William Banting: Father of the Low-Carbohydrate Diet

by Barry Groves

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.


3 thoughts on “William Banting: Father of the Low-Carbohydrate Diet

  1. I am reading a book called ‘Keto-Clarity’ about a high fat, moderate protein, low carb diet approach. It doesn’t mention Banting but it does mention that serious modern scientific research has really only been underway, in a fairly small way, since 2004; with very positive results so far.

    • This ketosis business is at the heart of the starter phase of the Atkins Diet and that goes back about 40 years. I stumbled upon a similar regime when the diet I left the hospital with some years ago just didn’t work. I did adopt a very low calorie diet (the target was 1200/day); but I only ate things I liked – butter, cheese, eggs, tuna, chocolate, peanut butter. Over about 8 months, I went from just over 300 pounds to just under 200.

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