Poverty food is the diet of choice. Our choice

The West may take a fancy to recipes inspired by the peasant life, but those compelled to eat that way would marvel at our plenty

Share

In a Havana dance hall, a tourist can find themselves caught between envy and guilt. Every woman seems to be slim and graceful, every man's stomach is toned, yet you are the one who can afford the drinks at the bar. You probably had dinner out, too – choosing from a range of food much wider than a Cuban person's ration. In Britain it is quite acceptable to compliment someone with a good figure, but it breaks the boundaries of crassness to ask anyone trapped in a permanent crisis of food supply how they stay so slim.

A recent study, however, says that, with one in four Britons obese, the Cuban Crisis Diet is the one we should look to. Scientists have found that deaths from heart disease and diabetes would fall in Britain were we to lose weight as the Cuban people did in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there was a chronic shortage of food.

Researchers from the University of Alcala in Madrid studied health records for the population of the town of Cienfuegos, southern Cuba, between 1991 and 1995, and found that when the crisis was at its worst people were obviously slimmer – but much healthier. Not only was there a shortage of food, but fuel for transport and industry was also scarce, prompting people to walk more and take up manual labour in place of operating machinery in factories and farms. During this period, the average person in Cienfuegos lost four to five kilos in weight.

I travelled to Cuba eight years ago, long after the crisis had ended, but every person still appeared to be slender as a bamboo cane. Food remains scarce and citizens are rationed. Certain Cuban-produced foods are not permitted, such as beef, a valuable asset to the state that is offered to tourists in hotels, or exported. Slaughtering a cow illegally can result in a long jail term.

You can eat a lobster thermidor in Ernest Hemingway's favourite bar, Floridita, but the waiter who serves it may not do. The home kitchens are more preoccupied with using the 2.7kg per person monthly ration of rice, or making fritters with home-grown yams. One cringes to imagine the reaction of Cubans to the suggestion we adopt their diet when they would rather have more, and have our spare flesh, too. To live healthily in poverty, or be overfed and die younger of heart disease? It is a choice few can make.

The scientists are not commenting on the political scenario, however; rather they are highlighting the health benefits of a labourer's life in a closed country, asking the overfed and undernourished (nutritionists often refer to Westerners as the "walking wounded") to see evidence of the advantages in being famished.

This is not the first study to recommend that the British (or other Western nation) embrace the diet of the poor that is low in meat protein and high in nutritious, plant-based ingredients. The Mediterranean diet is the long-held ideal, with its unsparing use of olive oil and high consumption of greens and tomatoes. As early as 1821 the traveller Robert Pashley calculated that each inhabitant of Crete would put away 1,280g of olive oil each week.

Cretans, he said, are "very learned in olive oil". If he did not exactly note the health benefits, later visitors did. In the 1950s, the Seven Countries Study by Ancel Keys found that when the populations of Mediterranean countries adopted a Western-pattern diet (high in refined carbohydrate and saturated fat) and became less active, the risk of heart disease was increased.

It is the point about the active lifestyle that grabs the attention. Studies into the benefits of particular diets are always offering new conclusions or being rubbished by peer papers, but the one fact that is never in dispute is that the more physical work and exercise taken, the healthier the person. Every faddy diet recommends exercise; you know how it is: you can more or less eat and drink what you like as long as you run around enough. Which is why diets often don't work – eating fewer calories makes one too exhausted to go for a jog.

The Cuban Crisis Diet probably only works if you build hand-harvesting a wheat field into daily activities, or walking seven miles and back to the supermarket, carrying a child and all the shopping. Yet once again at the centre of the Cuba study's findings there is the fashionable concept that those who overindulge must reach a point of self-loathing after which simple peasant life becomes appealing.

In Britain, we have to look back several centuries to find a time when a farm labourer had a diet that, while not high in calories, was nourishing, diverse and could perhaps be called a cuisine. After the industrial revolution and mass migration into cities, the diet of the poor became very poor indeed – little more than bread and fat. But the medieval Briton had his daily pottage, a pulse- or grain-based soup into which went seasonal vegetables and herbs. Lean meat would be rationed – not just because of short supply but as part of the strict fasting laws laid down by the church – but foraged treats of snails and oysters, wild birds and berries made a menu to excite a modern gourmand.

Nowadays we have the "modern peasant", a lifestyle aspiration for well-heeled people. This does not mean living the good life and being self-sufficient, but adding rusticity to your lifestyle when you already have a full-time job. In fact, that salary is needed to afford such a lifestyle because to adopt it you need to take a few bread-making, butchery, cheese-making or brewing classes – or at least stock up on a few peasantry manuals.

Take, for example, The Modern Peasant: Adventures in City Food by Jojo Tulloh, to be published by Chatto & Windus in June. This is fairly typical fare for the aspiring neo-artisan, stuffed with stories and advice on growing your own, foraging, fermenting, preserving, DIY butchery and also recipes, many of which are high on aromatics and leaves picked from the roadside, but worthily low in calories. Having made a "culinary pilgrimage" to the wilds of Apulia, southern Italy, Tulloch heads home to London, determined to reclaim peasantry in a nice way, that is without the ragged clothes and grinding poverty, the backbreaking work, long-distance travel on foot and threat of the pox. Mostly, being a modern peasant means hanging out in organic cafés with other rich pretentious people.

Books such as this would leave real skinny peasants perplexed as to why someone would want their lifestyle. They would happily exchange a life lived hand-to-mouth for a desk job, a ready amount of cash and access to M&S ready meals. We who have lived through the industrialisation of our food supply in fast food nations know the consequences of consumerism. Through our taxes we pay approximately £4bn a year for the cost to the NHS of the obesity epidemic. We could do with a diet that is frugal, fresh and full of beans. Many of us could do with dropping a stone and I am one of them.

So why don't we all live like modern peasants? Because we do not have to. Name any fashionable diet – the Dukan, Atkins, 5:2, Cambridge, South Beach, or fads such as eating only cabbage soup or eggs. None of them works in the long term because we can stop them at any time. Why do Cuban people have lean bodies? Because what they eat is not within their control. The Crisis diet only works because the state has the power over the supply of food. That is what being a real peasant, or serf endures, and all they get is a svelte figure. Still tempted?

Rose Prince is the author of 'Kitchenella' (Fourth Estate)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas