Clayton P, Rowbotham J. How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2009;6(3):1235-1253. doi:10.3390/ijerph6031235.

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.

Keywords: Public health, dietary shift, degenerative disease, Victorian


Given that modern pharmaceutical, surgical, anaesthetic, scanning and other diagnostic technologies were self-evidently unavailable to the mid-Victorians, their high life expectancy is very striking, and can only have been due to their health-promoting lifestyle. But the implications of this new understanding of the mid-Victorian period are rather more profound. It shows that medical advances allied to the pharmaceutical industry?s output have done little more than change the manner of our dying. The Victorians died rapidly of infection and/or trauma, whereas we die slowly of degenerative disease. It reveals that with the exception of family planning, the vast edifice of twentieth century healthcare has not enabled us to live longer but has in the main merely supplied methods of suppressing the symptoms of degenerative diseases which have emerged due to our failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards [38]. Above all, it refutes the Panglossian optimism of the contemporary anti-ageing movement whose protagonists use 1900 ? a nadir in health and life expectancy trends - as their starting point to promote the idea of endlessly increasing life span. These are the equivalent of the get-rich-quick share pushers who insisted, during the boom, that we had at last escaped the constraints of normal economics. Some believed their own message of eternal growth; others used it to sell junk bonds they knew were worthless. The parallels with today?s vitamin pill market are obvious, but this also echoes the way in which Big Pharma trumpets the arrival of each new miracle drug.
In short, the majority of even the poorest mid-Victorians lived well, despite all their disadvantages and what we would now consider discomforts. Those that survived the perils of childbirth and infancy lived as long as we do, and were healthier while they were alive their prolonged good health was due to their high levels of physical activity, and as a consequence, how and what they ate. We could learn a good deal from them...
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