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The World’s First Fad Diet Was Drunk on Booze and Mutton

But don't even think about touching a potato

Fad diets have persisted in the public consciousness for longer than any human presently drawing oxygen has existed on this planet. As ubiquitous and annoying as these fads are — typically consisting of a scientific nutritional loophole that’s exaggerated to the point where it becomes a detrimental absurdity — there had to have been a first of such diets. Arguably, the first fad diet in history, and certainly the first diet of its kind to acquire adherents on both sides of the Atlantic, was the William Banting Diet.

According to several sources of the mid-1800s, Banting was an English mortician who grew tired of the dietary practices advocated by the doctors of his era. After finding his own breathing compromised by the accumulation of adipose tissue around his midsection, Banting developed a set of dietary practices that he later published in the form of a 25-page pamphlet (now 64 pages) as The Letter on Corpulence in 1863. Banting claimed that his adherence to this self-developed nutrition plan enabled him to lose 46 pounds in one year, resulting in a reduction of his waistline by 12 and a quarter inches.

Banting’s publication caused such a furor and achieved such popularity that it eventually sold more than 50,000 copies. London’s Pall Mall Gazette reported that a fourth edition of The Letter was printed in 1869, and Banting’s dietary advice was still being advocated well into the 1880s, even being recommended in a segment of Claiborne, Alabama’s Monroe Journal entitled “How to Get Thin” in 1883.

What was the Banting Diet exactly?

The dietary practices advocated within The Letter on Corpulence are broken into five mealtime segments and summarized thusly:

Breakfast: Four or five ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon or any cold meat except pork; a large cup of tea without milk or sugar; a little biscuit or one ounce of dry toast.

Dinner: Five or six ounces of any fish except salmon, or any meat except pork; any vegetable except potato; one ounce of dry toast; fruit out of a pudding; any kind of poultry or game; two or three glasses of good claret, sherry or Madeira; champagne, port and beer are forbidden.

Teatime: Two or three ounces of fruit, a rusk or two and a cup of tea without milk or sugar.

Supper: Three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret. (Also, it beats the hell out of me how “supper” is different from “dinner”; maybe it was later?)

Nightcap: A tumbler of grog — gin, whiskey or brandy, without sugar, or a glass or two of claret or sherry.

“Perhaps I did not wholly escape starchy or saccharine matter,” stated Banting in his publication, “but scrupulously avoided those things such as milk, sugar, beer, butter and other items which are known to contain them.”

In addition to his abstention from foods and beverages that were perceived to be highly caloric, Banting also advocated the consumption of a particular morning tonic. “On rising in the morning, I take a tablespoonful of a special corrective cordial,” he claimed, “which may be called the Balm of Life, in a wine glass of water, a most grateful draught, as it seems to carry away all the dregs left in the stomach after digestion.”

In providing his own self summary, Banting encapsulated his designer diet as consisting of 5 or 6 ounces of solids and 8 ounces of liquid for breakfast; 8 ounces of solid and 8 ounces of liquid for dinner; 3 ounces of solid and 8 ounces of liquid for tea; 4 ounces of solid and 6 ounces of liquid for supper; and the grog afterwards.

When it reprinted an excerpt of The Letter on Corpulence in 1864 and reported on its success, The Boston Evening Transcript noted that two “English gentlemen” living in Boston at the time who adopted Banting’s dietary regimen had each lost more than 40 pounds during the subsequent year.

Did anyone take issue with this diet?

A response to The Letter on Corpulence was published by Dr. Lankester of the Popular Science Review and subsequently reprinted in The London Daily News. In it, Lankester rebutted several of Banting’s points. Lankester began by referring to high-calorie foods as “heat-giving foods,” and specifically identifies the elimination of butter from breakfast and bread from dinner as supposed easy fixes for helping “stout persons” to reduce their size. He disparages Banting’s diet as “objectionable from many points of view,” and produced the following points to back his assertion:

  1. It makes no sense to eliminate salmon from the diet, as salmon contains less fat than many fish.
  2. Lean pork contains less fat than mutton, and therefore should be permitted for consumption.
  3. Milk is full of nutrients and should not be altogether avoided.
  4. Potatoes contain mineral elements that are more abundantly supplied than from other sources, and should not be eliminated.
  5. There is no reason to eliminate less sweet wines from the diet only to then permit the consumption of copious amounts of exceptionally sweet wines like sherry and Madeira, nor is there a reason to exclude beer if 10 to 12 ounces of wine is allowed.

So who is right: Banting or Lankester?

They’re both right and both wrong in equally strange ways. 

For a nutrition plan intended to foster health, the Banting Diet does allow for the consumption of a stunning amount of alcohol on a daily basis. Based on Banting’s guidelines alone, the imbibing of alcoholic beverages is directly advised in no less than three settings, with two or three glasses advised in some cases. Taking everything we now know about alcohol into account, including how it breaks down in the liver, and how it influences the digestion of other foods, Banting’s Diet may have further contributed to the “stoutness” of some people, while also giving rise to alcoholism in others. In addition, as much as Banting sought to limit his sugar intake, his promotion of such wines demonstrates some of the ignorance of Banting’s era relative to how the sweetness in products like sherry ultimately breaks down or contributes to calorie totals.

In general, Banting was correct in identifying the contributions of starchy, sugar-rich foods to obesity, but incorrect about avoiding foods containing nutritive fat, which is a tendency that persisted for more than a century as people continued to make incorrect links between dietary fat and the generation of adipose tissue. No, something like butter shouldn’t be regarded as a dietary essential, but total avoidance of it on health-related grounds is misguided.

That said, we shouldn’t overstate our criticism of Banting, because Lankester isn’t completely off the hook either. His rebuttal to Banting includes curious statements, such as when he refers to “strong exercise, sweating, vinegar, solution of potash and abstinence from all kinds of heat-giving food” as “dangerous,” and all likely to “sooner or later end in disease or some fatal catastrophe.”

Today, we would acknowledge Lankester as being generally correct about potash – which is a potassium-rich, crystalized substance people have been known to put on food — and then castigate him for being wrong about vinegar and completely off the mark with respect to the benefits of strong exercise and sweating

What should we do with the Banting Diet today? 

We should chalk it up to common misunderstandings of food during those times when dietary science hadn’t yet developed into what it is today. Depending on the condition of a person’s nutrition plan prior to engaging with Banting’s prescribed diet, they could either lose or gain 40 pounds, and potentially do a great deal of harm to their liver in the process. 

Human beings have always been a work in progress, and that goes double for our relationship with food and our collective understanding of what’s healthy. And seriously, considering the ridiculous diets that have been advocated in only the last 30 to 40 years, what else could we possibly expect from a fad diet that originated 160 years ago?