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Release Date: June 24, 2000
Day, Nutritionists Cast a Cold Eye
on Eating Habits of Colonial America Founding
Fathers Were Lost When it Came to Healthy Diets, Say
WASHINGTON, DC - What did our forefathers eat on the first Independence
Day? Don't look to America's past for advice on healthy eating, say
nutrition experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).
The Institute says that most colonial diets revolved around fat, meat,
salt and alcohol.
AICR Director of Nutrition Education Melanie Polk, R.D., M.M.Sc.,
estimates that our founding fathers consumed well over 5,000 calories a
day, much of it from pork and beef significantly higher in fat than
today's meats. Vegetables, if available at all, tended to be used
sparingly, to add flavor to meats or meat sauces. The predominant grain
was corn, which was ground into refined meal. Food was often preserved by
salting or smoking. Drinking water was frequently unsafe, so hard cider,
ale and rum were consumed in great quantities.
"It was really the perfect diet," comments Polk, "if you
spent all day working in the fields and were careful to die of yellow
fever by age 28."
By today's standards, colonial meals were very high in fat and calories,
and lacking in fruits and vegetables. "But we shouldn't be too hard
on these men and women," Polk says. "After all, we didn't
really start to learn what we know about nutrition today until well into
the 20th century."
Even that staggering 5,000-calories-a-day figure makes a certain amount
of sense, she says. "For most people, colonial America was a time
and place of hard, ceaseless manual labor. It's likely that such a huge
calorie payload was appropriate to get these men and women through their
Ironically, AICR began researching the diets of colonial America with the
hope that our nation's founding fathers - and mothers - would have
something to teach modern America about how to eat simply and well.
"We had these vague, romantic notions of colonial people tending
vegetable gardens, subsisting on the bounty of the earth," Polk
In fact, small farmers and laborers probably did lead lifestyles that
were marginally more healthy than their wealthier contemporaries, because
regular physical activity and a reliance on plant foods characterized
their experience. For these colonials, pumpkin, squash and root
vegetables like carrots, turnips, beets and parsnips were common fare.
Wealthier individuals saw less physical activity, and tended to shun
vegetables for more expensive, artery-clogging, nutrient-poor meats and
fats. Greens, if eaten at all, were boiled for long periods of time and
cooked with bacon, ham hocks or other fatty meat. Fruits were enjoyed as
available, but were often used in pies or preserved with sugar for later
These findings convinced AICR nutritionists that they had to look
elsewhere to find models for a diet that reduced risk of chronic diseases
such as cancer.
A Puzzling Question, A Simple Answer
In 1997 the Institute released Food, Nutrition and the Prevention
of Cancer: A Global Perspective,
a scientific report that is
considered the most comprehensive examination of the link between diet
and cancer ever undertaken. A panel of international experts weighed over
4,500 scientific studies on nutrition and cancer, and came away with
recommendations for cancer prevention that represents the best advice now
available on living for lower cancer risk.
AICR's Diet and Health Guidelines for Cancer Prevention
1. Choose a diet rich in a variety of plant-based foods.
2. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits.
3. Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active.
4. Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all.
5. Select foods low in fat and salt.
6. Prepare and store food safely.
And always remember...
Do not use tobacco in any form.
According to estimates derived from the AICR report, adopting these
guidelines could prevent 60-70 percent of all cancer cases. AICR also
predicts that 20 percent of all cancer cases could be avoided if people
simply ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Clearly, Polk says, the diets of colonial America did not follow these
guidelines. Why, then, was cancer - and other chronic diseases associated
with high-fat, high-calorie diets lacking fruits and vegetables - rare in
The answer, she says, is simple. Although Jefferson and Adams were
famously long-lived (both died on the 4th of July in 1826 - Jefferson was
83, Adams was 91) they were the exceptions; most people died young.
Average life expectancy in America at the time was around 40 years.
Infectious illness was the main cause of death, and it tended to claim
people before cancer or heart disease became an issue.
Today's Americans, of course, are living longer than ever before. AICR
says it's never too early - or too late - to start making the kind of
healthy changes that can lower risk. "Transitioning to a diet that
features a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans is
easier than most people think," says Polk. "It can start by
simply emphasizing the plant foods that are already on your plate -
gradually eating more vegetables and more whole grains while reducing the
proportion of meat."
Polk realizes that Revolutionary-era Americans would likely be mystified
by the enormous changes that our growing nutritional awareness has
"There was a popular belief at the time that eating flesh was
important for strength," she says. "Which might help to explain
why meat pushed so many other foods off the plate."
The American Institute for Cancer Research is the nation's third largest
cancer charity and focuses exclusively on the link between diet and
cancer. The Institute provides a wide range of consumer education
programs that have helped millions of Americans learn to make changes for
lower cancer risk. AICR also supports innovative research in cancer
prevention and treatment at universities, hospitals and research centers
across the U.S. The Institute has provided over $55 million in funding
for research in diet, nutrition and cancer. AICR's web address is