The war-time diet

I’ve always been fascinated by how ordinary people lived in earlier times (and in other parts of the world).  I’m not so interested in History which is often mostly about the politics and the wars, but I’m very interested in Anthropology which tells us about how people lived – what their homes were like, what they wore, what they ate, what kind of work they did, how gender relations worked (or didn’t!).

The home front during the Second World War is probably especially interesting because my parents lived through it.  I don’t remember if Dad had any stories, but Mum certainly has lots and I never tire of hearing them.

Food was rationed during the war because of the obvious difficulties of getting imported food into the country when it was surrounded by U-boats – and prior to the war 70% of food was imported!.  Despite that, it is said that by the war’s end the UK population was healthier than ever.  

Much of the health improvement was down to 4 main factors:

  1. rationing actually gave poorer people better access to nutritious food, particularly protein and vitamins, as all the available food was shared equally, regardless of income bracket or social status
  2. there was an enormous publicity campaign to educate the public about nutrition and how to prepare nutritious meals using what was available
  3. people grew and ate more vegetables (again prompted by a national campaign which encouraged people to ‘dig for victory’ and made sure they knew how) because other foodstuffs were less available
  4. the average person ate less meat, fat and sugar than they had pre-war

People did on average consume more calories than today’s recommended levels but their lifestyles were more active and labour-intensive.  We’ve traded  opportunities to move and give our bodies healthy work for convenience!

So does this diet have anything to teach us today?  Oh I think so!  Here are some of the take-aways:

Lots of veggies!  And as much variety as possible – every colour or the rainbow – carrots, kale, red cabbage, beetroot, spinach, sweet potato, squash …..

More meat-free days – the meat ration was 8oz of bacon and ham per week, plus other meat to the value of 1s 2d (which would have bought you a couple of pork chops).  Excellent excuse to make some tasty, filling and nutritious bean casseroles or lentil dhals – full of fibre, protein, iron, vitamins and other phytonutrients.

Less fat.  This one is slightly more controversial these days, although the official line is definitely still low fat.  I try to get as much of my fats as possible from the unprocessed foods themselves, such as avocados, nuts and seeds, olives and tahini.  I’m also very anti-margarine – I’m leaning more to the plant-based edge at the moment, but in the past I’ve stuck with butter.  Just use less!

Less sugar.  This is a no-brainer.  Sugar is the enemy!  It is reputed to be more addictive than cocaine (according to a study done on rats – which I don’t condone, but there you have it) and has no health benefits whatsoever.  It is linked with obesity, diabetes, alzheimers, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, some cancers and fatty liver. OK, it tastes nice and we want some sweetness in our lives, but when we get our palates used to not having added sugars we can appreciate the sweetness of fruits again.  The war-time ration was 8oz per week, plus 12oz of sweets a month, so an average of 11oz or around 310g.

Local, seasonal and home-cooked (and even better, home-grown) food.  I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s the common denominator of the otherwise very different diets of the populations with the longest healthspans in the world.  Eating local and seasonal fruit and veg is now also thought to support a  healthy gut microbiome.  Add in ‘growing your own’ and now we’ve brought some healthy movement into our day too!

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