Saturday, December 20, 2008

Oliver Twist's life not so gruelling

DOCTORS say they have uncovered the gruel truth of the Victorian workhouse. Charles Dickens, they contend, was exaggerating when he portrayed Oliver Twist and other orphans driven to the brink of starvation by a miserly diet of watery porridge. In fact, food provided under 1834 Poor Law Act, which set up workhouses for the destitute in mid-19th-century Britain, was dreary but there was plenty of it and the diet was nutritious enough for children of Oliver's age, their British Medical Journal paper says.

In Oliver Twist, Dickens wrote that the orphans were given "three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sunday". On feast days, they received an extra 2 1/4 ounces (64 grams) of bread.

Four medical experts say in the report such a diet would have killed or crippled children, inflicting anaemia, scurvy, rickets and other diseases linked to vitamin deficiency. They sifted through contemporary documents and even replicated the gruel that workhouse children most likely had. Using a recipe for water gruel taken from a 17th-century English cookbook, the authors calculate Oliver would have had around three pints (1.76 litres) of gruel per day, comprising 3.75 ounces (106 grams) of top-quality oatmeal from Berwick, Scotland. Far from being thin, the gruel would have been "substantial", the authors say.

"Considerable amounts" of beef and mutton also went to London workhouses. The authors added a caveat, saying that their assumptions were made on the basis that inmates actually received the quantity and quality of food prescribed.


The diet aid delusion: Low-fat labels and pills don't deliver, says British watchdog

Those who over-indulge this Christmas may think the solution is to add some weight-loss products to their shopping basket. The idea that the festive flab can be banished by switching to `lite' versions of favourite brands or by taking a supplement certainly sounds tempting. But research by the consumer group Which? claims that the only pounds that many diet aids help you shed are the ones in your wallet.

The report, published today in the group's magazine, raises questions about the slimming claims of some leading brands and weightloss supplements. It points out that Kellogg's Special K, marketed as a low-fat cereal, has the same calories (171 per 30g) as Kellogg's Corn Flakes and more than Kellogg's Bran Flakes (157 per 30g). Weight Watchers thick-sliced white bread (68 calories per 29g slice) is nutritionally so similar to Warburtons Toastie sliced white (69 per 29g slice) and Asda Danish white bread (63 per 25g slice) that Which? recommends buying the one you think tastes best.

McVitie's light digestive biscuits have less fat than McVitie's original digestives, but more sugar (2.9g rather than 2.5g per 15g biscuit), meaning the difference between the biscuits is only four calories. M&S's Count On Us lasagne has 440 calories, far less than the M&S standard range, which has 620, but only a little less than the standard Morrisons lasagne which has 464. None of the seven over-the-counter weight-loss supplements examined could prove they offer long lasting beneficial effects, Which? experts said.

The consumer group's head of services research, Nikki Ratcliff, said: `If you're looking for a New Year quick fix to shed a few pounds, weight-loss products aren't the answer. The harsh reality is that exercise coupled with a healthy balanced diet is the only effective way to lose weight. `Just because foods are labelled as light or advertised as diet brands, it doesn't mean they're the lowest calorie option. Look at other similar products on the shelf - you might find some that don't brand themselves as light actually have fewer calories or less fat or less sugar, so you'd be better off buying them instead.'

But Dr Pamela Mason, an expert in herbal remedies and spokesman for the Health Supplements Information Service, insisted such products can help dieters lose weight. `Once someone has decided they need to lose weight, these products can play a good supportive role. Of course, anybody looking to lose weight needs to focus on diet and exercise,' she said.

The Food & Drink Federation, which represents food manufacturers, said: `The improved labelling that now appears on all major brands is helping consumers to quickly spot whether or not a particular product meets their needs.'

A spokesman for Kellogg's defended Special K, saying: `There are very few products that offer you really tasty food and help you manage your shape and Special K absolutely delivers on both counts. `Consumers aren't stupid. The reason Special K is one of the UK's biggest selling cereals is because it works.'


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