How Wartime Rationing Helped The British Get Healthy

Photo Credit: Keystone/ Getty Images

Rationing is often thought of as a type of “starvation diet,” but did you know that wartime rationing not only changed the dietary habits of the British people but also improved their health? The proof is in the pudding (or maybe the lack of pudding) — studies show increased wellbeing among Britons thanks to a food rationing system that spanned 14 years.

People lined up in front of a grocery store
People lined up in hopes of getting potatoes in South London. (Photo Credit: Keystone/Getty Images)

Before the start of the Second World War, food in Britain was heavily dependent on foreign imports. In 1939, only around 30% of everything Brits ate was produced domestically. In other words, 70% of all food in Britain prior to the start of the Second World War was shipped in from producers and suppliers around the world.

As the possibility of another major conflict became more apparent, it was clear that this situation had to change. The risk of German attacks on merchant ships meant the potential of food shortages throughout Britain.

To help minimize this risk, the government decided they needed to impose rationing. In 1939, a ration on gasoline was set up and in January 1940, this rationing was extended to foodstuffs. It was introduced to ensure a fair distribution of food and commodities for all British people if and when food became scarce.

A grocery store boasts how few items are rationed
A grocery store in New Malden, Surrey, boasts how few of its products are rationed. This photo was taken in February 1940, just a month after food rationing was introduced in England. (Photo Credit: Topical Press Agency/ Getty Images)

A ration was first implemented only on bacon, butter, and sugar. However, by 1942, many other items including milk, meat, cheese, eggs, and cooking fat also had a ration associated with them. Eventually, most foods ended up being covered by the rationing system with the exception of fruits and vegetables.

The Ministry of Food, which was first set up in 1939, was responsible for providing an adequate diet for people in Great Britain during the Second World War and oversaw the rationing system. To ensure everything remained equal, the Ministry of Food gave every man, woman, and child a ration book with coupons.

The basic foodstuffs were directly rationed by an allowance of coupons, while other items deemed less necessary for survival were rationed by a points system. Each person was allocated a number of points, and specific foods were given a point value. The number of points assigned to various items changed depending on availability and consumer demand.

However, as the war went on and shortages increased, it was common for people to wait in line for long periods of time just to finally reach the front and find out that the store had just run out of the item they had been waiting for.

Winston Churchill's ration card
A page from Winston Churchill’s ration book, circa 1943. (Photo Credit: Photo 12/Getty Images)

By the end of the war, this is what a typical weekly food ration for an adult looked like:

  • Bacon & Ham — 4 oz
  • Other meat — value of 1 shilling and 2 pence (or equivalent to two chops)
  • Butter — 2 oz
  • Cheese — 2 oz
  • Margarine — 4 oz
  • Cooking fat — 4 0z
  • Milk — 3 pints
  • Sugar — 8oz
  • Preserves — 1 lb every two months
  • Tea — 2 oz
  • Eggs — 1 fresh egg (plus the allowance of dried eggs)
  • Sweets — 12 oz every 4 weeks

Looking at this breakdown certainly does not seem like enough food to live on, let alone enough to be a leading factor in improved health. However, the food shortages led to British people consuming less meat, fat, eggs, and sugar.

These habits proved to be very beneficial to overall health in the long run. As nutritionist Louise Blanchfield believes, the health improvements were “due mostly to the reduced meat in their diet, an increased reliance on plant-based foods, fewer eggs, and most importantly, less sugar.”

Data also suggests that deaths from strokes and heart disease decreased drastically during the Second World War, probably due to the ration on meat.

British women with their rationing notebooks
London women with their rationing notebooks, circa 1946. (Photo Credit: Keystone-France via Getty Images)

Furthermore, people who had a poor diet prior to the Second World War or did not have access to high-quality foods were able to increase their intake of protein and vitamins because they received the same rations as everyone else. Pregnant women and children were also granted additional eggs, milk, and other items to keep them strong and healthy.

Initiatives were also undertaken by the British government and the British people to ensure food production within the country was optimal. Lord Woolton, who was the Minister of Food, came up with the now-famous “Dig for Victory” campaign, which encouraged British people to transform any green space they could find into vegetable patches. Even the lawns outside of the Tower of London were used as a vegetable garden during the War.

Photo and poster from the Dig for Victory campaign
Left: two people working on their vegetable gardens in Kensington Gardens, London, circa 1942. Right: Dig for Victory campaign poster. (Photo Credit: Imperial War Museum & Getty Images)

The increased focus on fruits and vegetables during the Second World War also led to ration cookbooks being written on how to best optimize the food people did have available to them. These recipes and cookbooks emphasized not wasting food and making a little food go a long way.

Recipes to combat ration fatigue were ingeniously thought up. One especially unique idea was the idea of carrots on sticks. Carrots were used as an alternative to fruit in cakes and tarts due to their natural sweetness. They were even stuck onto sticks and given to children instead of lollipops and ice cream. No wonder the Brits were healthy during this time!

three young children eating carrots on a stick
Three young children enjoying a portable, healthy snack — a carrot on a stick. Ice cream is not available due to war rationing. Circa 1941. (Photo Credit: Ashwood/ Stringer/ Getty Images)

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Rationing continued to be a staple in British society well after the end of the Second World War, eventually ending in 1954. Although food was scarce during the Second World War, rationing presented all British people — the rich and the poor — with a unified feeling of contributing to the war effort.