Was the world really healthier in the 60s/70s?

Scotrail12

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I’ve been seeing some tweets in my timeline suggesting that there were no overweight/obese people in the 60s/70s and how everyone was so much healthier.

I found it a bit jarring to be honest but being that I wasn’t alive then, what do you think? Was the world healthier then?

Yes - the fast food industry has no doubt had an effect. However, smoking was rife back then. You surely can’t say that smoking a pack a day is healthier than a McDonalds every 3 weeks. I also think that people now look a lot younger than they did before. Looking at pictures of my grandparents as 30-somethings in the 70s, they definitely looked a lot older than 30-somethings and even 40-somethings today.

I wonder if another factor in increased obesity is the fact that almost everyone seems to drive now, maybe we’re doing less walking?
 
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Bletchleyite

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I'm slightly podgy and for most of my life have been. However, kids of even the 1980s-1990s were mostly wiry and skinny so I got picked on at school for being "fat". Yet by today's kids' standards I wasn't.

With regard to people "looking older" I suspect that was due to time spent outside which causes the skin to age.
 

DarloRich

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I suspect there was a lower level of obesity due to diet and dietary habits however I suspect there were many more occurrences of things like cancer ( due to smoking and an unhealth atmosphere) and industrial injuries like "black lung" mesothelioma, pneumosiderosis, silicosis etc
 

uglymonkey

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A lot more " active" Jobs too, rather than sitting at a desk staring at a monitor for 8 hours :)
 

WesternLancer

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This was a point made in relation to this pic of Brighton Beach in 1976 that provoked this article - pic shown again in the article - and indeed people do look generally pretty slim compared with how I reckon it might look now - not that everyone is obese now of course - but it is notable to look at the pic.


Tho on avg people did not live as long as they do now on avg (but may not do so in future?) - but do they live longer and also healthily.

larger version of said pic
 

Snow1964

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Fast food was a rarity in 1970s and virtually non existent in 1960s. Even when it became more common, initially was limited to cities.

The main difference is that hardly anyone ate processed foods, they had real meat, vegatables (salad in summer). No highly processed chemical emulsifiers, preservatives, weird chemical additives. The TV (instant) dinner was unheard of before microwaves became common.

Of course before we moVED to foods littered with chemicals, had very low levels of behaviour disorders. It was not uncommon for there to be no cases at a school (I went to a comprehensive in late 1970s with over 1000 pupils and don’t remember any of the modern disorders, where as nowadays with ultra processed food could expect about quarter of each class to have something.

So with exception of smoking and heavy driving (which by 1970s were a decreasing sub-set of population), people were generally healthier.
 

Western Lord

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There were instant diners before microwaves. I remember Leslie Crowther advertising the Bird's Eye Dinner For One. He comes home and finds it in the fridge and says to his wife "who needs a Bird's Eye Dinner For One?". Wife replies "You do, I'm leaving".
 

Gloster

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Something that has been said is that World War II had a positive effect on peoples’ health (if you didn’t get shot, bombed, drowned, etc.) People were eating less, but in many cases better, and these habits continued long afterwards and passed to their children, even if a bit watered down. However, as time went on and the population started to have more disposal income, more unhealthy but enticing food outlets appeared and gradually more and more started using them and the old ways were forgotten by people who had never really known them.
 

WesternLancer

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Fast food was a rarity in 1970s and virtually non existent in 1960s. Even when it became more common, initially was limited to cities.

The main difference is that hardly anyone ate processed foods, they had real meat, vegatables (salad in summer). No highly processed chemical emulsifiers, preservatives, weird chemical additives. The TV (instant) dinner was unheard of before microwaves became common.

Of course before we moVED to foods littered with chemicals, had very low levels of behaviour disorders. It was not uncommon for there to be no cases at a school (I went to a comprehensive in late 1970s with over 1000 pupils and don’t remember any of the modern disorders, where as nowadays with ultra processed food could expect about quarter of each class to have something.

So with exception of smoking and heavy driving (which by 1970s were a decreasing sub-set of population), people were generally healthier.
Fish and chips not fast food?

But much in what you say of course.

Tho important to recognise that more kids in 70s schools with disorders were in special schools - 'mainstreaming' was not a thing so much then - so may well not have been in your school like they would be now. But still I don't think that explains the allergies etc that seem to be prevalent at higher rates now than then - I was also at school in the 70s.
 

C J Snarzell

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Coming from a former coal mining 'pit' & mill town in the North West - this could be an interesting debate to judge whether life was healthier in the 1960s than it is now.

My Grandad died shortly before reaching retirement age because of the working conditions in the coal mines that seriously impacted on his health in later years. Even my Grandmother was plagued with poor health herself because of the hardships she faced in bringing up a family and a sick husband.

Alot of people from that working class generation where smokers who regularly frequented the local Labour Club or boozer. Meals back then were often fried, without any real concern for the fat or salt content - the word calories didn't exist. Many houses in my Grandparent's area were rundown with no adequate washing facilities - toilets were found in the back yard. Thankfully, the last of those houses were demolished in the 1980s.

My point is that there was a lot of viruses back then caused by poor sanitation and ventilation in older homes that were not necessarily fit for purpose. The Winter months saw severe hardships with people developing life threatening illnesses due to the lack of adequate heating and electricity. My Grandmother still used coal to heat her home up until she moved out in the 1990s to go in a retirement home.

On the plus side - people didn't tend to over-eat back then. When my Dad was growing up in the 1950s & 60s, he stated sweets and chocolates were luxuries and very few people over indulged and became overweight. Because no-one could afford the luxury of their own vehicle - everyone seemed to be physically active, even those who may not necessarily be in good health. My Dad even said using a bus was a luxury as he used to walk/cycle everywhere until he was well into his 20s.

Fast forward to 2022 - could you honestly say life is any better in my home town? A recent poll suggested the life expetency is below the national average.

From my own observations - alot of modern day 'unhealthiness' stems from alcoholism, drug use, obesity and a poor standard of living. In comparison to 50/60 years ago - poor standards of living are mainly lifestyle choices now whereas in the 1960s people didn't necessarily have a choice. Times were both hard & harsh back then.

From my own opinion - there is just as much unhealthiness as there has always been, but I think we are dealing with a different type of unhealthiness than we did in the 1960s.

CJ
 
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birchesgreen

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There were instant diners before microwaves. I remember Leslie Crowther advertising the Bird's Eye Dinner For One. He comes home and finds it in the fridge and says to his wife "who needs a Bird's Eye Dinner For One?". Wife replies "You do, I'm leaving".

Boil in the bag curries :E
 

najaB

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I’ve been seeing some tweets in my timeline suggesting that there were no overweight/obese people in the 60s/70s and how everyone was so much healthier.

I found it a bit jarring to be honest but being that I wasn’t alive then, what do you think? Was the world healthier then?
Thinner, probably - but that's as likely to have been due to malnourishment than overall health.
 

Bletchleyite

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This was a point made in relation to this pic of Brighton Beach in 1976 that provoked this article - pic shown again in the article - and indeed people do look generally pretty slim compared with how I reckon it might look now - not that everyone is obese now of course - but it is notable to look at the pic.


Hold the front page, Monbiot thinks another bad thing is a capitalist conspiracy... :)
 

Busaholic

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I've only been to the USA once, back in 1979. I was in California and was astonished at the levels of obesity I saw, which were replicated in only a very few I ever saw back in London. I'm not sure the same would be true today.
 

ChiefPlanner

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Well into the 1970's , school dinners (not lunches) , were invariably cooked from scratch in canteen kitchens from raw materials - not an additive in sight.

Processed food began I suppose with things like Vesta Curries (just add water - followed by things like Instant Spuds , Angel Delights and other such "treats" of the era) - Pizza very rare and only really in big cities and that there London - and even then served with baked spuds and coleslaw.

Mind you - sugar consumption was pretty high in those days - as a family we went though something like 4 pounds a week......
 

matacaster

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There were instant diners before microwaves. I remember Leslie Crowther advertising the Bird's Eye Dinner For One. He comes home and finds it in the fridge and says to his wife "who needs a Bird's Eye Dinner For One?". Wife replies "You do, I'm leaving".
Wife leaving is bad, but birds eye dinner for one was a real kick in the teeth. Seem to recall ( although memory might be failing) a thin tray, very thin slice of bee, unpleasant mashed potato and soaking in bad tasting gravy. She obviously hated him.

Well into the 1970's , school dinners (not lunches) , were invariably cooked from scratch in canteen kitchens from raw materials - not an additive in sight.

Processed food began I suppose with things like Vesta Curries (just add water - followed by things like Instant Spuds , Angel Delights and other such "treats" of the era) - Pizza very rare and only really in big cities and that there London - and even then served with baked spuds and coleslaw.

Mind you - sugar consumption was pretty high in those days - as a family we went though something like 4 pounds a week......
I had the wriggling worm in school salad. Took it back, told to put salt on it by a woman who I assume was at some time a concentration camp guard
 

Ediswan

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Well into the 1970's , school dinners (not lunches) , were invariably cooked from scratch in canteen kitchens from raw materials - not an additive in sight.
Spam Fritters. Sodium nitrite.

That was an exception. My school did a really good liver and onions.
 

WesternLancer

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Well into the 1970's , school dinners (not lunches) , were invariably cooked from scratch in canteen kitchens from raw materials - not an additive in sight.

Processed food began I suppose with things like Vesta Curries (just add water - followed by things like Instant Spuds , Angel Delights and other such "treats" of the era) - Pizza very rare and only really in big cities and that there London - and even then served with baked spuds and coleslaw.

Mind you - sugar consumption was pretty high in those days - as a family we went though something like 4 pounds a week......
Not sure those school sausages would have been entirely additive free...
 

thenorthern

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Depends on what you mean by my healthy.

We are defiantly getting fatter which is rather surprising as since 2005 we have had things like Jamie's School Dinners who of course banned kids from eating junk food in school which I am still bitter about.

At the same time though many dangerous things like lead paint (1992), leaded petrol (2000), Asbestos (1999), CFCs (1994), lead pipes (1970), PCBs (1981) have all been banned. I read somewhere that the 1990s were the era of banning and regulation given how many dangerous things were banned.
 

Lloyds siding

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As usual it's swings and roundabouts. Diet was generally better, several reasons for this: as others have said, meals prepared from fresh ingredients, choice of food and portion size determined by habits developed from 1940s-1950s rationing, seasonality meant that variety was inevitable over the year (now we fly in ingredients from all over the world, e.g.strawberries are available all year round), food was more expensive as a proportion of income so overeating was too costly.
However, air pollution was bad due to domestic and industrial burning of coal, there was lead being spread around in air pollution from leaded petrol, industrial discharges of toxins into the air, ground, water. Other airborne pollutants included sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides...I know from my history of pollution testing how much such pollutants have dropped.
Asbestos had become very useful as an industrial material, although usage dropped after 1966 when controls started to impact. Lead pipes led to ingestion of lead, along with lead paint. My current house still has some lead pipework, indeed my accumulated bodily burden of lead must be immense because of things I've done: burning off lead paint, working in printing, using lead compounds in our laboratory, visiting nearby lead works (you could taste the airborne lead inside the works). I've never been a smoker, but certainly inhaled lots of smoke from other people. Many people smoked and health and lifespan in the 60s and 70s was dramatically affected by this.
People did more exercise: there were far fewer cars, so people walked, and took exercise e.g hiking, not gym machines but P.E. as it was called... the armed forces had instilled this in many people. Children in particular could be seen playing football, cricket, rounders, netball, etc.
There were other hazards, a kid in my class was in a wheelchair as a result of polio. There was another (younger than me) who had shortened limbs due to Thalidomide.
Car crashes were horrifically high (1966 was the peak peacetime fatality rate): no speed limit, no seat belts (unless you had a Volvo).
 

nw1

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I had the wriggling worm in school salad. Took it back, told to put salt on it by a woman who I assume was at some time a concentration camp guard
Wouldn't go quite that far, but: the two dinner ladies at my most recent primary school (early 80s) were certainly very grumpy and authoritarian in the extreme. Also doubled up as playtime supervisors. Feared much more than the teachers who were quite a soft and friendly bunch.

As for school dinners, not sure how they made them but the ones I remember from the above primary school didn't seem very healthy and were noted for horrors such as Lumpy Custard.

School dinners at secondary school were better, but I moved to packed lunches about a year in. (Actually, now I think about it, I think I may have had packed lunches in the final year of primary school, too, perhaps as a result of the experiences earlier!)

As usual it's swings and roundabouts.

I think I would agree with that. Can't speak for the 60s, don't really remember most of the 70s apart from the last couple of years, but if we compare say the late 70s, early 80s with now, the pros of now are the much reduced smoking of course, while the cons are more in the way of processed foods and less in the way of exercise. I do remember more small shops around in the early 80s. That said, as I stated above the school dinners were pretty horrendous!

For example, being driven by car to primary school was very rare, and would only take place in very wet weather (which itself seemed rarer than now). The normal was a 10-15 min walk to primary school (just over half a mile, at a guess).
 
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C J Snarzell

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For example, being driven by car to primary school was very rare, and would only take place in very wet weather (which itself seemed rarer than now). The normal was a 10-15 min walk to primary school (just over half a mile, at a guess).

Even for me growing up in the 1980s & 90s, I regularly walked to school. My mum or one of the mum's across the street would walk us to/from our primary school. This was roughly about a mile either way.

Even in cold adverse weather, we would still make the treck on foot. I recall walking to the school the morning after the Great Storm of 1987 and being gobsmacked at the damage and chaos caused overnight.

When I went to secondary school in 1991, this was about two miles from home. Again I regularly walked it there and back, although I did start using the bus during the winter months mainly to protect things like text books and homework being soiled by the bad weather.

CJ
 

simonw

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Wife leaving is bad, but birds eye dinner for one was a real kick in the teeth. Seem to recall ( although memory might be failing) a thin tray, very thin slice of bee, unpleasant mashed potato and soaking in bad tasting gravy. She obviously hated him.
Very thin slice of bee? How did they even make such a thing, no sting I hope :)
 

eMeS

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Back in this period, my father was told by his ICI personnel manager that ICI’s records showed :-
(1) that people working right up to their 65th birthday survived as little as 9 months into their retirement.
(2) that people retiring at age 64 lived several months beyond 65yrs 9 months, and those retiring at an earlier age lived even longer.

Dad had no hesitation in retiring at 62, and lived until he was 86. This was when most males smoked, and I expect many died from lung cancer. My employer, GEC, encouraged no smoking on its estate ~20 years before the UK Government passed laws banning smoking. (I found that hospitals were the worst place - close by the entrance for visitors and out-patients.)
 

birchesgreen

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My Dad (also a GEC employee) retired a couple of years early due to bad health (luckily he was able to do it), he managed just short of 10 years retirement before he died. If he had had to work till the end i doubt he'd have survived.
 

WesternLancer

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On the diet / obesity related health aspects - one other thing I have noticed relates to portion sizes and volumes eaten. I suspect this relates to the fact that food is now cheap compared with historically (well maybe not for long but...), something that happened in the USA probably by the late 1950s - compared with in the past - so people can juts eat more within their budgets.

I also note that in connection with this crockery has got bigger than in the past -plates, bowls, mugs, glasses - all bigger - I have noticed this if you go into antique / bric-a-brac or retro shop and look at crockery from the early 1970s and before - plates smaller diameter, glasses smaller volume etc compared with say a typical dining plate from IKEA now. I am sure bigger plates result in bigger services and thus more eaten.

But as the thread is helpfully pointing out the health problems of the past will change into new health problems in the future, with differing causes.
 

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