An Island in Time

Date: 7 December 2017 

With people living longer than ever, high-quality healthcare and medicine widely available in the West, and the food industry churning out new products to meet the demands of an increasingly critical consumer base, it would seem that the 21st century is the best time to be alive when it comes to health and nutrition. This, however, is incorrect.

According to Drs Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham, our time is nowhere near the height of nutrition; we are bested by the mid-Victorians of 1850-1890 in the UK. In their paper titled How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died (2009), they detail just how superior the mid-Victorian diet was.

Thanks to new crop rotation systems that allowed immense gains in food productivity, and with only limited food preservation technology, the mid-Victorian diet consisted mainly of seasonal foods with a heavy reliance on fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. Whole grains and seafood also played an important role, since certain types of fish could be eaten year-round either fresh, salted, or pickled. All meat came from free-range animals, and even the poorest people could afford the more economical forms of meat like liver, heart, and kidneys – offal meats which contain more micro-nutrients than are contained in the skeletal muscle meats we eat today. When it came to desserts and treats, nuts and fruits were the preferred ingredients; sugar, and therefore confectionery, was expensive.

This was a diet with a low calorie density and a high nutrient density. In fact, mid-Victorians consumed far higher levels of most micro-nutrients than we do today, and up to ten times the amount of most phyto-nutrients. This is because they not only ate foods with a higher nutrient density than most of our processed foods, they also ate more than we do today. Due to very high levels of physical activity, mid-Victorians consumed twice as many calories per day as we do; and yet they remained slim. Overweight and obesity were rare, and access to alcohol and tobacco was very limited.

As a result, the incidence of degenerative diseases among their population was just 10% of ours. Analysis reveals that mid-Victorian life expectancy at age 5 was at least as good as ours, and their health expectancy actually exceeded ours. Even without access to modern medicine, they lived 2 to 3 years longer than the equivalent socio-economic groups in Britain do today.

Remedying our poor nutritional intake in the 21st century and improving our collective health cannot be done by the pharmaceutical companies, according to Clayton and Rowbotham; but only through reform of the food and beverage industries. They believe that better designed foods and nutritional programmes could be the way back to mid-Victorian health.


Clayton, P. and Rowbotham, J. (2009) How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and DiedInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 6(3), 1235-1253

Dr Paul Clayton presenting his findings at Food Valley, NL 2017

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