Take a look at old photos from the 1950s and what do you notice about the women? With few exceptions they are thin. Their waists are tiny! What’s up with that? How did they stay fit and trim? What has changed in the past half century? I decided to do a little research.
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Fit and Trim the 1950s Way
A few statistics
According to the CDC the average American woman now weighs as much as the average man did in 1960. Both sexes have gained almost an inch in height but that doesn’t begin to account for the 18.5% gain that women have experienced. Men are now 17.6% heavier so they haven’t escaped this problem, either.
And those tiny waists of the ’50s? They were an average of six inches smaller than that of today’s woman. If you happen to like vintage fashions you’ve likely noticed this.
Approximately 10% of the American population was classified as obese in the 1950s. The current rate is over 35%.
What has changed?
There’s a difference between causation and correlation. Just because two things occur together doesn’t necessarily mean one caused the other. I was the only one in my nursing class who actually enjoyed our nursing research and statistics courses so I won’t bore you with a lengthy discussion about this. Just keep in mind that the things I’m about to list here may or may not have actually caused the spike in obesity since the ’50s. However, I do think they are worth considering.
- While fast food meals were a rare treat in the 1950s, today approximately 20% of American meals are eaten in the car.
- Portion sizes have increased.
- The average calorie intake has increased by 300-400 calories per day.
- Sugar intake has increased nearly 40%.
- More meat; fewer eggs.
- Less milk; more cheese.
- More time spent watching television.
- Less time spent doing housework.
The typical 1950s American woman – diet and exercise
So what does it all mean? Well, in purely biological terms, weight gain is a result of consuming more calories than one expends in daily activity. Sure, there are other factors than can influence one’s weight but for the purposes of this discussion, the average American woman in the 1950s was slimmer because she ate less and burned more calories in her daily activities.
No, she wasn’t hitting the gym. Even Jack LaLanne‘s exercise television program wasn’t nationally syndicated until 1959.
Instead, she burned calories doing housework. Women today spend less than half as much time on housework as the typical 1950s woman. All those labor-saving devices may actually be contributing to extra inches around our waists.
But what about women today who DO go to the gym or workout at home but are still overweight? The other major piece of the puzzle is diet.
I grew up on the Basic Four Food Groups nutrition guide in the 60s and 70s but in the ’50s we had the Basic Seven Foods:
It is surprisingly difficult to locate a typical menu from the 50s. If you find some, please share in the comments. I finally found this:
Goodness. That is SO different from how most of us eat today. As I discovered in my research, adults actually drank glasses of milk. My dad still does but I inherited my mom’s lactose sensitivity so you won’t see me drinking milk. Ever. I can tolerate small amounts in tea and coffee. And I’m fine with yogurt or cheese. But a glass of milk? Not for me, thanks!
The other thing I noticed is that lunches were more like mini-dinners. No sandwiches and chips or fast food burgers here. I’m guessing those meat servings were leftovers. I can’t imagine cooking myself a pork chop for lunch. And this was obviously before the misguided concern about the cholesterol in eggs. Now we know that dietary cholesterol isn’t the big heart health risk we were told it was and eggs are making their way back onto the menu. This is something I may adopt. Especially if I decided to raise chickens again!
Finally, check those recommended calorie counts. No wonder they were slim!
What to do with this information
I’ve been planning to do a weekly menu featuring typical 1950s recipes. Perhaps I should go all out and try eating like a 1950s woman for a week. Minus the glasses of milk, of course.
Update: I did, in fact do a 1950s menu and we ate it for a week:
And here were my thoughts on the experience:
Or maybe I’ll just read more about this interesting topic. Research is always more fun than doing – ha!
A few articles:
You may also enjoy these older posts of mine: