Want to live in a health utopia? A place where degenerative disease is only 10 percent of ours, cancer is rare, and life expectancy is high? A place where it isn’t odd to find people healthily enough to remain active until their dying day? Sounds like heaven doesn’t it? Well, all you have to do is jet back in time to England’s mid-century Victorian age — anytime between 1850 and 1880 will do — and live among the working class. If your time machine is out of order don’t worry. Just follow these simple guidelines and you can count yourself among those who enjoyed the best health.
I Thought Victorians Were Starving?
Oh you smartie, you. Well your right, at some points they were. Ireland, for example, had its big famine between 1845 and 1849. In fact, the 1840s were labeled the Hungry forties, and many Victorians were dying of starvation. However, by the end of the decade, things were looking up.
Corn laws, which had regulated the import and export of grain, were lifted making food more affordable. An agricultural revolution had started near the turn of the century so crop and animal yields were increasing. Working conditions and wages were improving, and the railways were now bringing fresh food into cities and towns helping prices to drop. Even the poor were now able to afford fresh fruits and veggies. You can imagine being able to afford good food made people happier and more optimistic, two things that certainly help keep a person healthy. Life expectancy began to increase, in some cases even surpassing what it is today. And it all happened without infection control or modern drugs.
So what was the secret of health and happiness in this mid-Victorian utopia and how can you emulate it? Well never fear, all you have to do is follow these guidelines and watch your corset size shrink and your health improve.
No more desk jobs for you my friend, you gotta move! If you’re a woman, go for a shop or factory job. Any place where you can spend all day on your feet will do. When your shift is done, be sure to go home and do a ton of housework. In fact, if you like housework, you could work as a housekeeper in one of those big Victorian houses. In mid-century days male household workers were limited, so women got plenty of exercise scrubbing floors and carrying coal buckets up the stairs. Whatever you do the added weight of a heavy corset and multiple layers of dress fabric will restrict the freedom of your movements. This will help increase stamina and tone your muscles. Nothing like walking with weights tied around your body.
You men need a job that will give you about 50–60 hours a week of physical activity. Also, don’t live to close to your place of employment. Mid-Victorian men could walk around 6 miles to work. That’s 12 miles daily my friends, and the good thing is — no traffic jams.
Karma, Karma, Calories
The good news is, with all that work you’ll be doing you can increase your calorie intake significantly. A working man used around 440 calories an hour doing heavy manual labor and 280 calories an hour on his walks to and from work. That means in one day a guy would use between 3000 and 4500 calories. Ladies burned less, however, averaging between 2,750 and 3,500 calories a day. In the winter months, both sexes got a bit of a bonus. Houses and workplaces weren’t heated, so figure a few extra calories for maintaining proper body temperature.
So where are those calories coming from? Prepare to enter a fruit and veggie nirvana. The mid-century working class ate between 8 and 10 servings a day, and it wasn’t because they put lettuce on their Baconator either.
Veggies and Fruit, Root-a Toot Toot
Do you like onions? I hope so because in Mid-Victorian land they were super cheap and therefore in everything. They cost a bit more in late spring, but you can substitute leeks so no need to worry there. Watercress was good and cheap too so plan on plenty of that. Otherwise, there’s Jerusalem artichokes, carrots, turnips, and cabbages. Fresh peas were eaten in the summer and beans toward the fall.
Apples and cherries were top of the list in the fruit department, but plan on gooseberries and plums as well. For a mid-day sweetie, you can enjoy some dried fruit or candied peel. These were eaten plain or in bread pudding or cake. Your sweet tooth will not be neglected.
How About a Joint?
The working class was not vegetarian, although meat consumption was limited. Joints of meat were most often consumed on Sunday. A nice dinner could be had on Saturday as well since it was pay day. Stewed or fried pork was the most economical. Mid-Victorians also indulged in brains, hearts, liver, and kidneys. Sheep lungs and intestines were also eaten.
If you’re not really into the whole meat thing, nuts and fish were part of the mid-century diet as well. You could swing by a street vendor to pick up some chestnuts, or how about a nice dish of red herring? Dairy was available, although if cheese is your thing you’ll have to limit it to the hard varieties.
Cheers to You
Thinking your gonna need a pint after a hard days work? No problem, you can have it on the mid-century diet. Don’t plan on getting drunk though because beer was only about 1–2% alcohol. It was slightly higher if you went to a pub, probably between 2–3%. Not a fan of beer? You can occasionally indulge in port or sherry. Hard liquor, I’m afraid, was a no-no for hard working respectable folk. If your one of those people who like to smoke when your drinking help yourself to a pipe but please no snuff or chewing tobacco.
Why Just Mid-Century?
Oh, you’re wondering why this great health phenomenon only lasted 30 years, huh.
Two words: Processed food.
Britain had become a global bigshot and with advances in shipping technology, cheap products were becoming all the rage. Unfortunately, these came at a price health-wise. Canned meat was replacing fresh local meat and was usually corned and full of fat. Sugar was cheaper as well, and people began consuming mass-produced confections, condensed milk, and canned fruit in sugary syrups. By 1900 the population’s health had deteriorated. Teeth were ruined, men were shorter, weaker and undernourished. Not because they lacked food — they ate plenty — they were just eating the wrong foods.
What Does it Mean For Us?
We may not be able to travel back to the 1800s and probably most of us don’t want to. Why not learn from England’s past, however. No matter what diet you choose to follow we can all benefit from extra exercise and less processed food. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’m gonna skip the corset.