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Review: Banting’s A Letter On Corpulence

“Do you like Banting?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never banted.”

Unlike the oft-quoted line about our man Rudyard, this isn’t really a joke. I have banted, I’m still banting, and I do like it. However, I didn’t know it had a name until a couple of months ago, when I read William Banting’s A Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public, and began to research the booklet’s background.

Dr. Atkins, shove over. Mr. Banting was here first.

In London in the early 1860s, an overweight undertaker was talking to doctors about his obesity. He had watched himself put on weight over the previous thirty years until, at age 65, he weighed 202 pounds, and stood only five foot five inches. He was having trouble getting up and down stairs and doing simple things like tying his shoes. He was annoyed. He had tried everything local physicians suggested, including buying a boat to row on the Thames and walking briskly every day, and taking various medicines that we would today consider worthless nostrums. Nothing worked. Then he came upon Dr. William Harvey, who made a suggestion that seemed too simple to be useful: give up beer, sugar, and “farinaceous” (starchy) foods.

Banting did so, beginning in September, 1862. And fortunately for us, he was of a scientific turn of mind, and wrote down both what he ate daily, and what he weighed every three weeks, for the following year. And in that year he dropped 46 pounds, eating mostly meat and non-starchy vegetables, plus a piece of dry toast or rusk (zweiback) for tea. And he lost the weight even eating four meals a day and drinking an amount of alcohol that would leave me unconscious on the floor.

After losing about a pound a week for that year, he felt better than he had in two decades, could navigate stairs without hyperventilating, and do whatever he needed to do in terms of ordinary activities. He felt that his eyesight and hearing had improved. He was, in short, a happy guy. And having achieved his goal of losing significant weight, he did a remarkable thing: He wrote up his experience as a pamphlet addressed to the public (what today we’d call an “open letter”), printed it at his own expense, and then handed it out to anyone who was interested.

It was popular enough to warrant two sizeable addenda across several printings, but even with those included the whole thing is only 25 pages long, and available as a free facsimile scan from Google Books. You can read it in fifteen minutes, though people who are not used to Victorian diction may find the text a bit of a slog. The pamphlet became popular and was much discussed in the London area at that time, enough so that “to bant” became a new verb, and meant to adopt Banting’s diet as a means of losing weight.

The Google Books edition include two longish contemporary commentaries, one from Blackwood’s Magazine, the other from Harper’s Weekly. Both are snarky wanders intent on demeaning Banting’s experience, and neither confronts the truth face-on: Banting did an experiment, recorded his results, and made them public without any attempt to profit from them. (In fact, he gave 50 pounds to a local charity hospital in thanks.) Instead, Blackwood’s tries to convince its readers that Banting was not all that fat to begin with, and besides, fat people tend to be affable and law-abiding citizens, so it’s good to be fat! There’s not a lot to be taken away from the two reviews except the sense that things don’t change much; many of the same groundless arguments are thrown today at low-carb diets, simply because “everybody knows” that eating fat makes you fat and the best course is a “balanced diet,” which, as always, means “a diet that I favor.”

William Banting is important because his experience predates the modern carb wars by close to a century. He wasn’t trying to debunk Ancel Keys’ fraudulent research or establish a diet-book empire. He was just writing down something that had worked for him, and he cautiously suggested that, under advice from their own physicians, overweight people might try the same method. It may not work for everyone, but (in contradiction to the ridiculous critique in Blackwood’s) that does not mean it will not work for anyone.

Highly recommended, especially since you can read it over your eggs and bacon at tomorrow’s breakfast. (I read it on my X41.)

One Comment

  1. […] time back, I reviewed a very old book: A Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public, by William Banting. It was published in 1865, and […]

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