Mid-Victorian Activity, Nutrition, and Disease
Ghosts of Wellness Past
Want to nearly eliminate your risk of cancer & CVD, & eat/move 2x as much as you do now? Mid-1800 Victorian UK did it. Here’s how.
The mid-1800s of the Victorian period in the U.K. was a renaissance of health and wellness. Both men and women ate and moved twice as much as we do today, experiencing little in the way of degenerative disease, and lived at least as long as we do without our medical advancements.
According to the authors, this was due primarily to two things: diet and physical activity.
Average physical activity and among both men and women sounds like the legendary tales our grandparents told. Walking 6 miles to and from work, which was not sitting in a cubicle crunching data on excel spreadsheets, but real, physically demanding labor. Among working-class men, caloric expenditures averaged between 3500 and 4000 daily, and among women between 2,750 to 3,500. This is an average of approximately 330 calories per hour.
The diet common the working-class was just as remarkable, consuming approximately 10 servings (far beyond our government RDAs) per day of organically grown, seasonally available, phytonutrient-rich vegetables, free-range nutrient-dense meats and offal including “brains, heart, sweetbreads, liver, kidneys and ‘pluck’,(the lungs and intestines of sheep).” Wild-caught fatty fish was abundant and shipped in daily from coastal towns, and eggs from the hens living in the back-yard were also common. In short, the authors surmise, nutritional strategies were likely in the vein of the Mediterranean and Paleolithic diets, yet still far superior in nutrient density. (Consider: a single ounce of beef liver contains 277% of the USRDA of vitamin B12, 45% of riboflavin, 95% of vitamin A, and 20% of folate, while providing almost 6g of protein. But, will that get you to eat it?)
Incredibly, this appears to have nearly eliminated most diseases we consider commonplace today. Unlike our current cultural diseases, nearly 80% of deaths during the mid-1800s were due to infections, accidents, and trauma. Just over 20% of deaths during this time were due to diseases of the respiratory and circulatory system, and cancer. Neoplasms were so uncommon that lung cancer was described by a physician as ‘… one of the rarer forms of a rare disease. You may probably pass the rest of your students life without seeing another example of it.’ Conversely, and strikingly, over 100 years later nearly the precise reverse became true. In 1997 nearly 80% of deaths in the U.K. and Wales were due to those same diseases that were so rare just over a century prior. And this. even with all the modern medical advances available.
So, what do the author make of all this? To paraphrase:
- Degenerative diseases are the result of low-energy lifestyles, excessive intakes of inflammatory compounds, and dietary nutrient depletion. They suggest that degenerative disease is not caused by old age, but ultimately by lifestyle and environmental factors.
- The mid-Victorians demonstrate that medical advances are not responsible for prolonging our lifespan, they have merely slowed our deaths due to degenerative diseases that were nearly non-existent. A ounce of prevention. . .
- Finally, we must pursue highly nutrient dense foods that are also low in caloric density.
Bold claims. Taken together, the advice here is quite accessible: move often, and eat well. Clearly, however, considering the current obesity epidemic and associated diseases, this is easier said than done. This reminds me of a quote by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a 19th century philosopher, who said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
One might say the same of the Wellness Ideal.
Are you tired of being frustrated? Are you ready to get back to your favorite activities?
Click the schedule button below, get off the merry-go-round, and let’s get moving again.