The man who wrote the international best-seller that launched the first low-carbohydrate diet craze wasn’t Robert Atkins, it was an undertaker from Victorian England named William Banting. After trying many different kinds of diet, Banting managed to lose weight by eliminating all starches and sugars from his diet. The fourth edition of his “Letter on Corpulence,” published in 1869, became an international sensation. His surname became a verb. “No thanks, I can’t eat that. I’m banting.”
Banting was the first diet guru to offer a magic formula that seemed to get around the central fact of weight loss. In order to lose body fat, people have to eat fewer calories than they burn up. Since burning off more calories is really hard, people generally focus on eating fewer calories. This generally means smaller portions of the food that made them fat, which leaves them feeling unsatisfied. This puts them at war with their own appetite. If they do manage to lose weight this way, they usually gain the weight right back as soon as they go off the diet. Banting promised people that if they simply changed what they were eating, they would lose weight without feeling hungry. The problem is that he told them to eat the wrong sort of food. Every low-carb guru since then has made the same mistake.
Banting told people to cut the sugars and starches out of their diet. This usually produces dramatic weight loss within only a few days, but this success is an illusion. Like a marathon runner who is about to hit “the wall,” the dieter would use up all of the body’s carbohydrate stores, which are in the form of a starch called glycogen. Using up the glycogen frees up several pounds of water, which is then rapidly lost through the kidneys. So it looks as if the dieter is losing weight rapidly. Unfortunately, this water weight will come right back as soon as the person starts eating carbs again and the body replaces its glycogen stores.
Without carbohydrates, the body has to use fat and protein as fuel. Unfortunately, these fuels don’t burn as “clean” as carbohydrates. When the body breaks down protein to make sugar, it releases ammonia. Breaking down a lot of protein releases a lot of ammonia, which puts a strain on the kidneys. Burning a lot of fat also produces unpleasant byproducts, namely acetone (nail polish remover) and other “ketone bodies.” The ketone bodies make the dieter smell bad, and they have a diuretic effect, so the dieter loses even more water weight.
Most of the weight lost in the first few days of a low-carbohydrate diet is water, not fat, and will be quickly replaced as soon as the person resumes eating even a small amount of carbohydrate. However, the low-carbohydrate diet can eventually help the person lose body fat, but it works by making the person sick, thus suppressing the appetite. As a result, the person eats fewer calories. The low-carbohydrate diet causes a metabolic state that normally occurs only during starvation or serious illness. The body adapts to it by trying to rest and recover. Appetite suppression is one of the ways that the body adapts.
Banting wasn’t the first human being to eat a low-carbohydrate diet. For centuries, the native peoples of Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska had been eating that way, especially during the winter, because they had no other choice. Their traditional diet can obviously support human life for months or years at a time, otherwise people wouldn’t have survived in the high Arctic, but it isn’t a healthy diet. For example, the native people of northern Alaska have the world’s highest rate of osteoporosis, even though they eat plenty of calcium, in the form of fish bones. This is because the acid byproducts from a high-protein diet end up stealing calcium from the bones. All that calcium has to go somewhere, and it often ends up forming dangerous and extremely painful stones in the kidney and bladder.
By the mid 20th century, nutrition researchers were aware of the effects of an Arctic-style diet on the human body. An Arctic explorer named Vilhjalmur Steffansson and one of his colleagues went on an Arctic-style diet under medical supervision at Bellevue Hospital for the entire calendar year of 1929. The results were reported in the major medical journals of the day, and Steffansson wrote his own account for Harper’s Magazine in 1935.
The Canadian Army rediscovered one of the drawbacks of an Arctic-style diet during World War II, when some of its soldiers were fed nothing but their emergency rations of pemmican. Pemmican is basically dried beef with extra fat added to it, and it contains no carbohydrate at all. After several days of eating nothing but pemmican, the troops were incapacitated. They quickly recovered when they started eating carbs again. As anyone from the Arctic could have told them, it takes a few weeks to adjust to a no-carb diet. Even then, the person won’t be able to perform particularly well at sprinting or weight-lifting or anything else that requires good stores of glycogen. In other words, he wouldn’t be fit for combat duty.
Banting hoped to find a way for people to control their weight without feeling hungry. He was right that the kind of food that people eat matters. However, he simply picked the wrong sort of food. If people simply switch to a low-fat, high-fiber diet of unrefined plant foods, they can eat until they feel satisfied and still control their weight naturally. Starchy foods, and white potatoes in particular, provide far more satisfaction for the same number of calories than fatty foods, and thus can help people control their weight without feeling hungry. This is reflected in the fact that populations who eat starchy diets tend to be slim and healthy, whereas populations that eat more fatty animal-based foods tend to be fatter and sicker. Even people with diabetes do better on a starchy diet.
By coincidence, William Banting is a distant relative of Frederick Banting, the codiscoverer of insulin.
- Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public by William Banting
- Mazess RB, Mather W. Bone mineral content of North Alaskan Eskimos. Am J Clin Nutr. 1974;27(9):916–925.
- Stefansson V. Adventures in diet. Harper’s Monthly. November, 1935.
- Kark RM. Defects of pemmican as an emergency ration for infantry troops. War Med. 1945;7:345–352.