William Banting

William Banting

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,[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.

Reference List

  1. Let­ter on Cor­pu­lence, Addressed to the Pub­lic by William Bant­i­ng
  2. Mazess RB, Math­er W. Bone min­er­al con­tent of North Alaskan Eski­mos. Am J Clin Nutr. 1974;27(9):916–925.
  3. Ste­fans­son V. Adven­tures in diet. Harper’s Month­ly. Novem­ber, 1935.
  4. Kark RM. Defects of pem­mi­can as an emer­gency ration for infantry troops. War Med. 1945;7:345–352.