Father of the Low-Carbohydrate
By Barry Groves, PhD
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 labors 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
When Dr. Harvey met Banting, he was
interested as much by Banting's obesity as by his deafness, for he recognized
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
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
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
large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit or one ounce of dry
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, 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.
Pork was not
allowed as it was thought then that it contained starch.
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
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 or willpower
that today's slimmer needs; that he found his weight-loss diet very easy to
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
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
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
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
traveled widely. In the 1890s, an American doctor, Helen Densmore, modeled 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, low fat 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.
The above opinionated
views and information serves to educated and informed consumer. The information
provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the
diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. It should not replaced
professional advise and consultation. A licensed physician should be consulted
for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions