On Independence Day, Nutritionists Cast a Cold Eye on Eating Habits of Colonial America

American Institute for Cancer Research
Saturday, 24 June 2000

Founding Fathers Were Lost When it Came to Healthy Diets, Say Experts

What did our forefathers eat on the first Independence Day? Don't look to America's past for advice on healthy eating, say nutrition experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). The Institute says that most colonial diets revolved around fat, meat, salt and alcohol.

AICR Director of Nutrition Education Melanie Polk, R.D., M.M.Sc., estimates that our founding fathers consumed well over 5,000 calories a day, much of it from pork and beef significantly higher in fat than today's meats. Vegetables, if available at all, tended to be used sparingly, to add flavor to meats or meat sauces. The predominant grain was corn, which was ground into refined meal. Food was often preserved by salting or smoking. Drinking water was frequently unsafe, so hard cider, ale and rum were consumed in great quantities.

"It was really the perfect diet," comments Polk, "if you spent all day working in the fields and were careful to die of yellow fever by age 28."

By today's standards, colonial meals were very high in fat and calories, and lacking in fruits and vegetables. "But we shouldn't be too hard on these men and women," Polk says. "After all, we didn't really start to learn what we know about nutrition today until well into the 20th century."

Even that staggering 5,000-calories-a-day figure makes a certain amount of sense, she says. "For most people, colonial America was a time and place of hard, ceaseless manual labor. It's likely that such a huge calorie payload was appropriate to get these men and women through their day."

Ironically, AICR began researching the diets of colonial America with the hope that our nation's founding fathers - and mothers - would have something to teach modern America about how to eat simply and well. "We had these vague, romantic notions of colonial people tending vegetable gardens, subsisting on the bounty of the earth," Polk says.

In fact, small farmers and laborers probably did lead lifestyles that were marginally more healthy than their wealthier contemporaries, because regular physical activity and a reliance on plant foods characterized their experience. For these colonials, pumpkin, squash and root vegetables like carrots, turnips, beets and parsnips were common fare.

Wealthier individuals saw less physical activity, and tended to shun vegetables for more expensive, artery-clogging, nutrient-poor meats and fats. Greens, if eaten at all, were boiled for long periods of time and cooked with bacon, ham hocks or other fatty meat. Fruits were enjoyed as available, but were often used in pies or preserved with sugar for later use.

These findings convinced AICR nutritionists that they had to look elsewhere to find models for a diet that reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cancer.

A Puzzling Question, A Simple Answer

In 1997 the Institute released Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective, a scientific report that is considered the most comprehensive examination of the link between diet and cancer ever undertaken. A panel of international experts weighed over 4,500 scientific studies on nutrition and cancer, and came away with recommendations for cancer prevention that represents the best advice now available on living for lower cancer risk.

AICR's Diet and Health Guidelines for Cancer Prevention

1. Choose a diet rich in a variety of plant-based foods.
2. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits.
3. Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active.
4. Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all.
5. Select foods low in fat and salt.
6. Prepare and store food safely.
And always remember...
Do not use tobacco in any form.

According to estimates derived from the AICR report, adopting these guidelines could prevent 60-70 percent of all cancer cases. AICR also predicts that 20 percent of all cancer cases could be avoided if people simply ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Clearly, Polk says, the diets of colonial America did not follow these guidelines. Why, then, was cancer - and other chronic diseases associated with high-fat, high-calorie diets lacking fruits and vegetables - rare in colonial America?

The answer, she says, is simple. Although Jefferson and Adams were famously long-lived (both died on the 4th of July in 1826 - Jefferson was 83, Adams was 91) they were the exceptions; most people died young. Average life expectancy in America at the time was around 40 years. Infectious illness was the main cause of death, and it tended to claim people before cancer or heart disease became an issue.

Today's Americans, of course, are living longer than ever before. AICR says it's never too early - or too late - to start making the kind of healthy changes that can lower risk. "Transitioning to a diet that features a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans is easier than most people think," says Polk. "It can start by simply emphasizing the plant foods that are already on your plate - gradually eating more vegetables and more whole grains while reducing the proportion of meat."

Polk realizes that Revolutionary-era Americans would likely be mystified by the enormous changes that our growing nutritional awareness has brought about.

"There was a popular belief at the time that eating flesh was important for strength," she says. "Which might help to explain why meat pushed so many other foods off the plate."

For more information, or to contact American Institute for Cancer Research, see their website at: www.aicr.org

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