Dr Paul Clayton graduated summa cum laude in Medical Pharmacology from Edinburgh University, prior to obtaining his PhD. A former Chair of the Forum on Food & Health (UK), and Senior Scientific Advisor to the UK government’s Committee on the Safety of Medicines, he is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Food, Brain & Behaviour (Oxford) and LYMA's Director of Science.
In this article, Dr. Clayton explains that a typical Victorian diet might provide the secret to health, vitality and longevity, and how we can replicate late nineteenth century dietary trends and reap the benefits ourselves.
Most of us struggle to reach our five fruit and veg a day, but the Victorians easily hit eight to ten, and all seasonal and organic. Root vegetables - think potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, turnips and carotene-rich carrots - were the order of the day. Onions were a staple in the daily diet and featured in most savoury dishes, as were modern day superfoods watercress, beetroot, and cabbage - all off which are packed with vitamins, minerals and nutrients vital to human health. Fruit wise, apples were consumed almost year round by everybody, and cherries were popular when they were in season.
"Due to their high levels of physical activity, the Victorians ate two to three times as much as we do, and their diet was largely plant-based. This meant they got substantial amounts of fibre, vitamins, minerals and, most importantly, the plant or phyto-nutrients known to protect against degenerative diseases. Effectively, they ate a super-Mediterranean diet. This made them 90% less likely to develop cancer, dementia and coronary artery disease than we are today," Dr. Clayton explains.
The Victorians also consumed more anti-inflammatory heart- and brain-health-promoting omega-3-rich oily fish than most people today. Herrings, sprats and eel may have fallen out of favour, but these fish are packed full of omega-3s. White fish such as cod, haddock and John Dory were popular. Oysters, mussels, cockles and whelks, were common fare too. An important side note: the Victorians were very much of the 'waste not, want not' inclination and tended to eat every part of the fish from the roe and head, and the highly nutritious bones were often used to make stock for the next meal.
Victorians also had a proclivity for nuts and pulses. Hazelnuts, chestnuts and omega-3-rich walnuts were favourites, while more expensive almonds and Brazil nuts tended to be imported in time for Christmas feating.
It was common for families to house hens in their gardens, and to hit them up daily for fresh eggs. Offal was eaten by most people most days. From the more familiar kidneys and liver, to brains, hearts, sweetbreads, intestines and lungs, nothing was off-limits on the Victorian table. Offal made a cheap, versatile and highly nutritious addition to the diet of the Victorians, along with the more familiar liver and kidneys, all made cheap, tasty dishes. Add in the occasional hare or pheasant, and remember that much of this meat was boiled rather than roasted, as well as free range, and you have a recipe for health and longevity.
The Victorians used far less salt in their cooking than we do today. Their sugar consumption was also significantly lower than ours and any sugar that was consumed - with the exception of special occasions - tended to be natural fruit sugar. Combined with the fact that they would boil rather than roast their meat (meat which, by the way, was always free-range), the Victorians experienced levels of health and vitality that would be completely alien to most of us today.
"In contrast to the Victorians, diets today are high in processed foods and contain far fewer nutrients. Our consumption of breakfast cereals, confectionery and baked goods gives our diet a high GL; and these factors, combined with our low levels of physical activity and low intakes of phytonutrients, makes us extremely vulnerable to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and strokes," says Dr. Clayton.
In fact, says Dr. Clayton, "Compared to the Victorians, we are over-fed and under-nourished."
Allowing for the infant mortality rates of the day, our great, great grandparents' life expectancy was not so different from ours and - even without the wonders of modern medicine or access to the world's leading National Health Service - the majority of Victorians remained physically and mentally active well into old age. The secret to their vitality and longevity, Dr.Clayton has concluded, can be found in what they put on their plates and, more specifically, in the seasonal, organic, unprocessed whole food diet, and active outdoor lifestyle, followed by the Victorians.
Originally published May 1, 2021.
Written by Dr Paul Clayton, PhD.