I have to admit lately I have been obsessed with Downton Abbey on PBS but I have always been a sucker for period drama’s. This mini-series is set in England in the early 1900’s before and during WWI. The show is about an aristocratic family who is dealing with the end of an era of class division and privilege. There is also the back story of their fiercely loyal servants who wait on them hand and foot. Needless to say there is plenty of drama all the way around but when I thought about it a little more I noticed that there are nutrition and lifestyle lessons that we can take away from the show. Observing their eating, sleeping, and exercise habits on the show keeps me from feeling guilty for not studying or doing something more productive. I think there is a lot we can learn about our own health from observing people from 100 years ago. I actually spent a semester in Wales when I was in college but I did not have an appreciation for traditional British foods at that time in my life.
Weight Loss and Health Lessons from Downton Abbey
They make a big deal about meals
Digestion only happens in a relaxed state, so if we are stressed about a million things, standing up or in a hurry the body will think survival is more important that digestion. The body will shunt it’s resources away from digestion and focus mainly on dealing with the stressor. On Downton Abbey they get dressed up, sit around for a few hours and chit-chat during dinner. They don’t wolf down their food in front of the TV or in the drive thru line. I am not saying we all need servants and have a 5 course dinner, but I am saying that meals should be a sacred time where we take our time to chew the food and sit still. If you have a family enjoy their company and catch up. If you live alone put on some nice music and savor your food.
English Breakfast: Better than a bowl of cereal!
They eat 3 meals a day
As you see on the show they didn’t eat wheat thins/kashi bars all day or 6 small meals. They didn’t have trainers telling them to eat protein bars or shakes every two hours because their blood sugar was crashing. They probably ate real food such as eggs and bacon for breakfast so they were not hungry between breakfast and lunch. Maybe they had some soaked grains such as oats or bread made from local wheat not the frankenwheat of today. Learn more about how the wheat has changed in the last 50 years in the video below from Cardiologist Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health.
They eat what is in season
Do you think Mrs. Patmore (the family cook) buys grapes from Chile in the middle of winter, I doubt it. No, she goes to town and gets what is being grown nearby. In that area of England in the middle of the winter there may not have been much. They probably ate a lot of potatoes, turnips, carrots, beets and winter squash in the colder months. I urge you to visit your local farm or join a CSA so you can get in touch with what is in season. Another thing about Downton Abbey is that they probably ate organic vegetables because there were no chemical pesticides like Roundup used in those days. For millions of years we have eaten foods based on the time of year not from a truck, train or airplane. Your genes know what is in season and your body will thank you when you choose to nourish yourself with whole foods.
They are not fat phobic
In 1920’s England they ate real butter and skin on their chicken. I know it is a Hollywood set but the real people from that time were not 300 and 400 lbs. like there are now. I have seen my grandmother’s old photos from that period and all the people looked trim and fit. They ate from the earth and there was no canola oil or hydrogenated soybean oil available then. Crisco made from hydrogenated vegetable oil was not invented until 1911 by Proctor and Gamble and it took time and huge marketing campaign to become popular. They probably did not even have olive oil because it would have been imported and very expensive. They probably used “gasp”, lard and beef tallow for cooking. Also popular was suet, the fat found around the kidney and other organs which was used in many traditional recipes. According to Weston A Price Foundation and the CDC heart disease caused only 9% of the deaths in 1900, a time when they there was no corn, canola or soybean oil.
They used all parts of the animal
Historically English people ate fine foods like organ pate and roast beef, which is the national dish of England. On the show there are many soups and stews being made, no doubt made with bones and marrow from local livestock. The English are known for using blood from pigs to make traditional dishes like black pudding. One cheap and nutritious meal that has fallen out of fashion was called Faggots, which are made from offal, usually pork, and from the parts of the animal that are generally discarded like the heart and the liver. According to Deep Nutrition by Dr. Cate Shanahan, people ate meats off the bone so they could get more glycosaminoglycans which helps keep collagen in your joints healthy. One more healthy habit on this island nation where seafood is plentiful is that people ate foods such as pickled herring, cod and oysters giving vital anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats and immune boosting zinc. On the show they always eat grass fed animals like cow, sheep, or lamb for dinner, a far cry from the factory farmed hormone injected meat most people eat today. Read more about the benefits of grass fed beef here.
On Downton Abbey they do not watch TV or stay up all night staring at their Ipad. In the beginning of the series they did not even have electricity so they are all afraid of it when it is installed. We should all be scared of artificial light even today because it lowers the sleep hormone melatonin and screws up our circadian rhythms. If you want to be slim and trim like the folks of Downton Abbey turn out the lights and go to sleep. Want to read more about this check out this great book: Lights Out!
They didn’t do cardio
If you notice on the show they take lots of long walks on their land or long walks into town. Sometimes they ride horses. The servants do tons of stair climbing, cleaning, and washing but none of them go jogging on their breaks. They are very active but they are not going out of their way to do extra exercise, which makes no sense and is a waste of energy unless you sit all day at a desk. It seems that in that time people were more accepting of their bodies and did not go crazy trying to change themselves to be thin or ripped. People in the early 1900’s had a more positive self image without going on starvation diets or opting for plastic surgery (if it was available back then). They seem to be more accepting of their genetic shape or size that we are today. I am sure it helps that they did not have a million re-touched magazines telling them they were fat.
They drink a lot of tea
In England they drink a lot of black, white and green tea which are all rich in mineral and vitamins. Green tea contains polyphenols that have antioxidants properties and can help prevent many cancers. Peppermint tea helps with IBS and seasonal allergies. Black tea has one quarter the amount of caffeine in black coffee. Green and white tea have also been shown in studies to help preserve bone density. An anti-inflammatory tea made with Chamomile is helpful for anxiety, migraines, and sound sleep. One of my favorite teas is Guayakí Yerba Mate Chocolatte.
Sugar was not so abundant
Yes, they had sweets for desert but sugar was expensive and also rationed during the WW1 so consumption was lower. They didn’t have HFCS (invented in 1967) so white donuts and ho-ho’s were not available 24/7 at a Seven Eleven. Read more about dangers of sugar here.
Looking for traditional foods? Here are some good resources:
US Wellness Meats
Read my take on local farmers markets
Leslie @ Real Food Freaks says
As i am also obsessed with real food and Downton Abbey– I think this post rocks! I'll be sharing…
Sarah @ Mum In Bloom says
What a great post and how observant of you to tie all those things together while watching the series! Isn't that kitchen to die for! Did you see the "grocery list" contraption on the wall in the extra scenes after season 2 ended? Loved the article and adore the show. Thanks for giving me another "taste" of Downton Abby 🙂
Ailsa Washington says
Very interesting article, being English just to add most large country estates had their own gardens and probably a large glass house and had their own vines and they would have had a team of gardeners so they would have been fairly self sufficient. The kitchen staff wouldn't have gone to the Market, they wouldn't lower themselves and the cook was always very important, but they would have had someone deliver all their supplies.
Funnily enough our national dish is now meant to be a Chicken Tikka Masala which is not actually an Indiqn dish but a dish invented in Birminham to cater for the English palate. But that aside I'm a traditionalist and roast dinner goes on the top or my list.
I'm sorry are we all forgetting that most people from this time period died fairly young ? If my ticker didn't have to make it past sixty I would eat a diet rich in fats and not worry about exercise too , the change in what we think is healthy has adapted because we live longer so our hearts and livers need to last longer .
Debbie @ Easy Natural Food says
Great article! I haven't been watching Downtown Abbey, but I'm dying too! My father is British and has always been very proper and leisurely about his meals. Three meals a day – always sitting down at the table 🙂
I have to agree with the post from March 5th at 1:47, we do live longer these days, and I really don't think it took that much energy to chit chat in sitting rooms all day, while most people these days work for a living. I have a job in which I usually don't have time to take a full lunch and have to eat hastily at my desk, and that's just my lot in life, so I choose to eat healthier foods for that little time I have every day to consume food. Also, I would not agree that an English breakfast is better than a bowl of cereal. It is all fried, and very heavy in fats, while cereal with milk is rich in protein, good carbs, and milk is of course a great source of calcium. I lived in the Uk for a year and found I felt very sluggish after a full English breakfast, while a bowl of honey nut cheerio's keeps me going through the morning usually.