The First Low-Carb Diet

Dr. Atkins is widely thought of as the modern creator of the low carbohydrate diet, but in fact, another man discovered, evaluated, and then recommended his own version of this diet many years earlier. (“Statement of Rights”)

William Banting, a carpenter and undertaker to the wealthy, authored a book called “Letter on Corpulence Addressed to The Public,” which was first published in London in 1863. In that book, Banting talked about how he grew increasingly heavy as he got older, finally reaching a weight of 202 pounds when he was in his early sixties. (“Statement of Rights”)

Banting, only five’5” described how his joints constantly ached and he struggled for breath when climbing up and down stairs. It was impossible for him to tie or untie his shoes, he reported. Banting spoke of his many, frustrating attempts at losing weight – attempts those dieters today can emphasize with. (“Statement of Rights”)

On the advice of a physician, he accepted rowing, only to find that it increased his appetite so much that he ended up gaining rather than losing weight. He tried going to the Turkish baths that were popular at the time, to sweat off the weight, and found that he lost a few pounds each time but then promptly gained it back. (“Statement of Rights”)

A big part of his problem was the lack of scientific knowledge of diet that prevailed at the time. People simply had no idea of what to eat.

Calories and ketones were unheard of in that day. As a result, they turned to fad diets such as drinking vinegar, which Lord Byron swore by as a weight loss method.

Banting, not knowing any better, lived mostly from “bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes, which had been the main (and, I thought, innocent) elements of my subsistence,” he said in his nowfamous “Letter.”

Not surprisingly, by eating that diet he gained increased weight over the years and could not seem to find any solution. He consulted doctor after doctor until he finally found one who had Banting describe to him what he was currently eating.

His new physician told him that his diet contained “starch and saccharine matter” and was making him fat. He prescribed a new, meat-based diet for Banting.

Banting followed his new doctor’s advice and went on a diet with extraordinarily little starch or sugar and no beer. He started out each day by eating six or eight ounces of meat, tea and coffee without milk and sugar, and one slice of dry toast for breakfast.

His meals throughout the day were similar, mostly protein, vegetables (but no potatoes), with a little fruit, and with most alcohol prohibited.

  • For “dinner,” at 2 p.m., he had five or six ounces of fish, vegetables, an ounce of dry toast, and “fruit out of a pudding not sweetened”. (“Against the Grain: Letter on corpulence to the public”)
  • For tea, at 6 p.m., he had two or three ounces of cooked fruit, “a rusk or two,” and a cup of tea.
  • For supper, at 9 p.m., he had three or four ounces of meat or fish, and a glass or two of claret or sherry.

“Perhaps I do not wholly escape starchy or saccharine matter, but scrupulously avoid those beans, such as milk, sugar, beer, butter, etc., which are known to contain them,” he said. (“Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public – Selene …”)

In his book, Banting described how as soon as he started following the new regimen, he slept more soundly and woke up feeling refreshed. He suddenly felt healthier and more energetic, and within a few months shed 50 pounds.

Numerous other ailments that he had been suffering, including an “umbilical rupture,” vanished along with the weight, and he described himself as feeling healthier and more vigorous than he had since he was a young man.

The book was a sensation, even though Banting was a carpenter, not a medical professional. He printed the book at his own expense and went through two printings of the book for free, because he wanted to provide people with a solution to the obesity that he himself had struggled with for so long.

He then went on to sell 63,000 copies and the book was translated into French and shipped to America. He charged a shilling per copy.

The word “banting” entered the English language as a verb. Well into the 20th century, when people were dieting, they said they were “banting” as a slang term, especially in England.

The diet was controversial not only because Banting was not a doctor, but because it did not call for any reduction in fat. It did not recommend trimming of fat from the meat, and it did not call for draining fat away during cooking. This went against the established beliefs of the time. And it was one of the first times that the mysterious calorie-burning benefits of a high protein, low carbohydrate diet were established.

Despite the controversy, people who were desperate for a weight loss solution tried the unique new diet plan – and found that it worked. Of course, at the time, there was extraordinarily little science behind the diet; doctors simply proposed theories without any factual knowledge behind those theories.

However, simple observation made it clear to Banting’s physician that eating bread and sugary foods and drinking beer seemed to cause people to gain weight, so he proposed a diet that seemed logical. And fortunately for Banting, the diet worked.

Best Wishes, Coyalita

See Tomorrow: “The Modern Low-Carb Diet “

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