The Steampunk Diet

I picked up on an interesting paper from one of the comments on Chris Smaje’s blog. It describes some historical research on urban working class British diets of the mid-Victorian period, which, it turns out were not quite as bad as has been assumed. The authors, Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham, make the surprising assertion that:

“With the exception of family planning and antibiotics, the vast edifice of twentieth century healthcare has generated little more than tools to suppress symptoms of the degenerative diseases which have emerged due to our failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards”.

Why is this of interest? The broadest reason is that the past can shed light on present-day issues and that our picture of the past subtly infuses our understanding of the present. Therefore any improvement in our knowledge of the past is at least potentially relevant. In other words, History is a valuable discipline. However, there are other reasons why this particular bit of revisionism is interesting.

The gist of the paper is that between 1850 and 1880 a window of circumstance opened which resulted in, the authors say, “a generation … with probably the best standards of health ever enjoyed by a modern state”. The changes which opened the window included (but were not limited to) technical improvements in agricultural productivity (for example changes in rotation systems) and the arrival of the railways which enabled transport of fresh produce into the cities. The changes which closed the window included the increased availability of commercial quantities of imported food, the greater availability of sugar and processed foods which contain it, and the availability of mass produced tobacco products. The period from 1880-1900 saw a rapid decline in public health, down to the dire state which we now think of as simply ‘Victorian’.

The life expectancy statistics for the mid-Victorian generation appear to show that they died early. The statistic which is usually given for ‘life expectancy’ is an average of all lifespans, including very early deaths (and the reduction in infant mortality really is an undisputed major achievement of the 20th century). However, if infant mortality is removed from the figures (i.e. the average is of only those who survived the dangerous start of life), the mid-Victorian generation lived pretty much the same length of time as we do. Furthermore, the authors argue, they had a greater health-span than us. That’s to say they tended to stay robust and active until shortly before death and didn’t suffer several years of frail and degenerating tail-off as we have come to expect for ourselves. The authors attribute all this to the diet which was circumstantially imposed on them, and which bears some resemblance to the famous ‘Mediterranean diet’ or even the broader and less cultish versions of the ‘Palaeolithic diet’.

Of course I lack the background to make any sort of judgement as to the validity of this paper, but history is an empirical discipline which roots out new evidence, and 19th century Britain has plenty of documentation for the rooting, so for the sake of argument I think it’s reasonable to assume that Clayton and Rowbotham have indeed successfully revised our understanding of the health of urban mid-Victorians.

In which case what is most striking is the sheer accidentalness of the thing. With all our enormously enhanced knowledge and the capacity for public education which our mass media and schooling give us, public health in the developed world can’t even equal historical happenstance. This reminder of our limits when it comes to directing the course of history is a humbling but useful thought. It should be borne in mind both as a counterweight to hubris when things seem to be going well and a palliative to despond when things appear to be going badly.

Furthermore, some of the changes in diet which closed the window of superb health were seen at the time, and by later historians, as good for public health. Not only, it seems, are we unable to consciously point history in a good direction, but we don’t necessarily know what a good direction looks like!

Finally, it almost goes without saying that this can be chalked up as a counter-example to the implicit assumption that everything which is chronologically later is automatically better in all important respects. Perhaps technological development only equates with improvement up to a certain point beyond which it is mere elaboration or even dis-improvement. I am not saying this is always so, I’m merely suggesting that, in essence, things are vastly more complicated than we tend to think.

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I’m quite prepared to accept the historical revisionism of Clayton and Rowtham’s paper but I’d be interested to have a second opinion on the practical inferences they draw. The mid-Victorians were much more physically active than us – 3,000 to 4,000 Calories per day estimated by the authors (i.e up to twice as much as the contemporary sedentary worker). C & R argue that the health benefits of the mid-Victorian diet were down to  “micro- and phytonutrients at approximately ten times the levels considered normal today”.

This high level was caused not just by the quality of the food (fresh and organic avant la lettre) but also by the quantity – the amount needed to make up the difference between mid-Victorian energy expenditure and ours – rather than “five a day” it was more like “eleven or twelve a day”. They then go on to suggest that the lack of degenerative disease was caused by the superabundance of micronutients, and because of our smaller intake of food, even if we ate the same types and proportions of food we wouldn’t get enough micronutrients to obtain the benefits of the mid-Victorian diet. Therefore they recommend supplementation – which caused me to roll my eyes. They try to forestall criticism by harrumphing a bit about vitalism and saying of course the nutritional supplements currently available are scientifically incoherent and we’d have to do this properly.

Hmmm. Well, let me re-state that I’m not qualified to judge, but there are two reasons that I find this part of C & R’s argument less convincing than the descriptive historical sections.

The first is that they could be underplaying the possible benefit of the much higher levels of physical activity among the mid-Victorians. There is a ton of evidence about the health benefits of physical activity and we currently do nothing like enough of it (I’ve written a bit about this on a previous blog). It seems to me that the relations between nutrition,exercise, and metabolism are still not fully understood and also that C & R have accepted our current levels of sedentariness as intractable.

The second reason to be slightly unconvinced is that it is not necessarily superstitious vitalism to suggest that getting your micronutrients from actual fruit and veg might be better than taking a tablet. The reason is the imperfection of our current knowledge and the vast complexity of metabolic chemistry. (The salutary example is that of anti-oxidants). Yes, a great deal is known about nutrition and yes, that knowledge continues to improve, but the safest approach for any sort of public health intervention really has to be (yawn) to find ways to get people eating more fruit and veg and to move around more. Unfortunately, the way to do that might involve making large commercial concerns just a little bit more constrained, and rethinking personal transport in a radical way (“but I love my car! Waaaaaaaail! War on the motorist! Nanny state!” etc etc) …

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Well obviously, Clayton and Rowbotham didn’t actually call it the steampunk diet of course. I’ve called it that because it sounds cute and I’d like the term to catch on – you heard it here first. Do I follow it myself? Well, yeah, sort of (and this is a diet which declares “sort of” to be just fine), and I do go in for waistcoats, Big Whiskers, and Long Brisk Walks, so there we are …