19th Century

William Banting

Have a drink with: William Banting
Keto, paleo, intermittent fasting? Nope: BANTING.

Ask him about: before and after pics


When the Paleo diet became popular in the early oughts and the ketogenic diet more recently supplanted it as a nutritional craze, keen-eyed historians noticed something familiar about these diets’ recommendations to hork down all the meat you can get your mitts on, guilt-free: specifically, that it wasn’t especially new. Was this all that different, they wondered, from the low-carb, high-fat diet Dr. Robert Atkins had first published in 1972? Was this just a forty-some-odd-year-old diet fad in a new dress?

To which I say: of course not. It’s a HUNDRED-and-forty-some-odd-year-old diet fad in a new dress. I’m over at Narratively today with more about William Banting, the Victorian royal undertaker who, yes, popularized low-carb dieting.

Click over to Narratively for the full story.

Fun Facts:

Banting seemed to enjoy the esteem and expertise he had conferred upon himself and did not hesitate to pontificate on what he had learned. It’s also possible he had a far better sense of humor than anyone suspected: he concluded that certain foods, however well tolerated in a person’s young life, were just not a good idea past the crest of middle age – “like beans to a horse, whose common, ordinary food is hay and corn…I will, therefore, adopt the analogy, and call such food human beans.” (HUMAN BEANS? GET IT? Never mind.)

Wars over which diet fad is the most effective are as old as diet fads, by the way. One 1900 news article on diet regimes stated: “Those who are training themselves to be thin appear to be particularly quarrelsome and terrible self-opinionated. The apostle of drugs will swear that the hydropathic cure has nothing in it; the hydropathist will aver that the diet cure is sheer starvation, and so one advocate hurtles condemnation at another until the bewildered victim of superfluous flesh decides to let matters be, lest worst befall him.” (The same article considers Banting’s method “unnecessarily cruel” and calls coffee a “stimulant par excellence.”)

Banting took his share of fat-shaming, even after he became famous as a self-help author: in an article in which the anonymous author complains about too many fat men on the London bus lines, he states that Banting no doubt “can enjoy a laugh now, having been a stranger to all sorts of amusement for some years past, owing to the violent shock to his system produced by any outward and visible sign of enjoyment beyond a smile. The shaking was not confined to his sides, and a pantomime any day would have been the death of him.”

A 1953 Robert Ripley “Believe It Or Not!” cartoon proclaimed Banting the “first man in history to diet.”


Additional Reading:

William Banting, Letter on Corpulence: Addressed to the Public (1864)

William Harvey, On Corpulence in Relation to Disease; With Some Remarks on Diet (1872)

Greg Critser, “Legacy of a Fat Man,” The Guardian, September 19, 2003