“… eat the way your great-great-great- grandparents ate, and you’ll live a long life” …

Convicts in New Holland. Source: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales (1)
Convicts in New Holland. Source: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales1

Scattered throughout the food and diet literature is the suggestion that to ensure optimal health we should return to the eating patterns before the 1960s. This concept was popularised by Michael Pollan. In his book In Defence of Food2 one of his ‘rules of thumb’ is ‘don’t eat anything your great-grandmother would not recognise as food‘. His implied take-away message is we should ‘eat real, proper, simple food’ – not the kind from a packet. When a recent article3 suggested going back two generations further ‘eat the way your great-great-great-grandparents ate, and you’ll live a long life’, it got me wondering.

To begin with, my great-great-great-grandparents number 32. To find out if that quoted statement is true, I would have to trace my family history back to those 32 ancestors, understand their backgrounds, work out what they probably ate, then contemplate whether foods they were eating in the manner they were eating them could improve my own longevity.

This was an intriguing concept and I decided to investigate.

Luckily for me, I come from a line of family-history lovers. My sister, mother and other relatives traced my family tree to before the 18th century and have written books on it4,5,6, so understanding where I came from wasn’t difficult. My fifth generation ancestors from 200 to 250 years ago originated mainly from Britain but from diverse backgrounds of convicts, working class, tenant-farmers, middle class merchants, professionals, and one line possibly from landed gentry. With that variance, pin-pointing any single traditional food pattern would be challenging.

Gastronomic, other historians, and nutritionists have researched food history in Australia and that of Britain7,8,9,10,11,12,13. As I explored this literature genre – from a time that was supposedly before processed and definitely before fast food – I was to discover that this was not the case. Two hundred or more years ago people were not always eating “real” food. In fact in the days before refrigeration, the probable dietary patterns of my own ancestors would have included substantial quantities of preserved (salted, smoked, dried, pickled, candied) foods; biscuits, bread, cheese, tea, sugar, spices, flour; and later canned foods – all of which are processed foods and arguably many could also be deemed ‘fast-food’.

Depending on which ancestor and time period I looked back on, there were periods within my family’s history where they would have experienced borderline or even critical undernourishment. For other ancestors, who were or became financially secure, patterns of plentiful food and perhaps even eating to excess were apparent. Regardless of the background, however, there did appear to be a greater focus on either obtaining or producing food; and a much deeper connection with food and where it came from than many of us have today.

Furthermore, as I delved further into its history, I gained a greater understanding that food was behind many social and political reforms10, and was a contributing factor if not the whole drive and power behind the makings of the British Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries.14

Our current food environments and its nutritional consequences is a growing concern. The shaping of those food environments through history is a subject I feel deserves closer attention and a series of blog-posts.

I shall begin by going back to the land of my ‘mother country’.15


This is an introductory post for my theme: Food History in Australia.
Tracing the diets of my ancestors, prequels to the food history I have lived through.

# 1: Introduction: “eat what your great-great-great-grandparents ate …”
# 2: British food history leading up to the 18th century.
# 3: The relevance of food in the rise of the British Empire.
# 4: To Australia: The Hungry Years. 1777 – 1800.
# 5: Australian Food History: Greener Pastures. 1800 to 1850.
# 6: Australian Food History: The Gold Rush Years. 1850 to 1900.
# 7: Australian Food History: Federation and WW1. 1900 to 1920.
# 8: Australian Food History: Nutritionism begins. 1920 to 1950
# 9: Living through History: 1950s to 1970s
# 10: Living through history: 1980s to 2000s


Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or on this website should be taken as medical or dietary advice. Anyone reading any information provided within should seek advice from their own medical practitioner for any issue, disease, illness or health-related problem they may have. Always seek your own advice from a medical practitioner or dietitian before changing your own diet.



I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which I have lived and worked. I pay respect to their Elders, past and present.

I thank my sister Margaret Francis, family historian; and my brother-in-law Dr Rodney Francis PhD (agriculture) for reviewing my initial draft and discussions.

I thank Melanie Voevodin @wedietitians for much thoughtful twitter discussions on how our food environments have become what they are and for references 8 & 9 below.


References and Notes:

1. Ravenet, Juan. Convicts in New Holland. Lithograph 01 January 1793.
Felipe Bauza, cartographer – drawings made on the Spanish Scientific Expedition to Australia and the Pacific in the ships Descubierta and Atrevida under the command of Alessandro Malaspina, 1789-94. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Public Domain. Out of copyright: Artist died before 1955.

2. Pollan, Michael. In Defence of Food. 2008. Penguin Press. London.

3. Williams, Zoe. Why it’s never too late to start lifting weight? The Guardian. Australian Edition. 05 December, 2018.

4. Francis, Margaret; Vernon, Stella; Wilkinson, Colin; editors. The Buddong Flows On: Volume 1 – ‘The Old Hands’. 2003. The Buddong Society. Wagga Wagga.

5. Francis, Margaret; Vernon, Stella; Wilkinson, Colin; editors. The Buddong Flows On: Volume 2 – ‘Genuine People’. 1993. The Buddong Society. Wagga Wagga.

6. Wilkinson, Colin; Francis, Margaret; editors. The Buddong Flows On: Volume 3 – ‘Those Precious Ones’. 2017. The Buddong Society. Wagga Wagga.

7. Santich, Barbara, What the Doctors Ordered: 150 Years of Dietary Advice in Australia. 1995. Hyland House Publishing. South Melbourne.

8. Clements, Frederick W. A History of Human Nutrition in Australia. 1986. Longman Cheshire. Melbourne.

9. Wood, Beverley, Editor. Tucker in Australia. 1977. Hill of Content. Melbourne.

10. Symons, Michael. One Continuous Picnic. 2nd edition. 2007. Melbourne University Press. Melbourne.

11. Chant, Susan. A History of Local Food In Australia 1788-2015. PhD Thesis. 2015. University of Adelaide. Adelaide.

12. Newling, Jacqueline. Foodways Unfettered: Eighteenth-Century Food in the Sydney Settlement. Thesis for Masters of Arts. 2007. University of Adelaide. Adelaide.

13. Bannerman, Colin. Print Media and the Development of an Australian Culture of Food and Eating c.1850 to c.1920. PhD Thesis. 2001. University of Canberra. Canberra.

14. Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power- The Place of Sugar in Modern History. 1986. Penguin Books. New York.

15. Definition: Mother Country: “The original country of colonists or settlers.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th edition 2014.




Fireworks.Stuart Miles.


Greetings to all my readers. I wish you all a safe and healthy holiday season. I have been drafting some blog posts under these planned themes for 2019:

1) Food 4 Health: back to basics of food for nourishment;

2) Food 4 Environments: the influence of culture, traditions, social-network, food history, guidelines, marketing, food production and economics on our food choices;

3) Food 4 Life: food for vitality and prevention of non-communicable diseases;

4) Food 4 Freedom: explores the wellness factor, food sensitivities, and fear of foods.

I will also continue with my own food history onward to the present day.

I look forward to you joining me throughout the year.


Leonie Elizabeth



Potato Protein Power


“Potatoes” – Photo by Leonie Elizabeth 23 December 2017

If you have read one or many nutrition articles of recent years you would be forgiven for thinking that potatoes are nothing but carbohydrates with no other purpose as a food than converting to sugar, spiking blood glucose and creating havoc to our metabolic systems. Once a proud staple food, it has been attacked by dieters and professors alike, even relegated to the top tier (use sparingly) in an alternative Healthy Eating Pyramid.

You would also be forgiven for thinking of other foods, usually animal foods, as protein.

In food guides, foods are placed into various groups of similar nutrient value and these are usually fruit, vegetables, cereals, dairy and then a fifth group often named ‘protein‘ foods. Here ‘protein’ foods refer to meat, eggs, fish, poultry, legumes and nuts. The UK Eatwell Guide (1), although listing examples, refers to this group as ‘proteins’; the US Dietary Guidelines (2) refers to this group as ‘protein’ and ‘protein foods’; and the US Choose MyPlate as ‘protein’ (3). I note the Australian Dietary Guidelines (4) do not refer to this food group as ‘protein’ but rather lists the foods within the group ie: meat, poultry, fish, egg, tofu, nuts, seeds, legumes/beans. The Australian example aside, such messages of ‘protein’ as a food group from nutrition authorities in the UK and US, has a flow-down effect to health professionals and the public and this theme of ‘protein’ as a food group is common in the lay-press. One could mistakenly assume that those foods (meat, eggs, fish, poultry, legumes, nuts) are solely or predominantly protein; and that cereals, grains, tubers, potatoes, vegetables and dairy foods (which appear in different food groups) are thus low, inferior or poor quality sources of protein. Neither assumption is correct. Continue reading “Potato Protein Power”

Talking about fat …


Photo 1-11-18, 6 17 36 pm

In food and nutrition “fat” or “fats” have various meanings:

  • Fat is a food nutrient.
  • Fats is a food group.
  • Fat is a component in the blood.
  • Fat is a description of body size.
  • Fat is a body tissue.

Confusingly, some writers mix these terminologies up. Even more confusingly, these various meanings of fat can be described by different words and in various ways.

Fat is a macro-nutrient in foods. The macro-nutrients are protein, carbohydrate, fat and (in adults) alcohol. Once digested and absorbed, macro-nutrients provide energy (kilojoules/ calories) to the body for use in various bodily processes. Fat has other functions in the body including cell membrane structure and transport of fat-soluble vitamins. Fats in food can be referred to as “lipids” where lipids are organic substances insoluble in water and soluble in organic solvents. Technically though, food-fats are a sub-class of lipids known as triglycerides. Triglycerides have a glycerol backbone with three fatty acids attached. The fatty acids can be saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Food lipids include triglycerides, phospholipids and cholesterol. (1)

Fats” as a food group includes solid fats (butter/ margarine) and liquid oils. This food group contain foods that are comprised almost entirely of fat (the macro-nutrient) with only tiny amounts of protein or carbohydrate (or none), and hardly any vitamins or minerals unless fortified. They are not whole-foods but rather extracted fats from whole foods; such as butter from milk, or olive oil from olives. They are generally not eaten as foods on their own but rather added to foods or used in cooking.

In the 1970s/ 1980s fats was one of the five food groups in Australia. Back then the five food groups were bread and cereals; vegetables and fruit; meat and alternatives; milk & milk products; and fats (butter or table margarine) (2). In the 1990s the five food groups had a major change and became bread & cereals; fruit group; vegetables, legumes; meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, legumes; and (v) milk, yoghurt, cheese. At that time, it was considered nutrients in fats such as Vitamin A could be obtained from other foods, and fats as a separate food group was unnecessary (3).

The most recent (2013) Australian Dietary Guidelines do not include fats as a nutritious food group. However, it considers foods with mainly unsaturated fats (spreads, oils, nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocado) may have ‘health benefits’ (4). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans similarly do not consider fats as a food group but includes monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils (canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, sunflower) or whole-foods high in these fatty acids (nuts, seeds, seafood, olives, avocados) can form part of a healthy eating pattern (5). Thus, these more recent guidelines group some fatty whole-foods with liquid oils and do not simply group extracted fats.

Both these guidelines, as do many around the world, recommend dietary patterns lower in saturated fat.

Blood fats” are generally referred to as “blood lipids”. They move along in the aqueous environment of the blood attached to proteins as “lipoproteins”. It is postulated some lipoproteins may increase risk and others protect against risk of diseases such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. The various lipoproteins doctors test for are described here.

Fat” as a description for body size is considered offensive and stigmatizing. I agree and therefore will not discuss it further in this post.

Fat” is a name for body tissue. There are three main types. Essential fat is required in small amounts in the bone marrow, vital organs, muscles and nervous system; as well as structural components of cell membranes. Storage fat (known as adipose tissue) generally accumulates sub-subcutaneously (under the skin). Ectopic fat accumulates in cells of non-adipose tissue that normally only have small amounts of fat. Accumulation occurs viscerally (around the abdomen) and also may deposit in or around vital organs including muscles, liver, pancreas, and the heart.

This distinction in body fat accumulation is critical as abdominal fat and ectopic fat are considered risk factors for non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Sub-cutaneous fat does not bear the same risk. In fact the definition of “obesity by the World Health Organisation is when body fat has accumulated to the extent of having an adverse effect on health. Although body-weight is used as a guide on a population basis (6); for an individual, body-fat distribution is an important consideration. Some people of lower body weight can be at risk of disease (and therefore technically ‘obese’) if they have a tendency to accumulate fat around the abdomen or ectopically. A good guide is waist circumference. Recommendations for Australian adults can be found here.

In 2013 when I was going through my own weight / health / emotional crises … I began to ponder the connections between the different aspects of fat. How did food-fats relate to blood-fats … or body-fat … or disease risk … and why was there this change in food-group categorization where fats fell out of favour and have now come back? Most importantly, what consideration did they have for me as an individual?

Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or on this website should be taken as medical or dietary advice. Anyone reading any information provided within should seek advice from their own medical practitioner for any issue, disease, illness or health-related problem they may have. Always seek your own advice from a medical practitioner or dietitian before changing your own diet.

(1) E Whitney, S R Rolfes, T Crowe, D Cameron-Smith, A Walsh. Understanding Nutrition. Australia and New Zealand Edition. 2nd Edition. Cengate Learning. 2014.

(2) Food For Health. National Food Authority. Commonwealth of Australia. 1991

(3) The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. Background information for nutrition educators. Commonwealth of Australia. September 1998.

(4) National Health and Medical Research Council. Eat For Health: Australian Dietary Guidelines Summary. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council, 2013.

(5) Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th edition. US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture. December 2015.Available at

(6) Defining Adult Overweight and Obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. June 16, 2016. Retrieved 21 November, 2018.

A false dichotomy – dietary guidelines and the other diet

Dichotomy (2)
A Dichotomy – Black or White.

A dichotomy is a division into two entirely different and often contrasting domains, interests or activities (1). Examples of true dichotomies are black or white. Tall or short.

A false dichotomy is an argument giving a false illusion of there being only two choices whereas in reality there can be at least one other or even many possibilities (2). The argument is set up in such a way as the first choice is eliminated due to it being seen as a terrible choice, and the only other alternative is the second choice.

Over the last decade dietary guidelines have come under attack. Arguments against them are often presented in the manner of a false dichotomy. These are the steps used in that line of fallacy: Continue reading “A false dichotomy – dietary guidelines and the other diet”

A return to the heart of the matter

Catalyst: a person or thing that precipitates an event.


In October 2013, the ABC TV in Australia aired a two-part documentary ‘Heart of the Matter‘ on their behind-the-science program Catalyst. The first segment investigated the diet-heart hypothesis and the history behind diet recommendations to eat less saturated fat. The second segment was on use of statin drugs for reducing the risk of heart disease.

This was a topic of great interest to me. My own father had had a heart attack in 1969 at the age of 45 years. He died from a stroke 5 years later at the age of 49. His death had a devastating and lasting impact on my family. For my whole adult life I had striven to avoid heart disease by following what is considered a heart-healthy diet. The Catalyst segment on diet went against some of my firm beliefs as to what is considered a healthy diet for prevention of heart disease.

The show was critical of dietary guidelines to lower foods with saturated fats such as meat, butter and dairy; and base the diet on bread, grains, and cereals. It implied those guidelines put us “in the nutritional mess we are now in” focussing on supposed flawed science that led to the guidelines. It implied saturated fat was not a contributor to heart disease, cholesterol in the blood is nothing to worry about, people have a pre-set cholesterol level you cannot change by diet; and sugar is the real cause of heart disease. It was the first time I had heard such claims from a reputable source (the ABC).

I had some concerns after watching the program. The program did not present any evidence (only opinion) that saturated fat was innocent in regard to heart disease, and no evidence of sugar instead being the supposed cause. It implied promotion of our cereal-based diet was at least part due to marketing from food companies, yet it presented no evidence of any supposed detrimental effects of diets based on cereals or other higher carbohydrate foods. It did not offer any alternative heart-healthy diet. It did not detail the “mess” we were now supposedly in.

The “mess” that was the 1970s

In the 1940s to early 1960s, heart disease was considered a normal part of aging. People grew old in their 60s. In their 70s, they had heart attacks and died. By the mid-1960s, two things had changed. Firstly, it became known younger people could also develop heart disease and could die. Secondly, research showed prevalence rates of heart disease were lower in other countries. With these two pieces of emerging evidence, it was postulated heart disease was not a normal part of aging but some factor to do with the western diet or lifestyle. Health authorities began to recognise that changing diet and lifestyle could have a bearing on the disease. This was a radical change to the way medical authorities had thought and advised up until that time. Did the program (and others since) making the claim that dietary guidelines supposedly drove us into a “mess”, fail to grasp the grave underlying reason dietary recommendations were made in the first place?

Dietary guidelines were issued from the 1970s because we were already in a “mess”

Young people were dying prematurely of heart attacks and strokes. The dietary guidelines did not create the supposed “mess”. Whilst they did not get every aspect 100% correct in the first guidelines, and there have been some revisions since, the guidelines may have contributed to improved trends in heart disease rates. In Australia, there has been a decline in cardiovascular disease death rates >70% since the 1970s (1).

Figure 1. Age-standardised death rates, 1913-2012. Source (2).

Heart-Disease-deaths (2)

Having lived through that era of dietary change and those improved statistics, having lost my own father in 1974 through heart disease in his 40s, it baffled me that something considered pioneering – changing health outcomes by changing diet and lifestyle (which is actually quite sensible) – could be portrayed so negatively decades later.

Fried fatty foods

Another factor that deeply concerned me (in regard to what other people may assume who may have watched the program) were images scattered throughout of fried fatty foods, and the seeming fixation on establishing which type of fat to use for (deep) frying. There were eleven video clips in the half-hour program of sizzling fats frying eggs, bacon, sausages; deep-frying chips; or butter sizzling in a pan.  Was this the supposed alternative heart-healthy diet? Were we supposed to return to eating a lot of fatty and deep-fried foods (as long as the fat we used was saturated fat)? Was this the message? Was it implying frying foods and eating butter were not only not unhealthy, they were actually healthy? If so, where is the evidence? None was presented.

Frying foods was one of the things that had been swept out of my own diet after my father’s heart attack 45 years before … although the fat and the frying had crept back in.

My own catalyst

A few weeks before the program I had my own ‘catalyst’ (7) and at the time Catalyst aired I was midstream following diet advice as promoted on the website of the Australian Heart Foundation (3). Despite the Catalyst program implying such recommendations were based on weak science, flawed and probably would not work (and I note that adding fats and frying foods were two of the things I dramatically reduced), remarkably within ten weeks my total cholesterol had dropped 25%, my LDL cholesterol plummeted 31% and my triglycerides 18% (4). (These components a doctor may test for are described here.) Whilst I could not exactly be sure which foods had which effect (foods I added being beneficial, or foods I restricted being detrimental), changing my diet did make a difference and thus at least one claim on the Catalyst program for at least one person (me) did not hold true – “you cannot change your cholesterol level by changing your diet“. I changed mine. Moreover the changes were based on guidelines of a health advocacy group. Maybe the science and guidelines can be trusted after all.

In case you missed the point I am trying to make, I will repeat it.

Young people were dying in the 1960s and 1970s. Struck down in their prime.

My father was one of them. In remembrance of him and his untimely death, I can no longer let pass opinions given without evidence that imply dietary guidelines were or are responsible for any supposed health ‘mess’, that advocated dietary guidelines are not worth a try, or that include statements that are factually incorrect (5, 6). The guidelines seek to advise how people may improve their own health.

It is time for me to speak up …
Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or on this website should be taken as medical or dietary advice. Anyone reading any information provided within should seek advice from their own medical practitioner for any issue, disease, illness or health-related problem they may have. Always seek your own advice from a medical practitioner or dietitian before changing your own diet.

References and Notes:

(1) Australian Heart Disease Statistics 2014. Australian Heart Foundation.
In Australia, there has been a decline in cardiovascular disease death rates >70% since 1970s. This trend is reportedly due to equal measures of both improved survival and lower incidence rates. Lifestyle factors of reduced smoking, exercise and better diet are contributory lifestyle factors. Australian heart disease death rates are lower than in other high-income countries such as USA, UK and Germany, although higher than Japan.

(2) Australian Heart Disease Statistics 2015. Australian Heart Foundation.

(3) The (Australian) Heart Foundation (AHF) is a charity dedicated to fighting heart disease. On their website in September 2013 dietary advice I read was: To lower LDL: eat foods high in soluble fibre (oats, beans, legumes, apples, pears, barley); eat fish two serves a week and omega-3 fatty acids; eat nuts; reduce consumption of saturated fats and trans fats. To raise raise HDL: become more physically active, lose weight, choose healthier fats (mono-unsaturated and omega 3 fats), eat fish and nuts, drink alcohol in moderation.

(4) The actual changes to my diet that I made in that ten week period were to eat more oats, barley, beans and lentils; eat oat bread, less other bread; eat some nuts; swap from 1% milk to skim milk at home, skinny milk when out; drop full-milk coffee lattes; cut out red meat; reduce chicken or fish to twice a week; eat more vegetables; use canola or olive oils when cooking, although I actually cut out added oils and fats almost entirely in this period. As a disclaimer: I rarely consume sugar, and I infrequently consume and did not have any sweet fatty foods in this period (eg cakes, biscuits or ice-cream).

(5) There were some statements factually incorrect for the Australian context such as margarine being laden with trans fat. Trans fats have been largely removed from Australian margarine since the mid 1990s. The dietary pyramid depicted the US pyramid which puts bread and cereals at the base. The Australian Healthy Eating Pyramid had cereals, fruit and vegetables at the base.

(6) The Catalyst program described researcher Ancel Keys comparing heart disease rates in six countries, implying he cherry-picked countries to formulate a hypothesis that formed the basis of our dietary guidelines. The graph shown in the program was from 1953. After his preliminary hypothesis, Keys went on to conduct the seven countries study (including Greece that went against his initial hypothesis); and the dietary guidelines were not introduced for another 25 years.

(7) A few weeks before the program I had my own ‘catalyst’. At a doctors’ check my blood test results revealed my cholesterol was higher than previous levels that had, until a decade before, been remarkably low for 22 years. Over that decade I had experienced several chaotic life events distracting my attention from my health. I resolved to re-focus. By the time Catalyst aired I was midstream in following diet advice as promoted on the website of the Australian Heart Foundation (3). Remarkably within ten weeks my total cholesterol had dropped 25%, LDL cholesterol plummeted 31% and triglycerides 18%. Whilst I could not exactly be sure which foods had an effect, either foods I had more of (oats, barley, beans, lentils, nuts) exerting a cholesterol-lowering benefit, or foods I had restricted (red meat, dairy, and oils) no longer having cholesterol-raising effects, one thing was definite – changing my diet made the difference.

(8) Image by Leonie Elizabeth 22 July 2018.

Living through history. Our changing food environments. 1980s – 2010s.

Ultra-processed food (2)

Within two generations there has been a complete restructure of our food environments from mainly fresh foods prepared in the home, eaten with family or friends at the table with plates and utensils; to a high proportion of fast food, convenience food, snack-food, confectionery; from or at restaurants, cafes, take-away outlets and food-halls; out of bags, packets, bottles, cans, tubes, tubs … and eaten on the run. Continue reading “Living through history. Our changing food environments. 1980s – 2010s.”