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Why weren't pioneer homesteaders obese?

 
pollinator
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So riddle me this, something I've been ruminating on.

This isn't so much as it pertains to general health, but obesity specifically. I think if you're here in the Paleo forum you probably already "get" that processed carbohydrates are what make us obese, or at least are largely to blame. As far as I can see, the obesity epidemic really mostly took off in the 70s when the government and "experts" started telling us to eat more grains and less fats & meats.

So here's my question. If I look back to the days BEFORE that (like 1700s, 1800s), when obesity wasn't such a rampant thing, but people were still eating a lot of carbohydrates, why weren't they obese?

If you look at pioneer cooking, for example, my impression of what they ate especially in winter is pretty carb heavy since most winter vegetables are very starchy and they didn't have freezers. So, summer lots of fresh foods but in the winter, what - meat, lots of bread and especially corn stuff (because wheat & corn will keep, right?), and starchy winter vegetables. So were they not obese because of malnourishment? Or just they didn't eat as much food? Is it because the foods available back then were less processed? Did they just put on a lot more weight in the winter and lose it all in the summer? I read about the food people ate those days - biscuits, cornbread, etc. Meat seemed to be more of something they would stretch as far as it would go. Or maybe am I way off base and they only ate things like biscuits and cornbread on an occasional basis? Everything I've ever read wouldn't point to this, though.

Is it because they weren't constantly raising their insulin by snacking and instead were just eating 2-3 meals a day? Or maybe They WERE actually obese a lot of the time and we just don't think they were? I'm curious what you guys think.

For the record - I say this as a formerly obese person who never knew WHY she was obese. I didn't eat junkfood except on a rare occasion, was moderately active, ate mostly homemade from scratch (including breads and things) and didn't sit there eating for hours either. Going zero carb changed my life, and maybe my obesity is actually just due to metabolic issues from being raised in a home where low-fat and fat free (and high in grains) was the thing, but even back then there wasn't a lot of junk food in my diet. Or, in other words, please don't just tell me "it's because they weren't eating bags of potato chips, duh." Because I didn't do that either.
 
pollinator
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My guess would be that for your average homesteader, especially in the pioneer days, it was a monumental task to produce enough calories to make up for what you expended trying to establish your home. You are looking at endless hours of hand logging and producing lumber and building and fencing and digging out stumps and hunting/trapping and on and on and on. I think that you are looking at one of the most physically demanding lifestyle cultures in the history of the world (pioneer homesteading at the dawn of industrial society) so that is my guess.
 
pioneer
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If people eat more calories than they burn in a day,  they gain weight.  It's  as simple as that.  Look up the Twinkie diet for an example of someone who ate garbage and lost weight.

I follow the Paleo diet because I believe it's the healthiest diet,  but calories are the key to gaining or losing weight.
 
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I'll bet quite a lot of them, especially the pioneer women, probably were in the range that a modern doctor would call obese.  My own grandma (born in 1920) always commented that she didn't know what the doctors' problem was, considering she was healthy in every way, walked a couple of miles daily, lived on her own, kept a garden into her 80's, etc.  They called her obese.  Similarly, in my own community, I was talking to an older (in her mid 80's) neighbor, and commented on the doctor calling me fat...she replied that she thought I was a fine weight "for a woman your age" (mid 40's).  I found it interesting that she would (rightfully, really) associate different ages with different expectations for build / weight / etc.  

Even looking at old (Medieval and Renaissance) paintings, the women especially were often quite plump.  

There probably were not many (or any) morbidly obese people in times past, but I think it is only fairly recently that European societies have considered 'fatness' a problem (as opposed to a badge of honor, as the family was clearly well provided for).
 
pollinator
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I agree about the calories and weight loss thing. I've struggled a lot with weight and body image. Maybe it's different for some people, but I just don't see how it's possible not to lose weight if you're eating fewer calories than you're burning. I also think that our guide for "obese" is too draconian these days. Our medical industry really, really pushes thinness as the key to health, when reducing anxiety and eating less poison would probably go a lot further.
 
Bethany Dutch
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Jess Dee wrote:I'll bet quite a lot of them, especially the pioneer women, probably were in the range that a modern doctor would call obese.  My own grandma (born in 1920) always commented that she didn't know what the doctors' problem was, considering she was healthy in every way, walked a couple of miles daily, lived on her own, kept a garden into her 80's, etc.  They called her obese.  Similarly, in my own community, I was talking to an older (in her mid 80's) neighbor, and commented on the doctor calling me fat...she replied that she thought I was a fine weight "for a woman your age" (mid 40's).  I found it interesting that she would (rightfully, really) associate different ages with different expectations for build / weight / etc.  

Even looking at old (Medieval and Renaissance) paintings, the women especially were often quite plump.  

There probably were not many (or any) morbidly obese people in times past, but I think it is only fairly recently that European societies have considered 'fatness' a problem (as opposed to a badge of honor, as the family was clearly well provided for).



That's kinda something I wonder as well. Because as much as I realize that the Pioneer life was a very physically demanding lifestyle, that's mostly in the startup years. What about when the home is built, the barn is raised, the garden is going, etc? As someone who is building her own home by hand, I can attest to that while there is a massive amount of energy expended setting up infrastructure, once it's there it's not like you continue that. (I'm not there yet, but it's a day I dream of LOL)

I can see the men being pretty much very fit the entire life, because they were the ones often doing most of the backbreaking work but I do know that the women did less of the backbreaking work and probably more jobs that involved sitting (like shelling peas, knitting socks, sewing, etc).

I suspect however that it really just does boil down to physical activity. Also think of Native Americans who grew the Three Sisters (Corn, beans and squash) and from what I can tell, the older folks and especially the women tended to plump up as well which I wonder is just due to a decrease in physical activity.
 
Jess Dee
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Some of it is likely also metabolism, which slows down fairly significantly as people age.
 
pollinator
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i would say there were a lot of pleasantly plump people throughout all of our past, maybe not as much "obese", especially by modern standards...
which i think its distorted based on modern memes of skinny women...being some sort of "norm" - which is NOT actually the norm at all!

BUT the main reason i think there were'nt too many obese people was because of the extreme amounts of activity and physical labor they were doing. because no matter how well you eat if youre not active it's very difficult to lose weight.
 
leila hamaya
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and totally, as you age, especially for women, the tendancy is to plump up.

you re body actually thinks it is doing you a favor! in some ways it is...for women in their 40's and 50's the body stores estrogen and other things in the fat...

plus theres the want to do less and less as you age, more sitting... which as above  - exercise and activity are the key to keeping slim.
 
gardener
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Here's my take on the question in the title of this thread is: They were very busy every day with physical labor and didn't eat crap.

To briefly touch on the physical labor part, pioneer homesteaders always had work to do, and if the trees weren't felled, firewood wasn't split, food wasn't grown, foraged for, or raised with animal husbandry, survival was even more difficult. The daily subsistence survival was in addition to other chores of maintaining their home, tools, clothes, etc. which also includes little things that make life easier like making soap and candles. All that physical activity burns a lot of calories and keeps a body in good shape.

A brief note on the food, everything available to eat was what we would consider "organic" today. Almost all the food from the land and sea was nutrient dense and nourishing, and when the body gets the nutrition it needs from healthy food, smaller portions are needed to maintain a healthy body. There were no "improved" hybrid varieties of vegetables and fruits bred for size and blemish free appearance which often have less nutritional value than the old heirlooms and ancient varieties.


 
pollinator
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Hard physical work, takes calories off anyone.

If you don't have a tractor to do the work you are the one burning the calories.

Food was by the sweat of your brow, and you sweat a whole lot.

 
pollinator
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A book series I used to read was about a lady detective in, I think, Botswana, and she described herself as a traditionally shaped woman. I loved that. There have always been heavy people. It is but one factor in evaluating health. I prefer to allow individuals to determine the best weight for themselves.
 
pollinator
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Just a couple comments......

1- back then most homestead farmers actually put in a couple hours work first thing in the morning before breakfast was ready. A traditional breakfast needed to be cooked, thus the woodstove or cook fire needed to be made ready before it reached cooking stage. That took time. Then the food needed to be cooked, thus more time. By doing chores while waiting for breakfast, it probably did something to their metabolism that we don't experience nowadays with our quick meals.

2- Foods were more fiber rich back in the "olden days". High fiber has an effect on weight.

3- Staying warm. The body burns a lot calories staying warm when there is no central heat in cold climates. This effect might not have a huge bearing, but it contributes.

4- I suspect that physical activity was by far the biggest influence. In my own case, when I started homesteading I lost 60 lbs over a 2 year period without even trying. In fact, I was eating a lot more. I went from working an 8 hour job in a veterinary hospital to a 12+ hour day building a house, cutting down trees, brush removal, weedwacking, fence building, etc. I went to bed really tired every night.
 
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My grandparents didn't homestead here, but traded land they owned in Arkansas for this place in 1911.  As some have mentioned already it was hard physical work that kept people from being obese.  I think the biggest challenge was consuming enough calories to make it through the day.

My grandfather and the boys farmed with horses, took care of the cattle, and milked the cows in an open corral without stanchions or a barn until they got ahead enough to build one.  My grandmother took care of all the household needs and took care of the chickens and garden.  She pumped water from a well with a hand pump (160 feet deep) for the house, garden, chickens, hogs, fifteen to twenty horses, and all the cows the place would run.  There were no water hydrants-the water was carried in buckets to the chickens, hogs, and house.  There was no rigid division between "men's" and "women's" work.  My grandmother would help my grandfather and take care of things if he was gone and he and the boys would help her and the girls when they needed it.

They were never plump.  I would imagine even those who were considered plump were a hard and in shape kind of plump.
 
James Landreth
pollinator
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Stacy Witscher wrote:A book series I used to read was about a lady detective in, I think, Botswana, and she described herself as a traditionally shaped woman. I loved that. There have always been heavy people. It is but one factor in evaluating health. I prefer to allow individuals to determine the best weight for themselves.




My sister read some of those books to me when I was a kid, and I remember that part! I think it's called The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
 
Stacy Witscher
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James Landreth - yes, that's right, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Good books, nice to know someone else here is familiar with them.
 
master steward
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Jess Dee wrote:
Even looking at old (Medieval and Renaissance) paintings, the women especially were often quite plump.  



From what I understand of the time, being overweight was attractive, largely because it meant (1)They got enough food and so weren't starving and so were healther (2) It meant they were wealthy enough to have enough to eat, and symptoms of wealth are generally considered to be attractive throughout history (pale skin back when rich didn't have to go in the sun, tan skin when only the wealthy had enough money to vacation in the sun instead of working inside all day, every day.)


My thoughts as to why the people were not obese:

(1) It's HARD to grow enough food to eat, especially without machinery. Generally, in history, there's a surplus of food for the rich only because there were starving/malnourished peasants. Come to think of it, it's still that way, with farmers in third world countries being malnushed/starving and having shortened lifespans.

(2) It's doubly hard to grow enough food to eat, when you need MORE food because you burnt two or three times as many calories as a sedentary person. I used to log my activity and my food in a fitness tracker, and on the days when I lounged around at home, I only needed 1,500 calories. When I was walking all day in a preschool, I needed something like 2,200+ calories. If I was doing hard labor (churning butter, tilling the soil, grinding grain, hauling water, building things, etc, with a baby on my back), I'd need 3,000+ calories. That's twice the amount!

(3) Grains were less processed and there was more contact with soil and food microrganisms to colonize the gut. Gut health is immensely important to weight gain/loss. Processed grains and sugars  have been shown to increase the wrong type of gut bacteria, leading not only to inflammation, but also to weight gain. But, if one is eating raw food and digging in the soil and getting that soil in thier mouth, they're colonizing their gut with microorganisms that can better digest the food (for higher nutrient gains), better optimization of calories, and less unhealthy weight gain. My husband has Crohn's, which is caused by the wrong gut microrganisms causing inflammation. People with Crohn's often have problems obtaining their vitamins and minerals from food (as well as calories) because they don't have the right gut buddies to digest their food.

(4) There were more nutrients available in the soils then, and so the food was more nutrient dense, meaning they needed less food to be healthy, and their bodies were not as hungry.

(5) They ate a lot less sugar. Sugar had to be imported and purchased, making it an expensive thing for those that were pioneering. It was mostly likely used sparingly and for special occasions...And, of course, when you write up a bunch of recipes, you don't usually write the common day-to-day foods...you write down the special treats that are eaten on holidays, made with your precious sugar. My mom's side of the family recently assembled a cookbook of heritage recipes passed down through the generations. Probably 70+% of them were deserts, and 20% were potluck/celebration type foods, and maaaaaybe 10% were day-to-day recipes. I have a medieval cookbook, and you'd think from reading it that the people lived on sugar and almond milk and almond paste with lots of eastern spices...but the fact is, that was the food of the wealthy or of special occasions, not the day-to-day fair. And, the occasional sampling of  sugar and inflammatory foods won't mess with most of us (think of the Primal Diet's 80/20 principle. You eat right 80% of the time, and it counters the effects of the 20% of food that isn't so healthy)

(6) They had a lot of muscle. Muscle burns calories, even when you're sleeping...which makes it even harder for them to be obese.

There's probably more reasons, but those are the ones that come to mind for me right now!
 
James Freyr
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Nicole Alderman wrote:

Jess Dee wrote:
Even looking at old (Medieval and Renaissance) paintings, the women especially were often quite plump.  



From what I understand of the time, being overweight was attractive, largely because it meant (1)They got enough food and so weren't starving and so were healther (2) It meant they were wealthy enough to have enough to eat, and symptoms of wealth are generally considered to be attractive throughout history (pale skin back when rich didn't have to go in the sun, tan skin when only the wealthy had enough money to vacation in the sun instead of working inside all day, every day.)



I think this is interesting because it isn't quite an accurate portrayal of people of the times as a whole. Back then, the ones being portrayed in paintings were aristocrats or royalty. Being wealthy, they had servants doing all the laborious work, which includes cooking and that often meant more than enough food during mealtimes. With their lifestyle of expendable time to do what they please and others doing all the hard work, the images of them in paintings are accurate; they're often overweight. There are some paintings of the time that portrayed public places, such as parks or the seaside for example, and interestingly, the subjects in those paintings are almost always lean.
 
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Because pioneer homesteaders did not live primarily sedentary lifestyles.

My grandparents and parents, as children, ate biscuits, gravy, bacon, sausage, a lot of eggs, potatoes, and sweet tea every single day, often in large quantities when supplies were good.

They also worked in the fields, hoeing, picking, hauling, planting, processing, and generally engaging in hard physical labor. What time wasn't spent doing these things was rarely spent in front of the TV, but playing in the yard, the creek, or the woods.

A greater exposure to sunlight also converted more of their cholesterol into Vitamin D, mitigating much of the cholesterol-related effects of this diet.

In short, they burned off those calories by daily, physical work and a generally much more active lifestyle.
 
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