Nov 23 2015

Health Advice from the 1950s

One of the pillars of alternative medicine propaganda is historical revisionism. Proponents often claim that they were ahead of the curve on diet and exercise advice, while the medical establishment lagged behind. They go as far as to take credit for the entire field of nutrition by labeling it “alternative.”

The fact is, the disparity between mainstream and alternative advice has not changed much for the past 60+ years. There are even some elements that are literally centuries old – using “natural” as a marketing angle, for example.

The alternative narrative is not based on reality, however. Fortunately we have records from the first half of the 20th century that document exactly what the scientific mainstream and alternative culture were saying. It is a good idea to frequently question your own narrative and check the actual facts. I sought to find some historical documents that would demonstrate what the medical mainstream were saying in the 1950s.

Obviously we have learned a great deal in the last 60 years, but it is perhaps surprising how little basic nutritional advice has changed. By the 1950s we had already worked out the basics of nutrition, identified all the vitamins, their role in the body, and their source in common foods. The benefits of exercise were also already being recognized, as well as maintaining a lean body mass. Everything we have learned since then, in terms of its bottom line effect on health advice, has been a small tweak, not a fundamental change.

This is perhaps the best 1950s eating advice video I came across. The video gives the following information:

1 – Identifies 5 groups of nutrients, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, and advises getting enough of each group every day
2 – Emphasizes eating a varied diet and plenty of fruits and vegetables
3 – Advises against faddish or narrow diets
4 – Mentions that if you eat a healthy diet, taking extra vitamins in unnecessary.

This is all sound advice today. That above video is British, here is an American version.  The advice is essentially the same, adding the need to eat a “vitamin C food” every day.

These videos are focused on getting enough nutrition, although they do caution against too many calories. One difference between these historical recommendations and current advice is the 1950’s emphasis on dairy. Dairy food is a good source of many nutrients, and is still part of a varied and healthful diet, but is not emphasized as much today because it is also calorie dense.

The videos do mention eating “lean” meat, but do not spend sufficient time discussing the difference between red and lean meat or warning against eating excessive red meat.

Overall that is the big difference between these 1950s PSAs and current advice – the emphasis in the past was on getting sufficient nutrients and not as much on avoiding excess. Now, post obesity epidemic, there is more attention being paid to avoiding excess. Still, it was recognized that being overweight was a health risk and people should avoid excess calories and remain trim, as this cheesy cartoon illustrates.

What about exercise? Here is a quick overview of scientific exercise recommendations by the medical community. As evidence began to emerge in the 1950s on the importance of exercise to overall health, the medical community focused initially on researching specific exercises for specific health and fitness outcomes. There was some concern initially about the safety of certain rigorous exercises.

Specific exercise advice from the US government began to emerge in the 1970s, and Official US dietary guidelines recommending routine moderate exercise for overall health began in 1990. This timeline is often used to argue that medical advice adopting exercise was late to the game, but it misses the actual history of exercise within medicine, not just in official government guidelines.

Here is a thorough historical overview, showing that mainstream medicine was researching and recommending exercise even in the 1800s. But if we look at 1910, when the scientific revolution really occurred in the medical profession, at that time physical medicine was already a specialty, and scientific research into exercise physiology and the effects of exercise on health began in earnest.

By the 1960s exercise science was firmly established within medicine, as the paper reports:

The new exercise science research in the 1960s was built upon the unique and groundbreaking studies of exercise at the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory in the 1930s and ’40s and T.K. Cureton’s Fitness Laboratory at the University of Illinois in the late 1940s and ’50s (4,5), among a few others, along with the findings of epidemiologists Jeremy Morris and Ralph Paffenbarger, who linked physical inactivity with a variety of chronic diseases.

What the historical record shows is that mainstream medicine was interested in and researching exercise the same way it was researching other medical specialties, throughout the history of western medicine. That research drove medical advice.

Alternative practitioners did not invent advice about exercise, nor were they the first to recognize the relationship between diet, exercise, and health. Diet and exercise have been part of scientific research and modern medicine from the beginning.

Historical documents also show what the “alternative health” community was recommending in the past. One example I found was a site referencing a 1971 article in The Health Seeker, an alternative health magazine published by Rodale.

For those who don’t know, Rodale is considered the granddaddy of the modern natural living/alternative health movement.

The author is impressed that by the 1960s Rodale was recommending exercise for physical fitness. He was about three decades behind Jack Lalanne, but also was behind the medical community, not in front of it.

The article also emphasized eating organic (which has no health benefits) and avoiding chemicals (a la the Food Babe). Interestingly, it does mention that not all things “natural” are harmless, and mentions a liver fluke contamination of water cress. He felt the need to add this warning because of the well-documented obsession with being “natural” in the alternative community.


The historical record clearly indicates that mainstream scientific medicine was and continues to conduct research into diet and nutrition, following the history of scientific research in medicine in general. Specific advice flowed from this research.

Meanwhile, the alternative health community has historically been obsessed with eating organic, avoiding chemicals, and being “natural.” Their exercise and nutrition advice was in no way ahead of the medical community, but they happily take credit for it anyway.

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