Skip to main content

Eat Your Vegetables

Did our ancestors really have healthier diets? The evidence isn't very convincing.
  • Author:
  • Updated:


Last week President Barack Obama, speaking with a group of schoolchildren at his wife’s Kids State dinner, let them know that it was really important to eat their vegetables. He also said that they were delicious. "Food can be fun, it can be healthy," the president said. "You are setting up habits that are going to be great your entire life.” So far so good. But then, as he was leaving the event, someone asked the president what his favorite food was. "Broccoli," he responded.

This is silly, and both supporters and opponents quickly ridiculed it across the media and on Twitter. No one’s favorite food is broccoli. It might very well be the president's favorite vegetable—and vegetables are, of course, crucial to a balanced diet. (According to 2003 study by Rui Hai Liu published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “Regular consumption of fruit and vegetables is associated with reduced risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, Alzheimer disease, cataracts, and some of the functional declines associated with aging.”) But no, there is no way the president prefers it to all other foods on Earth—nobody believes this. In his very revealing 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, he doesn’t mention broccoli even once. Our bodies—all human bodies—crave fat, salt, and sugar. Obama's favorite food is probably something not nearly as healthy.

"Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food."

Fresh produce advocates often suggest that maybe our ancestors ate better than we do today. And some doctors certainly agree. According one 2007 article about medieval diets: "Their low-fat, vegetable-rich diet—washed down by weak ale—was far better for the heart than today's starchy, processed foods. And while they consumed more they burnt off calories in a workout of 12 hours' labour." But in fact, good produce could be pretty scarce back then, and it took the world a long time to figure out that fruits and vegetables mattered as much as we now know they do.

As journalist and food activist Michael Pollan (of whom the first lady is likely a fan) put it: "Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food; stay away from these." Same goes for your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. Back then, the peasants—some 90 percent of the population—ate well, right? They didn't have to worry about Pollan's foodlike items. Well.... They ate differently, anyway. Today, policymakers worry that the poor don't eat enough vegetables. But historically the poor ate more vegetables, and the aristocracy didn’t eat enough. Both had health problems. It's not as simple as more or less.

For the peasants, most of their diet was based on starch. The average medieval peasant ate nearly two loaves of bread a day. Jeffrey Singman and Will McLean write in Daily Life in Chaucer's England that: "A prosperous English peasant ... would probably consume 2-3 pounds of bread, 8 ounces of meat or fish or other protein and 2-3 pints of ale per day. The bread was usually mean of rye, oats, or barley. Meat was expensive and usually only available on special occasions. Often eggs, butter, or cheese were substituted for meat." Some 60 to 80 percent of total peasant income went to food and some 68 percent of that was starch. That’s similar to today's average American man spending something like $1,900 a month on bagels.

Peasants also had vegetables, and plenty of them—turnips, beets, carrots, and parsnips, as well onions, leeks, lettuce, cabbage, kale, chard, beet greens, turnip greens—but they were mostly salted, pickled, and stewed to the point of nutritional oblivion. The issue is that a civilization can only eat fresh produce frequently if fresh produce is around. And it oftentimes wasn’t. Peasants routinely went without basic staples. And the nobles weren’t much better off. The aristocracy did eat vegetables, but they were very peculiar about doing so.

Alison Weir writes in The Six Wives of Henry VIII, of the early 16th-century English court meals, that:

The food at such banquets ... consisted of several courses, each with several dishes. Meat was served throughout the year, except in Lent, when fish was the main entree. The meat or fish would be spiced and served in a sauce, and accompanied by bread soaked in gravy. There were few vegetables; however, Queen Katherine would sometimes have a salad in season, which she had introduced into England from Spain; her salad, however, would have been served hot, as raw vegetables were considered dangerous.

And, despite the popularity of some faddiets based on historic eating patterns, our ancestors had some pretty serious health problems affiliated with food. Here's Timothy Hall:

The noble diet of too much meat produced gout, other diseases, and vitamin deficiencies. For the peasant population, a deficiency in animal protein produced tuberculosis, dysentery, and other illnesses as well as stunted growth. The vitamin deficiency that both groups experienced also produced painful and chronic conditions like scurvy, rickets, and gallstones.

Until recently, there were basic structural problems of even attempting to include fruits and vegetables in the Western diet. Europe, for example, is agriculturally dormant for five months of the year. Vegetables and fruits rot quickly.

Britain's Royal Navy solved the problem for its own by simply not providing fruits and vegetables to sailors. But with long sea voyages, something unfortunate started to happen. “Sailors were away for so many weeks as to deplete the limited body stores of ascorbic acid while they had no fresh foods,” according to British physician Jeremy Hugh Baron. They developed scurvy, a horrible disease that shows up initially as lethargy. Later, skin spots and bleeding guns develop as basically the whole body’s connective tissue degrades.

This was not only bad for sailors’ health, it was also difficult for the navy, since dying sailors tend to fight really poorly.



Royal Navy Captain James Lind conducted the first-ever clinical trial in 1747, and discovered that feeding sailors lemons and oranges caused their health to improve. His diet likely caused the British to win the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, making it unlikely that Napoleon could successfully invade Great Britain.

Lind’s research lead directly to the discovery of vitamin C, and from there to the power of proper vegetables. In 1955, the Sunkist Growers of Citrus Fruit in California and Arizona honored Lind (and thanked him for ensuring their industry’s existence) by presenting a large plaque to the medical college of Edinburgh University suggesting that he was “The Hippocrates of Naval Medicine.” Certainly by the Victorian era people knew that fruits and vegetables were an important part of a balanced diet.

Long before Michelle Obama came along, American policymakers starting working to promote nutrition, though not necessarily actual vegetables. Since 1941, likely in reaction to the malnutrition of America’s poor during the Great Depression, American cereal products have been “fortified” via workers adding vitamins and minerals to starches in the mixing process.

We’ve subsequently become aware that fortification might not be as effective as first thought, since the added nutrients in fortified foods may be harder to absorb than if consumed in their original form. That sort of thing may contribute to Michelle and Barack's focus on promoting fresh vegetables.

According to a 2010 article about the first lady’s food initiative, her own family began to “feel better ... after she started serving more fresh fruit and vegetables, eliminated processed foods and cut back on sugary drinks.” And as she later said herself about the project to bring more fresh vegetables to neighborhoods across America: “Collect some fruits and vegetables; bring by some good healthy food. We can provide this kind of healthy food for communities across the country, and we can do it by each of us lending a hand.”

That might be true, but if so it will be yet another stage in the development of the Western diet, not a return to any particularly “natural” period. A return to an earlier diet might supposedly be “far better for the heart,” but the limited food supply might also mean gout and scurvy.