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History of a Healthy Diet

The Mid-Victorian diet is considered one of, if not the healthiest diets throughout the course of history. The Mid-Victorian period is considered to be from 1850 to 1880; this period had experienced the positive aftermath of the Industrial revolution. Foods such as produce, nuts, fish, and other high nutritional value foods were being consumed regularly. The intense labor of the working class leads to a calorically high typical day. The working class was known as physically active; the labor in turn translated to the trading and availability of products through the railroads built and the trade routes occurring. The Industrial Revolution is one of the main factors contributing to this healthy lifestyle. Though the diet gave health benefits, health problems were still prevalent due to sanitation issues and lack of medical knowledge. Our society has been on a decline in health due to the chemically processed, synthetic, and artificially made foods. With the advancements made in technology and overall knowledge, we could see major boosts in human life quality.

Vegetables and fruits were primary foods that were consumed during the Mid-Victorian era. This is because vegetables were readily available from the many local farmers and imports. Local eating was commonly occurring, farmers sold vegetables cheap due to the sufficient supply. Onions were an example of vegetables that were available; they were sold at a mere half a penny per onion. Other commonly consumed vegetables such as carrots and turnips were able to be grown throughout the year. Cabbage, peas, and broccoli were also cheap vegetables available during the summer. The most common fruit available was apples. Apples, cherries, and dried fruits were seen throughout the Mid-Victorian summers. According to Mid-Victorian cookbooks, fruits and vegetables were all grown locally and organically. This means that the nutrient levels within the fruits and vegetables being eaten, were higher than the crops we eat today (due to the many chemicals and preservatives).

Mid-Victorian’s also had a high intake on nuts and legumes. Nuts and legumes have high Omega-3’s. Omega-3’s are nutrients that keep your body energized while giving structure to your cells. Nuts were available year-round as well, which translated to more energy for the working class. The average Mid-Victorian man and woman (of the working class) had a 50% to 100% increase in caloric intake than an average human today. Although caloric values were significantly higher, obesity was not common. The physically active era was constantly moving, which in turn spiked the energy intake (caloric intake), making it rare to gain fat.

Fish and seafood were a working class favorite. Fishermen living on the shoreline would have seafood and fish always available which made fish an easy dinner. Fish was easy to cook and a good source of protein. Fish not only had protein but Mid-Victorians also got more Omega-3 acids from fish. Another form of protein was meat; “meat was considered a mark of a good diet and its complete absence from a diet was rare.” Meats and fish were completely eaten, which is unique as to today. The brains, heart, sweetbreads, and liver were all digested, as well as the heads and roes of the fish.

Another source of protein was the products of eggs and dairy. Some Mid-Victorians used the animals in a farming style to produce milk, cheese, eggs, and other protein sources. Alcohols and beers were drank, but with significantly lower levels of pure alcohol. Overall, fruits and vegetables provided high nutrient and vitamin levels which helped fuel their bodies. The high fuel levels explain the efficient and productive progression done by the working class. Technological advancements such as railroads to trade and import, also the factories manufacturing canned foods were starting to gain popularity.

The Industrial Revoloution had a big factor in continuing to the health of the Mid-Victorian. Through the Industrial Revoloution, came the assembly line, the rise of the factory system, the development of machine tools, iron production processes, chemical manufacturing, and much more. By not having to rely on human labor, human error was eliminated by machinery work which raised the efficiency of production. The Industrial Revoloution also created a path for more restaurant and food chains to populize; which in turn lowered the price of food due to the surplus in food available. The invention of railroads allowed for produce from all areas such as America, Britain, Belgium, and Germany to be grown year round (where the weather conditions were set for crop growing). Crops such as rye, wheat, oats, and barley were traded with America. Another example of transnational trading is Belgium trading sugar beets, potatoes, and cereal grains. Aside from literal crop trading, the spread of ideas and culture were shared through the connections England had between the rest of the world. The spread of ideas and cultures was seen; an example of this is all the new foods that came to England after the Industial revolution. Foods such as oatcakes, Garibaldi biscuits, and crumpets came to be popular foods through the Industrial Revoloution’s aftermath. The sources and transnational trade can be linked all the back to the Columbian exchange. The Columbian exchange created strong relations between Europe to America. The fundamental aftermath of the Columbian exchange also occurred after the Industrial revolution. The principal idea is that when the interaction of two different cultures, the spread of ideas, diseases, trade, and culture occur.

Although foods were readily available, a problem faced during the Mid-Victorian era was that people in the lower class had more malnutrition. Specifically, looking at the lower class with an annual income of around £30–35,000. The lower class had little access to refrigeration which made it a challenge to purchase meat. Meat was purchased on average once a week. Another factor that played into challenges was the lack of “kettles, saucepans and a frying pan or gridiron.” While trains and transportation in goods did spread the availability of produce, the effects were not heavily felt for the poorer class. The poor class had purchased old and damaged fruits and vegetables at much cheaper prices. It had been found that fruits and vegetables lose their nutrional value which prevents the lower class population from maximizing their health. The challenges of refridgeration lead to lots of spoiled meats and sanitary illnesses. Mid-Victorian’s attempeted to combat the problem of sanitation and spoiled with spices. The eating and cooking habits of an average Mid-Victorian family of two parents and three to four children, making 18/- to £1 per week- families used simplistic and minimal cooking styles. Cooking over fires on pans, rather than heated stoves. Street food, poor quality of produce, and the staple drink coffee- these were the commonly consumed foods of the extreme poor. Though meat was purchased only once a week, it was still seen as apart of the diet of a poor Mid-Victorian. The eating and cooking habits of an average Mid-Victorian family of two parents and three to four children, making £1.17s to £2 per week- outings would have more leeway in decisions. Families would enjoy streetfood and meat; while also eating vegetables and cooking. Families would have access to more kitchen supply such as saucepans, kettles, or grills. Lastly, the eating and cooking habits of an average Mid-Victorian family of two parents and three to four children, making £3.15s to £4 per week- foods were purchased with much more comfort. Fresh desserets made from fruits, meats, and freshly sold vegetables were staples at this income level. Even the working class people with the lowest annual income had some accessibility to produce (regardless of the quality of the nutrition).

An issue the Mid-Victorian people faced was the sanitation and cleanliness. The working class people of this period are now referred to as the Great Unwashed. The people’s public health concern for sanitation were only prevalent in the case of “water contamination, sewarage, ventilation, air pollution, and other nuisances.” Another aspect to the hygiene of a Mid Victorian, was their oral. Oral hygiene was at risk due to the lack of resources for aid. Tooth decay and teeth removal is common when sugar is consumed; making highly nutrional foods prioritized for the maintenance of oral health. In terms of technological resources, the era struggled with preserving meats, milk, and other dairy products. During the hot days when the meat would be exposed to high levels of heat, the meat would likely translate into food poisoning. The most common diseases during this era were primarily linked to poor sanitation and the lack of technological advancement. Lung infections such as Pneumonia, Small pox, and Influenza can all be traced to poor sanitation. Another top cause of death was accidents in the work place such as rough domestic conditions. Mother/Infant mortality was another common cause of death. Through these observations we see that it was common for a death to be linked to the diet and food being consumed.

Lifestyle and diet patterns should transition back toward a Mid-Victorian style. Unlike the Mid-Victorian era, the most common causes for death are Hearth dieseases, cancers, and respirtaory problems. The majority of causes of deaths today can be linked to poor eating habits; that is not to mention obesity. The world has industrialized in the processed foods that we consume. The chemicals and artificial flavorings that are injected into the typical meal. Modern day (2022) has highly developed technoligically. We have the resources to cure infections, preserve food, and combat the problems faced during the Mid-Victorian era. The Mediterranean diet is the primary answer to the commonly asked question, What is the healthiest diet? Popular media platforms like US News, WebMD, and others rank the Mediterranean diet, number one in terms of longevity and overall health benefits. Historians link the Mediterranian diet with the lifestyle lived by a Mid-Victorian. Both diets consume high levels of oats and grain, alongside produce, and the absence of artificial flavoring, chemicals, or preservatives. Localized eating and authentic whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. With the shift in eating patterns and removing the chemical and artificial foods, society will have an increase in physical movement. The causes of death, obesity, and the rest of the diseases will be drastically lower. Not to mention, trade, transportation in goods, and interconnectedness improved by great amounts- making all food accessible. The combination of being technologically advanced, with clean sources of eating, will improve the quality and quantity of life.

Annotated Bibliography

Anthony, S Wohl. “What the Poor ate.”

Victorian Web, (October 2002).

Anthony Wohl is a professor of history who received his BA degree from the University of Cambridge and his PhD from Brown. Wohl has written the book, “Endangered lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Wohl talks about how consequences were more apparent in the poor people’s diet due to the low supply of ovens. Many poor people had to rely on the open-fire pan cooking or just eat the food cold. The limitation on utensils, resources, and tools lead cooking officials to classify the poor as “undernourished, anemic, feeble and literally rickety.” The typical “poor person” had a diet of bread, butter, potatoes, beer, and tea.

Clayton, Paul, and Judith Rowbotham. “An unsuitable and degraded diet? Part two: realities of the mid-Victorian diet.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine vol. 101,7 (2008).

Paul Clayton, at the University of Oxford Brookes, and at the School of Life Sciences. Paul Clayton writes on the Mid-Victorian diet, addressing the stability of the diet. He says the health trends during the time are said to correlate with the cleanliness of society. Bread and tea were necessities to the diet of a working-class member. In terms of food, vegetables and fruits were common and available which out them at a low price. Legumes and nuts were often consumed as well as seafood and fish. The meat was seen as a “mark of a good diet.” It was rare to see someone who did not eat meat during this time. If you were to consume meat on occasion, you would be considered to have a “poverty diet.” Beer was a common beverage due to the sanitation issues in the water. Sundays were considered the day for the most expensive meal, so as the week progressed the meals lose quality due to the money spent over a week. The lack of refrigeration meant that meats eaten hot on any one day were almost inevitably cold. The refrigeration problem made it a lot easier to eat the meats during the winter and a lot harder during the summer. (This is due to the perishable levels of meat). Spices and heat cooking would also be used to preserve meat from food poisoning. The poor often purchased meat only once a week, and the very poor would purchase old fruits and vegetables. The supply of fruits and vegetables came from the trains that would import them into the cities. The working class Mid-Victorian’s diet would often be classified as suspicious due to the unappetizing smell and look of the food. Food was overall nutritional which goes along with the rate of activity and physical exercise. The most prevalent flaw was the economic standpoint.

Typical food routine for different levels of income

£3.15-4 per week

  • The average family of three to four kids and two parents

  • Permitted around £1.16 to £2 per week to feed a family

£1.17- £2 per week

  • Around £1 for food each week

£1 per week

  • 2/- to 4/1 maximum per week on food

  • Minimal cooking styles, often only an open lit fire to save fuel

Ross, Alice. “Health and Diet in 19th-Century America: A Food Historian’s Point of View.” Historical Archaeology 27, no. 2 (1993): 42–56. .

Alice Ross wrote Health and Diet, the Health and Diet in 19th century America, from a historian’s view. The concept of nutrition was born in 1800. “The ancient Greek humoral theory of hot and cold properties of food, illness, and personality.” This meant that one would restrict or eat foods that follow a specific temperature. The American modern system of nutrition stems back to the 18th century Enlightenment thinking. The Industrial Revolution developed power sources, communications, transportation, manufacturing, and marketing. New surges of Native American immigrants started to flow into the population which in turn brought new nutrition theories. Theorist named Sylvester Graham formulated “Grahamism,” a diet banning meat, condiments, caffeine, sugar, spirits, drugs, and tobacco and stressed the use of whole grains. “Grahamism attracted both traditionalists and reformers who worked to reform social ills.” Grahamism had been associated with abolition and civic and social reform. Though Grahamism was followed by some, it was not ever widely accepted in the 19th century. The denial of this diet was due to the theory that digesting meat was a lot easier for humans to do because of the commonality between human and animal flesh. Other diet styles were seen such as Catherine Harriet’s diet associated with feminism. This diet was to eat all types of food as long as it was all balanced. “Patriotic dismay over the waves of incoming immigrants cast suspicion on alien cuisines.” People denied the foreign diet of many such as the Mediterranean cuisine compared to the “American plain.” The growing literacy due to the printing press contributed to the nutritional value of families with the invention of the cookbook. Another myth believed about health was the controversy over raw vegetables. A theory was that potatoes must be peeled, sliced, and soaked for an hour before cooking to wash off the “evil.” English colonists brought their fruits which further diversified the European diet. Diseases were seen during the time period. Vitamin deficiency, diabetes, high cholesterol, and contaminated food. Though there were health concerns, this period of time was an improvement in health compared to the pre-Civil war.

Douglas, Laurelyn. “The Thoroughly Healthy Mind: Victorian Criticism.”

Victorian Web, (April 1991)

Laurelyn Douglas ‘91 wrote for the Victorian Web. Douglas talks about the Health and Hygiene of the Mid-Victorian person. According to Douglas, theories in the nineteenth century stated that morality, psychology, and health were all related. This means that high morals are the product of a healthy mind. Health was linked to literacy and stability. A person who lost the ethics and judgment of a situation would be considered unhealthy. “Volitional paralysis, delusion, and immorality were symptoms of the same unhealthy mind.

Greaves, Peter. “Regional Differences in the Mid-Victorian Diet and Their Impact on Health.” JRSM Open, (March 2018).

Peter Greaves, a writer for the JRSM open. Peter has written several articles on health and nutrition. Peter wrote on the Mid-Victorian diet and health. Peter says that the Victorian urban diet was said to provide similar life expectancies as modern-day. The local resources available (vegetables and fruits) were the product of this. The Urban diet staple food was white bread. Though vegetables, fruits, and dairy products were cheap and available (similar to the Mediterranean diet). The common farms and produce available stemmed from the poverty that moved to urban areas looking for jobs. Childhood and Infant mortality rates rose due to sanitation. About 10% of deaths under the age of 5 were due to Diarrhoeal disease. Concluded that poor rural societies under a diet focused on health and nutrition from foods obtained locally did the best. This unfortunately changed with urbanization, commercial farming, and migration.

Lii, Theresa. “History of Hunger.”

Victorian Web, (May, 2009)

Theresa Lii wrote on the history of hunger dealing with the Mid-Victorian era. Lii studied at Stanford University and says that the Industrial revolution caused people to migrate to the city for the occupation push. Moving away from the land caused the difficult availability of food. Parliament passed a law called the “Corn laws” which protects the price of wheat and grains from lowering prices. The working class suffered from this law due to the high prices of food. This period of starvation caused the time of the “Hungary forties.” Victorian hunger played a great role in literature. As examined in Great Expectations, we see the power of hunger over human nature. Hunger was dangerous to everyone including the upper class, this was because hunger was a primary cause of riots by the poor.

Lii, Theresa. Inserted in “History of Hunger.”

Victorian Web, (May 2009)

Theresa Lii wrote on the history of hunger dealing with the Mid-Victorian era. Lii studied at Stanford University and mentions the writings of Charles Dickens. Great Expectations is an example of the possession hunger had over humans. The piece portrays the evil that someone who is hungry has. The piece further portrays the importance of food and nutrition during this time and the scarce supply of supply.

Second Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission (Adapted from Parliamentary Papers, 1836)

The Second Annual Report shows the diets of the working class. The diet and menu table portrays the foods being eaten and the severity of the Corn law. The report specifically shows the importance of bread in the diet.

Clayton, Paul and Rowbotham, Judith. “Mid Victorians and their food.”

Brewminate, (April 2020)

Paul Clayton graduated summa cum laude in Medical Pharmacology from Edinburgh University. He wrote the book “Health defense,” which explains the meaning of nutrition. Dr. Judith Rowbotham is a Fellow at Plymouth University, as well as a Director of SOLON. Together, the two wrote the “Mid Victorian and their food diet” saying, the Mid-Victorian time is defined from 1850 to 1880. The Mid-Victorian period is defined as a time with some of the healthiest standards. These times of great health also contributed to the medical and surgical advancements made. A key contributor to this health phase was the Agriculture revolution. This was a series of movements that increased the production of crops and livestock. “Improved agricultural output and a political climate dedicated to ensuring cheap food led to a dramatic increase in the production of affordable foodstuffs, but it was the development of the railway network that actually brought the fruits of the agricultural and political changes into the towns and cities, and made them available to the mid-Victorian working classes [21].” The Mid-Victorian diet consumed 50%-100% more calories than humans today. This is from the cheap and affordable vegetables and fruits available. The people would not get obese due to their high physical levels.

Weird History. “What people ate in the Victorian era to survive.”

(April 2021)

Mid-Victorians ate lots of fruits and vegetables. The royal sovereign strawberry was considered “one of the finest strawberries ever created.” At the beginning of the era, eggs were only eaten by the rich. One of the most popular beverages is beer, this was due to the contamination of water. This made the beer more of a safe option. Cheap vegetables were widely available and cheap. Most Victorians consumed at least one meal of meat per week. Bone marrow gave mid Victorians fat and calories for energy. Victorians used every meat and thing on the animal. They were very efficient.

Anderson, M Kat “Corporate Structure”

(August 2008)

Mid-Victorians traded with other countries. They traded foods to gain other foods such as oats, barley, and wheat. Mid-Victorians experienced a Columbian exchange.

Web Colby “The long-lasting effects of the Industrial Revolution.

(October 2018)

The Industrial Revolution had a big factor in continuing the health of the Mid-Victorian. Through the Industrial Revolution, came the ‘assembly line, the rise of the factory system, the development of machine tools, iron production processes, chemical manufacturing, and much more.”

Belgium - Economy.

(October 2019)

SIGSWORTH, MICHAEL, MICHAEL WORBOYS, and MICHAEL WARBOYS. “The Public’s View of Public Health in Mid-Victorian Britain.” Urban History 21, no. 2(1994): 237–50. .

Though the diet gave health benefits, health problems were still prevalent due to sanitation issues and lack of medical knowledge. Vegetables were a primary food that was consumed.

Medical News- “What are the leading causes of Deaths in the Us.”

Now (modern day), the most common causes for death are Heart diseases, cancers, and respiratory problems. The majority of causes of deaths today can be linked to poor eating habits; that is not to mention obesity. The world has industrialized in the processed foods that we consume. The chemicals and artificial flavorings that are injected into the typical meal.

Doheny, Kathleen “Mediterranean Diet Repeats as Best Overall Of 2020”

WebMD- (2020) The Mediterranean diet is the primary answer to the commonly asked question, “What is the healthiest diet?” Popular media platforms like US News, WebMD, and others rank the Mediterranean diet, number one in terms of longevity and overall health benefits.

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