There is little truly new in the world of diets, is there? Most modern diets are just tweaking things that have gone before. For example the 5:2 diet was based on reducing calories, but in a slightly more radical way than normal.
Many modern diets are variations on the Mediterranean theme – the classic Med theme, that is (because the truth is that most people in the Mediterranean countries today don’t eat a healthy Mediterranean diet any more than we do!)
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And similarly, in the UK, we no longer eat a traditional British diet, but a rag bag of dishes from here and there all over the world. Perhaps it is this eclectic mix of burgers, bakes and curries that makes us one of the fattest nations in the world.
The fact is that Britain only manages to produce around 60% of the food that we eat – even less than we did back in 2008 when I optimistically wrote a book called The Green Food Bible, explaining in what I hoped was an unbiased fashion the bonuses of becoming more self-reliant in food. Ha! I look back on the days when 'green' was trendy – now, it's all about saving money whilst eating as much as we can.
What would happen if we went back to eating the food of our parents and grandparents; of the first 50 years of the 20th century? Would we then be as slim and healthy as the people of southern Italy?
What we ate in the 1950s
I tried to think what my own family ate when I was a child in the 1950s, and eventually most of the week’s eating came back to me. A typical 1950s breakfast was Weetabix with milk (always full fat of course) and a tiny bit of white sugar during the week, with boiled egg and toast on a Saturday and bacon and egg on a Sunday.
School lunches during the week – small and plain and not what you’d want second helpings of – stuffed lamb’s heart, anyone?
At weekends, our main meal of the day was at lunchtime. Maybe lamb or pork chop, mash and green veggies or a meat stew with root vegetables on a Saturday, or in summer a salad with salad cream and either ham or cheese, and bread.
Our traditional Sunday lunch was usually roast chicken and several plainly-cooked vegetables, followed by a fruit crumble with Birds custard.
Weekday evening meals were often more like snacks, if we’d had school ‘dinner’. Beans on toast or poached eggs on toast, for example, or a bowl of soup or a cheese and tomato sandwich or tinned salmon with cucumber and lettuce. On Friday nights, we might have a small piece of white fish each, plainly cooked with boiled potatoes, peas and salad cream again.
I don’t recall eating snacks between meals apart from a few sweets after rationing ended in 1953, at the weekend. I don’t recall ever feeling hungry enough between meals to crave one. Maybe the occasional small (and they were small) bag of Smith’s Crisps with the little salt wrap inside the bag, but mainly snacks were British fruits such as apples, pears, plums or berries in summer; which we’d also eat, raw, as a pudding most days of the week.
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It’s incredible to think that in the Fifties and even early 60s, my mother had the milk delivered and in summer had a hole in the ground covered by a stone slab, to keep it cool.
Without a freezer or even a fridge, we really did eat seasonally. We also ate locally and, lacking the influence of most foreign country cuisines, we ate plain. An orange at the bottom of your Christmas stocking really was an amazing treat.
Was a 1950s diet healthier?
So, was this a healthy diet or was it not? In many ways, yes. The plainness of the food meant that we were probably consuming many fewer calories and less fat and sugar than most people do today. Also, portions were much smaller than most people eat now. I think everyone had got so used to rationing that it was hard to get out of the habit.
We also tended to eat more protein (when meat rationing ended, at any rate) and less refined carbohydrates, which many experts believe today is a simple way to stay slim.
We had plenty of vegetables, particularly leafy greens. And the fruits we ate were naturally lower in sugars than most of the fruit consumed today. Fruit was a treat rather than something we ate two or three times a day – I am a great believer that when getting your five, seven or ten a day (whichever edict you follow!) they should mostly be vegetables rather than fruit.
10 ways to eat less sugar
We ate pulses – soups and stews with lentils were the favourite and we had raw nuts when we could get them, that we had to crack open ourselves so that naturally limited the amount.
We ate butter rather than any other type of spread – again, finding favour today.
With no refrigeration there was little immediately available to eat at home except what was cooked for meals, at which the whole family gathered. So you were glad to eat what you were given and nothing else. And when you were out and about, snack foods were hard to come by, not ubiquitous.
Downside? Maybe we didn’t eat enough fish, but that could just have been our family as I know the fishing industry was thriving and our seas packed, and we didn’t tend to eat any ‘exotic’ oils, such as olive oil, which you couldn’t buy except in 100ml bottles at the chemist, but even so, incidence of heart disease then was pretty low.
We ate a lot of dairy and eggs, both now back on the ‘good food’ list. However, I never tasted yogurt until I was 15, and then it was a Ski blackcurrant yogurt rather than an organic natural. We’d not heard of promoting healthy gut bacteria in those days, but we now know that prime aged cheeses do the same job, and we had plenty of those.
So, on balance, I’d say we ate well. Moderately, but with everything we needed to be slim yet strong, full of energy and with a full set of teeth not rotted by sugar. Most importantly, we definitely ate to live, rather than living to eat. And if we had a treat – a piece of chocolate, or a (small) slice of cake – it was just that, an occasional treat, not a daily or hourly occurrence.
I never thought I’d say this, but I’m quite missing those meals of my childhood right now.
It really is not so much which country has the healthiest diet, I am sure, but how we find a way of getting back to a long gone style of eating, whether that is in the UK or down Sicily way.
Tips for losing weight with a 1950s-style diet
- Eat British seasonal, local produce
- Shop at smaller shops (such as Lidl or Aldi) where there is not as much tempting choice
- Eat smaller portions
- Don't keep your house fully stocked - buy little and often instead
- Limit treats - chocolate, cake and biscuits should be a rare treat, not a daily (or hourly!) treat
Find out about Judith's experience of food in 1960s London.
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