The Potato Famine Diet


I’m not a fan of ‘the past’. There’s too much of it quite frankly, most of it is messy and violent, full of bad people with bad ideas and there’s no internet. (Yep, sorry folks, I’m one of those dreaded ‘millennials’ that are apparently ruining everything, sorry……..#notsorry)

I feel in the minority however, most people these days love the past! They’re obsessed with it. So much so they will stop at nothing to take us back to it!

It may surprise you that I am not actually talking about politics (for once). I’m talking about food. More specifically I’m talking about diets. There’s a trend in faddy diets and ‘clean’ eating at the moment that focusses on going ‘back to basics’, going back to a simpler time and eating like our ancestors did. They obviously make a convincing argument, the whole ‘wellness’, ‘clean eating’ movement are extremely popular and don’t seem to be going anywhere. (Dammit). So with that in mind…….

tomatoes, garlic and a red pepper on a wooden chopping board

Looking for a diet that’s based on a famine that killed over 1 million people!? Well look no more my friend because I present to you the ‘Irish peasant diet’!………seriously. That’s a thing.

The Irish ‘peasant’ diet

I spotted an article on twitter from The Irish Independent titled ‘Is this Ireland’s answer to the Med diet?’ In which it went on to describe how research had found that a diet from mid-Victorian Ireland in poor, rural communities made them healthier than their city dwelling counterparts, they were living longer and contracting fewer diseases, and therefore we should adopt a similar diet now.

The ‘diet’ consisted of vegetables, milk and fish. Sounds pretty healthy right? What’s my issue here?

The average life expectancy of a man in Ireland during the 1800’s was 40 years old. Sanitation was basic, people were starving and healthcare was minimal if there at all. The reality is that ‘peasants’ were eating what was available to them. Sure, it was a ‘low-calorie’ diet but when you look at all other lifestyle factors that might not count for much. The article mentions that Tuberculosis cases in rural areas were lower compared to cities and attributes that to die. But let’s remember that in Victorian city slums, people were living in unsanitary conditions, closely packed together with limited access to clean water and that tends to help diseases, like tuberculosis, spread like wildfire. The article also talks about the benefits ‘peasants’ had due to their ‘low caloric intake’……….aka. STARVING TO DEATH.

lots of potatoes

Following the logic of that article I have a few of my own ideas on ‘limiting caloric intake’: How about the 1930’s ‘Stalin Diet’?, or maybe the 1940’s ‘Warsaw Ghetto Diet’? or if you fancy something a little more up to date why not the 1980’s ‘Ethiopia Diet’? Sound flippant? So does basing a diet on a tragedy that killed over a million people…

Maybe I’m wrong though, maybe these Victorian peasants weren’t starving because they had no food, maybe they were the early pioneers of the ‘Keto’ diet! – the diet based on the idea of putting your body in a state of ketosis to lose weight. It’s unlikely though….unless they were so determined to make their diet work that the death of millions didn’t prompt them to rethink their methods…..anyway, I digress.

We are living in a world that has never been more medically and scientifically advanced. Life expectancy and our ability to treat and cure disease has never been better and yet people are desperate to go backwards. Back to a simpler time, when we didn’t have the big scary GMO’s and nasty (un-defined) chemicals in our food. A simpler time, when disease amongst the poor was rife and living beyond 50 was a significant achievement.

The article does what a lot of the ‘it was better in the old days’ types tend to do which is cherry pick ‘evidence’. They select the positives and ignore everything else, presenting a false, rose tinted view which ignores the inequality and suffering of many in favour of pushing an agenda……….still talking about diets. Definitely diets…….

The article gives the opinions from a few nutritionists, one of which says…

“Peasants may also have experienced periods of food scarcity. Whilst this is clearly not always beneficial and malnutrition would have been a concern, we now understand that limiting caloric intake can trigger biological processes that support health and help prevent disease.”

two hands held outwards together cupped in a form of request

I had to read this quote several times to fully understand the point she was trying to make. Food scarcity is ‘not always beneficial’? When is a lack of availability of a basic human resource ever ‘beneficial’ exactly? It’s fine though because we now know that those malnourished peasants were clearly just paving the way for the ‘faddy’ diets of the future right? This take is flippant and condescending. This ‘peasant diet’ is nothing more than fetishizing and trivialising poverty.

A symptom of a wider problem?

If we move away from the past and take a look at the present this patronising attitude towards poverty is everywhere. Although instead of praising the poor on their dietary ‘choices’ we now condemn them.

There is a great deal of ignorance when it comes to poverty and the realities of living with austerity. This can be seen clearly in the approach to advising or criticising poor people on their diet. You might see ‘clean eaters’, chefs and other middle class ‘foodies’ telling people to stop buying ready meals, cheap takeaways and processed food, or as Mr Jamie Oliver calls it, ‘crap’, and instead get down to our local farmer’s markets at the weekend, buy fresh produce, prepare fresh meals for their families everyday and just live a ‘better, healthier life’. They see these changes as easy and simple, insinuating that a failure to do so is just down to laziness and a lack of self-care.

three bacon cheeseburgers on a wooden board

What they fail to understand or even consider is the restrictions that exist on many, when it comes to what food is available to them. Much like the ‘peasant diet’, it isn’t about choice. The truth is that, now, in 2018, ‘junk’ food is widely available, it’s convenient and it’s affordable. Many families and individuals in this country are living hand to mouth or having to rely on foodbanks (a polite reminder that it is 2018). They can’t afford (whether it is time of money) to get out to a market every weekend. As Anthony Warner (aka The Angry Chef) said, “We need to stop mistaking the markers of inequality for the causes of inequality”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of people giving advice are well meaning, but they’re not helping. They’re just being patronising.

Oh, and another thing! Seeing as I’m on the subject. What is the obsession with poor people owning TV’s? It is often always a criticism of people on benefits or below the poverty line that they have a tv. The TV always gets a mention. I have 3 issues with this…

  1. They’re often always described as being a ‘big’, or ‘massive’ or ‘huge’ flatscreen tv……ALL tv’s are flatscreen’s these days. It’s just a TV.
  2. Who cares if they own a TV?! We don’t know the circumstances of how they came to own that TV or how much it cost. That TV is a source of entertainment for that family or individual, why is that an issue?
  3. It’s 2018, people have TV’s. What kind of Dickensian vision of poverty do the upper and middle classes of this country have of poor people?! And more importantly, is that vision how they think the poor should be?

There are many reasons why someone might struggle to eat a healthy balanced diet. Disability, chronic illness, employment or lack of, isolation, a potato famine. We need to stop blaming and misrepresenting people in poverty for things they cannot control, all that does is gloss over the chronic failings in our ability as a society to care for our most vulnerable in times of vast inequality, it ignores all other lifestyle factors and it completely disregards people suffering in order to justify an agenda that leads to widening inequality and punishing the poor just for being poor………………………………..…………….DIETS! DEFINITELY STILL TALKING ABOUT DIETS!…..

 

Karin McClure

Karin has been actively involved in skepticism for 4 years and has been involved with the Merseyside Skeptics for 3 years. She has given talks on the pseudoscience around diets and health at QED
Skepti-camp, Ignite Liverpool and Merseyside Skeptics and has been interested in diet and health for 3 years. Karin is also an artist and has sold her work at events around the country and online, information can be found on her website lunalynes.wordpress.com where she also shares posts about her experiences with mental health, as well as art updates.

  1. #1 by Mike Wimbury on July 19, 2018 - 14:01

    Made me laugh! As an advocate of the Paleo diet (relapsed) I still try to limit my meat intake to 100g or less per day, eat plenty of raw or undercooked veg, fruit and nuts/seeds. It’s really uncomfortable at times, as the local council has seen fit to close or repurpose half the town’s public conveniences and it is occasionally a struggle to make it home with trousers the same colour as when I left in the morning.

  2. #2 by Sean on July 20, 2018 - 18:23

    Fad diet, you say? Well in Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow has recomended the detoxifying beauty of the IRA prison hunger strike. Such a deep cleanse, the weight is just lifted off your shoulders. It’s really a spiritual journey through (lack of) food, you know, all-natural starvation – plus it’s fat free, sugar free, salt free, gluten free, none of those toxic carbohydrates or glucose, your body doesn’t NEED those, but you know modern society makes us lose sight of all that.

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