Was the diet of the Civil War era more healthy than our diet?

major bill

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
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Joined
Aug 25, 2012
Today we eat foods with so much sugar and so many additives. So how do we compare with the average diet of the Civil War era? Although we may eat more sugar, foods with saturated fat, and too many foods with additives, the average American also eat less foods with fats. At my house there is no lard for cooking and we have not had any in the house in decades. I can not remember the last time we had real butter
or whole milk in the house. As far as I know we have not had any bacon or pork in the house in years. I can not remember the last time we had beef in the house. Perhaps a month ago my wife bought me a frozen dinner with some kind of beef, but I am not sure of this. I almost never eat pork or beef when we go to a restaurant. I might eat beef once every two weeks. I am not sure the last time I ate any pork. Civil War era people often ate both pork and beef daily.

So although Civil War era people ate fresh vegetables and fresh fruit I am not sure they ate healthier foods. I have a salad most days and vegetables at most meals except breakfast. Often breakfast for me is fruit and low fat yogurt or perhaps low fat yogurt and a dry English muffin. Compare that to the average breakfast of the Civil War. Bacon, bread, perhaps eggs fried in lard or butter. The people of the Civil War might even eat potatoes fried in lard or butter for breakfast. Instead of a dry English muffin they ate jams, jelly, or preserves on bread.

However, I am not sure how most modern Americans eat. I would think most Americans watch the amount of fat and red meat they eat. Some modern Americans probably eat less healthy than others.
 

major bill

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
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Aug 25, 2012
Sounds like you're excluding a delicious diet!

(I'm not saying you should stop eating salads and eat potato chips, but beef every two weeks? I couldn't stand it!)

Should one eat foods that are delicious or foods that supply the person with the proper nutrition? I do understand foods that are both delicious and nutritious would be the idea solution, but I am not sure that is easy to do. Everyone must decide if they lean more towards delicious foods or more towards nutritious foods. In the end a good balance is probably best. I am not sure Civil War era people even thought about eating nutritious meals. This brings me back to questioning if Civil War diets were more healthy.
 

major bill

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
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Aug 25, 2012
It often makes me balk, the amount of fat, salt, and red meat they were eating....and don't think they weren't eating plenty of sugar too. Molasses, syrup, jellies, jams...it seems to have been there in quantity.

The average soldier during the war? My arteries harden just reading their diet.

I know many people of the Civil War worked off many of the calories so they often stayed fairly thin, but what about all the fat in their arteries? What about too much salt in/on foods during the Civil War era? I am not sure hard work can keep salt in the body down.
 

Yankee Brooke

First Sergeant
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Jun 8, 2018
Location
PA
I know many people of the Civil War worked off many of the calories so they often stayed fairly thin, but what about all the fat in their arteries? What about too much salt in/on foods during the Civil War era? I am not sure hard work can keep salt in the body down.
I'm not sure you can simply work off a bad diet. You can lose weight eating candy and soda if you wanted, as long as calories in is less than calories out, that's all that matters. However that diet will still effect your health negatively in the long run.
 

mofederal

Major
Joined
Jun 27, 2017
Location
Southeast Missouri
I am sure a steady diet of Civil War Army rations tended to keep people on the skinny side, and I am sure all of the "exercise" and other movement work such as battle, marching and drilling helped in losing weight. Sickness also added to the mix. I don't know about healthy, but the diet wasn't designed to help them gain weight either.
 

JeffFromSyracuse

Corporal
Joined
Jul 6, 2020
Location
Philly Suburbs
Off the top of my head, a few reasons why I don't think the CW diet was healthier:

The AoP had problems with scurvy during the end of Burnside's tenure.
There's plenty of reports of troops (especially Confederate) receiving half rations or worse because of supply issues.
During the Overland Campaign, men subsisted on nothing but preserved pork, preserved bread, and coffee. My stomach churns just thinking about it.
Many men on the march often had trouble regulating their rations and would be so hungry, they would go through a couple of days' worth of food at once. This, to me, suggests calorie minimums weren't being met.
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
There is obviously a difference in the foods and diet that was common among the general population in the mid 1800's, and that of the soldiers of either side. Speaking of the general population, there were very few, if any, processed foods, which make up a large percentage of the modern diet. Processed foods are usually high in sugar, salt, trans fat, and that is not a positive thing for today's population. Back then, more people consumed foods that were locally grown and produced and did not rely on preservatives and insecticides that influence the food chain. It is true that beef, pork, and lard were not all together healthy products in earlier times, but there was still less consumption of those items then in our modern day meat driven culture.
 

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
Today we eat foods with so much sugar and so many additives. So how do we compare with the average diet of the Civil War era? Although we may eat more sugar, foods with saturated fat, and too many foods with additives, the average American also eat less foods with fats. At my house there is no lard for cooking and we have not had any in the house in decades. I can not remember the last time we had real butter
or whole milk in the house. As far as I know we have not had any bacon or pork in the house in years. I can not remember the last time we had beef in the house. Perhaps a month ago my wife bought me a frozen dinner with some kind of beef, but I am not sure of this. I almost never eat pork or beef when we go to a restaurant. I might eat beef once every two weeks. I am not sure the last time I ate any pork. Civil War era people often ate both pork and beef daily.

So although Civil War era people ate fresh vegetables and fresh fruit I am not sure they ate healthier foods. I have a salad most days and vegetables at most meals except breakfast. Often breakfast for me is fruit and low fat yogurt or perhaps low fat yogurt and a dry English muffin. Compare that to the average breakfast of the Civil War. Bacon, bread, perhaps eggs fried in lard or butter. The people of the Civil War might even eat potatoes fried in lard or butter for breakfast. Instead of a dry English muffin they ate jams, jelly, or preserves on bread.

However, I am not sure how most modern Americans eat. I would think most Americans watch the amount of fat and red meat they eat. Some modern Americans probably eat less healthy than others.
Mr. Bill, you seem to be a true believer in all the myths the FDA peddles. Neither diet seems healthy to me, but if you tweaked the Civil War diet a little it would be way more healthier.

First, lard is healthier than vegetable oil. The reasoning is that lard is more stable under heat, whereas vegetable oil is unstable and oxidizes and causes free radicals to form. There was a 40 year old study Lard vs. Vegetable oil, and the conclusion was vegetable oil doubled heart attacks. After olive oil, which consists of 77 percent monounsaturated fatty acids, lard has the most monounsaturated fats at 48 percent. These fats help to lower blood cholesterol maintain healthy cells. Myth #1: Lard is unhealthy.

Second, bacon fired in lard would be healthier than eating yogurt or an English muffin. Low fat yogurt is no good for you because it has sugar and the low fat content spike insulin. Better off eating a more fatty yogurt with no sugar because it will not spike insulin. Fruit has its pros and cons, we hybrid fruit which contain fructose, and 100% of fructose goes straight to the liver and not in the blood stream like glucose. Therefore, it could cause insulin resistance. Myth #2: fruit and yogurt are healthy.

Third, butter is not unhealthy at all, it actually has a lot of health benefits and no proof that consuming more butter causes heart disease. Butter actually has a lot of fat soluble vitamins, especially K2 that pulls calcium out of the wrong places, like the soft tissue and place it the right places. Myth #3: butter is unhealthy.

Next, beef is not unhealthy at all, it actually has a lot of health benefits as well. The studies that show beef is unhealthy are observational, which means they are questioners. Obese people who ate anything claim they ate red meat, so the study attributes health problems to red meat, which is complete nonsense. Too hard to link the causations. Actually, 'controlled" studies disagree with those questionnaires. Beef has plenty of vitamin D, iron, zinc, magnesium and potassium. The only time beef is unhealthy is when it is overcooked, it becomes a little toxic. Myth #4: beef/red meat is unhealthy.

In conclusion, the Civil War diet if the carbohydrates and sugar were avoided would have been way more healthier than today's diets. IMO...
 

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
It often makes me balk, the amount of fat, salt, and red meat they were eating....and don't think they weren't eating plenty of sugar too. Molasses, syrup, jellies, jams...it seems to have been there in quantity.

The average soldier during the war? My arteries harden just reading their diet.

Really? They did a study in the Netherlands on statins back in 2007, statins lowed blood cholesterol by 30% but did not lower heart attacks. The moral of the story was that the arteries collagen(walls) narrowed because a lack of the vitamin B complex, which enabled plaque and calcium to build. I'll give you sugar for part causation but not the read meat.
 

dlofting

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 13, 2013
Location
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Sugar (fructose) is added to a lot of foods today.....just look at the ingredients in anything you eat that is packaged or in a can. Civil War soldiers would only have consumed naturally occurring sugars, plus the more obvious ones in baking and preserves. It would have been a lot less than we eat today. Provided they had access to vegetables, which wasn't always the case, I'd say their diet was healthier than ours.
 

Fairfield

Sergeant Major
Member of the Month
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
The OP refers to the entire era, not just to soldiers' diets. This area was an agricultural one so the people who were here would have had wholesome foods available. Not being a wealthy area, sugar and sweets were a luxury and (so) used sparingly. I should think that those on the home front were eating a great deal better than the troops.
 

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
Sugar (fructose) is added to a lot of foods today.....just look at the ingredients in anything you eat that is packaged or in a can. Civil War soldiers would only have consumed naturally occurring sugars, plus the more obvious ones in baking and preserves. It would have been a lot less than we eat today. Provided they had access to vegetables, which wasn't always the case, I'd say their diet was healthier than ours.

And fruit has been modified through the years to make it sweeter, especially when fruit is out of season. Heck, the obesity rate in America is over 50%, so that should give the OP his answer.
 

Claude Bauer

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jan 8, 2012
Today we eat foods with so much sugar and so many additives. So how do we compare with the average diet of the Civil War era? Although we may eat more sugar, foods with saturated fat, and too many foods with additives, the average American also eat less foods with fats. At my house there is no lard for cooking and we have not had any in the house in decades. I can not remember the last time we had real butter
or whole milk in the house. As far as I know we have not had any bacon or pork in the house in years. I can not remember the last time we had beef in the house. Perhaps a month ago my wife bought me a frozen dinner with some kind of beef, but I am not sure of this. I almost never eat pork or beef when we go to a restaurant. I might eat beef once every two weeks. I am not sure the last time I ate any pork. Civil War era people often ate both pork and beef daily.

So although Civil War era people ate fresh vegetables and fresh fruit I am not sure they ate healthier foods. I have a salad most days and vegetables at most meals except breakfast. Often breakfast for me is fruit and low fat yogurt or perhaps low fat yogurt and a dry English muffin. Compare that to the average breakfast of the Civil War. Bacon, bread, perhaps eggs fried in lard or butter. The people of the Civil War might even eat potatoes fried in lard or butter for breakfast. Instead of a dry English muffin they ate jams, jelly, or preserves on bread.

However, I am not sure how most modern Americans eat. I would think most Americans watch the amount of fat and red meat they eat. Some modern Americans probably eat less healthy than others.
Better or worse is hard to say--there are so many variables and diet is a very complex topic. For example, I recall reading that after refrigeration was invented and pickling became less common, the incidence of stomach cancer fell significantly. We don't think of having a pickle with our burgers as being bad for you today, but eating lots of pickled foods for a prolonged period apparently is hard on the stomach.

Also, being overweight was once considered desirable--it showed you were wealthy enough that you didn't have to work and could afford expensive foods. Remember Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof? He dreams of being rich enough so that his wife Golde could have "a proper double chin."

One thing's for certain--people today are larger and less active than our ancestors and we eat more processed foods. Whenever processed foods become prominent in the diets of people who have traditionally lived off the land, the incidence of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart problems increases dramatically.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Better or worse is hard to say--there are so many variables and diet is a very complex topic. For example, I recall reading that after refrigeration was invented and pickling became less common, the incidence of stomach cancer fell significantly. We don't think of having a pickle with our burgers as being bad for you today, but eating lots of pickled foods for a prolonged period apparently is hard on the stomach.

Also, being overweight was once considered desirable--it showed you were wealthy enough that you didn't have to work and could afford expensive foods. Remember Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof? He dreams of being rich enough so that his wife Golde could have "a proper double chin."

One thing's for certain--people today are larger and less active than our ancestors and we eat more processed foods. Whenever processed foods become prominent in the diets of people who have traditionally lived off the land, the incidence of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart problems increases dramatically.
Good points. This can get very oversimplified. As you suggest, the ways that food was preserved in the mid-19th century were far from "healthy". Also, while one might have been better off if they were involved in farming, more and more people were not involved in agriculture, and there were no standards anywhere for the quality of food. I saw a study a few years ago about the UK diets in the mid-Victorian era. It focused on people eating a lot of vegetables like cabbage, etc and whole grains. It did not find out that those people were consuming buckets of lard-soaked bacon, for example. And fortunately nobody has pushed the diet of the average ACW soldier - it was just plain bad. Nobody's out marketing MRE's as a nutritionist's gold standard, but it ain't hardtack softened with grease and saltpork.
 

7thWisconsin

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 21, 2014
Actually, it´s hard to say if it was a healthier diet overall because of disparities in the population. The diet of a prosperous farming family may have been excellent, but a lot of farming and pioneer families saw nothing but mush for days on end. I doubt that overall the diet of the enslaved population was all that healthy either. Also, I think hunger was a major issue for lower class families in urban centers. The overall quality of food items may indeed have been higher, but I think there were actually large parts of the population which we would today consider malnourished because variety and quantity could not be delivered to them in a reasonably economical fashion.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Actually, it´s hard to say if it was a healthier diet overall because of disparities in the population. The diet of a prosperous farming family may have been excellent, but a lot of farming and pioneer families saw nothing but mush for days on end. I doubt that overall the diet of the enslaved population was all that healthy either. Also, I think hunger was a major issue for lower class families in urban centers. The overall quality of food items may indeed have been higher, but I think there were actually large parts of the population which we would today consider malnourished because variety and quantity could not be delivered to them in a reasonably economical fashion.
Good points. As the US became part of the Industrial Revolution, more and more vile junk was being put into food by distributors. That's ultimately why what today is the FDA was created in 1906. Regarding diets in the western territories (especially today's RM states), any farming tended to be "hard scrabble" at best and many frontier families would rarely if ever see vegetables or fruits.
 
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