Was wartime rationing key to healthier lifestyle?

Customers queue up for sugar during wartime rationing in 1943. Picture: PA

Customers queue up for sugar during wartime rationing in 1943. Picture: PA

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THE anticipation was torture. The slow removal of the wrapping paper, the glint of the knife, the precise measuring and then, finally, the jostling to be first as Millie Gray’s mother presented eight perfectly equal pieces of Mars Bar to her thrilled children.

“We got a slice each,” recalls Millie. “And if it was your turn to get one of the chocolate coated end bits . . . oh my goodness!”

It was, of course, an era when sweets really were treats and even foods we now take for granted like meat, dairy products and eggs were carefully rationed so everyone received their fair share – and not a bit more.

For Leither Millie, now 80, the wartime rationing was a way of life and one which, as modern obesity rates and diabetes cases soar, increasingly seems a far healthier option.

Sixty years ago when Millie was barely out of her teens, the average woman stood 5ft 2ins tall, tipped the scales at a healthy 9st 10lb and was a neat size 12 with a trim 27ins waist. According to the most recent UK National Sizing Survey, women now average a size 16, are around 5ft 4ins tall and weigh in at 10st 3lb. That neat waist is long gone – today our waists have expanded by seven inches.

Men haven’t fared much better. In the 1960s, just one per cent of men in the UK were classed as obese, today the figure has leapt to 23 per cent.

And, worryingly, the latest statistics predict more than half of all school-aged children will be obese by 2020.

Our changing lifestyles have played a part – but many believe the days of food rationing were key to keeping our waistlines in check.

And faced with rising levels of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and weight and life-style related conditions, could it be that our next favourite fad diet is the one based around granny’s ration book?

Millie, of Hamilton Drive, the author of a series of novels based around Leith life of years gone by, remembers clearly the days when mealtimes revolved around her mum’s ration book, fresh garden produce and the endless plates of soup.

She believes it was a far healthier lifestyle than today’s sweet-guzzling, wine-drinking, junk-food chomping generation.

“We were a nation of soup makers,” she recalls. “Anything that was lying around was turned into soup. Potatoes and herring were cheap so they were turned into tattie and herring soup. We had porridge every morning, without sugar. That kept you going until dinner time – the main meal of the day was at lunch time.

“Then tea was just something light, which meant you worked off the calories you ate during the day. You didn’t buy what you didn’t need and the food you ate tended to fill you.”

It wasn’t all healthy though. Minnie recalls a tea consisting of bread smothered in dripping which would horrify today’s dieticians. And the rhubarb stalks dipped into a bag of sugar would have today’s dentists reeling in horror. Nevertheless the ration book food policy resulted in a drop in the incidence of heart and other chronic diseases.

Meat, recalls Minnie, was served in much smaller portions than today’s loaded plates: “If we were having mince and tatties, there was usually more potato than mince. And I remember my mum making fishcakes which had only a tiny bit of fish in them but they still tasted lovely.”

Families bought only what they needed, and used every bit so there was no waste. The biggest differences, though, are in what we consume as treats today.

“Apples, pears and plums off the tree,” says Millie.

“There was no wee glass of wine, you’d be lucky to get Vimto at room temperature for a special occasion.”

• Minnie Gray’s latest novel is The Tangling of the Web, published by Black & White Publishing, £7.99.

How you can do it

DITCH THE MEAT: Under rationing, people ate very little meat. Too much red meat is linked with heart disease and cancer. Try just 70g daily.

COOK MORE: Processed food didn’t exist during the war, says Ayela Spiro, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. “People who cook more understand food better and have healthier diets.”

RATION SUGAR: Keep to a maximum of five teaspoons a day, but preferably less, as it has been linked to diabetes and cancers.

BUTTER UP: Experts now know fats play an important role in healthy eating.

GROW YOUR OWN: During the war, many people grew vegetables to fill the food gap.

EXERCISE MORE: Post war, only 15 per cent of UK people had a car. Walking kept them fit.