Food and Behaviour Research

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How the mid-Victorians worked, ate and died

Clayton, P., Rowbotham, J (2009) Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2009  6(3): 1235-53. Epub 2009 Mar 20. 

Web URL: View this and related abstracts via PubMed here. Free Full Text of this paper is available online.

Abstract:

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

Their levels of physical activity and hence calorific intakes were approximately twice ours. They had relatively little access to alcohol and tobacco; and due to their correspondingly high intake of fruits, whole grains, oily fish and vegetables, they consumed levels of micro- and phytonutrients at approximately ten times the levels considered normal today.

This paper relates the nutritional status of the mid-Victorians to their freedom from degenerative disease; and extrapolates recommendations for the cost-effective improvement of public health today.

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

This article provides a highly accessible and fascinating summary overview of research covered in more detail in three separate papers published last year in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine - also now available via open-access:


The research was carried out by an expert in medical pharmacology and nutrition, Dr Paul Clayton, and an expert historian - who teamed up to conducted highly detailed analyses of an extensive and unique archive of food and diet, lifestyle and health data from the UK mid-Victorian period (1840-1870). 

This really was a unique period in the UK's history, occurring just as the 'industrial revolution' had transformed transport (e.g. growth of the railways allowed fresh produce from the countryside to reach the rapidly growing urban populations), but before this revolution had accelerated to create 'globalisation' of trade - and with that, the industrialisation of our food supply.

Their findings provide some extraordinary insights into just how dramatically the diet and lifestyle of the UK population has changed since the mid-19th century.   And these papers provide a compelling case linking this diet-and-lifestyle transformation to the similarly huge changes in health and disease patterns that have also occurred since then.

Particularly striking are the dramatic changes in 'causes of death'.  Because although the mid-Victorians actually had a similar life-expectancy to modern-day 'working class' UK populations (provided that they survived childbirth and infancy).(1)

  • Over 90% of deaths then were from infectious illness and/or accidents, and less than 10% from the 'degenerative diseases' like cardiovascular disease, cancers - or dementia, which was remarkably rare.
  • Nowadays, those proportions have been completely reversed.

A huge body of other evidence shows that nutrition and diet are among the most powerful influences on health and disease - and these data show that even the working class mid-Victorians consumed a 'super-Mediterranean-type' diet. 

  • Their foods and diet were of course also 'organic' - as this period pre-dates the birth of the 'agro-chemical industry' and the widepread use of artificial pesticides or fertilisers. And in general, population exposure to environmental toxins was much lower than today (despite the relative lack of regulation then of e.g. food standards to prevent adulteration) - as most of this 'toxic burden' has also arisen as a direct consequence of industrialisation. 

In addition, the mid-Victorians' levels of exercise were phenomenally high by modern-day standards - as were their calorie intakes (at well over double the recommended intakes for UK men and women today). And obesity was almost non-existent (except in the very rich, who took far less exercise, and could afford highly 'refined' foods such as white flour, but they were few in number...).

Most importantly - their high daily calorie intake came from fresh, whole or minimally processed foods, rich in dietary fibre and essential nutrients - not from 'ultra-processed foods' (calorie-rich but nutrient-poor, lacking in dietary fibre, and made of refined ingredients rather than food, together with numerous artificial chemical additives), which now dominate modern, western-type diets. 

In fact, a key point the authors make is that it may not even be possible to obtain truly 'optimal' intakes of many nutrients essential to prevent degenerative disease(2) 
  • without eating such large quantities of healthy, minimally processed or whole foods,
  • AND taking so much exercise to compensate for the calories that even these real, highly nutrient-dense foods contain.

These data are of course purely observational, and 'correlation is not causation'.  However, the authors link these findings to the scientific evidence that can (and does) show important causal links between nutrition and degenerative disease; and they make a compelling case for public health policy to take these links into account.  

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(1) This is a very important proviso, as 'average' life expectancy was much lower for the mid-Victorians - because this figure includes all those who died before 5 years of age. Their much higher infant mortality rates are therefore likely to account for some (and possibly all) of the huge differences in disease and mortality figures noted here - as these could plausibly reflect 'survival of the fittest' both in terms of:
  • genetic factors that influence disease risk (if 'carriers' of those genes died in infancy)
  • 'nutritional programming' and other 'epigenetic' factors - i.e. lifelong influences on gene expression from early life environmental factors - operating from pre-pregnancy through infancy - that can permanently shape physical and mental health outcomes.

(2) this particularly applies to many 'phytonutrients' - i.e. bioactive substances found in vegetables, fruits and other plant foods that are still not recognised as 'essential' - but it also applies to many vitamins, essential minerals and the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fats.