Gary Taubes’ bestselling book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, starts off with the story of William Banting. Banting tells his tale in his late 1800s release titled Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. It started as a pamphlet and turned into a best-selling book with multiple editions. In the low carb community, Banting has been proclaimed as one of the first low carb gurus. He is often cited in works ranging from Taubes to Atkins.
WILLIAM BANTING WAS A FAT MAN. In 1862, at age sixty-six, the five-foot-five Banting, or “Mr. Banting of corpulence notoriety,” as the British Medical Journal would later call him, weighed in at over two hundred pounds…Banting was recently retired from his job as an upscale London undertaker; he had no family history of obesity, nor did he consider himself either lazy, inactive, or given to excessive indulgence at the table. Nonetheless, corpulence had crept up on him in his thirties, as with many of us today, despite his best efforts. He took up daily rowing and gained muscular vigor, a prodigious appetite, and yet more weight. He cut back on calories, which failed to induce weight loss but did leave him exhausted and beset by boils. He tried walking, riding horseback, and manual labor. His weight increased.” – From Good Calories, Bad Calories
It would seem that Banting had “tried it all.” I want you to pay particular attention to the statement, “He cut back on calories, which failed to induce weight loss,” for future reference points. Without fail, Banting failed at dieting. He gave every bit he had to give but the bulge wouldn’t budge. So a frustrated Banting met up with a man named William Harvey, an aural surgeon. He prescribed Banting a specific diet and told him to avoid things like milk, sugar, starches, and beer. Banting, guided by the advice, came up with this daily meal:
For breakfast, at 9.0 A.M., I take five to six ounces of either beef mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork or veal; a large cup of tea or coffee (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast; making together six ounces solid, nine liquid.
For dinner, at 2.0 P.M., Five or six ounces of any fish except salmon, herrings, or eels, any meat except pork or veal, any vegetable except potato, parsnip, beetroot, turnip, or carrot, one ounce of dry toast, fruit out of a pudding not sweetened, any kind of poultry or game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira — Champagne, port, and beer forbidden; making together ten to twelve ounces solid, and ten liquid.
For tea, at 6.0 P.M., Two or three ounces of cooked fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milk or sugar; making two to four ounces solid, nine liquid.
For supper, at 9.0 P.M. Three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret or sherry and water; making four ounces solid and seven liquid.
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 diet, Banting stated he lost 50 pounds to land at roughly 150 pounds. He claimed to have sustained that loss, give or take a couple of pounds, for many years.
Low Carb Diet or Just Low?
Banting was 5’5″ and weighed 200 pounds. That would give him a conservative BMR of 2,000 calories BEFORE activity. We have only Banting’s anecdotes to determine his activity factor. He thought highly of his movement despite being in a retired state. He noted manual labor and horseback riding among his activities. Being that most overestimate their activity, I am going to go with a conservative activity factor of 1.40-1.45. This leads to an estimate of 2,800-2,900 calories for Banting’s TDEE. Any intake less than this would move him into a possible caloric deficit.
Based on Banting’s own diet accounts, his highest caloric days seemed to top out at roughly 1,700 calories in which 300-400 were from alcohol. His macros tended toward a low to moderate fat and carbohydrate intake relevant to calories with the highest allotted towards protein, though only slightly. Without taking into account metabolic adaptation or human error, Banting was hitting an average daily caloric deficit of roughly 1,000 calories per day or 45% of his intake need at the beginning. This is likely to have slowed as time went on (which makes sense in his weight charting). It doesn’t seem he took part in refeeds or breaks. But this is all speculation anyway which is kind of the point.
I’ve provided you with a modernized visual of Banting’s diet.
I made the best assumptions possible based on the information provided. It was clear (by the limits of the meats listed) Banting was told to stay away from meats high in fat (“Meats except pork; fish except for salmon”). He also writes about fat being skimmed off of food he eats in later updates. You will note though, I still used meats with moderate saturated fat as might have been in the mutton and chicken breasts with skin. Is there a chance the fat content of the meats could have been a tad higher? Sure, but it could have been lower as well. I also used the highest number of ounces listed. I feel this is a good snapshot given the available information.
You will also note that starch intake was not absent. Vegetables were more scarce, but starches were consumed as well as fruit. Maybe some couldn’t tell because they are listed as “toast” or “rusk?” Those items are made with flour, in case you were wondering.
This really isn’t a “low carb” plan so much as it is a low calorie plan. I mean yes, technically it is lower in carbohydrates than what the average American eats, but so are the calories. The macros are almost split down the middle with a little alcohol. What type of diet does that sound like? Seems closer to Mediterranean diet macronutrients to me. It makes me wonder if the experts took the time to log what Banting had written down. It makes me wonder if Banting understood it himself?
What about the statements he made claiming he had “tried it all” before this diet? Let’s look at his own statement regarding his previous diet.
My former dietary table was bread and milk for breakfast, or a pint of tea with plenty of milk, sugar, and buttered toast; meat, beer, much bread (of which I was always very fond) and pastry for dinner, the meal of tea similar to that of breakfast, and generally a fruit tart or bread and milk for supper. I had little comfort and far less sound sleep.
Very low protein, very high carb, moderate fat. We don’t get specifics on ounces, but it’s easy to conceive that Banting was packing calories away in the form of lots of sugared teas and pastries. There is no denying his previous diet was low in nutrition and high in calories.
The tune does change from “I’ve tried it all!” to “Look at the crap I was eating before, no wonder!”
The Anecdotes Don’t Add Up
I was amazed by how the book Good Calories, Bad Calories is filled with references but somehow missed adding up the calories and macronutrients. Why were statements made that went directly against the diet being discussed?
Foods to be avoided:
1. Bread, and everything else made with flour…
2. Cereals, including breakfast cereals and milk puddings
3. Potatoes and all other white root vegetables
4. Foods containing much sugar
5. All sweets…
You can eat as much as you like of the following foods:
1. Meat, fish, birds
2. All green vegetables
3. Eggs, dried or fresh
5. Fruit, if unsweetened or sweetened with saccharin, except bananas and grapes
The above isn’t what Banting did. He had small amounts of all macros, the highest of which was protein, and a generous amount of wine (in comparison to his overall caloric intake). He had limited intake of low fat meats and low overall calories when compared to his total caloric need. He had starches, flour, and fruit. He had restrictions on the type of fish and meats he could eat. So writing the phrase, “Have as much as you would like!” is not only a non-factual statement about the diet being discussed, it’s unhelpful to the reader and can actually lead to gaining fat instead of maintaining or losing it.
Eating as much as you want of any macronutrient is going to lead to fat gain the moment the energy balance is tipped. If you want to have some fun, enter copious amounts of cheese, meats, veggies, and eggs into a food database and see the number of calories it spits out. If your argument is that eating as much as you want shouldn’t be taken literally, then my response is don’t say it. Even trained athletes who work with nutritionists have a hard time understanding nutrient and caloric intake; the average adult performs much worse. Calculating activity expenditure in hospitals by professionals is also a difficult task. In short, when the professionals have a hard time targeting energy balance, do you think it’s wise to make prominently placed statements like, “Eat as much as you want,” to lay readers? I think it’s asking for troubled and frustrated readers.
The Problem with Dieting Anecdotes
To be clear, I don’t care at all about Banting’s daily diet. It’s hardly the worst thing I have ever seen and appears to have allowed the man to finally tackle some of his weight issues. Good for him. Could he have maximized nutrient intake? Sure, we all can. But it obviously helped his personal lifestyle with compliance. And that is all that matters.
The problem is that his personal diet didn’t stop with him. Instead, it was printed, spun around, translated into multiple languages, hyped, marketed and let to people’s misconceptions. Since then, others have used his words to do much of the same.
The problem is that his diet, as with most diets, wasn’t prefaced with, “I’m not sure why this worked for me, but it did! Maybe it can work for you too. Maybe one day someone can explain why.” I can tell you why. Banting was eating 1,700 calories per day and was, for a time being, a large adult man.
Start from Normal, Become Exceptional
With some* in the low carb or Paleo community, we find statements about isolated events or small populations meant to be applied to larger populations. Eskimos or Inuits are a popular group often cited for how we should pattern our behavior, but their lifestyle and living conditions are in no way comparable to the majority of the world.
Call me simplistic but large scale studies done with the highest number of individuals possible is usually the best course of action. Though still rife with problems and research issues, we can learn a thing or two about free living intake. What do we find from examining diets for optimal longevity, health, and happiness? We find diets that focus on a moderate intake of all macronutrients with regular light exercise and activity. We find a life that preaches moderate restrictions and heaping doses of enjoyable outdoor and social activities. We don’t see a lot of positive outcomes when you tell people to fear, restrict, and abolish. It’s bad science to preach restrictive eating.
There is nothing wrong with still looking for answers and optimizing dieting and training systems. But in these investigations, why would we try to model our lives after those with illnesses or extreme living circumstances? Would it not be more fitting to find comparable counterparts? We see this time and again with arguments about the intake of gluten, nuts, and dairy. Because a certain population subset has very real and extreme difficulties digesting certain foods, it must then be bad for everyone else? This is a logical fallacy and fear mongering at it’s worst.
Dietary intake is varied and complex in how it affects individuals. It becomes even more complex when trying to manipulate body fat or health. It’s crucial you guide by logic and facts over fear and anecdotes.
The One Thing All Weight Loss Diets Have In Common
When you read anyone’s diet story—think critically. There is always more to the situation than what is condensed into a 30 minute promo. Be it Banting, Taubes, you, or me…if we want to lose fat there is one thing we must all do.
All Diets Have to Create an Energy Deficit in Order for Fat Loss to Take Place
It doesn’t matter if it is IF’ing, Paleo, South Beach, Atkins, Lemon Cleanse—they are all creating a deficit. The only way you will lose fat is if a deficit is created. Maybe an author does it with points, clean foods, or no carbs. Maybe they focus on training the deficit out of you. But in the end, a deficit has to be created.
Your job is to figure out the easiest way to create the deficit for yourself. Your job is to find a diet or program that will help you sustain a deficit. Your job is to find a dietary system that will allow you to maintain your weight. These things may not always be the same thing. For example, I may choose a different dietary approach for myself in meal timing and restriction than I would in a maintenance state.
When you understand the purpose of all diets, you can start to see through the code of fat loss (and sometimes the BS).
Take Home Point
With every diet book or anecdote, try to sift through and find information that can assist you, not deter you. Is there something to be learned from Banting’s tale? Absolutely. But it shouldn’t be, “Carbs are bad. Calories don’t count. Magic. Jazz hands!”
*Authors note: The word “some” was used for a literal reason. Not all low carb advocates subscribe to irresponsible reporting of research or discount energy balance. I call some of them friends.
Update #1 – There will be few additions to this article due to discussion in the comments and on Facebook. In the meantime, Evelyn at “CarbSane” tackled this Banting issue a while back. Hop over and check out her thoughts.
1.”Good Calories, Bad Calories”
Authored by Taubes, Gary
Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (September 23, 2008)
2.”Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public.”
Authored by Banting, William, 1797-1878; Roman, Anton, 1828-1903
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