Let's Ask Marion: Is Our Diet Dickensian?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: The New York Times published a story the other day about a study that claims Charles Dickens exaggerated the extent of hunger in Victorian workhouses in Oliver Twist. The study, conducted by a group of British researchers including two dietitians, a pediatrician and a historian, concluded that a real-life Oliver Twist would not have been forced to subsist on meager rations of watery gruel, as depicted by Dickens, but was more likely to receive "modest servings of bread, potatoes, meat and cheese...with a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates that at least approximates today’s recommended intake."

You wrote a letter to the editor saying, in part:

Workhouse diets of bread, potatoes, meat and cheese were hardly optimal. Without fruit and vegetables other than potatoes, the diets lacked vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber, if not calories. That is why they caused poor children in Dickens’s time, as well as now, to display overt signs of nutrient deficiencies along with stunting, wasting and greater susceptibility to infectious diseases.

What struck me about this story--aside from the question of why anyone would want to downplay the misery inflicted by these institutions--was that it also describes the mainstays of the average American diet, regardless of class: pizza, cheeseburgers, french fries, potato chips, sandwiches filled with cold cuts, and so on. The difference, of course, is that we eat these foods in much greater quantities, and wash them down with soda--an indulgence that Victorian workhouses presumably did not grant their down-and-out denizens.

If it was bad for the Oliver Twists of the world, how can a steady diet of bread, potatoes, meat and cheese be any better for the rest of us? Should we be saying "Please, sir, I want less?"

Dr. Nestle: The mere thought of a Twist-like diet is enough to induce a catatonic depression. For one thing, the colors! White or brown. The only thing missing is sugar, which was too expensive for the likes of Olvier Twist and his unhappy companions. Given enough of such foods, calories should be no problem. On the other hand, we might get so bored that we wouldn’t eat much—“The Boredom Diet.”

As we nutritionists are always saying, healthful diets are about variety, balance, and moderation. Poorhouses did moderation really, really well, which is why those kids were so hungry all the time. But balance and variety? Not a chance. Those are nutrition-speak for eating more—much more—fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The healthiest diets are based on food plants, with everything else as extras. The Oliver Twists were vitamin deficient, caught every illness in sight, and didn’t survive for long. I’m greatly in favor of eating less, but not in that situation.

But you are really asking about us now, not them then. You want to know how fast foods became the icons of American foodways instead of something healthier. Well, some fast foods do depend on New World staples: potatoes (chips, fries), tomatoes (pizza sauce), and corn (soda sweeteners). Food Studies scholars would tell you that American meals based on meat and potatoes at the center of the plate derive from the original Northern European settlers.

Eventually, regional differences developed but there still isn’t anything that you might describe as a typically American cuisine—other than fast food. Meat has always been the food that poor people flock to the minute they get some money, as shown so compellingly in Peter Menzel and Faith d’Aluisio’s book Hungry Planet. For immigrants to the U.S., vegetables were lower class. Meat is what counts. So your question has class implications. And we Americans never like dealing with those kinds of issues.