QotW: what effect has diet had through history?

What were the health impacts of the vastly different diets and lifestyles of aristocrats and peasants?
23 February 2021


A food market with a wide array of different vegetables.



What were the health impacts of the vastly different diets and lifestyles of aristocrats and peasants? How much taller would an Anglo-Saxon thane have been compared to his average subject? Would wealthy Roman patricians be much smarter than plebeians, based solely on improved nutrition?


Adam Murphy’s been hungry for an answer to listener James’ question…

Adam - This is a question you can really get your teeth into, right? And a difficult one to answer; you’ve to bring together nutritional science, with archeology, and all of history... which is a long time, I’m told. And things can change, as Sam Leggett from the University of Cambridge points out...

Sam - Such a great question! Depending on the time period, my answer to this question would change quite a lot actually, as what was in fashion for posh people to eat changes through time. Generally speaking, though, we know that medically speaking diet has a huge impact on health; a well-balanced diet is key to staying “healthy”, and especially so in early life when your bones and brains are developing and growing. But diet isn’t the only thing that dictates your height or intelligence – these are really complex, and diet plays a role - but a lot of this is down to your genetics and the rest of your environment. Pollution, for instance. There isn’t much evidence to suggest Roman patricians would’ve been “smarter” than plebs, but due to social privilege they were more likely to be better educated.

Adam - But what about outside of Roman times? How healthy would a medieval munch have been? Julie Dunne from the University of Bristol has some interesting insights about the negatives of an aristocrat's diet.

Julie - Allowing for shortages in times of bad weather, etc, the medieval peasant probably had a fairly healthy diet, possibly more so than the wealthier classes. Documentary sources tell us that higher status diets, such as those consumed by the lords of the manor, also relied on meat, together with poultry and fish, but probably cooked in more 'exotic' recipes, using herbs and spices. Interestingly, the aristocracy were suspicious of raw green stuffs – regarding them as unhealthy - and fruit and fresh vegetables, such as garlic, onion and leek, as being ‘poor men’s food’ or as suitable for those doing penance. More wealthy diets included quite a lot of pastries and tarts so may not have been quite as healthy!

Adam - Thanks to Julie and Sam for serving up an answer. Next time, we’re seeking out an answer to this question from Pavel.

Pavel - Take sunglasses and remove one lens. Watch a normal television film with one eye darkened by a sunglass lens, and the other free. The film will appear in 3-D. Can someone explain to me, how does this work?


Add a comment