A couple of days ago the New York Times featured a front page article entitled So Big and Healthy Grandpa Wouldn’t Even Know You about how today’s people are so much larger and healthier than their predecessors from several generations back.
The piece describes research showing how most people from the Civil War era were much less healthy and much smaller than their descendants alive today. Researchers looked at a sample of about 50,000 Union Army veterans using not just the death certificates of the men involved, but
…the daily military history of each regiment in which each veteran served, which showed who was sick and for how long; census manuscripts; public health records; pension records; doctors’ certificates showing the results of periodic examinations of the pensioners…
and compared them to men of the same ages but living today. As you might imagine, those living today are considerably larger, but that’s not the only difference.
They discovered that almost everyone of the Civil War generation was plagued by life-sapping illnesses, suffering for decades. And these were not some unusual subset of American men — 65 percent of the male population ages 18 to 25 signed up to serve in the Union Army. “They presumably thought they were fit enough to serve,” Dr. Fogel [the primary researcher] said.
Even teenagers were ill. Eighty percent of the male population ages 16 to 19 tried to sign up for the Union Army in 1861, but one out of six was rejected because he was deemed disabled.
After the war ended, as the veterans entered middle age, they were rarely spared chronic ailments.
“In the pension records there were descriptions of hernias as big as grapefruits,” Dr. Costa said. “They were held in by a truss. These guys were continuing to work although they clearly were in a lot of pain. They just had to cope.”
Eighty percent had heart disease by the time they were 60, compared with less than 50 percent today. By ages 65 to 74, 55 percent of the Union Army veterans had back problems. The comparable figure today is 35 percent.
A series of charts published with the article shows the remarkable difference in size and longevity between men of that era and those alive now.
Click here to view image
A few weeks back I posted on the difference between the size of Revolutionary War re-enactors and actual Revolutionary War soldiers and was taken to task by at least one commenter for my lack of taste and/or sensitivity in posting a picture of an obese man and calling him obese. This time the New York Times and the subject himself (“we’ve ballooned up,” said he) do the dirty deed so that I can be held blameless.
Why this huge disparity in health and size? According to the article much has to do with early sickness and state of nutrition. There are a number of researchers today looking at the idea of fetal programming, i.e., what happens to the fetus as a function of the mothers diet, smoking and health status. Based on a considerable amount of research it’s looking like the mother’s diet during pregnancy has a whole lot to do with what happens to the fetus long after birth and even into middle and old age. Babies who are malnourished (or inappropriately nourished) during their time as a growing fetus end up developing problems with obesity and heart disease later in life. According to my reading on the subject the optimal dietary steps a pregnant woman should take are to reduce consumption of refined carbohydrates during the first trimester and increase protein intake significantly during the last trimester. Why? The first trimester is when the fetus is forming many of its organs, including its pancreas. The volatile blood sugar and consequent insulin swings refined carbohydrate intake occasions in the mother are transmitted to the fetus, who then develops a pancreas filled with beta cells that are less sensitive. In other words, the fetus develops a pancreas that is prone to insulin resistance even prior to birth. The rapid growth of the fetus in the last trimester demands a lot of protein. If the protein is provided in the diet, then the fetus gets plenty for normal growth and doesn’t have to rob from the mother creating a situation where both may be damaged.
It’s my guess that many of the problems these Civil War veterans experienced were a consequence of fetal malnutrition compounded with adult malnutrition. In going back through some of my reference books on early diet I came across the first rigorous study of the English diet performed back in 1862-1863. This study, performed by a Dr. Edward Smith, proves to be extremely enlightening and deserving of a post all of its own, which it will get in due course. Although a comparison of the diet in England is not a direct apples to apples comparison to the American diet of the same time, it’s probably pretty close. And since England was further down the Industrial Revolution road than America at the time, the English diet, if anything, was probably a little better than the American diet.
Dr. Smith took a detailed dietary history of a number of English families whose members worked either indoors or outdoors, with the outdoor workers being, presumably, those doing the most physical labor. He broke the diets down into a number of specific food types, which gives a pretty good indication of dietary quality.
It turns out that bread was the principal food for all groups, with the average being somewhere between 12 to 16 ounces per day and contributing approximately 40 percent of calories. Most of the bread consumed was purchased, not home baked.
Apart from the wheat in bread, no other cereal grains were eaten in any significant quantities.
Potatoes were considered ‘dear food,’ were difficult to come by, and were consumed in extremely small quantities and not very often. Cabbage, another major vegetable in the diet of the time, were eaten even less frequently than potatoes. Onions were ‘used very extensively and give a savoury relish when bread is the chief article of which the meal is composed.’
The average consumption of milk was just under a quarter pint per day, with the indoor workers getting only about half that amount.
Most people ate meat only a couple of times per week giving an average daily consumption of 2 to 3 ounces.
On average, under a half ounce of cheese was eaten per day and one egg was eaten every two or three days.
About an ounce of sugar per day, or about 6 teaspoons, was the average consumption.
And total fat, excluding that found on meat or in cheese, was about three quarters of an ounce per day and was typically fat saved from cooking meat and only very occasionally butter.
Dr. Smith describes a typical Sunday meal:
Universally, the dinner on Sunday is better than that on other days, because, in many instances, in addition to other reasons, it is the only dinner at which all the members of the family can assemble.
The meat or the bacon, when the whole quantity is small, as 2 lb. to 4 lb., [for the entire family] is commonly cooked for this dinner, and all partake of it. What is left is reserved for the husband, who either takes a little portion with him for his dinner daily, or eats it at home; and it is remarkable that this is not only acquiesced in by the wife, but felt by her to be right, and even necessary for the maintenance of the family. The remark was constantly made to me , ‘that the husband wins the bread, and must have the best food.’ If the family be thrifty, the husband will have a morsel of meat or bacon daily throughout the week, but in other instances the whole is consumed in the first two, three or four days. The important practical fact is however well established, that the labourer eats meat or bacon almost daily, whilst his wife and children may eat it but once a week, and that both himself and his household believe that course to be necessary, to enable him to perform his labour.
It’s pretty easy to see that with this kind of diet most people would be be small. The pregnant mothers aren’t going to be able to provide the necessary nutrients for optimally healthy babies. The babies born were fetally programed to develop heart disease and obesity, but couldn’t become obese because they never got enough to eat. And it’s easy to see that adults who were malnourished as fetuses and continued to be malnourished through childhood and adulthood would be more sickly and be prey for every bacteria and virus that came down the path.
Paleolithic man, who ate plenty of meat, was large and robust with a greater bone cortical thickness than we have today. It’s only been in the last generation that we have caught up size-wise to our ancestors of a hundred thousand years ago. Why? Because for the first time since the advent of agriculture meat has become relatively cheap and plentiful. During the time of Dr. Smith’s study the average family spent somewhere in the range of 50 to 60 percent of income on food, and you’ve seen what they got for their money. According to government statistics we today spend on average about 14 percent of our household income on food. And look at what we get for our 14 percent compared to their 50 percent. It’s no wonder were fat and comparatively healthy while they were thin and sickly.
We’ve got two extremes. They were suffering from undernutrition; we are suffering from overnutrition. If you’ve got the choice, take overnutrition, especially coupled with antibiotics and all the other marvels of modern medicine.
But just because overnutrition makes you bigger and stronger and allows you to live longer than chronic starvation, it isn’t optimal nutrition. Optimal nutrition, in my view anyway, is plenty of good quality protein, plenty of good quality fat, and easy on the carbs. Remember, the human body requires protein and it requires fat; it requires no, zero, nada carbohydrate. As I’ve said at least ten thousand times, it makes no sense to me to load up on what we don’t need at the expense of what we do need.
Our Civil War era ancestors were on a high-carb, low-protein, low-fat, low-calorie diet and it didn’t do them a lot of good. Don’t make the same mistake when you can afford to do a whole lot better.