Regular readers of this blog may be aware that, for the past couple of months, I’ve been on a diet. And, though I do say so myself, I’m quite pleased with my progress. I’ve got my weight down from “fat bloke” to “guy who’s let himself go a bit.” Obviously there’s still work to be done, but I reckon a couple more months should see me through.
As a result, and because misery loves company, I’ve been reading a bit about dieting through the ages. Fad diets, it seems, are nothing new. For instance, you may have heard of Reverend Sylvester Graham, who believed that the key to wellness was the suppression of excess lust. The way to achieve this, he said, was a bland diet completely free of meat, alcohol, white bread and spices. To be honest, I think if I’d banned all those things from my diet, a little excess lust would be one of the few things that kept life bearable. A similar diet was recommended by John Harvey Kellogg, who invented cornflakes to put people off masturbation (it’s not clear how – pour them dry into your underpants?). He also firmly believed that yogurt enemas were essential for replenishing beneficial “intestinal flora.” I’ve heard of friendly bacteria, but any bacteria getting that friendly should at least buy me a drink first. And let’s not even start on the infamous tapeworm diet.
Today I’d like to talk instead about William Banting, who advocated a rather less extreme form of diet – one that has remained fashionable up to the present day. It all started when Mr Banting was suffering from hearing loss in 1862 and visited a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons specialising in ENT by the name of William Harvey (PROTIP: If you can’t remember the first name of an eminent Victorian, just go with William. If you can’t remember the first name of an eminent Tudor, go with Thomas).
Harvey suggested that the reason for Banting’s hearing difficulties, as well as various other health problems, was the fact that he was obese. Hunt recommended a radical change of diet, cutting out starches, sugars and meat with a high fat content. Fish, red meat, fruit and vegetables, other than potatoes, were the order of the day. No more beer, pastry or white sweet tea.
One couldn’t blame Banting if he were a tad sceptical about the efficacy of this diet. He was perfectly that he was overweight, and that this was affecting the quality of his life. He wrote of shortness of breath, joint troubles, difficulty bending down, insomnia, indigestion, an umbilical rupture and “considerable pain and difficulty which only the corpulent can understand.” He had been trying unsuccessfully to lose weight for thirty years. Exercise hadn’t helped, nor had any number of fad diets, quack cures, spa visits or medical treatments. One doctor had even suggested that weight gain was just one of those things. Nevertheless, at the age of 65, he was deeply unhappy with his condition.
Banting was actually the perfect patient for Harvey and vice versa – Harvey was an ear, nose and throat man, but he also had a keen interest in diet. His plan for Banting was originally devised for the treatment of diabetes and was inspired by a talk by Dr Claude Bernard on the subject.
Banting considered the diet “dangerously generous” at first (for instance, bacon and claret were allowed), but nevertheless gave it a shot and was quite astonished at the results. He managed to lose 46lb in a year and reported that his health difficulties all either vanished or were greatly improved.
So pleased was he with his success that in 1863 he published a pamphlet entitled A Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. It was a huge success, despite criticism from the medical establishment, going through several editions in Banting’s own lifetime and still available to this day. Banting initially gave the booklet away, though this ended when the publisher Harrison took over its production from the third edition on. Such was its popularity that “banting” became a synonym for weight loss.
Banting is often erroneously given the credit for devising the diet, though he never made any such claim and, indeed, was explicit about Harvey’s role. He made a donation of £50 to Harvey and would later go on to become the instigator and fundraiser for the Middlesex County Convalescent Hospital. As you might imagine, he became a passionate campaigner for healthy living and lived himself to the age of 81.
Now, those of you who take an interest in dietary matters will no doubt have spotted that Banting’s diet bears quite striking similarities to the controversial Atkins diet. Indeed, the late Dr Atkins’ diet was nothing more than a variation on similar carbohydrate-restricted diets that had been in place throughout the twentieth century – all of which, ultimately, can be traced back to Dr Harvey’s plan and Mr Banting’s advocacy.