1 October 2021 Susannah

The first popular diet

Letter on Corpulence by William Banting

I have been dieting through September in an attempt to lose some of those Covid kilos. I suspect that many of you are like me in having a range of diet books in your home – books with wonderful promises of the slim, trim new you that will emerge if you follow their simple and ever-so-cheerful instructions. If only such books came with a hefty dose of willpower as well!

There are thousands and thousands of diet books on the market, but do you know about the very first one? William Banting (1796 – 1878) was a London undertaker and coffin-maker (his firm was funeral director to the royal household). He was also seriously obese. He weighed 202Ibs and was not a tall man, and he grew depressed by his size: “If fat is not an insidious, creeping enemy, I do not know what is”, he complained. He tried sea air, walking, and vapour baths, but the day came when he was unable to tie his own shoelaces. He had to wear an uncomfortable truss, his knees ached and he struggled to climb his stairs. Something had to be done! A Dr Harvey suggested he cut out carbohydrates (which were the main staple of the 19th century British diet), so Banting went home and drew up a new plan of eating, minus potatoes, bread, beer and sugars. It worked! In less than a year, he lost 46lbs and was delighted.

He then published a booklet – his Letter on Corpulence – Addressed to the Public came out in 1863 and was an instant best-seller. Within a few years, most of Europe and even America was undergoing Banting-mania. The medical establishment attacked his diet as dangerous and even circulated a rumour that he’d died from his diet, and Punch caricatured Banting mercilessly, but people became slimmer as a result of following his diet. By the 1870s the verb ‘to bant’ had become commonplace. People would ask their friends ‘Are you banting?”

Novelist Anthony Trollope was one person who bought the book and ‘banted’ as a result. The term has since been used for a diet popularised in South Africa, and still crops up in novels published as much as 80 years later.

William Banting managed to keep the weight off and lived to the age of 82. He was the ‘Atkins’ of his day and the originator of a type of book that has been taking up plenty of bookshop space ever since! Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- Letter on Corpulence by William Banting, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36793002-letter-on-corpulence, and https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=95896920

Comments (12)

  1. Margy

    I can’t wait now to read ‘Banting’ in a classic novel or a crossword clue and know what it means! Like Mrs Gamp and umbrellas!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I think it’s not something most of us had really thought about, but I was so intrigued when I learned about Banting and wanted to share it.

  2. Hi Susannah

    The picture on the cover of Banting’s book is the famous Daniel Lambert of Leicester (1770-1809), who was reputed to be England’s largest man. He gained great fame and wealth by exhibiting himself in London in the summer of 1806, after which time, he returned to Leicester to breed sporting dogs. He died suddenly in Stamford, Lincolnshire, and was weighted at more than 52 stone (335 kg).His grave, which I have seen several times, has been well preserved in the graveyard behind St. Martin’s church in Stamford. I know all this because my parents lived in a small village between Leicester and Stamford, and in the local area, Daniel Lambert is still remembered with some pride and affection. However, as a teenager, I had a friend called Dan Lambert who was mortified by bearing that name!


    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh that is so interesting, Chris. Many thanks for letting us know. I have been to glorious Stamford several times, but next time I will seek out his grave.
      I wonder if he might have been the inspiration behind the very fat Sir Bonamy Ripple in Heyer’s novel ‘False Colours’?

  3. Ros Dale

    Hi Susannah. I was delighted to read about Mr Banting. I am also sad to admit that I have been ‘Banting’ for 45 years with the sad reality of late that I am a sugar addict. It is so hard to shake-I would even say it is harder than quitting alcohol and smoking together! Anyway, I have done well of late by purchasing sugar free chocolate and brownies which seem to give me a hit without the substance abuse. My COVID curves are retreating, especially as I have taken up a routine of walking every day and that is good for my mental health too. Best wishes to you and your readers on their attempts at gaining good health like Mr Banting-what a champion he was!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for the good wishes, Ros – I need them! My downfall is cheese and snacks and glasses of wine. However, like you I have been walking more and really enjoying that, and I have managed to lose 4 kg. I am really going to keep trying!

  4. Lynn

    How interesting! I never knew this, or even thought about where diet books originated. I bet there are more comments about weight that are far older – perhaps in Shakespeare? I, too, have been struggling with Covid weight. Why is it so easy to put on yet so hard to take off? Cartainly everyone is walking around my beautiful neighborhood of Woronora. But combined with picnics now, even this might be defeating.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Well of course Falstaff was very overweight adn there are references to him as a ‘fat man’, but wasn’t it interesting to learn about the first diet book. It is so incredibly easy to put on weight and so damnably hard to take it off. I am off on a picnic with 4 friends today, so doubt that will help, but I have been trying.

  5. Kristina

    Hi Susannah, that was interesting and I know what you mean about the Covid kilos. I’ve been exercising w a woman in Waverley since the beginning of the year ( her business is called Deliciously Lean ) and I am now a strong supporter of doing weights and increasing protein, ie 20 g each meal. Making an omelette w one egg and egg whites ( from super market ) and having one protein shake a day. From 68 kg to 64 so am happy.
    Looking forward to our melbourne trip in February.
    Kind regards

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Wasn’t it interestng hearing about William Banting – I was so pleased when I first dicovered him.
      Well done on your weight loss – sounds excellent. I have lost about 4kg, but still have a long way to go.
      However, I can promise you there will be no dieting next Feb in Victoria.

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