May 27, 2009

The late Medieval shift away from carbs and toward meat

The past may have always been worse than the present, but some periods were better than others. And as Thomas Malthus showed, what made for an enjoyable era was plenty of disease, war, and other disasters beforehand -- to clear out a good chunk of the population, leaving much more stuff to go around per person among the survivors.

The 14th C. was overall a very calamitous century, so that during and just after the myriad disasters that plagued it, signs of the good life abounded. How would this affect the diet? Nutritionists from roughly 1950 onward would predict that very little animal fat -- or perhaps animal products at all -- would have been consumed, and that they would have enjoyed a diet based mostly on grains and cereals, and then on fruits and vegetables. (Recall the FDA's food pyramid and its large base of bread, pasta, and cereal.)

These nutritionists are completely ignorant of human evolution, physical anthropology, as well as recorded history. Not surprisingly, they've got it completely backwards -- their recommended diet will keep your insulin levels high chronically, causing you to store fat rather than burn it for fuel, not to mention all the other side-effects of a carbohydrate-rich, fat-deficient diet. (For a good review, read Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories or watch a video if you're lazy.) It's no wonder, then, that the dietary sign of higher standards of living in the late Middle Ages was the exact opposite of the nutritionists' prescriptions -- cutting way back on bread and loading up on dead animals.

In this post I mentioned that Gregory Clark's book A Farewell to Alms has a table showing that English farm workers in the late Middle Ages got a fair portion of meat to supplement their wages. In fact, not only did they eat a lot more meat from 1350 to 1450 compared to 1250 to 1350 -- one pound a day! -- they were also eating a lot less bread. So, unlike present-day bodybuilders who hamstring their ability to pack on muscle and burn lots of energy (by carb-loading), late Medieval farm workers were not eating foods that would keep their insulin levels chronically high.

Rather than yammer on at greater length about this change, I'd rather point you to a free copy of the academic article that Clark's table mostly draws from: go to this list of articles and Ctrl F "Dyer." The article is "Changes in diet in the late middle ages: the case of harvest workers." He cautions that autumn farm workers were better off than other laborers, that even they only enjoyed this diet during their autumn work schedule, etc., but the overall change from roughly 1250 to 1450 is pretty clear.

He also provides data showing that elite people, such as the prioress of a nunnery, ate much less bread and much more meat than the lower orders. Dyer has more data on how diet varied throughout the social ladder, and the pattern holds up there too. See his book chapter "English diet in the later middle ages" in this volume, as well as the discussion of diet in his book Standards of living in the later Middle Ages. Barbara Harvey's book Living and dying in England, 1100 - 1540 is about the monks of Westminster Abbey, an elite group. In the chapter on diet, she provides data showing that during the 15th C., they ate a fair amount of meat and not as much bread as Dyer's farm workers from 1250 -- probably above the farm workers of 1450 but below the higher elites.

As I mentioned before, this is a pretty general pattern -- animal products, especially good muscle and organ meat, are more expensive to produce than grain products. So, the elite have always been less reliant on empty carbs, and enjoyed more animal protein and fat, than the commoners. This is why the notion that elites used to be fat or even obese, while the commoners used to be thin, is nonsense. As a rule, they never have been. By consuming so much of their food in the form of non-fibrous carbohydrates, the commoners of the Middle Ages would not have looked very different from today's Wal-Mart shoppers.

Kitchen detail from the Luttrell Psalter

A curious thing in Dyer's article is that he seems to think that when people ate more meat, they must have had a vitamin A deficiency, since their new diet also saw a decrease in the amount of dairy they ate. While you can get a decent amount of vitamin A from dairy (usually 5 - 10% of the RDA per serving of butter, milk, cream, or cheese), the key source has always been animal livers. To see this, here is a tool to list foods by how much of some substance they have. Click the "highest in" bar, and scroll down until you see retinol (under vitamin A), and search. Aside from dry cereals (which are irrelevant since once you add everything else to them, their weight will shoot up, and the concentration of vitamin A will plummet), the high-scorers are all from animal organs, especially liver.

True vitamin A is only found in animal products -- the stuff in spinach, carrots, etc. is just a precursor to vitamin A, and is not converted with 100% efficiency into vitamin A. (See the Wikipedia entry for vitamin A.) Vitamin A is fat soluble, so that the excess can be stored away in our fat, although the bulk of the not-currently-in-use vitamin A is stored in the liver.

So, the simple way to get plenty of this vitamin is to steal it. Find an animal that has spent all day processing the plants that are rich in the precursors -- this animal will have created true vitamin A from all this junk, and it will have stored most of the unused portion in its liver. Kill this animal and eat its liver -- and boom, you've hit the vitamin A jackpot. And all without letting a single leaf of spinach enter your mouth.

Returning to Dyer's article, he mentions that the farm workers also ate the offal of animals, not just the muscle meat. And the elites surely did too. If this included liver -- and that's probably true, since it's been prized forever (including among present-day hunter-gatherers) -- then they would've had plenty of vitamin A.

At any rate, the important thing to take home is that elites have always eaten better than commoners, in particular eating fewer easily digestible carbs and more animal protein and fat, so they were never fatter than the commoners. I don't know where this image of the "well fed, rotund aristocracy" came from, but look at who is well fed today -- middle class French people don't look obese at all, while American proles may soon be required to purchase two airline tickets for their one body.

Since the 14th C was a time of improving standards of living -- starting decades before the Black Death, but particularly so after the plague cleared away a bunch of the survivors' would-be labor competition -- these data also show that a lower standard of living, as during the 13th C., is characterized by eating lots of empty carbs and hardly any animal fat and protein, while in better times, such as the 14th and 15th Cs, people can finally junk all of that tasteless bread and dig in to beef, lamb, mutton, liver, and the rest.


  1. Your entries on the benefits of fat and the harmfulness of carbs and sugars convinced me to change my diet.

    I've dropped about 20 pounds in two months, without exercising much. I was a little over 220 before and now have plateau at 203 or so (I'm 6'0"). I guess I'll have to start exercising now to get down to my target weight of 195 (which was what I weighed when I was a three sport athlete in high school and didn't have an ounce of fat on me).

    I'm glad I've made the switch.

  2. RF

    Another change that will help is to cut the refined vegatable oils (soybean, canola, cottonseed, corn oil, ect) from your diet. They're completely outside what our body evolved to handle, and the omega six fatty acids suprres thyroid production, a key hormone in metabolism. Since omega threes competes with omega six, you can also up the amount of fatty fish to decrease the negative effects of n6.

  3. Nice post. "These nutritionists are completely ignorant of human evolution, physical anthropology, as well as recorded history." Truer words never spoken. The thing that clinched the falsity of the low-fat idea for me was the realization that humans would *never* choose carbs over fat and protein if they could help it. Eating low-fat is an idea completely at odds with history, not to mention physiology.

  4. Same here. Your posts on fat and the dangers of carbs/sugars were influential to me as well. It got me researching the topic and I've changed my diet dramatically with excellent results.

    You make excellent points in this post. But I'm not sure about whether the peasants of Medieval Europe would have looked like present day obese US proles. I agree that the peasants would have subsisted largely on carbs (bread, starchy roots, veggies). I imagine many of them would've eaten meat only once or twice a year on a religious feast day (Christmas, Easter, saint day, etc.).

    I think most likely they would've been "skinny-fat." That is, they would not have eaten enough protein and fat to build and maintain lean muscle mass. All the carbs they eat would've eaten would be stored as fat. But they would be constantly working all day, so they would be burning lots of energy throughout the day. So the net result would be very thin, bony, weak physiques with virtually no lean muscle mass. They are skinny and don't weigh much, but they have lots of fat as a % of their bodies.

    You actually see this a lot today among vegans, joggers, and young women. They eat almost no animal protein and fat and do hours of repetitive aerobic exercise each week. They seem to be recreating the Medieval peasant experience through their diets and hours of monotonous, droning energy expenditure.

    You've written a lot about present day young women and their body types, and I think you're spot on. They're on these terrible low fat diets and are in the gym for hours each week doing mind numbing cardio. And their bodies definitely reflect this. Bad skin, bad hair, bad moods. Bony, with no lean, plump, feminine mass. Just bad skin on a bony frame. I think this would give us a good idea of what the peasants may have looked like.

    So I think it's feasible that the upper class would've been heavier than the peasants. The animal fat and protein in their diets would've meant more lean muscle mass. And they wouldn't have been laboring all day, depleting all their energy. But it's likely that they would've been much more healthier than the peasants. Stronger, and with better immune systems.

  5. When I was in european history in HS I was always told that the elites ate lots of meat & white bread and that this was bad for them, so they got gout. That would go against my priors, as rich people should be healthier. I accept that brown/black bread is healthier than white though.

  6. "I accept that brown/black bread is healthier than white though."

    Anti-racism has its tentacles everywhere.

  7. "I accept that brown/black bread is healthier than white though."

    They both have a lot of disadvantages. I've skipped eating bread/grains and I'm not looking back.

  8. TGGP,

    Some people argue that refined grain products such as white bread would've been consumed by the wealthy. Commoners would've eaten barley, coarse unrefined grains and their derivatives like brown/black bread.

    Interestingly enough, this was also the case in East Asia. The upper class would have white rice and the lower classes would eat barley, or brown rice if they were lucky.

  9. Also, it's not conclusive that unrefined grains and their derivatives (brown/black bread, brown rice, etc.) are necessarily better than refined grains like white bread and rice.

    People tout the minerals and nutrients in whole grains that are lost during the refining process. But the body doesn't absorb them very well. Even less so with very little fat in the diet, as agnostic has mentioned before. And phytic acid is anti-nutrient.

    One of the reasons people preferred refined grains, white bread and white rice up until recently was not only taste but also the easier digestion. Grains have evolved to defend against having their seeds be completely absorbed by animals during digestion, so that the seeds will be defecated out somewhere and have the chance to grow. The anti-digestive measures can and do have negative effects on the digestive tract, such as damaging cells in the stomach and intestines. Anyone who has ever eaten a lot of brown rice at one time can attest to some of the negative after effects such as bloating, gas, stomach discomfort, etc.

    So you have to factor in the different effects on digestion and the digestive tract when comparing the healthiness of refined vs. unrefined grains.

    The strongest case for unrefined grains is the lower glycemic load relative to refined grains. But again, it's not completely conclusive. White bread will give you a higher immediate spike in blood sugar that will taper off quicker than brown bread. Brown bread will not spike blood sugar as much immediately, but will be released more gradually. So it's conceivable that eating brown bread/rice regularly will maintain your blood sugar at a constantly elevated level, and this could be unhealthier than eating white bread/rice once in a while that spikes your blood sugar at once but avoids a chronically elevated state.

  10. TGGP,

    Re the wealthy European elites and gout, there have been studies linking gout with fructose and soft drink consumption:

    Only wealthy Europeans would've been able to consume high fructose fruits such as oranges, and sweet drinks like port wine. Oranges were rare in England even during the 19th cent. I recall reading that a single orange was often given as a Christmas gift to people.

  11. "Oranges were rare in England even during the 19th cent." Nell Gwyn?
    From WKPD:-
    "Mary Meggs, a former prostitute nicknamed "Orange Moll" and a friend of Madam Gwyn's, had been granted the licence to "vend, utter and sell oranges, lemons, fruit, sweetmeats and all manner of fruiterers and confectioners wares" within the theatre.[8] Orange Moll hired Nell and her older sister Rose as "orange-girls", selling the small, sweet "china" oranges to the audience inside the theatre for a sixpence each."

  12. Don't hate cuz you're skinny. Eating lots of meat is exactly what bodybuilders go for.


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