In this activity, students compare and contrast the daily activities in the 21st century to those in the medieval era. The focus of this lesson is change over time, not judging or condemning others. Students, knowingly or unknowingly, may use hurtful or offensive language related to food and diet during classroom discussions.  If this occurs, assumptions behind stereotypes must be examined. Insensitive language must be discredited and discouraged.

Calories IN and Calories OUT in the 21st Century

Ask students to analyze the energy (calories) burned during their own daily activities for a 24 hour period using a calorie burned calculator.  (Click here for just one of many available free online).

This publication, “Calories Needed Each Day” by the  U.S. Department of Health & Human Services outlines the recommended calories needed each day by female and male children, teenagers, and adults.

Ask students to speculate about the daily activities of a person in the pre-industrial era. The table below provides an example of typical activities of a medieval man or women.

Burning Calories in the Middle Ages

Daily life in the medieval world required a LOT more exercise! In the table below, the calories burned in an average day of medieval work are summarized. At the bottom of the table, the daily recommended calories for a MODERN woman or man that same size and weight are provided for comparison
Daily ActivitiesWoman
25 years old
5 ft. 2 in. tall
110 pounds
25 years old
5 ft. 7 in. tall
144 pounds
8 hours resting/sitting422553
8 hours sleeping370484
Calories burned in 8 hours of common daily activities
Farming/Feeding livestock1,9012,488
Chopping Wood/shoveling2,4293,180
Cooking 1,056
Total calories burned per day, on average, in the Middle Ages.
2525 3830
Daily recommended calories for MODERN people, same height & weight
Calculations made using

After students have compared and contrasted the daily activities of modern and pre-industrial people, explain that nearly one-third of children and youth and two-thirds of adults in the United States are either overweight or obese[i] and the percentage of American children with obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s.[ii] Ask students to discuss the following question:

Were pre-industrial people likely to be obese? Why or why not?

Although a few prosperous medieval peasants may have been overweight, most average people were thin and many struggled to get enough to eat. Those in the medieval upper classes – higher clergy and aristocrats – were more likely to have excess pounds. They could afford to buy more and richer food and did less physical labor. Servants did the work in wealthy households.

Men cutting hay with scythes. 14th century
Men cutting hay with scythes. 14th century

Quiz: What did a medieval peasant eat?

Imagine you are a medieval peasant living in Great Britain in the Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500). What would you eat?

[i] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 8th ed. (December 2015), Chapter 2, accessed April 2017,

[ii] Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Childhood Obesity Facts, accessed April 2017, peasant diet.htm