffeine is bad for your heart, but it’s usually found to be good instead. And green tea is drunk daily by the longest-lived people in the world.)

      Now, that urban farm is going to get you some unhealthy heavy metals if you let auto pollution anywhere near the roots of your plants.

    • Some Guy

      They certainly had tea (iced and hot) and coffee. Remember we fought a war over that tea!

      They also liked milk and *adored* alcohol (beer, wine, brandy, whiskey, etc). There was ginger ale, lemonade, cider (some of it alcoholic) and every family of means had a chocolate pot.

      Broth/beef tea etc was for invalids, children, and people with digestive ailments, not a common beverage.

    • Tom Fox

      You’d be VERY lucky to produce significant amounts of food on an allotment in the UK. I was the secretary of a significant allotment site for about five years and know full well that the allotment gardeners could only produce a tiny minority of their needs for green and vegetable produce. The best producers we had were a dozen chickens that lived mainly in a large open shed and pen, but the eggs were really produced by bought in food, largely the soya and grain from American imports. I think the pests ate most of our produce in spite of serious efforts to keep them off.

  • Callipygian

    This is a really silly article. First of all, it cherry-picks facts all over the place and, as Ms Armstrong points out below, is simply wrong about one or two of them. Secondly, the Victorians at any point ate a lot of very weird stuff:

    1 boar’s head, some brown sugar, 1 ½ lbs salt, 1 tablespoon of saltpetre. Some aromatic spices.

    Or: Devizes Pie: ‘some slices of cold calf’s head [right, I always have that on hand!], a few slices of cold lamb [ditto], some of the calf’s brains and tongue [must I?], slices of bacon [not the crispy kind], three hard-boiled eggs, spice [which one?], cayenne pepper, and salt; pastry to cover’.

    That’s another thing: when they weren’t eating lots of the same old meat, they were eating flavourless local veg such as marrows and lots and lots of pastry. And revolting puddings featuring milk.

    There were no curries. There were no Thai dishes. There was no Tex-Mex. There was no Italian. There were no tapas and no dim sum. Apart from cayenne pepper, there was precious little in terms of hot spice. Could I time-travel, I don’t think I could have borne it.

    • Both of those recipes seem eminently healthy to me (perhaps with the exception of ‘some brown sugar’, and the pastry).

      We certainly evolved to eat lots of meat and ‘flavorless local veg’. We definitely didn’t evolve in an environment with carb-filled thai food or aromatic Indian curries which are so good it’s hard to control your consumption.

      • Callipygian

        Nothing wrong with a bit of brown sugar, Zack. And you’re wrong: we DID evolve to eat modern cuisines — and they evolved as we did! The main problem is that so-called experts have been giving the public exactly the wrong advice for four decades. Even Adolf H. in the 40s knew that if he wanted to stay trim he would have to lay off the tea cakes. Starch as a fattening food is mentioned in Anna Karenina, and it was a ‘known fact’ among doctors for over a century, too. Until the Americans under Ancel Keys decided they knew better. We are only now overturning the rubbish science and false assumptions of this long anti-fat, pro-starch era — they even denied that sugar was threatening to diabetics! — but the damage has been done.

        • I completely agree about the damage the Fat Hypothesis did, but I don’t know what “we DID evolve to eat modern cuisines — and they evolved as we did!” is supposed to mean. There has been no meaningful human evolution in the last ten thousand years. We’ve only had refined sugar for a few hundred.

          • Callipygian

            For a discussion of changes within human populations, see The 10,000 Year Explosion by Cochran and Harpending.

            For specific food-related adjustments, see The Art And Science Of Low-Carbohydrate Living by Stephen Phinney and Jeff Volek. According to the authors,

            ‘Any one person’s DNA is about 99-99.5% identical to any other person’s DNA….* [O]n average, people from cultures that historically have high starch diets (such as Japanese and European Americans) have more copies of the gene salivary amylase than people from cultures that historically eat low starch diets (such as Mbuti and Yakut). Amylase is involved in digesting carbohydrates. More copies of the salivary amylase gene correlates with more enzymatic activity [in the metabolism of carbohydrates]’.

            — Kindle edition, location 2431

            *[My note: Bear in mind also that we are reputed to share about 98% of our genes with the great apes and 50% with those of the fruit fly.]

  • Andrew Ridout

    A factor in the health and length of active life is probably the level of physical activity also. Diet is important but so is activity. Nobody will be surprised to find that better diet and increased activity produces better average health. Also portion sizes will have an impact. The advent of motorised transport also led to reduced activity. I would love to see a graph of miles walked per day against years. I bet it steadily falls over time. Any I also suspect that the drop will coincide with increasing obesity and reduced healthy life span.

    • Callipygian

      With respect, Andrew ‘motorised transport’ cannot be a significant factor: obesity has only become a mass problem within my lifetime — call it 40 years. The internal combustion engine is a lot older than that. Consider also that urban dwellers, e.g. in Toronto, London, and New York City, very often walk long distances — not just front door to car door — to get where they’re going, whether they include public transportation in that or not.

      • Andrew Ridout

        Maybe this is a hobby horse of mine but I do see a reluctance to walk even half a mile. People are so addicted to their cars. Mass car ownership has got more prevalent over the last 40 to 50 years. But yes, diet and the demonising of fat has been a definite factor. Consider the fact that coconut oil is considered bad!

        • Callipygian

          True. But you could also consider that the car encourages us to go farther and to go out more often than we would otherwise. In short, it’s a separate phenomenon (and I’ve had lots of periods of comparison in my own life – – times when I have been carless). The essential point I’m trying to make is that however ‘physically active’ you are — and merely walking round the shops doesn’t cut it as physical training — few people can outstrip their high-calorie food intake with daily movement. Physique athletes and bodybuilders are very clear on this, and they can eat more than most. Also, the body has complex mechanisms for preserving homeostasis, and that makes it nearly impossible to lose significant weight through exercise alone.

  • Excellent article – thank you. As part of the research for my books, we’ve grown a large variety of crops in our yard and have upped our nutrition marvelously. Earlier this year we reached a point where 100% of our vegetable production was from the yard. Plant a food forest and you’ll eat well for the rest of your life with little ongoing work.

  • ox_p

    I wish they would give more evidence as to how we know that this diet was what caused people to live longer. Couldn’t there also have been an effect of things like cold smoke pollution with the rise in industrialism? I don’t doubt that a diet with fewer processed foods would be beneficial to our health. But I wish they had gone a little bit more into the effects that processed foods actually have on our health (and how we know this scientifically, other than just a correlation between eating them and a supposed decline in health). I also wish they had explained more about the Victorian diet! Some popular dishes, for example; ways of preparing these foods. When they say “meat scraps,” how were these scraps served? I just want to understand more, as I find this a very interesting topic.

  • MrFreeman012 .

    The victorians smoked like chimneys too and had unusually low rates of heart disease and cancer. This will not be publicized for obvious reasons.

    I highly doubt a diet high in vegetables has anything to do with their long lives, it’s probably due to clean air and other things along those lines. Also, their tobacco (very different from the stuff of today) would have saved them from “consumption” which was a VERY common disease before tobacco was introduced to european countries.

  • Emma Haughton

    Two problems with reverting back to a Victorian diet. First, we need about half the calories that they did to function, given our sedentary lifestyles, central heating, etc. So immediately our nutrient intake compared with the average mid-Victorian is halved. Then factor in the following: nutrient levels in many common vegetables and fruit have dropped dramatically in the last 50 odd years, mainly due to selecting larger and sweeter varieties of fruit and veg. Nutrient levels are also adversely affected by poor soil nutrient levels, growth out of season, storage, and processing. I read somewhere that we would now need to eat 8 oranges to get the nutrients that a Victorian would have obtained from one. Then factor in the huge amount of ’empty’ calories many of us consume in terms of sugar and processed carbs.

    I strongly suspect most lifestyle diseases are down to chronic malnutrition, where it’s not calories we’re short of, but adequate nutrient intake.