Before Atkins, before Dukan, before the 5:2 diet so effectively followed by George Osborne, there was Banting. William Banting, a portly undertaker who organised the funerals of both the Duke of Wellington and Prince Albert, had an unexpected success in his 60s with a dietary pamphlet, Letter on Corpulence, which promised swift and lasting weight loss.
Published in 1864, On Corpulence went into multiple editions and sold thousands of copies. Recently rediscovered on the shelves of the London Library and now published by Pushkin Press, On Corpulence anticipates by 150 years our current anxieties about obesity, which Banting called ‘a parasite on humanity’, and about excess sugar and white carbohydrates.
Banting had tried every faddy Victorian wheeze for losing weight: Turkish baths, sea air, tinctures and potions, even special shampoos. He could not stoop to tie his shoes, nor walk upstairs easily.
On consulting a Harley Street physician, he reduced his consumption of those ‘insidious enemies’ milk, bread, sugar, butter, pork, pastry and beer and lost three stone, 2lbs, and 12-and-a-quarter inches from his waist. It was, he said, ‘miraculous’, and he lived to be 81.
His diet also forbade veal, herring, eels, port wine, Champagne, potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, turnips and carrots. Eggs, cheese and boiled rice, eaten sparingly, were ‘harmless’. He was certain the diet helped alleviate the pain of gout.
The trick was to eat lots of protein, plenty of veg and little ‘saccharine’ — ‘the great moving cause of fatty corpulence’. Does this not chime presciently with modern advice?
Obesity — ‘so lamentable a disease’ — was, Banting wrote sadly, entirely the responsibility of the individual. He makes no calls on the Palmerston government to introduce a ‘saccharine tax’ or to ban sugary cordial waters. He insists that ‘corpulence is remediable’ if one only follows his diet and musters a little daily exertion. A day’s suggested menu was as follows:
For breakfast, I take four or five ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork; a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast.
For dinner, five or six ounces of any fish, except salmon, any meat except pork, any vegetable except potato, one ounce of dry toast, fruit, any kind of poultry of game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry or Madeira — Champagne, port and beer forbidden.
For tea, two or three ounces of fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milk or sugar.
For supper, three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret.
For nightcap, if required, a tumbler of grog — (gin, whisky, or brandy, without sugar) — or a glass or two of claret or sherry.
On this beef and brandy diet, Banting reduced his condition of ‘fatty corpulence’ from 202lbs to 156lbs in just 13 months. And he managed it without recourse to avocados, chia seeds or spiralised courgettes. Good man.