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When one thinks of low-carbohydrate diets today, one tends to think that they are “new” or “revolutionary” in some way. Popular books certainly give that impression. But nothing could be further from the truth. I started eating a low-carbohydrate diet in 1962 when a doctor advised me that this was the best way to lose weight.
You may also think that these “new” low-carbohydrate regimes have been pioneered by far-seeing and learned medical men. Again, this is incorrect. The truth is that we would probably never have heard of diets where people could lose weight eating that most calorific of foods: fat, if it had not been for a 19th century English carpenter by the name of William Banting.
Only three men in history have been immortalized by having their names enter the English language as verbs. The first was an Irishman, Captain Boycott, whose name entered the language in the 1860s. Another was Louis Pasteur and the third was the subject of this article—William Banting, a man who came to have a great impact on many peoples’ lives, one of whom is me.
Being overweight has affected a small proportion of the population for centuries but clinical obesity was relatively rare until the 20th century. Indeed obesity remained at a fairly stable low level until about 1980. Then its incidence began to increase dramatically. By 1992 one in every ten people in Britain was overweight; a mere five years later that figure had almost doubled. In the USA it is even worse: by 1991 one in three adults was overweight. That was an increase of eight percent of the population over just one decade despite the fact that Americans spend a massive $33 billion a year on “slimming.”
It may be hard to believe, but this has occurred in the face of increasing knowledge, awareness and education about obesity, nutrition and exercise. It has happened despite the fact that calorie intake has gone down by twenty percent over the past ten years and exercise clubs have mushroomed. More people are cutting calories now than ever before in their history yet more of them are becoming overweight. There is now a pandemic of increasing weight across the industrialized world.
But it needn’t be like that, for nearly 140 years ago one man changed the thinking on diet completely. It all started with a small booklet entitled Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public, not written by a dietician or a doctor, but by an undertaker named William Banting. It became one of the most famous books on obesity ever written. First published in 1863, it went into many editions and continued to be published long after the author’s death. The book was revolutionary and it should have changed western medical thinking on diet for weight loss for ever.
William Banting was well-regarded in 19th century society. He was a fine carpenter and an undertaker to the rich and famous. But if he had remained only that, his name would probably be remembered today merely as the Duke of Wellington’s coffin maker, if indeed it were remembered at all.
None of Banting’s family on either parent’s side had any tendency to obesity. However, when he was in his thirties, William started to become overweight and he consulted an eminent surgeon, a kind personal friend, who recommended increased “bodily exertion before any ordinary daily labours began.” Banting had a heavy boat and lived near the river so he took up rowing the boat for two hours a day. All this did for him, however, was to give him a prodigious appetite. He put on weight and was advised to stop. So much for exercise!
He was then advised that he could remedy his obesity by “moderate and light food” but wasn’t really told what was intended by this. He says he brought his system into a low, impoverished state without reducing his weight, which caused many obnoxious boils to appear and two rather formidable carbuncles. He went into hospital and was ably operated upon–but also fed into increased obesity.
Banting went into hospital twenty times in as many years for weight reduction. He tried swimming, walking, riding and taking the sea air. He drank “gallons of physic and liquor potassae,” took the spa waters at Leamington, Cheltenham and Harrogate, and tried low-calorie, starvation diets; he took Turkish baths at a rate of up to three a week for a year but lost only six pounds in all that time, and had less and less energy.
He was assured by one physician, whom he calls “one of the ablest physicians in the land,” that putting weight on was perfectly natural; that he, himself, had put on a pound for every year of manhood and he was not surprised by Banting’s condition–he just advised “more exercise, vapour baths and shampooing and medicine.”
Banting tried every form of slimming treatment the medical profession could devise but it was all in vain. Eventually, discouraged and disillusioned–and still very fat–he gave up. By 1862, at the age of 64, William Banting weighed 202 pounds and he was only 5 feet 5 inches tall. Banting says that although he was of no great weight or size, still, he says: “I could not stoop to tie my shoes, so to speak, nor to attend to the little offices humanity requires without considerable pain and difficulty which only the corpulent can understand. I have been compelled to go downstairs slowly backward to save the jar of increased weight on the knee and ankle joints and have been obliged to puff and blow over every slight exertion, particularly that of going upstairs.”
He also had an umbilical rupture, and other bodily ailments. On top of this he found that his sight was failing and he was becoming increasingly deaf. Because of this last problem, he consulted an aural specialist who made light of his case, sponged his ears out and blistered the outer ear—without the slightest benefit and without enquiring into his other ailments. Banting was not satisfied: he left in a worse plight than when he went to the specialist.
Eventually, in August of 1862 Banting consulted a noted Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons: an ear, nose and throat specialist. Dr. William Harvey. It was an historic meeting. Dr. Harvey had recently returned from a symposium in Paris where he had heard Dr. Claude Bernard, a renowned physiologist, talk of a new theory about the part the liver played in the disease of diabetes. Bernard believed that the liver, as well as secreting bile, also secreted a sugar-like substance that it made from elements of the blood passing through it. This started Harvey’s thinking about the roles of the various food elements in diabetes and he began a major course of research into the whole question of the way in which fats, sugars and starches affected the body.
When Dr. Harvey met Banting, he was interested as much by Banting’s obesity as by his deafness, for he recognised that the one was the cause of the other. So Harvey put Banting on a diet. By Christmas, Banting was down to 184 pounds and, by the following August, 156 pounds.
He had, he says, “little comfort and far less sound sleep.”
Harvey’s advice to him was to give up bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer and potatoes. These, he was told, contained starch and saccharine matter tending to create fat and were to be avoided altogether. When told what he could not eat Banting thought that he had very little left to live on. His kind friend soon showed him that really there was ample and Banting was only too happy to give the plan a fair trial. Within a very few days, he says, he derived immense benefit from it. The plan led to an excellent night’s rest with 6 to 8 hours’ sleep per night.
Fortunately for us today, Banting was quite a remarkable man. It is for this reason alone that we can know today what this miraculous diet was. In May 1863, at his own expense, Banting published the first edition of his now famous Letter on Corpulence in which he tells us of Harvey’s diet plan (see below).
On this diet Banting lost nearly 1 pound per week from August 1862 to August 1863. In his own words he said: “I can confidently state that quantity of diet may safely be left to the natural appetite; and that it is quality only which is essential to abate and cure corpulence.”
He went on: “These important desiderata have been attained by the most easy and comfortable means. . . by a system of diet, that formerly I should have thought dangerously generous.”
After 38 weeks. Banting felt better than he had for the past 20 years. By the end of the year, not only had his hearing been restored, he had much more vitality and he had lost 46 pounds in weight and 12 1/4 inches off his waist. He suffered no inconvenience whatsoever from the new diet, was able to come downstairs forward naturally with perfect ease, go upstairs and take exercise freely without the slightest inconvenience, could perform every necessary office for himself, the umbilical rupture was greatly ameliorated and gave him no anxiety, his sight was restored, his other bodily ailments were ameliorated and passed into the matter of history.
Banting’s Diet Prior to 1862
BREAKFAST: Bread and milk, or a pint of tea with plenty of milk and sugar, buttered toast.
DINNER: meat, beer, much bread (of which he had always been fond) and pastry.
TEA: a meal similar to breakfast.
SUPPER: generally a fruit tart or bread and milk.
Harvey’s Diet Plan
BREAKFAST: 4-5 ounces beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon or cold meat of any kind except pork,1 a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit or one ounce of dry toast.
DINNER: 5-6 ounces of any fish except salmon, any meat except pork, any vegetable except potato, one ounce of dry toast, fruit of any pudding,2 any kind of poultry or game, and 2-3 glasses of good claret, sherry or Madeira (champagne, port, beer were forbidden).
TEA: 2-3 ounces fruit, a rusk or two and a cup of tea without milk or sugar.
SUPPER: 3-4 ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret.
NIGHTCAP:Tumbler of grog: gin, whisky or brandy (without sugar) or a glass or two of claret or sherry.
1. Pork was not allowed as it was thought then that it contained starch.
2. Banting was not allowed the pastry.
Banting was delighted. He would have gone through hell to achieve all this but it had not been necessary. Indeed the diet allowed so much food, and it was so easy to maintain, that Banting said of it: “I can conscientiously assert I never lived so well as under the new plan of dietary, which I should have formerly thought a dangerous, extravagant trespass upon health.”
He says that this present dietary table is far superior to what he was eating before—”more luxurious and liberal, independent of its blessed effect, but when it is proved to be more healthful, the comparisons are simply ridiculous.
“I am very much better both bodily and mentally and pleased to believe that I hold the reins of health and comfort in my own hands.
“It is simply miraculous and I am thankful to Almighty Providence for directing me through an extraordinary chance to the care of a man who worked such a change in so short a time.” It is quite obvious from these comments that Banting didn’t need the strength of willpower that today’s slimmer needs; that he found his weight-loss diet very easy to maintain.
He goes on to wish that the medical profession would acquaint themselves with the cure for obesity so that so many men would not descend into early graves, as he believed many did, from apoplexy, and would not endure on Earth so much bodily and mental infirmity.
Banting was so pleased with his progress that on top of Harvey’s fees, he gave the doctor 350 pounds to be distributed amongst Harvey’s favourite hospitals. Although despite this he still felt deeply obligated in a way that he could never hope to repay.
In fact, in 1868, Banting published a prospectus and started a fund to found and endow a new institution for the service of humanity— the Middlesex County Convalescent Hospital.
It was to be for those working-class people who could not afford to convalesce but had to return to work to make ends meet thus allowing no time to get over their hospital ordeal and so succumbed to relapses.
There was a small home at Walton-on-Thames which, although small, was, he thought, possibly sufficient for the purpose. Banting estimated that 312,000 pounds per year was needed to run it.
He put up 3,500 pounds, his son 3,100 and two other members of his family a further 350, With other patrons he raised a total of 35,000 pounds.
Banting charged nothing for the first two editions of his book—he didn’t want to be accused of doing it merely for profit. He had printed 1,000 copies of the first edition and he gave them away.
The second edition numbered 1,500 which he also gave away although they cost him 6 pence each. Copies of the third edition, still in 1863, were sold at 1 pound each.
When Banting’s booklet, in which he described the diet and its amazing results, was published, it was so contrary to the established doctrine that it set up a howl of protest among members of the medical profession. The “Banting Diet” became the center of a bitter controversy and Banting’s papers and book were ridiculed and distorted. No one could deny that the diet worked, but as a layman had published it—and medical men were anxious that their position in society should not be undermined—they felt bound to attack it. Banting’s paper was criticized solely on the grounds that it was “unscientific.”
Later, Dr. Harvey had a problem too. He had an effective treatment for obesity but not a convincing theory to explain it. As he was a medical man, and so easier for the other members of his profession to attack, he came in for a great deal of ridicule until, in the end, his practice began to suffer.
However, the public was impressed. Many desperate overweight people tried the diet and found that it worked. Like it or not, the medical profession could not ignore it. Its obvious success meant that the Banting Diet had to be explained somehow.
To the rescue from Stuttgart came a Dr. Felix Niemeyer. He managed to make the new diet acceptable with a total shift in its philosophy. At that time, the theory was that carbohydrates and fat burned together in the lungs to produce heat. The two were called “respiratory foods.” After examining Banting’s paper, Niemeyer came up with an answer to the doctors’ problem. All doctors knew that protein was not fattening, only the respiratory foods—fats and carbohydrates. He, therefore, interpreted “meat” to mean only lean meat with the fat trimmed off and this subtle change solved the problem. The Banting Diet became a high protein diet with both carbohydrate and fat restricted. This altered diet became enshrined in history and still forms the basis of slimming diets today.
Banting’s descriptions of the diet are quite clear, however. Other than the prohibition against butter and pork, nowhere is there any instruction to remove the fat from meat and there is no restriction on the way food was cooked or on the total quantity of food which may be taken. Only carbohydrate—sugars and starches—are restricted. The reason that butter and pork were denied him was that it was thought at this time that they too contained starch.
Banting, who lived in physical comfort and remained at a normal weight until his death in 1878 at the age of 81, always maintained that Dr. Niemeyer’s altered diet was far inferior to the one that had so changed his life.
The Banting Diet Is Confirmed
Banting’s Letter on Corpulence travelled widely. In the 1890s, an American doctor, Helen Densmore, modelled diets on Banting. She tells how she and her patients lost an average 10-15 pounds in the first month on the diet and then 6-8 pounds in subsequent months “by a diet from which bread, cereals and starchy food were excluded.” Her advice to would-be slimmers was: “One pound of beef or mutton or fish per day with a moderate amount of the non-starchy vegetables will be found ample for any obese person of sedentary habits.”
Dr. Densmore was scathing of those others of her profession who derided Banting’s diet. She says of them: “Those very specialists who are at this time prospering greatly by the reduction of obesity and who are indebted to Mr. Banting for all their prosperity are loud, nevertheless, in their condemnation of the Banting method.”
Over the following seventy years many epidemiological studies and clinical trials were conducted in several countries and the evidence mounted. There was by the mid-1950s no doubt that the low-carbohydrate diet worked and clinical trials at the Middlesex Hospital in London had demonstrated how it worked. Doctors could now put their overweight patients on a dietary regime which enjoyed overwhelming evidence of benefit and which was easy to follow and live on for life.
But it was not to be. Dieticians just couldn’t seem to get their heads round the concept that eating what looked like a high-calorie diet could possibly be effective for weight loss. Or, perhaps they were afraid to lose face by admitting that they had been wrong. So they continued, myopically, to recommend that if you were overweight, it was your own fault —you were eating too much or not taking enough exercise, or both. That made life very easy for the dietician while it ruined the life of the patient. By the late 1970s fat was getting a bad name as a cause of heart disease (quite incorrectly as we now know). Now fat was banned for other health reasons and carbohydrates were advocated even more strongly.
Which is why, at the start of the 21st Century, at a time when most of us are dieting, are eating fewer calories and less fat, and taking more exercise than ever before in our history, we are getting fatter than ever before in our history.
It is no coincidence that obesity is sky-rocketing today—healthy eating advises a high-carbohydrate, lowfat diet. The exact opposite of Banting’s diet.
Not long after Banting’s Letter on Corpulence was published the verb “to Bant” entered the language and people losing weight said they were “Banting.” It remained in common parlance well into this century and one still hears it occasionally today.
Jan Freden, of Uppsala, Sweden, tells me that in Sweden, “Banting” is still the word most commonly used for dieting to achieve weight loss. So in Sweden they say: “Nej, tack, jag bantar” or “No thank you, I am banting.”
And “banting” is the noun used. We would be well advised to adopt it again.
A version of this article won the prestigious Sophie Coe Prize for the 2002 Oxford Symposium on Food History. Visit Barry Groves’ website at www.second-opinions.co.uk.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2002.