Living like a Victorian can make you fitter, slimmer and disease-free

If you think that food quality is not a vital part of optimal health, think again. And if you think because we live in a modern world with grand advancements in science and technology, that we are healthier and live longer than those in centuries past, you would be wrong. In fact, despite common belief that people were weak, malnourished and died young in the Victorian-era, the difference between then and now is striking—for the opposite reason. People lived just as long at that time as we do today, despite consuming twice as many calories and despite far less in the way of public health and medical advances. A new study on this will change the way you think of health and disease.

The setting

When many think of health in the Victorian era, they think of illness, disease, malnutrition. But recent research shows this to be a fallacy. In fact, a most interesting article published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, goes into so much depth on why the mid-Victorian (1850-1870) health was better than our current day, and how the decline started and continues, that it is worth everyone reading it to broaden their awareness and perspective.

According to the researchers, “Analysis of the mid-Victorian period in the U.K. reveals that life expectancy at age 5 was as good as or better than exists today, and the incidence of degenerative disease was 10% of ours.”

This is quite a powerful statement and it is backed by so much research. Here, I offer a discussion of the noteworthy points.

Diet improvement

The 1800s are not generally thought of as a boon of health and longevity, but research says it was. In fact, this era of wellness predates the public health movement, the most important scientific medical advances, infectious control and hardcore drugs. Yet, it seems such things are not so vital as long as one eats whole and healthy foods high in nutrients. According to the authors, “Our recent research indicates that the mid-Victorians’ good health was entirely due to their superior diet.”

Diet trumps everything when it comes to good health. And why shouldn’t it? Food fuels our bodies. As the authors state, “Driven by better nutrition, far more than the new schemes of clean air and water which were only beginning to have an effect from the 1870s on, adult life expectancy increased from the 1850s until by 1875 it matched or surpassed our own.”

High activity balanced high calories

If you think counting calories is the way to lose weight or remain fit, you would be wrong. The mid-Victorian era British consumed nearly double the calories we eat today, yet they were not fat and obesity was an anomaly.

In fact, men of the time period needed to consume between 280-440 calories per hour just to give them the energy for their physical activity. Women of the era needed to consume between 260-350 calories per hour for the same reason. So much for a 2,000 calorie daily diet! I guess when the average person needed to walk up to 6 miles each way to work daily and was involved in heavy physical labor, they needed more calories to fuel their bodies. And that the food was fresh and healthy and packed with nutrients, it was difficult to deteriorate health.

An important point is that mid-Victorians ate what was in season. Their diet consisted mostly of fresh vegetables and fruits that were organically grown and thus much higher in phytonutrients than similar crops grown and eaten today.

All good things come to an end

The saying, “to the top come the riches and the spoils,” holds true here. With the great advances in agriculture came a downturn in food quality, especially in nutritive factors. By the late-Victorian era the UK had a bustling global market, importing US agriculture and canned meats from Argentine, Australia and New Zealand. But the meats were preserved and high in fat content. The imported grains and produce were less nutritionally dense than those grown in season and with proper crop rotation methods. Canned fruit in sugar syrup and sweetened condensed milk spiked daily sugar consumption to levels far greater than eating fresh fruit and drinking whole milk.

While such changes did increase the dietary variety of the working class its quality was quite poor. The sugar issue all but ruined the teeth of British citizens to a point where they could no longer chew tough or dense foods. And the poor quality of meets and preserved foods decreased the health of the nation to such an extent that within two generations “male health nationally had deteriorated to such an extent that… five out of 10 young men volunteering for the second Boer War had to be rejected because they were so undernourished.”

Dietary summary

While the researchers stated that diet alone was the cause of the wellness boon of the time, the high levels of physical exercise was required to balance the caloric intake. At the time, working class Brits consumed 50-100% more calories than we do today, yet obesity was rare because of the intensity of daily physical labor.

The average working-class citizen of the time consumed seasonal fruits and veg and up to 10 servings per day. This is contrasted with our very low RDA of 5 servings, and actual average consumption of only 3 servings.

Fruits, nuts, seeds and omega-3 fatty acids were also consumed at much greater levels than today.

All parts of animals were consumed, especially internal organs which are much denser in nutrients than skeletal meats we largely consume today.

Overall, also, there was relatively low amount of trans fats, higher intake of fiber and lower ratio of sodium/potassium.

These days our diets are so poor we need to consume ‘nutritional supplements’ to get the nutrients we need to function at levels of health that should otherwise be ‘standard’ if we could again consume well-grown and raised foods.

Final comment

I found the researchers’ final comments to be quite striking and thought provoking. So I would like to conclude this summary with their words.

“In light of the huge body of evidence linking diet to health, many researchers are now studying the dietary intakes of different groups of people and attempting to tease out such esoteric factors as, for example, just how much omega 3 fish oil is necessary to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s; or how what dose of flavonoids should be consumed to reduce the risk of stomach cancer.

“Most of this research is patently a waste of time… Our historically low levels of physical activity and consequently food intakes mean that even those groups consuming the highest levels of berry fruits, green leafy vegetables or oily fish, are still well below optimal (mid-Victorian) levels of consumption.

“We believe also that the on-going search for disease susceptibility genes is ahistoric and therefore largely misinformed. The mid-Victorian gene pool was not significantly different to our own, yet their incidence of degenerative disease was approximately 90% less.

“As the nutrient tide has receded, increasing numbers of genetic polymorphisms have become exposed, making current genome-wide association studies (GWAS) largely redundant… The steel vessel of Public Health is rent open, and the drug companies are selling us high-priced pots of caulk.”



Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.