The eating habits we need to bring back from the 1950s
Obviously this is from a British perspective but, apart from the rationing, I expect the change in eating habits are very similar in many other western countries and around the world.
The eating habits we need to bring back from the 1950s
As we approach the Jubilee and look back to the time of the Coronation, we were slimmer and healthier back then – here’s why...
When Elizabeth was crowned Queen on June 2, 1953, sugar, butter, cheese, margarine, cooking fats and meat were all rationed.
Fortunately, sweets, eggs and cream had come off ration in February, March and April respectively, so there was surely a trifle or two to be had at a street party. Sugar, though, did not come off ration until September that year.
For a time of jubilation, it was by modern standards a fairly dismal diet, reliant on potatoes and without any of the exotic ingredients we take for granted. It was a simpler time, when olive oil was only sold in small bottles from the chemist, to loosen ear wax.
Now 70 years on, we have more choice than you can shake a chopstick at. We’re also facing an obesity epidemic that would be inconceivable to an average 1950s family.
Cancer Research UK estimates more than 21 million UK adults will be obese by 2040 (almost 36 per cent of the adult population). The number of people living with diabetes has hit an all-time high reaching over 4.9 million. According to Diabetes UK 13.6m people are now at increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Compare that with the 1960s when only one per cent of men and two per cent of women had diabetes.
Eating habits: 1950s v modern day
Then: Sugar, butter, cheese, margarine, cooking fats and meat were still rationed
Now: 2,900,197 tonnes of sugary foods were consumed in the UK last year
Then: 1 per cent of men and 2 per cent of women were obese
Now: 36 per cent of UK adults are obese
Then: Average female was a (UK) size 10
Now: Average female is a (UK) size 14
Then: Average female weighed 136lb
Now: Average female weighs 154lb
Then: 14 per cent of population owned a car
Now: 75 per cent of population own a car
Then: A typical breakfast was bacon and eggs
Now: Cereal is the most popular breakfast option
And yet when meat and all other food rationing ended in Britain in June 1954, it left the nation fitter than it had been previously.
Sections of society who had a poor diet previously had seen an increase in their intake of protein and vitamins because they received the same rations as everybody else. Pregnant women and children were also granted additional eggs, milk, and other items to keep them strong and healthy. For instance, post-war four-year-olds had higher calcium and iron intakes through bread and milk consumption and ate and drank less sugar overall than children today.
The world has been getting taller in the decades since, thanks to better nutrition; the average height in the UK rose by 3.9in (10cm) during the 20th century. In 1957 the average woman was 5ft 2in, compared with 5ft 5in today.
Yet according to numbers from 2017 she is also 20lb heavier (154 vs.136lb) and wears a larger-size clothing (size 14 today vs. size 10 in 1957).
It’s clear though from rising obesity levels that somewhere we’ve tipped the scales from healthy to not so. Are there lessons we can learn from a Jubilee diet?
According to food historian Dr Annie Gray, the general culture lent itself to better fitness and health. “Plates were smaller. Snacking didn’t happen all day,” says Gray. “Alcohol consumption was far less too.”
Meat consumption was less than today. Meals were bulked out with oats, pulses and bread – brown bread became the norm; the National Loaf introduced in 1942, was made from wholemeal flour to combat wartime shortages of white flour.
The ration diet wasn’t about starvation; men were allowed 3,000 calories a day – slightly higher than the 2,500 recommended today. In many ways, a 1950s diet can seem counterintuitive. “There were biscuits, cakes and sugar,” says Gray. “The difference is that today we eat sugar in more insidious ways.”
People however were still consuming less sugar than we do. Even when rationing finished and everyone went crazy for sugar, many of the habits of the war were very ingrained. “It was still about not wasting food and using whatever you had. And also walking places. All of that was part and parcel of people’s lives,” says Gray
Today we need to be reminded to walk 10,000 steps, something that wouldn’t need saying in 1953. The proportion of households with access to a car has risen from 14 per cent in 1951 to 75 per cent in 2010.
Unsurprisingly then, few people skipped breakfast. Typically it was bacon and eggs. “Only 20 per cent of the population were having breakfast cereal in 1956,” says Gray. “We know that cereals generally speaking are pretty awful. Most are high in sugar, salt and fat.”
For the workers, there was no Pret sandwich al desko. “Sixty per cent of people went home for lunch in the lower classes,” says Gray.
When she was writing the Call the Midlife Cook Book, Gray would have a two-course lunch typical of the era. “Sausages and something like a rice pudding. And as long as you have small portions it feels like a massive meal.”
Dinner in the 1950s would have been cooked from scratch, rather than delivered or out at a restaurant. Meals took place around a dining table. Contrast with today, where approximately five per cent between the ages of 45 to 54, of a 2021 Statista survey, said they ate with family at the dinner table only once a month.
Mindless eating with your various screens wouldn’t have been an option given that in 1953 there were only 2.7 million television sets in existence.
“One of the things that is quite good about a 1950s meal is paying attention to what you’re eating and stopping when you’re full,” says Gray. It’s one of the many lessons she says we can learn from a 1950s diet. Eating proper food and making healthy decisions
For bariatric surgeon Andrew Jenkinson, author of Why We Eat (Too Much), his concern is what we’re eating, not how much.
“It’s nothing to do with calories,” he says. “You can eat a lot of healthy foods, such as meat, fish and vegetables with high calories without it translating into weight gain. It’s what the food does to you from a metabolic perspective. The western diet has too many refined carbohydrates that affect your insulin levels and cause inflammation. It’s not the fact that it’s really tasty, it’s the fact it disrupts the metabolic signalling, causing weight gain.”
In his book, he praises a Victorian diet. A 1950s ration diet wouldn’t have been much different. “There wasn’t access to refined carbohydrates in the form of processed bread, pasta, shop-bought cakes and biscuits. We also didn’t have the profusion of vegetable oils, which in my opinion, with the exception of good olive oil, are the most artificial foods that cause major distortion to our metabolism.
“We’ve introduced a Deliveroo culture. Restaurant food will tend to add sugar, salt and veg oils to make it tasty so we go back and have more.” Even the treats of the 1950s, such as cakes and biscuits, are more likely today to be shop bought and have shelf-life lengthening palm oil in them.
The point where it all went wrong, he says, was the 1980s when saturated fats were wrongly demonised, and cereals replaced eggs as a healthy breakfast.
“The big scare that saturated fats caused cardiac disease, which has been proven to be not reliable evidence, unfortunately, meant the the western world went towards more refined carbohydrates.”
His fear is that we still don’t fully understand its effect on our bodies. While not everyone becomes obese on snacks and junk food there has been an increase in other western diseases.
“Asthma, IBS, arthritis, autoimmune diseases and allergies, they all come because we don’t really understand what this new food does to our bodies,” says Jenkinson.
How have our food habits have changed in 70 years
In 1952 nearly half of all households ate no meals outside of the home and only one fifth ate one dinner a week out.
The first Wimpy Bars opened in 1954, selling hamburgers and milkshakes, and proved extremely popular.
The 1960s saw our hunger for quick and easy meals grow rapidly. Frozen peas had grown in popularity and the consumption of flour, a cupboard must-have for decades, started to fall.
In the 1970s as more families were able to buy fridges and freezers the popularity of convenience food reached a new level. By the end of the decade, almost all families (95 per cent) owned a fridge.
By 1983, the average person ate three meals a week outside of the home.
By 2015 retailers were selling food in bigger packages – with the average supermarket pizza increasing from 200g to more than 250g in the last two decades.
Pies, muffins, bagels, pizzas and packets of crisps are sold in larger packets than they were in the 1990s.
Much of the problem is that junk food is frequently cheaper than healthy food. As a society we also spend far less on food than we did in the 1950s; food shopping took up one-third of the average income, compared with around 16 per cent today.
Jenkinson is not advocating rolling back the clock. Rather we take the time to consider what unhealthy habits we have that we could give a 1950s makeover. But with a modern sensibility, making use of spices and knowledge from other cuisines.
“We are now in a position where we can cook really delicious foods in our own kitchens. More than ever we can actually lose a lot of weight and have a great quality of life and nutrition.”