Diets and nutrition from the past – what can we apply to the future of our eating habits?

The BBC2 series ‘Further Back in Time for Dinner
’ has really captured people’s hearts. I for one, like to wallow in nostalgia occasionally and this programme provides the perfect opportunity to do it. In the final episode of the show (airing on 28th Feb) the Robshaw family have the opportunity to embrace some modern diet trends at the end of their time travelling adventure, with a little help from me!

Just how have we got to where we are now? With all the technology and advances in science on the one hand we are the healthiest we’ve ever been, but on the other we have a worldwide obesity epidemic which begs the question, just because we can make it and stick it on a supermarket shelf, should we be eating it? What were the turning points and what can we learn from our families of the past which could help put us back on track today? Who better to ask than the Robshaw family…

What do you feel were the turning points in history that shaped our diets?

“One significant turning point was the invention of tinned food”, says Brandon. “It meant that one could swiftly prepare meals from straight out of the cupboard – no planning or preparation required. And tinned food is cheap. (It’s also portable and keeps for a long time; George Orwell wrote that the First World War would have been impossible without tinned food.)”

Indeed I learnt we had 3 canning factories and over 80 by the end of the 1920’s. As Rochelle smartly said in the 1920’s episode, ‘if you can open a can, you can open the world!’ Canned goods paved the way for more variety and convenience in the British diet (once you’d got the damn thing open!)

Rochelle reflects, “I do think the 1980s was a turning point – the microwave, the ready meals, and then the bulk buying supermarket era of 1990s processed products – I think that really put the nail in our coffins”.

Sad to think that the invention of products designed to make life easier, also facilitated our demise. Hopefully not to our coffins with wonderful healthcare professionals like myself around to help and support (she says tongue in cheek) but in the crazy fast pace of 2017, we often let our nutrition choices slide. There is a convenient option that does save us time, whereas we don’t have trained doubles, who can finish spreadsheets, attend meetings or put the kids to bed. And do we need to cut corners somewhere simply to survive and meet expectations?! Or can under 6s put themselves to bed? Oh so many thought provoking questions!

What can we learn from the past and apply today in a bid to make us healthier?

Brandon comments, “I think the main principle from the old days I’d apply is that fresh food is best. The less processed food we eat the better it is for us. I don’t think most obesity is caused by enormous meals, but by the processed snacks we eat in between – crisps, biscuits, fizzy drinks etc. Those things weren’t around in such profusion in the earlier decades”. 

And I think he’s right to a certain extent. Many of our favourite brands e.g. Cadburys, were around when we were slimmer but the shear choice and overwhelming options on every street corner were not. As creatures of habit largely influenced by the environment we’re in, it’s not surprising the subconscious is a slave to what the eye sees… and it sees a lot of rubbish!

Let’s also rethink our plate sizes – Rochelle points out that 1930s plates, cups and saucers and bowls are much smaller – so of course people ate less.

We’re going all fancy these days – quinoa, kale juice, cacao powder but are these healthier choices?

Brandon reflects, “Food was much plainer in the earlier decades. But it was starting to get more interesting by the 1930s. The rationing of the Second World War seemed to set everything back, and we didn’t see exotic flavours again until the 60s/70s. Personally I prefer spicier food – the ideal, I suppose, is the freshness of the food (fresh meat, fish and vegetables) in the earlier decades plus the spicier, more exotic flavours of the later decades – that’s the perfect combination.”

Yes I think I agree, but to add to this, we have more acceptance now of plant based proteins – pulses, lentils, nuts and seeds which is a good thing – for sustainability reasons if nothing else. We do know higher fibre intakes are associated with lower rates of obesity and disease. Boosting fibre through wholegrain foods alone is tough to do so vegetables, pulses and nuts all provide versatile ways to do it which our guts and bacterial buddies thank us for. The invention of Mr Cornflake in 1924 didn’t help our fibre intakes but on the other hand I don’t think exotic wonder ingredients inventions have added anything to our diets either, apart from a lot of confusion!

And finally the trick to raising children like the Robshaw lot who are up for trying anything?

“We gave them a very varied diet ever since they were tiny, and we never made a fuss about it being especially virtuous to eat up all your vegetables – vegetables are delicious, not virtuous!”

Well said Team Robshaw! And thank you for your reflections. Convenience doesn’t have to equal cr*p and we’ve come a long way from providing recipes in cigarette packets (oh my!) To kick start some made from scratch but convenient offerings get a pen and paper and dust off your recipe books or take inspiration from sites such as healthyfood.co.uk
– every little helps!

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