William Banting’s OG Low Carb Diet: A Nutrient Analysis

The Royal Undertaker

William Banting of 19th century England came from a well-known, upper middle class family of undertakers. Not just any undertakers – the ones responsible for the ultra-fancy funerals of nobility, from King George to Prince Albert to Lord Nelson. William himself directed the funeral of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, or the “Iron Duke.” Historians consider Banting to be the originator of modern royal public funerals.1

But even though the Iron Duke’s funeral was such an amazing spectacle that it’s still analyzed by royal undertakers, William Banting became more famous for something else: popularizing a low carb diet. 

Funeral of the Duke of Wellington, Louis Haghe; UK Parliament

Retirement Blues: Banting’s Declining Health

Health and Weight Woes

Banting retired in the early 1860s. In 1862, at 66 years old, Banting stood at 5’5” tall and weighed 202 lbs. More important than the numbers, however, was how Banting felt and experienced life on a daily basis. 

“Although no very great size or weight, still I could not stoop to tie my shoe, so to speak, nor attend to the little offices humanity requires without considerable pain and difficulty… I have been compelled to go down stairs slowly backwards, to save the jarr of increased weight upon the knee and ankle joints, and been obliged to puff and blow with every slight exertion, particularly that of going up stairs.”

William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, 1863

Weight Loss Attempts

In his 1863 pamphlet Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public, Banting outlined the details of his increasing illness and discomfort. Having begun gaining weight in his 30s, he discussed his daily struggles and previous attempts at weight loss over the previous three decades:2,3

  • “Low living (moderation and light food) – but I had no direct bill of fare” 
  • Turkish baths
  • Rowing several hours/morning
  • Walking, horseback riding, manual labor
  • Vapor baths and shampooing
  • Purgatives and diuretics
  • Sea air

As many dieters – past and present – can relate to, Banting’s numerous attempts at weight loss were met with numerous failures. Fortunately, that was about to change.

“Of all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity, and, having just emerged from a very long probation in this affliction, I am desirous of circulating my humble knowledge and experience for the benefit of my fellow man, with an earnest hope it may lead to the same comfort and happiness I now feel under the extraordinary change, – which might also be termed miraculous had it not been accomplished by the most simple-common sense means.”

William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, 1863

The Diet

Dr. William Harvey

With worsening impaired hearing and vision, Banting sought the help of an ear surgeon, “who made light of the case, looked into my ears, sponged them internally… without the slightest benefit.”2 When this surgeon went on vacation, Banting sought the help of Dr. William Harvey, another ear surgeon who declined to prescribe any medication or experimental treatments, instead pointing to his patient’s “corpulence” as the source of his woes. 

Harvey (incidentally an acquaintance of Charles Dickens) had attended an 1856 medical conference in Paris, led by French physician Claude Bernard. Bernard’s experiments led him to conclude a relationship between diabetes and obesity, along with the propensity of starchy and saccharine foods to promote both.1

In Corpulence, Banting introduced Harvey’s prescribed diet with a comparison to horses: “I will presume that certain articles of ordinary diet, however beneficial in youth, are prejudicial in advanced life, like beans to a horse, whose common ordinary food is hay and corn.” Accordingly, Banting dubbed the troublesome foods “human beans.” 

“Human Beans”

  • Bread
  • Butter
  • Milk
  • Sugar
  • Beer
  • Potatoes

Banting was initially reluctant; would eliminating these foods leave anything good to eat? Well, that depends on one’s taste for meat, wine, and liquor.

The Meal Plan

  • Breakfast
    • 4-5 ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or any cold meat (except pork)
    • Large cup of plain black tea
    • Small biscuit or one ounce dry toast
  • “Dinner” (Lunch – Banting’s biggest meal of the day)
    • 5-6 ounces any fish (except salmon), any meat (except pork), or any poultry/game
    • Any vegetable (except potatoes)
    • One ounce dry toast
    • Fruit out of a pudding 
    • 2-3 ounces claret (red Bordeaux wine), sherry (fortified wine), or Madeira (fortified wine) – No champagne, port wine, or beer allowed
  • Tea
    • 2-3 ounces fruit
    • 1-2 rusks (hard biscuit, twice-baked – ex: melba toast or biscotti)
    • Cup of plain black tea (obviously)
  • Supper
    • 3-4 ounces meat or fish (except pork or salmon)
    • 1-2 glasses claret
  • Nightcap (“if required”)
    • Tumbler of grog (gin, whiskey, or brandy without sugar), or 1-2 glasses claret or sherry

And there you have it – the meal plan of a “low carb” diet predating Atkins and Instagram-Keto. 

The Results

On August 26, 1862, Banting weighed 202 lbs. at 5’5” tall. By May of 1863, when he published the first edition of Letter on Corpulence, he was down to 167 lbs. –  having lost around 1 lb. per week since beginning his diet. 

“Having now very nearly attained the happy medium, I have perfect confidence that a few more weeks will fully accomplish the object for which I have laboured for the past thirty years, in vain.”

By September of 1863, Banting was down to 156 lbs., for a total loss of 46 lbs. and over 12 inches from his waist. 

In non-scale victories, he reported feeling “restored in health, bodily and mentally,” sleeping well, and disappearance of GI disturbances. He discarded his knee bandages, walked comfortably up and down stairs, and no longer needed hooks to put on his boots. Based on his own results, Banting recommended a diet lower in starch and saccharine-rich foods, particularly for people of advancing age, “after full consideration with a physician.” 

Following publication of the first edition, there was some criticism that the diet might be difficult for those not economically advantaged. Aside from the raw cost of food and alcohol, Banting’s schedule as a private business owner was more flexible than most, with the choice of leisurely meals at his home or office whenever he wished. 

Factory workers, on the other hand, would have to meal prep their daily sherry servings.

Recognizing he may have certain luxuries not available to all, Banting added that if the diet seemed cost-prohibitive, one could simply focus on avoiding the off-limits foods (bread, butter, sugar, milk, beer, and potatoes). 

Nutrient Analysis: Is it Low Carb?

Father of Keto?

Calling Banting the “discoverer” of keto is disingenuous; “keto” has probably been around since our ancestors gobbled up plates of mammoth with a few berries on the side. Banting himself mentioned that “the remedy itself may be as old as the hills,” but that “its application is of very recent date; and it astonishes me that such a light should have remained long unnoticed and hidden..” 

Banting’s comments imply that a low carb diet was not widely used or even considered at the time. While he may not have “invented” it, he was definitely one of the first to popularize it in “modern” times. But was his diet anywhere close to ketogenic? Or even low carb?

Well, the true “ketogenic” diet is a bit different than what most keto followers are doing. When ketosis is metabolically necessary for treating a condition (ex: children with severe epilepsy), the dieter aims for over 90% of calories from fat rather than simply limiting carbs. All macros must be very carefully weighed and considered, since the body can also synthesize glucose from amino acids. 

However, even “lazy keto” (which simply involves keeping carbs below a certain level of grams/day rather than meticulously calculating all three macros) generally requires keeping carbs as low as 20 grams/day, sometimes going as high as 50. 

Was Banting’s meal plan anywhere in this neighborhood?

Nutrition Facts

Let’s reexamine Banting’s meal plan and calculate the possible range of calories and carbs, depending on the day and exact serving sizes.

There are a few points to consider first. 

  1. “Fruit out of a pudding:” No further detail is specified in Banting’s Corpulence, but this might have been something like the raisins/currants/prunes in plum pudding. Whether it was a full serving of pudding itself or fruit pieces extracted from it is unclear. Nutrition facts for a quarter-cup of raisins will serve as a placeholder.
  2. Vegetables: The serving size and type are not given; it is only mentioned that potatoes are prohibited – this presumably means all tubers. Cabbage was very popular and easy to obtain; mushrooms, onions, leeks, broccoli, and carrots are all possibilities. One of the lower calories veggies seems most likely. While the amount is not given, it was probably similar to a current standard serving size, which is a half-cup.
  3. Alcohol: Banting’s supper and nightcap included “a glass or two” claret. A standard “glass” in the 1860s would have been about 2 ounces.4 The “tumbler of grog” size could vary, but a current standard serving of gin, whiskey, or brandy would be 1.5 ounces. Banting’s evening liquor serving was probably similar. 

Re-Examining the Meal Plan: Calorie/Carb Ranges

The following nutrient analysis is based on best estimates of what Banting might have eaten based on his given meal plan.

Breakfast

  • Breakfast
    • 4-5 ounces of beef, muton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or any cold meat (except pork)
    • Large cup of plain black tea
    • Small biscuit or one ounce dry toast

There’s a large possible range for the meat. Broiled fish (haddock and cod were popular in Victorian England) would be on the lower end at under 120 kcals for 4 oz of most types. 5 oz of bacon would yield the highest possible calorie count at over 650 kcals. However, it seems more likely that a serving of bacon would have been smaller and Banting probably wouldn’t have eaten it every day. Let’s use mutton for the higher end of the meat range: 5 oz would be around 330 kcals. 

Tea with no milk or sugar would be close to zero kcals. One oz of toast is about the equivalent of a modern standard slice of bread. There would be a range here depending on variety, but 100 kcals on average is a fair estimate. Average carb content is around 15-20 g. So:

  • Breakfast Range
    • Meat/Fish/Poultry: 120-330 kcals, <1 g carbs
    • Toast: ~100 kcals, 15-20 g carbs
    • Tea: Zero kcals, zero carbs

Lowest possible: 220 kcals, 15 g carbs; Highest possible: 430 kcals, 20 g carbs

Lunch

  • “Dinner
    • 5-6 ounces any fish (except salmon), any meat (except pork), or any poultry/game
    • Any vegetable (except potatoes)
    • One ounce dry toast
    • “Fruit out of a pudding” 
    • 2-3 ounces claret (red Bordeaux wine), sherry (fortified wine), or Madeira (fortified wine) 

Five oz of haddock would be around 120 kcals; cod would be 150. Six oz of mutton would be close to 400 kcals. Negligible or zero carbs for all. For the vegetables, a half-cup of cabbage or mushrooms (boiled or steamed) barely hits 25 kcals. Banting probably consumed 50 kcals from his veggie side dish, at most, since butter was off limits. Net carbs for vegetables were likely under 5 g, possibly under 2. The toast, again, would be around 100 kcals and 15-20 g carbs. 

A quarter-cup of raisins, our placeholder for the pudding-fruit, would be around 100 kcals and 25 g carbs. Since this is speculation, we’ll consider a range from no fruit (0/0) to 100/25. 

Booze time. 2-3 oz claret: 50 kcals/1.5 g carbs – 75 kcals/2.2 g carbs. 2-3 oz sherry: 90 kcals/7 g carbs – 135 kcals/10 g carbs (3 oz). (Sweet vs. dry sherry doesn’t make much difference, surprisingly.) 2-3 oz Madeira: 94 kcals/8 g carbs – 142 kcals/12 g carbs.  

  • Dinner/Lunch Range
    • Meat: 120 – 400 kcals, <1 g carbs
    • Vegetables: 25-50 kcals, 2-5 g carbs
    • Toast: 100 kcals, 15-20 g carbs
    • Fruit: 0-100 kcals, 0-25 g carbs
    • Alcohol: 50-142 kcals, 1.5-12 g carbs

Lowest possible: 295 kcals, 18.5 g carbs; Highest possible: 792 kcals, 62 g carbs

Tea

  • Tea
    • 2-3 ounces fruit
    • 1-2 rusks (hard biscuit, twice-baked – ex: melba toast or biscotti)
    • Cup of plain black tea

Apples and cherries were popular fruits in Victorian England, so let’s use those. 2-3 oz of apple would be 30 kcals/6 g carbs – 45 kcals/9 g carbs. 2-3 oz of pitted cherries are 10 kcals/2 g carbs – 15 kcals/3 g carbs. Averaging these would give a range of 20 kcals/4 g carbs – 30 kcals/6 g carbs. 

The “rusk” could vary, but one “rectangle” of melba toast is ~20 kcals/3.5 g carbs. 2 of these would be 40 kcals/7 g carbs. No calories/carbs in plain black tea. 

  • Tea Range
    • Fruit: 20 kcals/4 g carbs – 30 kcals/6 g carbs
    • Rusks: 20 kcals/3.5 g carbs – 40 kcals/7 g carbs
    • Tea: Zero calories, zero carbs

Lowest possible: 40 kcals/7.5 g carbs; Highest possible: 70 kcals/13 g carbs

Supper

  • Supper
    • 3-4 ounces meat or fish (except pork or salmon)
    • 1-2 glasses claret

Using haddock again for the lower-calorie protein, 3 oz would be ~80 kcals. On the higher end of possibilities, 4 oz of mutton would be 265 kcals. No carbs. As mentioned earlier, a “glass” of claret in the 1860s was usually about 2 oz. 1-2 glasses would be 2-4 oz, or 50 kcals/1.5 g carbs – 100 kcals/3 g carbs. 

Lowest possible: 130 kcals/1.5 g carbs; Highest possible: 365 kcals/3 g carbs

Nightcap

  • Nightcap (“if required”)
    • Tumbler of grog (gin, whiskey, or brandy without sugar), or 1-2 glasses claret or sherry

Probably fair to assume it was usually “required,” but we’ll call the lower end 0/0 for the unlikely late-night temperance. A tumbler of liquor size could vary, but 1.5 oz is a modern standard size. 1.5 oz of gin, whiskey, or brandy would range from 100-150 kcals and no carbs. The claret range, as with supper, would be 50 kcals/1.5 g carbs – 100 kcals/3 g carbs. 

Lowest possible: Zero/zero; Highest possible: 150 kcals or 3 g carbs

Second Breakfast, Elevensies…

Just kidding. We’re done here. 

Final Nutrient Analysis

Final ranges:

  • Breakfast – Lowest possible: 220 kcals, 15 g carbs; Highest possible: 430 kcals, 20 g carbs
  • Lunch – Lowest possible: 295 kcals, 18.5 g carbs; Highest possible: 792 kcals, 62 g carbs
  • Tea – Lowest possible: 40 kcals, 7.5 g carbs; Highest possible: 70 kcals/13 g carbs
  • Supper – Lowest possible: 130 kcals, 1.5 g carbs; Highest possible: 365 kcals/3 g carbs
  • Nightcap – Lowest possible: Zero/zero; Highest possible: 150 kcals or 3 g carbs

Lowest daily calorie/carb intake: 685 kcals, 42.5 g carbs

Highest daily calorie/carb intake: 1807 kcals, 101 g carbs

Average: 1246 kcals, 72 g carbs

Quite a range, and probably somewhere in the middle on most days. So, is it keto? On some days, maybe. Estimates for the lowest carb days are right under 50 g carbs, which some keto dieters would say is fine, although some go as low as 20 g and under. Odds are that Banting wouldn’t have always been in ketosis but may have on some days. 

Under 100 g carbs per day, though, is informally considered the standard for “low carb.” By any count, Banting’s diet was certainly lower carb than the Standard American Diet (SAD). 

Was the reduction in carbs alone responsible for Banting’s steady weight loss? What about calories? 

The Mifflin-St. Jeor equation5 is commonly used in clinical practice for determining basal metabolic rate (BMR), AKA calories burned doing nothing but existing. Then, a further calculation is added based on activity level.

Needed to calculate MSJ:

  • Sex
  • Weight (kg)
  • Height (cm
  • Age

Mifflin St. Jeor formula for BMR:

  • Females: (10*weight [kg]) + (6.25*height [cm]) – (5*age [years]) – 161
  • Males: (10*weight [kg]) + (6.25*height [cm]) – (5*age [years]) + 5

Likely burn based on activity level:

  • No activity/BMR *1
  • Sedentary *1.2
  • Lightly active *1.375
  • Moderately active *1.55
  • Active *1.725
  • Very active *1.9

Let’s look at Banting’s stats at the beginning of his diet.

  • Height: 5’5” – 65 inches or 165 cm
  • Weight: 202 lbs. – 92 kg
  • Age: 66 years

Mifflin-St. Jeor puts his BMR at 1625 kcals/day. Adding a sedentary activity factor puts his burn at 1942 kcals/day. With Banting’s intake range of 685-1807 kcals, he was probably under his BMR on most days. 

Why was Banting’s Diet Successful?

Whether it was a high-intake or low-intake day, Banting’s consumption was generally under his daily kcal burn. Did going “low carb” speed up the process? Possibly. And the reduced carb intake likely led to other benefits – while there’s no formal record of Banting being diabetic, his blurred vision might have been a symptom of chronic hyperglycemia.* Dr. Harvey had long suspected that Banting’s “human beans” like bread, beer, and sugar played a role in developing the condition. 

*Fun Fact: Banting was a distant relative of Sir Frederick Banting, who won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his isolation of insulin.

Anecdotally, there’s no denying that this low(er) carb diet was beneficial to William Banting, along with others who followed in his footsteps after the publication of Corpulence

In the concluding addendum to his pamphlet, Banting implied that a successful diet relied on quality and moderation: “I should not hesitate to partake of a fattening dietary occasionally, to preserve that happy standard; indeed, I am allowed to do so… but I shall always be a careful watch upon myself… if I choose to spend a day or two with Dives, so to speak, I must not forget to devote the next to Lazarus.”

In other words, Banting’s success came from balance – something most fad diets try to sweep under the rug. 

Self-restraint is simply not something the modern diet industry is willing to discuss, perhaps because it is so difficult for most of us to achieve, perhaps because it does not sell, or perhaps because it simply has no place in a world in which consumption remains the principal activity of the day. Where does a day with Lazarus fit in the modern global consumer orgy?

Greg Critser, “Legacy of a Fat Man”

Banting enjoyed multiple servings of booze along with quality meats and consequently did not feel deprived. He allowed himself one of his old “human beans” if desired but in moderation. The lower carb regimen probably also led to fewer insulin spikes, fullness from more saturated fat, and less deprived crankiness. 

The key to Banting’s success was a diet that he could “live on and live with.”

Sources

  1. Critser G. Legacy of a Fat Man. The Guardian. Sept. 19, 2003.  https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2003/sep/20/weekend7.weekend1
  2. Banting W. Letter on Corpulence. Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. Classics in Obesity. December 1863. 
  3. Taubes G. Good Calories, Bad Calories. Anchor Books: New York, 2007. 
  4. You can tell by the smallness of the glass how precious the contents were’: wine glass size in the 19th century. Wine as Was. Dec. 29, 2017.  https://wineaswas.com/2017/12/29/you-can-tell-by-the-smallness-of-the-glass-how-precious-the-contents-were-wine-glass-size-in-the-19th-century/
  5. Mifflin MD, St Jeor ST, Hill LA, Scott BJ, Daugherty SA, Koh YO. A new predictive equation for resting energy expenditure in healthy individuals.. Am J Clin Nutr. 1990;51(2):241-7. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/51.2.241.