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Were Diets Really Better In The 1800`s?


Were Diets Really Better In The 1800's?

The pages and posts on this site have focused their attention on the diet and lifestyle of the average American (and a few Europeans) in the 19th century, specifically about 160 years ago. Of course a little conflict called the Civil War had a lot of influence during that period, but it didn't change the way most people farmed and ate; except for those poor souls whose farms were burnt and destroyed.

Why go back in time 160 years

So the question you might ask is "Why go back in time 160 years when we have a plethora of new and effective diets that go back 2 Million years?" That would be, of course, the paleolithic diet and all its derivatives.

Well, there are a couple of reasons.
  1. We don't really know as much about the paleolithic as we think we know. Although there is a lot of archaeological information about the paleolithic period, bones and stone tools and stuff like that, and the technology of testing isotopes to figure out what they ate is really cool, it still paints a dim and faded picture of what really was happening way back then. No offense to those diligent scientists working hard to figure it out, but like most science it begs more questions than it answers.

    A review of the Paleolithic diet
    Check out our review of the paleolithic diet here for more information on the subject. The archaeological site at Gobekli Tepe might have something to say about the paleolithic.
  2. You just don't need to go that far back. The primary value of a paleolithic diet is that it avoids the highly processed foods that we find in the grocery today. You can get that same value by just going back 160 years or so. They didn't even have white flour till about 1870. The paleolithic diet is also very restrictive on grains, legumes, and other things it thinks are toxic or anti-nutritional, but that isn't a settled science and is very much in debate. Here is an article buy a guy who thinks the whole idea is rubbish. ( The facts on which this idea is based are rubbish.)

We Have Adapted

The idea that we evolved over 2 million years and then suddenly everything changed faster than we can adapt since 10,000 years ago is compelling, but incomplete. We have adapted, genetically and otherwise. The adaptation to lactose tolerance is but one example of that.

What we have not adapted to is putting hormones and antibiotics in our food supply. Our meats have traces of these chemicals and traces can also be found in some water supplies. The plants we eat are sprayed with all sorts of insecticides and even their genetics are modified so the plants can make their own insecticides. That isn't something we will adapt to; with one exception.

A Scary Thought

What if those insecticide making genes get into our bodies and are picked up by our cells, or by our gut flora, and we adapt to start making our own insecticides inside our bodies. That's a scary thought. How will we deal with that, other than just getting sick?

The Wonder Material Plastic

Possibly the greatest industrial marvel of the 20th century is plastic. We now live in a plastic world. I'm typing on plastic keys, sitting on a plastic chair, wearing plastic soled shoes, and all of that is wonderful. What isn't wonderful is when plastic touches our food.

Most people have seen the sign on plastic water bottles that say "BPA FREE". But what does that mean? BPA (Bisphenol A) is a starter material used in making polycarbonate plastics. There is always some left over in the finished plastic and if comes in contact with food the BPA can leech into the food. BPA has been shown to have hormonal (estrogenic) effects that can harm the human body, especially children. So the chemical companies switched to another chemical called BPS (Bisphenol S). Now here is where the story gets strange and shows just how broken our regulatory system really is. BPA which had been tested and shown to be harmful was switched out with BPS which was tested and shown to be safe? Uhh, No! BPS wasn't tested and shown to be safe. BPS wasn't tested AT ALL. But since regulations allow untested chemicals to be used in plastics that are made to store food it was considered OK. Now that is just plain ******* ridiculous. Here is an article describing the problem with BPA free plastics. ( BPA free plastic containers may be just as hazardous. ) My point of this rant is to show, again, that 160 years ago these kinds of problems hadn't been invented yet. The 19th century was very far from perfect, something we will go into in future episodes of this blog. But it was a far better place than the toxic mess we live in today.

Comment from Sarah
June 28, 2015, 3:26 am [35]
I agree that there's so much stuff in our food and unhealthy things surrounding us that its quite impossible to be rid of anything toxic. But what sort of diet would you recommend that is most similar to what was eaten back then? Organic and paleo? There's so much to learn about different diets that I'm not sure which is best.

Response from Gary
June 28, 2015, 4:07 am [36]
Their diet was certainly organic. The 'poisons' that they used on crops were things like powdered sulfur, which is actually an important mineral supplement. The sulfur didn't kill the worms and bugs and such but more likely just chased them away because of the smell. Their diet wasn't paleo because they ate grains and beans (legumes) and other things that paleo doesn't recommend. Most of their plant foods were seasonal though. So you couldn't get them all year long like we can today. Grains could be dried and stored in tins and barrels but you had to be careful of mold, weevils and other critters they might get into it. If you lived up north where there is permafrost underground you could store some things in a 'root cellar'. The 1800 were not a time where you could eliminate whole food groups because you had to eat what was on hand at the time. You couldn't be picky or you might starve. So to simulate that diet today you could eat a little of everything, but stick with organic if possible and avoid the highly processed foods with lots of additives and preservatives. Eat fresh vegetables that are in season, local if possible. The main preservatives back then were salt for meats, drying such as making beef jerky, fermentation such as making cabbage into sauerkraut, and canning.

Comment from admin
June 28, 2015, 4:39 am [37]
Hi Gary, I found this article to be a very interesting read. As a dietitian, I like your approach of not avoiding any food group (like paleo advocates arbitrarily do) and to focus on eating unprocessed, nutrient dense foods. Just a wee bit unsure about why you're then linking to a supplement for a low carb diet though, I'd be interested in your thoughts? Thanks for a good read.

Response from Gary
June 28, 2015, 5:26 am [38]
The only supplement groups that I have done so far are for Vegetarians and Vegans and Low Carb diets. I put the link there to see if anyone would actually read that far down. I will replace it as soon as I get a more general supplement group finished. Thanks for the feedback.
Update: The new link is

Comment from Jean
June 28, 2015, 8:04 am [39]
Hey there Gary, While I totally understand what you are getting at here, I just can't help but think about all the amazing tasting things that people 160 years were missing out on! Even 2 million years ago... I bet if I handed either one of them a pint of rocky road chocolate ice cream they wouldn't think twice about eating it! This just proves my healthy eating problem is actually all about sweets... I also think a huge issue with the paleo diet actually had to do with what was available at the time. They were still hunter/gatherers and hadn't started agricultural techniques. This of course would mean that certain food groups were probably often left out since they weren't growing their own crops. But back to the point. Problems like these have arrived any time we introduce something new. Perfect example is leaded gasoline, it took more than a decade to realize that the lead was causing serious health problems to those around them. The ancient Chinese gave the emperor mercury thinking it was an elixir of life (as we all know now terrible idea!) I do think that there are some issues with what we approve and don't approve that goes into the market place. Quick question I thought a lot of the problems with plastics arose when they were heated (such as in a microwave) and not necessarily when just storing food in them do you find this to be incorrect? Untested plastic isn't the only thing that's a problem. I mean think about all the natural/organic supplements that do not have to be tested and are not monitored very well at all. Makes it very important for everyone to do their research. Love that link you have to the supplement page showing where a lab has actually checked out the supplements. Looking forward to your future posts on the topic =) Jean

Response from Gary
June 28, 2015, 2:35 pm [42]
One of the genetic adaptations that really did occur during the paleolithic was our addiction to sugar. We are all born with it because in many times and places it is an important survival skill. Sugar was a rare commodity, unless you knew were all the bee hives were. During the 18th century and 19th century mechanization dramatically improved the harvesting and processing of sugar cane so sugar became much more available and much cheaper than before. Today we live in a virtual sugary soup, although cane sugar has largely been replaced by high fructose corn syrup with devastating consequences to our waist lines. For this addiction we cannot rely on an organic evolutionary adaptation. That will take too long. We have to adapt through education and behavior modification or else we face a future of fat round little humans full of disease waddling around on planet earth.

Comment from Igor
July 5, 2015, 9:16 am [54]
Maybe the most interest diet related article that I read in a long time. Yes, you are right. We have adapted but not to food filled with chemicals. I am planning to go on a diet for a while, but I really don't know which way and which diet is the best? Can you pls give me some advice? Thanks

Response from Gary
July 5, 2015, 5:51 pm [56]
I can't give advice for two reasons. One is that I don't have the practitioners credentials to do so, and two is that I'm not far enough into my research to have come to any solid conclusions yet. I can, however, let you know the direction the research is leading me. One thing I've learned is that even though meats have hormones and antibiotics in them and plant food has insecticide on them (and in them via GMO) the main source of chemical contamination comes from putting food in plastic containers. So I will be using glass or stainless steel. Here is a good source for chemically free containers:

In choosing a diet I want to (need to actually) have a diet that I can afford, even if I'm between jobs on unemployment. So the diets rich in organic grass fed beef and organic whole raw milk are impossible for me to use even if they are the most healthy. I'm leaning towards a balance between the really good stuff I can't afford and the poisonous stuff that is cheap and easy to get.

Because I'm gluten sensitive I won't be eating any wheat or barley or rye but I will have a little rice or millet and some lentils and black eye peas. The lentils and peas can be sprouted very easily, and maybe even the millet if you get unprocessed seeds. The sprouting action removes a lot of the anti-nutrients in the seeds. Due to the problems with digesting complex carbohydrates I will keep grains and beans to less than 20% of my calories.

I will be eating a mix of beef, pork, chicken and fish, the organic when I can afford it, but the regular stuff when I'm poor. I usually chop the meat in small pieces and cook well done. Although I like a big steak medium rare it's just too dangerous using store bought meats these days. I will be getting 50% or more of my calories from the protein and fats in the meats. The chicken and fish I cook in butter. Butter it turns out is safer and healthier than any of the processed oils you will find in the grocery. The red meats have enough of their own fats that they don't need the butter.

I will be starting, soon I hope, making my own fermented pro-biotics as part of my daily diet. Here are some articles on how to do that: Other fermented foods I will eat are cheese since the making of cheese eats up most of the lactose in the milk.

I will be staying away from milk, not because I'm lactose intolerant, but because it makes me fat. Milk is slightly sweet because Lactose is slightly sweet and because it's just slightly sweet we don't notice the quantity of sugar in milk, which is a lot, almost as much as drinking a soda. You can get a load of sugar without realizing it. The 2% and 1% milk isn't any better because they only take out the butterfat (the good stuff) and leave in all the sugar and hormones (the bad stuff). Instead I will be making my own milk by reconstituting it from cream. Just cream and water mixed together tastes pretty awful since milk is sweet and has a little salt in it. But if you add some splenda and a pinch of salt it actually starts to taste like real milk again.

Soda and other stuff with lots of high fructose corn syrup (which is toxic in some surprising ways) I will totally avoid. Instead I will make a lot of tea instead. I make gallons of tea at a time an keep it in the fridge in the summer time. In the winter I drink a lot of tea hot. I have a cup or two of coffee in the morning, but I can't drink that all day long or the caffeine becomes a problem.

I will be adding lots of vegetables to my diet such as squash, greens, peppers, celery, lettuce, etc. I don't usually use the iceberg lettuce because it's not nutrient dense, Iceberg lettuce is basically just water with a little fiber in it. I prefer other types of lettuce. My favorite green is collards, although they have too strong a flavor to eat raw and need to be cooked. I cook them in butter. I love to make a caldo de queso soup with big chunks of squash and cheddar cheese. I will try to get the remaining calories in my diet from the vegetables plus the butter fat, but that will be a lot of vegetables because they are not calorie dense. All those vegetables though means that the food will process through the gut quickly with all that fiber. That not only reduces the incidence of constipation but also reduces the chance of things like colon cancer and crohn's disease since the gut is not exposed to any toxic elements for long periods like it is when you are constipated.

Potatoes and other things that grow underground are considered vegetables, but be careful. They are rich in complex carbohydrates that are difficult for some sensitive people to digest. It isn't as bad as the gluten in wheat but for sensitive people you can still get the symptoms of celiac disease just from too many complex carbs. With potatoes there is an additional problem in that the skins and eyes of the potato are toxic and should be removed. I will keep these underground foods to a minimum and only eat them sporadically. Carb dense foods like potatoes I will balance with lots of other vegetables in order to get sufficient fiber.

For snacks I will use fruits and nuts (but not peanuts). I tend to snack a lot when sitting and writing so I will have to be careful not to pig out on the fruits and nuts because too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Be careful of dried fruits because many of them are loaded with added sugar.

And last but not least, since no food these days has all the necessary nutrients, I will be supplementing. For information on supplementation you can look here:


Comment from John
July 5, 2015, 11:43 am [55]
Hi Gary, I've always been worried about chemicals and toxins that are in our food supply, whether they have come from packaging or added to plants/animals at source. The thought of our bodies producing our own variant of insecticide really is scary - that sounds like the plot of Hollywood disaster movie! My view has been to try eat a balanced diet, plenty of fruit and vegetables and anything else in moderation. I'm no diet expert, but I've always felt uneasy about eliminating a food group entirely or increasing intake of a type of food as some diets advocate - I've always thought that balanced is the way to go. Best wishes John

Response from Gary
July 5, 2015, 6:07 pm [57]
I wish someone would make a Hollywood horror movie about our modern diet. That would be difficult though since all movies are sponsored these days even during production, and many of the biggest sponsors are the makers of the most toxic foods. :)


Comment from Matt
July 24, 2015, 5:54 am [80]
Weird, I guess I never really thought about our soils starting to rot away, and losing nutrients... I might have to click on that photo and check out what kind of supplements you offer for my crops.

I think if more people ate more plants in general than we do now, and there was less plastic, more personal growing, so people were eating better back in the 1800s.

I really liked the post, thanks for sharing..

Comment from Nicola
July 26, 2015, 9:58 pm [81]
There is so much misinformation around about diets and what foods to eat these days that it is difficult to know what to do, especially if you are trying to eat well to combat a specific problem, disease or illness.

Thanks for posting your thoughts on the issue which as always provide some thought-provoking stuff.

CancerSavvy Dot Com

Comment from Paula
August 3, 2015, 9:25 am [82]
Hello, thanks for this informative article. I recently made cloth food covers made with dye from tea and hardened with beeswax. I was getting tired of using Gladwrap on my kids school sandwiches as the possible effects were making me anxious.
It was great to make them, the kids helped it was a fun project and they can be reused many times.

Comment from NemiraB
September 8, 2015, 9:42 am [89]
Hello here. Yes, I think people ate better food compare with the food that they have nowadays.
Of course there are few conditions such as if meat is poisoned or infected with worms, it does not help for one's health . Lack of refrigerators can be a problem to, because spoiled food is prone to various bacteria.
However, I think a lot years ago people consumed a lot more vitamins and nutrients. Soil was not depleted as now. Water was clean and so on.
It is sad when we can hear about positiveness of fluoride in water or in toothpaste. Few people pay to this attention and instead listen to their doctors as if they would be smartest professionals on Earth.
It is great, that people as you provide information about importance of real, rich with nutrients food.
Happy writing, Nemira.

Response from Gary
September 8, 2015, 10:20 am [90]
Preserving food in the days before refrigeration was problematic, but they did have solutions. Vegetables and fruits could be canned. Meat could be salted, or dried, or picked, or packed in lard. Those in the northern climates, however, did have refrigetation in the form of a root cellar in the permafrost.

Comment from Faith
September 9, 2015, 11:38 pm [92]
I knew I should of just gone with glass bottles for my infant. I freaking knew it! I am about to go switch them out and to say I am pissed about all of my BPA free bottles being BS is an under-statement. Thank you for the share.
I do have a few questions about the supplements, I am well aware of the hazards of genetically altered produce, but if a person is consuming a balanced diet of non-GMO and organic produce and meats is supplementing still a necessity?

Response from Gary
September 10, 2015, 9:51 am [93]
A balanced diet is a good start. Unfortunately there have only ever been but a few places on the planet where the soil has ALL the nutrients necessary for good health. Today even those places are being depleted due to over farming and destructive agricultural methods. So supplementation is still necessary.

Comment from Simone
September 12, 2015, 12:55 am [95]
Very interesting read. I think it all comes down to moderation and not eliminating certain food groups (unless you have an allergy). Incorporate fruits, vegetables, protein and grains into your diet!

I have several friends that have jumped on the paleo and gluten free bandwagons (none have allergies or sensitivities to the foods they are omitting from their diets). I shake my head every time they share information supporting these diets on social media.

Like you have said, we have evolved. There is a reason why cavemen looked the way they did and acted the way they did (from what we know). They didn't cook their food and only had access to certain foods. Because of this their bodies used so much energy trying to digest these foods. This energy did not go directly to their brains. This is quite the over simplification of things but I don't want to write out a novel.

A friend recently posted a recipe for paleo brownies. That really made me laugh. I can just picture cavemen sitting around and eating brownies!

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For Further Reading

Millet (Wikipedia)Millet (Wikipedia)Earliest domestication of common milletEarliest domestication of common milletGenetically Engineered DistortionsGenetically Engineered Distortions
History of barley production in the USAHistory of barley production in the USA