'And now for the science bit' as they say...

I asked an expert to have a look at the three workhouse diets to see if they would actually do me any damage. My friend Lucy, a Norwich-based dietician with over 25 years experience, summarised that in the short term, no, they wouldn't do me any permanent harm.

But we wanted to know the effects of being in the workhouse for months at a time, as many of the inmates were.

So that we could make interesting comparisons, Lucy used Nutritics software to create dietary data for three imaginary characters, all of them 5'4 (like me) and aged 30 (regrettably, not like me).

The first character, 'Betty Workhouse' is living on the 1797 workhouse diet.

I was, quite frankly, shocked. The analysis revealed that if 5'4 Betty entered the workhouse at a healthy 9 stone weight, with the rigorous regime of ten hours' physical work a day she would need an estimated daily intake of 2220 calories for her to remain in decent health. 

However, the 1797 diet gives her only 1800 calories per day. In a modern, sedentary lifestyle that would be plenty, but for Betty's workhouse activity levels it would mean a significant weekly 'fuel' deficit of 3000 calories. Over several months Betty will suffer weight loss at 1kg a week, tooth loss, hair loss, tiredness, irritability, low energy levels and low immunity to illness. Lucy's full notes (below) paint a ghastly picture, and are well worth a read.

And remember, 1797 is the best of the three diets. After all,   the workhouse was locally called "The Paupers' Palace" due to the enviable living standards! It doesn't say much for living standards outside the workhouse, does it?

Lucy will create data for 1834 and 1901 soon. In the meantime, my own active modern lifestyle may not in fact use up all 2220 calories from the 1797 diet, so we shall have to see how it goes.

Below is the menu and full dietary analysis for Betty Workhouse, and below that, for comparison, dietary analyses for two modern characters: Maisie (healthy) and Jackie (not so healthy). 

Lucy ran the three diets through her special dieticians' Nutritics program, a computer analysis which explains the exact amounts of vitamins, minerals and other nutritional components contained in the foods. The Nutritics program also uses data such as age, weight and activity levels to calculate recommended maximum and minimum intake for specified individuals.

N.B. I've simplified the basic data below to show the massive shortfall in areas like carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

Betty Workhouse Menu
Sunday Onion Gruel 1 pint
(one spoon oatmeal to 1 pint water)
Boiled meat (2oz), 
2 dumplings, boiled vegetables
Beer 1 pint
Bread 6oz
Cheese 1oz
Beer 1 pint
Monday Bread 6oz
Cheese 1oz
1 pint beer
Pease pottage
Vegetable & meat bone broth
Milk broth (1/2 pint)
6oz bread
Butter 1/2oz
Tuesday Plain gruel 1 pint Same as Sunday Broth
6oz Bread
Wednesday Bread 6oz
Treacle 1oz
Frumenty (wheat porridge) ¾ - 1 pint? Bread 6oz
Butter 1/2oz
Lucy says 'I’ve analysed the first four days of the week. I’ve included loads of veg as “cabbages, carrots, turnips potatoes and beans are served in great plenty during the season.” So I’ve included 4oz potato and 2oz cooked beans into stew and “boiled in meat broth”. Wednesday is appallingly low in calories which is why I wanted to included it. I’ve allowed 8oz bread per portion which is loads by todays needs but may have been reasonable. Though another reference say 4oz per portion for men!
As there were no snacks, no extras, no butter on bread unless stated etc it was really hard to get calories up to anything approaching reasonable. Even so there is a shortfall – see notes on report'
Nutritics for Betty Workhouse Female, 29, 57.6kg, 162.6cm, 21.8 BMI, 1797 workhouse
Showing Days - ALL of 4 
First figure shows actual intake, RNI is recommended range.
  • !  Carbohydrate 257g RNI 346-576g
  • !  Protein 65g RNI 69-81g
  • !  Fat 48g RNI 49-86g
  • !  Water 1348ml RNI 1775-2663ml
  • !  Alcohol 21g RNI 0gpage2image85280
Betty Workhouse is 30 years old and a widow with no pension, poor lady. She lives and works in Gressenhall workhouse and farm. She never goes anywhere else. She works 10 hours hard labour a day doing whatever she is told. This could be anything from work in the fields, milling or cleaning clothes and linen in the laundry. There is no electricity to help and no gas central heating to warm in the winter. Everything is done by hand and everywhere she goes is on foot. There isn't even a lie in on Sundays as she's be expected to get up and go to church with every-one else.
There are no treats like sweets or chocolate, no snacks between meals, no butter on the bread unless on the menu and no tea or coffee. Beer is drunk because water was usually too laden with bacteria to drink. The alcohol in the beer killed many of the bacteria, making it the safest drink. It also provided some useful calories while possibly making life a bit more bearable.
She weighs 9st 1lb (57.6Kg) and is 5' 4" (163cm) tall. She needs about 2220 calories a day to keep her weight steady and healthy. Many people in modern times would become fat if they ate this much fuel as we are not generally as active as Betty was.
Unfortunately Betty only got around 1800 calories on average a day in her diet. This means she had a shortfall of around 3000 calories a week which would mean she'd lose around 2 lb (almost 1 Kg) every week. Her fat stores would soon be used up and then she'd have to start cannabalising her body protein to burn as fuel. 
This would lead to increasing weakness, lowered resistance to infection, lower work capacity and feeling cold all the time. She'd feel very tired as her sleep would also be very restless. Her teeth and gums would be in poor condition as the diet especially the bread, is very rough and needs lots of chewing. There are plenty of vegetables but all of them boiled for so long there would be inadequate amounts of vitamin C in them.
If Betty stays in the workhouse she may survive for a while but a bad cold in the winter could soon lead to pneumonia which could carry her off. Her teeth may gradually fall out. If she is lucky enough not to get ill, she would eventually reach around 6 - 6 1/2 stone (38-41Kg) at which point her food intake would be enough to meet her lower body weight needs. But she'd be a scrawny shadow of her old self with poor skin and wrinkles, gaps in her teeth, probably quiet and downtrodden, though prone to irritability (consequence of inadequate nutrition), moaning about the cold and viewed as a waste of time as she's unable to manage much work.

Betty Workhouse's 1797 Diet Log 
Haricot beans, dried, boiled in unsalted water Oatmeal, quick cook, raw
Beef, stewing steak, raw, lean and fat
Wheat flour, wholemeal

Swede, boiled in unsalted water Onions, boiled in unsalted water Carrots, old, boiled in unsalted water Parsnip, boiled in unsalted water Wheat flour, wholemeal
Suet, shredded
Cabbage, boiled in salted water, average
Turnip, boiled in unsalted water
Beer, bitter, average
Rye bread
Beer, bitter, average
1136g Cheese, cheddar, English 27g Old potatoes, boiled in unsalted water 110g
55g Spinach, boiled in salted water 25g 15g Wheat flour, brown 6g 54g Leeks, boiled in unsalted water 16g
8g Haricot beans, dried, boiled in unsalted water 55g 115g Rye bread 432g 115g Beer, bitter, average 568g
30g Cheese, cheddar, English 27g 63g Whole milk, pasteurised, average 57g 50g Split peas, dried, raw 80g 25g Butter 36g 64g Broth, bone and vegetable, homemade 250g 88g Wholemeal bread, average 27g
568g Eggs (hens), whole, raw 10g 216g Old potatoes, boiled in unsalted water 110g
Old potatoes, boiled in unsalted water 110g
Haricot beans, dried, boiled in unsalted water 55g Oatmeal, quick cook, raw 15g Beef, stewing steak, raw, lean and fat 54g Wheat flour, wholemeal 5g Swede, boiled in unsalted water 100g Carrots, old, boiled in unsalted water 30g Parsnip, boiled in unsalted water 125g Wheat flour, wholemeal 50g Suet, shredded 25g Cabbage, boiled in salted water, average 64g Turnip, boiled in unsalted water 100g Rye bread 216g Beer, bitter, average 568g Broth, bone and vegetable, homemade 568g Old potatoes, boiled in unsalted water 110g
Rye bread 432g Treacle, black 27g Whole milk, pasteurised, average 70g Bulgur wheat, raw 67g Butter 14g

And by way of a contrast: Maisie Modern's Virtuous 2014 Diet Log 
278.4g 4.8 1063 47%
81.6g 94.3g 1.4 1.6 326 848 15% 38%
1.6g 0 11 0%
Bread, Hovis, Seven Seed original
Margarine, Flora
Bread, Hovis, Seven Seed original
Margarine, Flora
30g Orange juice, from concentrate 160g Semi-skimmed milk, average 35g Bread, Hovis, Seven Seed original 88g Margarine, Flora 14g Salad, mixed 60g Salad cream, reduced calorie 15g Apples, eating, average, raw 100g Satsumas 50g Cheese, cheddar, English 55g Raisins 10g Mixed seeds 10g Mixed nuts and peanuts 10g Frusli, blueberry cereal bar 30g Tea, green, infusion 1176g
Orange juice, from concentrate Semi-skimmed milk, average Bread, Hovis, Seven Seed original Margarine, Flora
Salad, mixed
Salad cream, reduced calorie Apples, eating, average, raw Satsumas
Cheese, cheddar, English Raisins
Mixed seeds
Mixed nuts and peanuts Frusli, blueberry cereal bar Tea, green, infusion
160g 35g 88g 14g 60g 15g 100g 50g 55g 10g 10g 10g 30g 1176g
88g 14g
88g 14g
Sandwich biscuits, jam filled 13g Toad in the hole 220g Tomato ketchup 10g Carrots, old, boiled in unsalted water 57g Broccoli, green, boiled in unsalted water 60g Peas, frozen, boiled in unsalted water 58g Yogurt, low fat, fruit 125g White wine, medium 18g
Sandwich biscuits, jam filled 13g Yogurt, low fat, fruit 125g White wine, medium 18g Bolognese sauce beef mince, vegetables, tinned tomatoes, homemade 180g Pasta, plain, fresh, cooked 300g Salad, green 100g
page3image7152 page3image7312
Maisie Modern is 30 years old. She has a home in Norwich and she works 5 days a week at Gressenhall which she reaches by car. She's very active at work, re-enacting the role of washerwoman for example. Three nights a week she goes to the gym. Her other social activities include singing and amateur dramatics which involves a fair amount of activity.
Maisie's energy intake matches her fuel used, so her weight will stay the same and she should have plenty of stamina. Her intake of other nutrients is pretty good too e.g. she's eating at least 5 portions fruit and vegetables everyy day so she'll stay healthy and should live a long time.
Vitamin D intake is low but most of the vitamin D we get in this country is made by the action of sunlight (ultraviolet) on our skin. It is estimated that 10 minutes per day exposure without sunscreen on face and arms is enough to give us the vitamin D we need.
Saturated fat intake is a bit high but this analysis is based on two days intake only, both days using red meat at supper time. If Maisie used chicken or fish (white or oily) on other days her fat profile would be better which would reduce her risk of heart disease and cancer.

Jackie Pillord's Not Very Healthy 2014 Diet Log DAY 1
4.2 1198 44%
0.9 1.5 281 1033 10% 38%
33.4g 0.4 234 9%
Pizza, meat topped
Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes
Whole milk, pasteurised, average Cake bars, chocolate
Cheese, cheddar, English
White bread, sliced
Potato crisps
Pickle, mixed vegetables
White wine, medium
Mars bar
Apples, eating, average, raw
310g 58g 420g 26g 40g 72g 15g 75g 30g 660g 375g 58g 100g
Whole milk, pasteurised, average 580g Potato crisps 25g Cola 330g White wine, medium 375g Cornish pastie, retail 155g Chips, retail, fried in blended oil 99g Tomato ketchup 10g Steak and kidney/Beef pie, individual, baked 160g Processed peas, canned, re-heated, drained 59g Old potatoes, mashed with soft margarine 90g Digestive biscuits, plain 28g
Generated by Nutritics v3.06 on 19 Apr 2014

Vicky has a sedentary job in an office in Norwich. She catches the bus but her stops are very close to home and work. Sometimes she makes a sandwich, sometimes she buys lunch out. She's very close to the market and if out on an errand is often tempted to a little bag of chips. She likes a snack or can of cola to keep her energy levels up. By the time she gets home from work she's too tired to cook so usually does something simple like a pizza or pie and peas with mash. She likes to relax with a glass of wine in the evening and usually likes a little snack at some point. She's never been sporty and gave up all such activities as soon as she left school. Now climbing a flight of stairs makes her puffed. She thinks she has a moderate diet and blames her hormones for her weight creeping up to 12 stone.
In reality, Vicky is eating far too many high fat, high sugar foods. She eats so little fruit and vegetables she is suffering from malnutrition through lack of vitamin C and folic acid. Her calorie intake is so high that she will continue to gain weight if she doesn't change her eating habits. Poor fruit and veg intake and a high body weight - no wonder she is tired. This diet also makes Vicky more prone to cancer and diabetes so it is possible that she may live as short a life as Betty Workhouse for completely different reasons. Perhaps Vicky needs to look at Maisie's eating habits for a few ideas. She coould swop full sugar cola for a sugar free variety, eat fruit rather than crisps, chocolate and cake bars. She could also get off the bus one stop short of her destination to give herself a little exercise. 

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