The History of the Low-Carb Diet


Ah the low-carbohydrate diet, a form of eating that has become so ingrained in 21st century culture that you could be forgiven for thinking it was a relatively new idea. The truth is that low-carb diets have existed since the 19th century, when an Englishman named William Banting began promoting a low-carb way of life. Although clinical obesity is a relatively new phenomenon (it only really came to the fore in the 20th century), people for centuries have dealt with weight issues. William Banting was one such man, who so impressed with the result’s of his diet, began to market the low-carb way of living.

So who was William Banting and how did he discover this diet?

Born in 1796, William Banting was an undertaker of note. He was a fine carpenter and was highly respected in 19th century English society. His career highlight as an undertaker was perhaps having the honor of being the Duke of Wellington’s coffin maker. Despite his career success, all was not right in Banting’s life. He was obese and he didn’t know what do to.

Banting spent years trying to discover the root of his weight problem. He knew it wasn’t genetic as neither of his parents had been prone to weight issues. Finally when he was in his thirties, Banting thought he had found a solution. An eminent surgeon and close friend recommended Banting increase

“Bodily exertion before any ordinary daily labours began.”

With the zeal of a convert Banting began to row for two hours every morning before work. All that changed was Banting’s appetite. His morning exertions only made him hungrier. The weight piled on and Banting’s situation grew worse.

Banting’s friends grew worried and advised a diet of moderate and light food. Banting, concerned at this stage, took this dietary advice to its extreme. After a number of week Banting felt weak, without energy and was suffering a rake of health problems. He was hospitalised and underwent a rather serious operation. It was not to be Banting’s last trip to the hospital. On his weight loss travels, Banting was hospitalized over twenty times for weight reduction.

It all seemed rather hopeless. By 1862, aged 64, William came in at 202 pounds. He was only 5 feet 5 inches tall and his weight was becoming an issue. At this stage Banting wrote

“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.”

His body was breaking down. He had an umbilical rupture, his eyesight was failing and he was becoming deaf. Eventually hope came. August 1862 saw Banting meet Dr. William Harvey, an ear, nose and throat specialist working at the Royal College of Surgeons. The timings couldn’t have been better. Harvey had just returned from a talk by Dr. Claude Bernard discussing the role the liver played in diabetes. This led Harvey to question the role of foods in diabetes and how nutrients are absorbed by the body.

When Banting met Harvey, he was shocked. Harvey questioned Banting about his diet as he knew it was leading to his other ailments. Harvey divised a new diet for Banting and within one year Banting was down to 156 pounds.

The Diet Itself

Harvey’s advice was simple. Give up bread, butter, milk, beer, sugar and potatoes. Such foods were thought it contain starch and were leading to fat. Banting was saddened by this new approach. What was left to eat? Luckily Harvey was a smart man and showed Banting the world of food available to him. On this diet Banting lost nearly a pound a week for a year. He was shocked with the results. In May 1863, Banting self-published Letter on Corpulence, where he described his new diet. The low-carb meal plan was born.

So how different was Banting’s diet? See below the before and after

Banting’s Diet before he met Harvey

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.

Banting’s Diet After he Met Harvey

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’s Diet was in effect a high protein diet with both carbohydrate and fat restricted. This diet soon became popular and remains the foundation for many weight loss diets today.

What ever happened to Banting?

Following his incredible weight loss, Banting became a firm advocate of the low-carb diet. He published pamphlets and travelled England imploring people to change the way they ate. Banting himself was a testament to the new way of eating. The low-carb approach had cured his physical ailments and he remained at a healthy weight until his death in 1878.

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