Staying Alive: Health and diet in the Viking Age
April 16, 2020 — How did the Vikings have the fitness to fight when they drank a lot and ate plenty of meat? Well, to start with, they only drank mead and ale, and maybe wine if they went far enough south to get any. They didn’t have distillation.
Also, drinking brewed drinks such as mead was much safer than drinking water, because the brewing process gets rid of some really nasty bacteria. In fact, lousy drinking water was a major problem for much of the Viking Age (and also in earlier times) up until the late medieval period; even kings died of dysentery.
As for the meat — the modern nutritionists and vegetarians have managed to convince us that meat is somehow bad for us. It’s not. The Arctic people eat almost nothing but meat or did until the early 2000s. People who work hard need protein to build muscle. They need calories, and fatty meat is a good place to get them. The Vikings rowed their boats far up rivers and across oceans when the wind would not serve. Protein and fat were precisely what they needed. No meat, no fun.
Also, don’t get the idea Vikings were chowing down on big steaks every night. They sure had cattle as the Fé rune (ᚠ) indicates, but they needed them mostly for milk, which they could make into cheese that could keep through the winter. Their other source of red meat was reindeer, but reindeer aren’t like beef cattle; they don’t have a ton of meat on them. The Vikings relied heavily on smoked and dried reindeer meat, smoked and dried fish, cheese, and rye crispbread (being dry, it doesn’t mold.)
A modern nutritionist would freak out if you adopted a Viking diet, but it makes sense if you also choose a Viking way of life: hard physical labor every day, and even some nights — for both women and men. Meat and fat and fish provide human muscle all the energy and protein it needs to grow strong and remain fit.