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Rural-urban differences in mid-Victorian British diets offer (possible) lessons for healthy eating today

"Still Life of Fruits and Vegetables" by Frans Snyders
The mid-Victorian rural diet — which consisted of locally produced vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, meat and fish — is similar to that currently recommended by public health officials.

In mid-Victorian Britain, poor people living in rural areas had better diets and health than their counterparts in urban areas, according to a study published recently in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM) Open.

As a result of their healthier eating habits, the rural residents of mid-19th-century Britain also tended to be taller and to live longer, the study suggests.

These findings are interesting, for the mid-Victorian rural diet — which consisted of locally produced vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, meat and fish — is similar to that currently recommended by public health officials.

But the study should not be interpreted to mean that mid-Victorian country laborers were healthier than the average person living in Great Britain — or the United States — today. What the study suggests instead is that a varied diet of basic “whole” (not highly processed) foods may help some people stay healthier longer.

Study details

For the study, Peter Greaves of the Leicester Cancer Research Centre, reviewed surveys taken during the mid-19th century of the diets and living conditions of people in various regions of the United Kingdom. He also looked at studies of the heights of military recruits during that era and at data on causes of death. 

He found that most people in both rural and urban areas were poor, had little food and were likely to be malnourished. Not surprisingly (given that this was the pre-antibiotic and pre-widespread-sanitation era), they often died early, primarily as the result of infectious diseases.

But Greaves also found that the healthiest people in Victorian Britain  — as measured by their death rate from tuberculosis and other diseases and by the height of their young men when recruited into military service — tended to live in isolated rural areas.

Greaves attributes that finding to rural-urban differences in diet. Poor urban families subsided mostly on white bread and potatoes with a little meat, milk and vegetables when they could afford it, he explains. But in rural areas, the poor often received meat, milk and vegetables instead of cash as payment for their work. Many also had small patches of land where they could grow vegetables or raise an animal or two for additional sources of food.

That rural mid-Victorian diet is similar to the Mediterranean-style diet recommended by health officials today, Greaves says.

Having access to a more varied diet could not protect Britain’s rural residents from diarrheal diseases, such as dysentery and typhoid, which took so many lives during Victorian times (before the advent of clean drinking water and other sanitation projects). But it did have other positive health outcomes.

“The regional differences in dietary quality … are reflected by the data on the heights of young military recruits, where taller young men were found in the better fed regions,” Greaves writes. “Moreover, these better fed regions of Britain also showed lower mortality rates.”

“This is entirely consistent with recent studies that have shown a decreased risk of death following improvement towards a higher Mediterranean dietary standard,” he adds.

Plenty of caveats

Of course, this review of the possible health impacts of regional variations in the British diet during the mid-19th century doesn’t mean that we should run out and buy Victorian cookbooks. What may have been true in 1850 is not necessarily true in 2018.

As a reviewer for the British National Health Service’s “Behind the Headlines” website notes, “There’s no new evidence [in the study] that these people were healthier than the average UK citizen living today. In fact, the study shows that many died from infectious disease.”

Furthermore, the NHS reviewer points out, the surveys used in the study did not include much information on chronic illnesses, like heart disease and dementia, so “it’s a bit of a stretch to say that … the Victorian diet was healthier. It’s probably also because these conditions were not diagnosed as often and people just weren’t living long enough to develop them.”

“The study is of historical interest but does not change the current health eating advice,” the reviewer concludes.

Still, as I read the study, I was reminded of several of journalist Michael Pollan’s wise mantras about food, especially “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

But that’s not the same as “Eat Victorian.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on the JRSM Open website.

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