Health

These Dietary Guidelines From 1917 Are Delightfully Insane, yet Still Oddly Useful

Oh, March 1917, what a simple time in American history: heading into town required saddling up a horse and buggy, women begged for the right to vote, and the country was gearing up to enter World War I.

OK, so maybe it wasn't simpler, but some things haven't changed much -- parents still want to feed their families healthy, nutritious foods, and everyone hopes to avoid polio.

A century ago, though, no one knew for sure what "healthy, nutritious foods" meant. To bring some order to the anarchic chaos of early 20th-century dietary science, Caroline L. Hunt and Helen W. Atwater wrote the seminal How to Select Foods, the first food guide published by the Department of Agriculture intended for a whole family. It's the precursor to the dietary guidelines the agency issues every five years.

Despite how much dietary recommendations have changed over the last century -- high-fat, low-fat, low-carb, no-sugar, etc. -- there are a few basic tenets from How to Select Foods that hold true today. Then there are the meals of lard and mutton. You have to give them credit for trying, since vitamins were first discovered in 1910.

Here's what the average family of five, including a "man who does fairly hard muscular work," should be eating.

Sugar: an essential part of a healthy diet!

Today, sugar is more or less the devil, and its artificial sweetener substitutes aren't much better. Not the case in 1917. In fact, it was touted as an essential, good-for-you nutrient. Sugar "serves as fuel for the body and to flavor the food," the manual asserts. "Unless small amounts of very sweet materials -- sugar itself, syrup, or honey -- are used, the diet is likely to be lacking in it." It's tough to imagine a time when Americans might have been deficient in sugar, since it's in EVERYTHING now, from marinara sauce to crackers to soup to yogurt. 

The guidelines also recommended a family eat, just for breakfast, about two teaspoons of sugar each on fruit, cereal, or in coffee. Later in the day, meals consisted of steamed apple pudding, a homemade condiment sauce made with half a cup of sugar, and finishing with slices of cake topped with frosting. Remember, the man of the house is doing fairly hard muscular work! Nowadays, the significantly less active person should only have six to nine teaspoons of added sugar a day. How boring, a life without steamed apple pudding. 

Load up on loaves of bread and bowls of cereal

Health-conscious people don't eat cereal as much anymore, what with all the sugar and heavy processing and dehydrated marshmallows. But in 1917, it was considered a building block of your diet because of the starch, which "is one of the chief fuels of the body and is supplied mainly by the cereal foods," the guidebook claims.

Now, keep in mind that a century ago, "cereal" didn't mean powdered corn dust coated with sugar and artificial dyes. For the most part, it was grains -- think oats, flour, porridges, and gruels of all sorts. Cereal was also touted as a cheaper alternative to other healthful foods, such as meat, fruits, and veggies.

And boy, did they love their cereals last century! A breakfast for a family of five to split included up to six cups of cereal, eight slices of bread, and lunch was eight more slices of bread plus a potato each. Dinner was eight more pieces of bread -- you can never have too much bread for a robust, muscular family -- plus rice and cake for dessert.

Pretty sure you can put on weight just by reading that, yet by mid-century, saturated fat was getting all the blame for diet-related illnesses such as heart disease. 

Don't forget your butter, lard, and meat drippings!

Fats like butter, lard, mutton, and the delightfully named "meat drippings" were all considered part of a healthy, balanced diet. Put some meat drippings on your lunch bread and you should be fired up for an afternoon of fairly muscular work!

Fat "serves as body fuel and also improves the flavor and texture of food." It's hard to argue with that. In order to make sure people ate their copious amounts of starches, families were urged to eat a couple ounces of butter per meal, and enjoy cakes and puddings made with hefty scoops of butter. 

Now seems like a good time to mention that the average life expectancy in 1917 was 54 years

Butter wasn't the only recommended fat, it was just the most popular; oil, lard, and other meat fats were considered necessary for a well-balanced diet. Also, anyone who didn't cook with fat was a heartless, selfish jerk who didn't care enough to prepare a delicious meal for their family. "Dishes cooked without a certain amount of fat and meals served without butter or some substitute seem, to most persons, dry and unpalatable," the manual states. Indeed.

Juice was about all there was for the kids

No real fruit for the youngins. According to the Farmers' Bulletin Food for Young Children, which was also written by Hunt and released a year earlier, the youngest kids (younger than 6) only get orange juice instead of an actual orange, grapefruit juice instead of the real deal, and prune pulp instead of stewed prunes. Yum! Wonder what that prune pulp did to those youthful digestive tracts... 

Chug milk all day, especially if you're a kid

The bogus idea that dairy is essential for calcium and building strong bones has been around for at least a century. That growing kids needed milk was an unquestionable truth, the word of God, doctors, and Caroline L. Hunt herself when she recommended at least a quart of milk per child. "Milk, if procured, should form part of the food of every child," she writes, "except when for some special reason the doctor objects, and this he seldom does."

An average kid's diet included delicacies such as farina with milk, milk toast, cornmeal and milk, and celery-milk soup. For real. Celery-milk soup sounds like its own circle of hell. 

Fresh veggies are good for pooping, but not much else

As your annoying paleo or vegan friend probably tells you, you should have at least one serving of vegetables at every meal, preferably a leafy green. In 1917, veggies were barely mentioned, and only advised to be consumed during one meal a day. Vegetables were only thought to be necessary because of the cellulose, which "gives bulk to the diet and may tend to prevent constipation." So, filler foods that will help you poop. Which is how plenty of Americans see them today.

Fruit seemed to be the more important alternative, with at least a serving of some kind of fruit recommended for each meal. Plus, fruit is a much better way to get in all that sugar you need in your diet. Have another scoop of steamed apple pudding with your meat dripping-drenched bread tonight, and chalk one up for health.  

In 2016, when kale is all the rage and people are terrified of sugar, there are some lessons to take from this handy guidebook. First of all, butter does make everything more delicious, especially if you're eating an entire loaf of bread in one day. And ending a meal with a rich homemade dessert is always a plus. But feeding the average American family 10,000 calories a day is a little excessive -- even if the man of the household is muscular and "works out of doors." 

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Christina Stiehl is a Health and Fitness Staff Writer for Thrillist who wouldn't mind having 7 tablespoons of sugar for breakfast. Follow her on Twitter: @ChristinaStiehl.