Old Diets for a New You

Old Diets for a New You

The history of what three men ate (or didn't).

Modern diet trends come and go so fast it’s basically impossible to keep up with what you’re supposed to be eating - or in most cases, not eating. First you’re flushing, then you’re fasting, then you're eating nothing but powders and pills.

At least none of this is new.

I’ve gone and hand selected three diets from the 19th century to help you reach your weight-loss goals. They’re all endorsed by dead white guys, so you know they work.

Am I Banting right now? The case of William Banting

William Banting (1796/7-1878) was a funeral director in St James's Street, London. At only 5 feet 5 inches tall, he was short for his time and suffered from increasing fatness as he aged. By the time he was 60, he was so big that he was unable to stoop to tie his own laces, and, according to an 1864 edition of the Times, ‘attend to the little offices which humanity requires, without considerable pain and difficulty’. He was even forced to go downstairs backwards as to alleviate the weight on his ankles.

William Banting.jpg

His doctors told him to exercise more, which he did, though this only increased his appetite which added to his weight. On 26 August 1862, at age 65, he weighed 14st 6lb, which according to the NHS website, gave him a BMI of 33.6. In other words, he was obese.

Finding his condition unbearable, and suffering from increasing deafness, Banting consulted a surgeon named Mr William Harvey. Harvey believed obesity to be the cause of his hearing problem and suggested Banting cut out bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, soup, potatoes and beans, instead opting for a diet of mainly meat, fish, and dry toast. This led to a gradual loss of more than three stone over several weeks and an increase in general health.

This inspired Banting to write and publish a pamphlet entitled, A Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public (1863), where he singled out fats and sugar as the chief causes of obesity. His writings were an overnight success. By 1869 there had been four editions in English and it was even translated into French and German. ‘To bant’, or ‘banting’ - as in, ‘I am banting’ - became a popular phrase for dieting in the UK and the US well into the 1920s and remains an accepted term in some countries, such as Sweden, to this day.

Diet tip: One thing to note if choosing to follow this diet, as Banting himself highlights, ‘I am certainly more sensitive to cold since I have lost the superabundant fat’.

Ladies Who Lobster: Lord Byron, the original celebrity dieter

Lord Byron (1788-1824) wasn’t only a poet, peer and politician, he was also among the first celebrity diet icons. And, like many of today’s celebrities, Byron worked hard to maintain his figure. The poet had a ‘morbid propensity to fatten’ with his weight fluctuating between 9 and 14st.


Fear of gaining weight led Byron to follow a strict diet of biscuits, soda water and potatoes drenched in vinegar. He also wore plenty of woolly layers to help sweat off the pounds. After this he would often gorge on giant meals. Meals would then be followed by a large dose of magnesia - a white, tasteless substance used as an antacid and laxative. Mmm.

In 1816, after a scandalous separation from his wife, rumours of an affair with his half-sister and mounting debts, Lord Byron left England for Lake Geneva. Besides befriending the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his future wife, Mary Godwin, (aka Mary Shelley), Byron was busy subsisting off a thin slice of bread and cup of tea for breakfast and a light vegetable dinner with a bottle of sparkling water for dinner. Apparently he would sometimes allow himself cup of green tea in the evenings, as well. Cheat day, amirite?

By 1822, he had starved himself into poor health and, and due to his cultural sway, many were worried about his influence on the youths of the day, who followed his life obsessively. However, even Byron himself knew that diets like his were ‘the cause of more than half our maladies’.

Diet tip: If you’re female and interested in following Byron’s advice, he suggests that ‘a woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad and champagne, the only truly feminine and becoming viands’.

No Pain, No Grain: Brillat-Savarin and ‘The Physiology of Taste’

It wasn’t just us Brits who occupied ourselves with dieting. In 1825, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), a French lawyer, published the treatise ‘The Physiology of Taste’. It was a work that took 25 years to write, and considers subjects related to food and drink in a myriad of ways - including diet. Brillat-Savarin believed that true carnivores and herbivores never got fat because of a lack of grains, e.g. carbohydrates, in their diet.


‘Oh Heavens!’ Brillat-Savarin wrote, ‘But what a wretch the Professor is! Here in a single word he forbids us everything we must love, those little white rolls from Limet, and Achard’s cakes and those cookies, and a hundred things made with flour and butter, with flour and sugar, with flour and sugar and eggs!’ He goes on to say to those readers who choose to ignore his advice, ‘Get fat! Become ugly and thick and asthmatic, finally die in your own melted grease.’ Buuuurn.

Brillat-Savarin set out three basic rules for preventing obesity - moderation at the dining table, not too much sleep, and plenty of exercise on foot and horseback. Instead of starch, sugar, and flour, choose greens, root vegetables, cabbage, and fruit. And, if you have to have bread, stay away from the white stuff and go for rye or barley instead.

Clearly his fellow Frenchmen were following his advice, as his book went through several editions during the 19th century and was translated into English in 1884. Brillat-Savarin’s diet also shares many similarities with the modern Atkins diet of 1958. It seems people have been trying ‘no carbs before Marbs’ longer than we’d thought.

Diet tip: Brillat-Savarin was the first to write, ‘Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es’ or ‘tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.’ You may be more familiar with the modern abridgement, ‘you are what you eat.’

So remember, if you eat shit, you are shit.

If you’ve not got time to follow one of these regimes, how about giving the tapeworm diet a go?

The Tapeworm Diet

In the early 1900s a diet emerged where followers popped a pill containing a tapeworm egg in the hopes it would hatch inside them and ingest part of what they ate. With the parasite living in their bods, people could (theoretically) eat whatever they wanted without having to worry about calories. Once the desired weight was achieved, they simply took an anti-parasitic pill and (hopefully) excreted the tapeworm.

(T&Cs - Tapeworms can grow up to 30 feet in length, cause abdominal and rectal complications, headaches, diarrhoea, sickness, vomiting, loss of appetite, increased appetite, vision problems, meningitis, jaundice, epilepsy, anaphylaxis and dementia.)

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