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Before Dr. Atkins, William Banting Preached a High-Protein Diet

Dr. Richard Atkins published his Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution in 1972, outlining a radical diet plan. Dr. Atkins advocated a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet. The approach was touted as a “new” and “revolutionary” weight-loss method–but it was hardly either. Dr. Atkins was preceded by none other than an undertaker who was once so obese, he couldn’t reach his own shoe laces.

A Funeral Director Reaches His Wits’ End

Born in London in 1797, William Banting followed in his family’s footsteps as a funeral director. The family held the Royal warrant until 1928, overseeing such state funerals as those of Admiral Nelson, George III, George IV, William IV, and Prince Albert. Banting’s second son would supervise the funeral of Queen Victoria. Thus Banting and his family were quite comfortable; Banting’s wife had an extensive jewelry collection, and Banting’s wine cellar would have been worth about £3.3 million today.

William_BantingThough nobody in Banting’s family was obese, Banting began to gain weight. Eventually he reached the point where he couldn’t reach down to put on his own shoes, so he had to use a boot hook. Banting also took to going down stairs in reverse, because that method put the least strain on his overburdened knees. By 1862, he weighed 202 pounds…and only stood 5’5″ tall. Banting (perhaps rightly) blamed his obesity for his numerous ailments, from failing eyesight and deafness, to boils and carbuncles.

Meanwhile, Banting also tried every method available to lose weight. He went to all the popular spas of the era, taking up to three Turkish baths per day–and lost only six pounds. He tried starvation diets. A close friend who was also a physician recommended vigorous exercise, suggesting that Banting row on the Thames for a few hours per day. Desperate, Banting tried it, only to find that “the evil still increased.” The intense exercise built muscle, but it also drastically increased Banting’s appetite.

A Serendipitous New Solution

Banting still sought help for his other physical afflictions, and his deafness led him to the practice of Dr. William Harvey, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Ordinarily, Banting would have seen a different doctor, but he was away on summer holiday. That proved a happy accident: Dr. Harvey had just returned from Paris, where he’d heard a lecture from the renowned physiologist Claud Bernard. Bernard had developed a new theory about the role of the liver in diabetes, postulating that the organ secreted not only bile, but also a sugar-like substance made from elements in the blood. The concept got Dr. Harvey thinking about the way that sugars, starches, and fats affected the body.

Banting, then, presented an interesting opportunity to test Dr. Harvey’s own hypotheses. Dr. Harvey eagerly listened to Banting’s woes–then asked him about his diet. He took ample notes on Banting’s usual routine: a diet full of buttered bread, beer, milk, and sweet tea. Dr. Harvey proposed a new diet for Banting:

Breakfast (9 am)

  • 6 oz of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon or cold meat (except pork or veal)
  • 9 oz of tea or coffee (no milk or sugar)
  • 1 oz of dry toast or a small biscuit

Lunch (2 pm)

  • 5-6 oz of any fish except salmon, herring, or eel; or any meat but veal and pork
  • Any vegetable except potatoes, carrots, beetroot, or parsnips
  • Fruit out of any pudding, not sweetened
  • Any kind of poultry or game
  • 1 oz dry toast
  • 2-3 glasses of goo claret, sherry, or Madeira (no champagne, port, or beer)

Tea (6 pm)

  • 2-3 oz of cooked fruit
  • A rusk or two
  • Tea without milk or sugar

Supper (9 pm)

  • 3-4 oz of meat or fish, similar to lunch
  • A nightcap if needed: a tumbler of grog (gin, whisky, or brandy without sugar) OR a glass or two of sherry or claret

At first Banting was incredulous. He thought the portions too small and the variety insufficient. But soon he realized its efficacy and later wrote, “it certainly appears to me that my present dietary table is far superior to the former, [and] more luxurious and more liberal.” And by the following August, Banting had gotten down to 156 pounds.

Banting Shares His Weight-Loss Miracle

Banting was so pleased with his success, he felt compelled to share his secret with the public. In 1864, he wrote “Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public.” Initially he didn’t charge for the pamphlet, distributing all 1,000 of the first edition for free: “I am desirous of circulating my humble knowledge and experiments for the benefit of other sufferers, with the earnest hope that it may lend to some comfort and happiness I know have under the extraordinary change.”

Banting_QuadrilleThe second edition, of 1,500 copies, he also distributed gratis. But for the third edition, Banting charged 1/- per copy, not because he wanted to profit, but because he wanted to raise money for a pet project: the Middlesex County Convalescent Hospital, a center for working-class patients who didn’t have the opportunity to properly recover from their afflictions and suffered relapses.

A total of 63,000 copies of Banting’s letter were sold. That’s an incredible number given literacy rates at the time. The work was translated into French and German and distributed all over Europe and the United States. Banting’s name found its way into music hall ballads, and Banting was frequently satirized on the pages of Punch magazine. And “to bant” entered the English lexicon as a word meaning “to diet.” It stayed in the OED until 1963. Despite their fame, neither Banting nor Harvey ever attempted to copyright the diet plan. Such behavior wouldn’t have been suited to the public-mindedness of the Victorian era.

The Banting Method Weathers Its Detractors’ Complaints

Though Banting’s letter on corpulence enjoyed wide readership, many voiced skepticism and ridicule. In 1861, Isabella Beeton had published Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which was widely regarded as a domestic Bible. The book was chock full of carb-loaded recipes. And the prevailing theory of the time was that carbohydrates and fat burned together in the lungs to produce heat, and were therefore “respiratory foods.”

Banting suffered public ridicule, and Dr. Harvey’s practice began to suffer–even though plenty of people had successfully overcome their obesity with Banting’s diet. Ultimately the effectiveness of the diet could not be denied, even by the medical community. Something had to be done. Luckily for the medical establishment, Dr. Felix Niemeyer of Stuttgart found a bit of a loophole. He noted that doctors already knew that protein wasn’t fattening, only carbohydrates and fats. Thus he interpreted “meats” in Banting’s diet to mean only lean meat that had been trimmed of all fat. This seems like a slight nuance, but it changed the diet to a high-protein one with both fats and carbohydrates restricted, rather than one that just restricted carbohydrates. (It’s important to note that at the time, pork and veal were believed to contain starch.)

But Banting’s instructions don’t specify the trimming of fat, nor do they dictate the quantity of meat or the way the meat should be prepared. He always argued that Dr. Neimeyer’s diet was inferior to his, and indeed it is from a nutritional standpoint. That’s since been corroborated by medical experts. These days, Banting’s descendants and biographers have little good to say about Dr. Atkins, which makes sense given that the legacy of their belevolent ancestor has been overshadowed.

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This entry was posted on June 20, 2014 by in Food and Literature, History and tagged , , , , .
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