Romanticizing the Historic Diet

By: Ellen Ireland- Op/Ed piece

As an anthropologist, I have spent innumerable hours learning about the history of the human diet. From the Miocene apes to the rise of agriculture, prehistoric diets are of particular importance to those who study human history. Interestingly, they are also the subject of fascination for the public. Concepts of what constitutes healthy eating have changed regularly over the past 50 years. Trends have driven consumers to low fat diets, high protein diets, low sugar diets, and other diets that are presented as a reaction to some new ground-breaking scientific research. Many people will recall the 1960’s “back to the earth” movements. This trend, which has recently re-emerged, is a reaction against the artificial chemicals in food and a desire to avoid processed and “unnatural” foods. As a result, the diets of human history are once more explored, as the health conscious search for a perfect, natural “true” human diet.

My question is: when was that? People today live longer than at any other period in human history. Granted, we do have some problems that seem new, like obesity and food sensitivities, but in historic periods those problems were probably overlooked in light of threats like cholera or starvation. Just look at the mid-19th century: in 1854 over 500 people in London died of cholera within 10 days during the Broad Street epidemic;1 by 1852 a million people had died of starvation in a decade from the still famous Irish potato famine.2 Today we have the abundance of food and leisure to select “ideal” human foods, meant to maximize our health by being true to our evolutionary past. Genetic adaptation to diet can occur in a surprisingly small amount of time, and varies greatly according to food availability. Because of this, some populations are adapted to dairy products; others have lost the ability neutralize some of the oxidants found in beans. It would require a great deal of archaeology, genetic research, toxicology and experimentation to determine the ideal diet for an individual, particularly if you chose to recreate a historic diet.

Of course, authenticity isn’t the driving force behind a “paleo-diet”, it is merely a marketing ploy. There are many kinds of “paleo-diets” out there, with the intention of re-creating this “natural” human diet. The function of the diet is to be healthy, and in that role it seems to succeed. I interviewed Robin Danek, MPH, about her experiences trying out one of the paleo-diets.

Ellen: Tell me briefly about what you tried.
Robin: I first came across it was my CrossFit trainer, Will, started talking to me about how my diet could effect how we perform in our workouts and in general. There was a diet he and his wife had done which is pushed by CrossFit and associated with a website. The diet is called Whole 30. It’s called Whole 30 because it takes thirty days. The idea is that you remove everything from your diet that could possibly cause some kind of inflammatory response and is making you less healthy than if you weren’t eating it. They stole the idea of the paleo diet from nutritionists who have been preaching this for years. People refer to the diet as “paleo” because you are eating as our ancestors did. You are eating basics: meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and that’s about it. That means I had to remove beans, dairy, alcohol, grains, and sugar.
Ellen: Why beans?
Robin: Well, that’s a good question. I removed them because they told me to. It has something to do with the lectin and it causes inflammation or something. One of the questions on the FAQ’s is “why beans?”

Ellen: Do you think this diet is representative of a specific period in human history? What makes it “authentic”?
Robin: I do think it is representative of a particular time period, and I do think it’s authentic…in the sense that one of the things that accompanied this diet, I didn’t just have to not eat beans etc. I had to look at the labels on the things I was eating and keep ingredients to a bare minimum. That means I couldn’t eat ham or bacon…by not eating things with a lot of sugar I was making my diet more authentic.
Ellen: Which time period was this specifically?
Robin: Prehistoric times, when cave men roamed the earth. (Laughter). I would say 2000 BC sort of thing.

Ellen: Why did you choose this time period?
Robin: I’m naturally an experimental person, I like to test myself. I like to experiment with different things. This diet was tied to fitness. To me it makes intuitive sense that input is going to effect output.

Ellen: Do you think this represents a diet that is healthy? For weight loss? Tasty?
Robin: Definitely for health. It is an overall holistic approach to eating and health in general. Even though I did this diet as a result of my coach talking to me, I didn’t do it to lose weight. I lost a pound, but I felt like my body changed significantly. I didn’t do it for taste. You would get bored after 30 days of not eating sugar. You don’t realize the hold that sugar in particular has over you until you go without it. Not just straight sugar, but just not drinking alcohol or dairy, you’re not eating processed foods at all. It is amazing how your body reacts. Even though I have gone back to eating dairy etc, I am more conscious of how much sugar I eat.

Ellen: Would you recommend this style of eating to others? Why?
Robin: I would, definitely. And I have. Even if you don’t go whole hog and take everything out of your diet like I did, if you remove sugar especially, you will see a change. I slept like a baby. I haven’t been able to do that since, and it is because of the sugar. Anyone who’s training for an event or wants to put on muscle I would especially recommend it.

On the opposite side of the dietary fence are historic diets recreated specifically for authenticity. Just as many people believe that food was healthier a couple thousand years ago, many people believe that food was tastier in the recent past. How many times have you heard the marketing line “Just like Grandma used to make?” The processing and additives that are shunned by consumers in the interest of health are also resented by those who crave the tasty foods of more historic periods.

Julia Skinner, with the University of Iowa library science program, is working on a project for the UI Center for the Book, a unique department that focuses on the physical nature of books. Her research begins with something known to be authentic- a 17th century cookbook- and re-creates the recipes.
Ellen: Tell me briefly about your project.
Julia: I’m doing a project on 17th century recipes. I’m working with Gervase Markham’s “The English Housewife”. It involves recreating his banqueting foods, blogging about that, and creating a self published book. I’m also binding and illustrating a single book with calligraphy and binding from the time.

Ellen: Why this time period?
Julia: This time period interested me because print had been around for about 100 years so these printed cookbooks were becoming more widespread. You can look at these cookbooks and see how people ate, and how people in different parts of the social ladder ate. Markham’s book appeals to the middling country gentry folk.

Ellen: Do you think this represents a diet that is healthy? For weight loss? Tasty?
Julia: Definitely tasty. At the time they would have found it healthy. Our modern conception would find it happy. Everything has so much sugar in it, because it was used as a preservative. So you have things that are equal weight sugar and fruit. People tend to think that in this era people were eating nothing but meat, but as you go down the social totem pole people were eating more vegetables. The people who were using Markham’s book would eat some meat, but an average meal might have a meat, and some vegetable and fruit side dishes that were always cooked. It wasn’t seen as healthy to eat them raw. The concept of food as medicine was very popular at this time. By virtue of it being a cookery book it was considered health promoting, but that wasn’t its focus. By virtue of making a food you were talking about health, but his focus was on everyday food with banqueting. It was a household manual- making beer, making wine, doing surgery…it was more about sustaining a household than anything.

Ellen: Do you think this diet is representative of a specific period in human history? What makes it “authentic”?
Julia: Yes. Markham didn’t write most of them himself. The concepts of copyright were different in his time, so he just yoinked most of them from other people. So it’s like five or ten people’s recipes.

Ellen: Would you recommend this style of eating to others? Why?
Julia: I would in limited doses. It gets really sugary really quickly. If you like sweet things you might enjoy it, but if you like raw salads this is not the diet for you.

Taken out of context, it is easy to see diet as a battle between health and taste. The “paleo-diet”, while very healthy by modern standards, isn’t very flavorful (no sugar, no dairy etc.). It also would have been very difficult to maintain in an ancient world where winter storage was unavailable and food was subject to seasonal availability. The Markham diet was considered very healthy in its time. In a period where food availability was less of an issue than food poisoning and preservation, the use of methods we would now consider unhealthy (thoroughly cooking all vegetables, using a lot of sugar) was beneficial. These steps make the food seem sinfully rich to a modern palate, as our modern sanitation has rendered the necessity of extreme cooking and preservation methods obsolete.

A historic diet must always be considered in terms of context. I am not suggesting that either of these experiments lack value, but to the contrary, I believe that the changes in our modern food systems will benefit from popular experiments in both healthy eating and tasty eating. Both Julia’s and Robin’s experiments are related to online blogs. Just as Markham’s cookbook represented a new means of disseminating food related information, the internet is an important part of the modern world of food learning. A cursory examination of the food trends of the 20th century would show a great increase in convenience of meals; but has that made them better? Online discussions are an important new tool in determining the desires of the American public, to see if the pendulum is slowly swinging away from convenience and availability as favored traits, towards a focus on health and flavor.

The blog Robin refers to is available at:
Julia’s blog, Modernizing Markham, is available at

1 Brody, Howard; Rip, Michael Russell; Vinten-Johansen, Peter; Paneth, Nigel; Rachman, Stephen. (2000) Map-making and myth-making in Broad Street: the London cholera epidemic, 1854. The Lancet. 356;64-68

2Christine Kinealy. (1995) Beyond Revisionism: Reassessing the Great Irish Famine. History Ireland. 3:4; 28-34

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