The aim of this study was to examine the impact of regional diets on the health of the poor in mid-Victorian Britain. Contemporary surveys of regional diets and living condition were reviewed. This information was compared with mortality data from Britain over the same period.
Although there was an overall improvement in life expectancy during the latter part of the 19th century, there were large regional differences in lifestyle, diet and mortality rates. Dietary surveys showed that the poor labouring population in isolated rural areas of England, in the mainland and islands of Scotland and in the west of Ireland enjoyed the most nutritious diets. These regions also showed the lowest mortality rates in Britain. This was not simply the result of better sanitation and less mortality from food and waterborne infections but also fewer deaths from pulmonary tuberculosis, which is typically associated with better nutrition.
These more isolated regions where a peasant-style culture provided abundant locally produced cheap foodstuffs such as potatoes, vegetables, whole grains, and milk and fish, were in the process of disappearing in the face of increasing urbanisation. This was to the detriment of many rural poor during the latter half of the century. Conversely, increasing urbanisation, with its improved transport links, brought greater availability and diversity of foods to many others.
It was this that that led to an improved nutrition and life expectancy for the majority in urbanising Britain, despite the detrimental effects of increasing food refinement.
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