Mr. Banting was not happy with this state of affairs. He struggled for years to take off weight. He tried everything that the medical profession of that day would either sanction or not positively prohibit. He tried steaming, spas, starvation diets; he subjected himself to leeching and purging; he tried exercise, which must have taken superhuman effort in a man of his proportions. In 1862 William Banting was a discouraged-and still enormously heavy-gentleman in his sixties, who knew a great deal about the prevailing ideas in weight reduction-and knew that none worked for him.
Then Banting had an earache and realized that he was beginning to go deaf in one ear. For this reason, and no other, he consulted William Harvey, a noted ear, nose, and throat surgeon-a historic meeting in the annals of weight control history. Harvey had recently returned from Paris, where he had heard the renowned French physiologist Claude Bernard describe some new theories about the role of the liver in body chemistry. Bernard believed that the liver secreted not only bile, but a sugar-like substance which it prepared at the expense of the blood elements that passed through it.
This theory had a profound effect on the study of diabetes. Harvey, who was much interested in diabetes, began to do a great deal of independent and evidently rather brilliant thinking on the whole question of how the body handles food elements, particularly fats, sugars, and starches. When William Banting presented himself, Harvey was as much interested in his obesity as he was in his ear, especially as the doctor soon satisfied himself that there was no organic reason for the ear trouble. Was it possible, Harvey wondered, that excess fat was pressing on some part of the inner ear, causing the pain and partial deafness?
A Startling Experiment
Nobody could have been readier than Banting to blame overweight for anything that went wrong with him. He became Harvey’s willing, and shortly enthusiastic, collaborator in an experimental diet which was startling enough even for those days, when heavy eating was the fashion. It is truly shocking to today’s weight-watchers, most of whom are so well schooled in computing calories that they can give you to the nearest fraction the caloric count of a dish containing fourteen ingredients from Upper Nepal.
For each meal, including breakfast, Banting was allowed up to 5 ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, fish, bacon, venison, or any kind of poultry. (Today’s average serving is 3-4 ounces.) He was to avoid sweets, flour, and starchy materials, but there were no similar restrictions as to the fat that came with his meat, so far as we know. He was permitted 3 or 4 ounces of biscuit, rusk, or toast; any vegetable except potato; as much tea as he liked without milk or sugar; a few ounces of fruit; and with lunch and supper two or three glasses of claret, sherry, or Madeira to wash down this considerable amount of food.
He was permitted a nightcap of anything except champagne, port, or beer. By modern calculation, William Banting must have been taking in not much less than 2800 calories a day. And in four months he had lost more than 20 lb. By the end of his first year on Harvey’s diet he was 50 lb. lighter. His earache was long gone, his hearing restored. He was firmer and more vigorous than he had been in years. He had achieved this while eating fully and well, to say the least. He had been deprived only of sugars and starches. In other words, he had reduced dramatically, and without the slightest risk to his health, by practically eliminating carbohydrates from his daily food intake.
Understandably enthusiastic, Banting-who must have been a remarkable man-set to work to proselytize for this unorthodox, yet magnificently successful, treatment. At his own expense he published, in 1864, his now famous Letter on Corpulence. In it he described his diet, and added a heartfelt testimonial in which he tried to explain what it meant to a man of his history to be able to move about freely, exercise if he liked, and dress himself without assistance.
Banting’s sincerity and his spectacular results impressed the public. But the medical profession was outraged, as he had suspected it would be, at the revolutionary suggestion that it might be possible to eat fat, among other things, to take fat off. The notion that a man might eat as much as he liked, as long as he excluded sugar and starch from his diet, was extraordinary enough.
But that it should be put forward by a presumptuous layman without a scientific qualification to his name-Banting, in fact, gave the fullest possible credit to William Harvey, but this did not in the end do either of them much good-was more than the medical ‘establishment’ was prepared to put up with. It was pointed out with scorn that the material had not even appeared in any respectable professional organ. The whole idea was denounced as impertinent, ridiculous, dangerous.