Why the Victorians didn’t need supplements (but we do)

victorian food market

Victorian food market
Source: HRN

If you want to live a long, healthy life, adopt the Victorian diet and workout ethic.

That’s the advice of researchers who have discovered that far from living short lives characterised by overwork, malnutrition and disease, Victorians lived to a ripe old age and were much fitter and healthier than we are today. And all without many of the medicines, vitamin pills and protein supplements we take for granted today.

Let’s find out how they did it.

The Mid Victorians

victorian children

Survive past the age of 5, and through childbirth, and you’d live a good life
Source: Cook it

The big killers in the mid Victorian era were childbirth, infectious diseases and accidents. Rates of infant mortality were also very much higher than they are today. But if you survived past the age of five, average life expectancy was around 75 for a man and 72 for a woman (the figure for women is reduced by the numbers of women who died during childbirth).

Incidence of degenerative diseases was 10% of what it is now. Yes, that’s right. There was 90% less cancer and heart disease; the big killers of today were rare conditions. If you survived early childhood and if you were a woman, survived giving birth, you could expect to live a long and very healthy life.

Work life balance

Work life balance

Victorians worked, and thereby exercised, damn hard
Source: Geocities

Victorians didn’t need gyms, their everyday lives were one long workout. Compared to us, the Victorians worked like dogs. For the working class, a day’s work was nine or ten hours long and the commute could easily be a four or five mile walk.

The work was hard too; in a single day, people who built roads – the navies – could shift up to 20 tonnes of soil from below their feet to above their heads. Women had to do all the housework by hand including lumping sacks of coal, churning butter, beating rugs and scrubbing floors.

But to make up for all the toil, people ate like horses – up to 5000 calories per day for a man and 3000 for a woman. And here is the key to that longevity: they ate like Kings and Queens.

Food for thought

Healthy food

Image source: Marilyn A
Access to nutritious food for all

Two things happened in the mid Victorian period to make the food cheap, abundant and highly nutritious. First, there were great advances in agricultural productivity brought about by new crop rotation techniques. Second, the newly built rail network enabled fresh produce to get to towns and cities before it went off. Bingo – even the Victorian working poor had access to fresh fruit and veg.

Quality and quantity

Today, we’re told to eat five portions of fresh fruit and veg per day, but the Victorians could easily manage double that. Twice the variety and twice as much; large amounts of fresh organic seasonal fruit and veg full of micro nutrients meant the Victorians had incredible immune systems.

They also consumed a lot of herring and other oily fish, offal, and grass reared free range meat and dairy products. Their diet was amazing, their lives incredibly active, and as a result they were able to live long healthy lives without any of the medical advances we take for granted today.

So what went wrong?

From around 1880 onwards, cheap imports of wheat from North America combined with new milling techniques greatly reduced the cost of refined white flour. Canned, salted or ‘corned’ beef replaced fresh meat. Cheap sugar became available and canned fruit in sugar syrup flooded in – all unhealthy refined foods that destroyed public health.

By 1900, the minimum height for acceptance into the army had been reduced from 5’6’’ to a mere 5 feet. Malnutrition very quickly became rife among the working classes so that by the time of the Great War, officers from the middle and upper classes were frequently a head taller than the men they commanded.

What can you do?


Return to the good life
Source: CAW

If we ate 5000 calories per day, the majority of us would soon be the size of a hippo. However often we hit the gym, our sedentary lifestyles just don’t allow for such a massive food intake. But we can make sure we get as much exercise as we can and that we eat well.

To make up for the shortfall in micronutrients, careful supplementation could be an answer – or change your lifestyle, sell up and head for the countryside. The good life is calling.

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