The Roman diet was by far the healthiest for modern man
JUST a whiff of the smell-o-rama machine pumping realistic period pongs into York’s Jorvik Centre confirmed any nagging doubts that I wasn’t designed for the cut and thrust of Viking times.
In fact, quite a few centuries would have to elapse before I really would feel happy to set my dainty foot on a land yet to get to grips with a satisfactory sewage and sanitary system.
Period drama-makers have been all too happy to remind us of these less hygienically challenged times, when the unadulterated foul nature of this land was green, but far from pleasant.
It was something of a shock, therefore, to learn that people in medieval times were healthier than modern Britons, as they did not suffer from cholesterol-related diseases.
It’s important that I share this with you, as some readers might be eyeing up a few rounds of Irish coffee this Christmas, which provides in a single glass all four essential food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat.
Whatever the short-comings of living somewhere between the Roman occupation and the Victorian drainage programme, pelted with pox, plague and contents of chamber pots, the population’s diet avoided foods which caused heart disease.
Excessive levels of cholesterol didn’t exist in Roman through to Medieval times. This is a current malaise caused by excessive consumption of refined foods coupled with a lack of exercise.
The daily diet of Roman Britons some two millennia ago was fruit, fish, whole grains, vegetables and olive oil, further lubricated by red wine. It came to about 120g of fat, 80g of protein and 600g of carbohydrates.
Mind you, even the Romans had their sceptics. Seneca complained: “You won’t be surprised that diseases are innumerable – count the cooks.”
No wonder we’re reminded of him whenever we take a seneca pod. Fast forward two thousand years and the British diet is higher in fat, lower in fruit and vegetables and higher in refined sugar.
Together, they have contributed to the obesity-related disease and cholesterol. We’re settled into that customary British condition where the wine is a farce and the food a tragedy.
If healthy eating starts with children at home, the Romans were much luckier than us. They did not have to contend with children tempted into sin with Pot Noodles.
Our youngsters’ general attitude to vegetables reflects Ogden Nash’s pocket poem that “parsley is gharsley”.
Most of us mothers got the sprouts on back in October for Christmas Day, a vegetable that is particularly useful to get even with our offspring. PJ O’Rourke noted: “If you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something brussels sprouts never do.”
How true. What the Medieval diet needs is some proper marketing. Forget the F Plan and try the Plantagenet Plan.
This Medieval food research was carried out for Lloyds Pharmacy by Dr Roger Henderson, who surmised that it was by far the healthiest for the average man.
It was low in saturated fats and transfats, high in vegetables and a moderate intake of weak alcohol.
In tandem with a with a very active work routine, this meant their risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity linked diseases was far below that of 2007.
The down side of living in pre-antibiotic Plantagenet Britain was that you were even likely to pick up more infections than in the average NHS ward (leaving aside the current problems of hospital food).
Childbirth-related deaths and infant mortality were also very high, which taken together meant that the average medieval lifespan was about half what we have now.
“The Roman diet was healthy provided you were wealthy enough to afford the fresh fruit, vegetables and fish so common in the Mediterranean diet,” points out Dr Henderson.
“It was probably higher in fat overall than the medieval diet, but far healthier than today.”
Unbelievably, daily exercise has decreased by at least an average of 96% since Roman and medieval times, according to Dr Henderson.
It has dropped from eight hours a day to less than 20 minutes in our almost totally sedentary lives.
Still, no point in worrying about it all this until after Christmas, when I’ve roasted my way merrily through everything from turkey to chestnuts.
In spite of our shelves groaning with diet books (some of which I have opened), I can’t help but agree with Fran Lebowitz: “Large raw carrots (and any other uncooked vegetable) are acceptable as food only to those who live in hutches, eagerly awaiting Easter.”
Merry Christmas everybody.