The diet of medieval peasants differed greatly from that of the modern American eater. Although there's no denying modern diets allow us better access to energy and nutrition, books such as "Greek Revival" and "In Defense of Food" put forth the idea that we would be healthier if we took a page or two from our ancestors' peasant cookbook.
In general, the medieval peasant had much greater caloric needs than modern man. According to research published at Eastern Kentucky University, an average medieval person burned between 4,000 and 5,000 calories per day, as compared the USDA recommendation of 2,000 for modern Americans. A typical diet for peasants delivered between 3,500 and 4,500 calories, about or just under the need. Americans typically eat 3,000 to 3,500 daily calories -- more than 150 percent what they burn through the day.
Kinds of Food
Peasant diets were simple and repetitive, consisting of bread and cheese, some protein and whatever vegetables were in season. Noticeably missing were cooking oils, sweets and refined grains -- all foods frowned on by the modern nutrition establishment.
Although the peasant diet was healthy in terms of avoiding unusually unhealthy foods, the unvaried foods available often resulted in health problems. Winters, with a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, often included cases of boils, rickets and scurvy as a result of going too long without vitamin C, vitamin E and other basic dietary nutrients.
Ale, beer and wine were regular table beverages during medieval times, because local water sources were often not safe to drink from. Although drinking as much as three pints of ale every day risked certain health problems of its own, that paled in comparison to the real risks of dysentery and cholera present in the water supply.
Modern Peasant Eating
With access to clean water, abundant nutrition and year-round fresh produce, the modern diet bears several marked advantages over that of the peasant. But Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health does note some changes to the old ways that would benefit modern Americans. Willett says we should eat about as many calories as we take in and move away from refined and processed foods back to rawer sources of nutrition such as organic meats, whole grains and locally grown produce.
- "In Defense of Food"; Michale Pollan; 2009
- "Daily Life in the Middle Ages"; Paul Newman; 2001
- Eastern Kentucky University: Dietary Requirements of a Medieval Peasant
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
- "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy"; Walter Willet, et al; 2006