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The low carb diet - 1860s version

Tyler Cowen recently opined on the high cost of the current mode of dieting. Carbs are cheap and protein is dear. This lends an economic angle to the following fact, reported by the surgeon general: in the U.S., "women of lower socioeconomic status ... are approximately 50 percent more likely to be obese than those with higher socioeconomic status."

The cost of dieting is not a new issue however. In the WSJ($), Cynthia Crossen provides a delicious account of a prior incarnation of the modern low carb diet. The case in a nutshell: it worked then too, but the medical establishment neither understood nor appreciated it. They just carped about it.

Dr. Harvey put Mr. Banting on a diet that banished potatoes, bread, butter, milk, sugar and beer -- the patient's favorite foods. As was the custom in late-19th-century England, Mr. Banting continued to eat four meals a day. But instead of buttered toast for breakfast, he ate four or five ounces of meat or fish. At lunch, rather than bread, beer and pastry, he ate fish, vegetables and fruit. Tea and supper were similar, although supper included two or three glasses of claret, sherry or Madeira. Champagne and port were mysteriously forbidden.

In less than a year, Mr. Banting lost 46 pounds and could comfortably wear his old suits on top of his new ones. He pronounced the diet miraculous and not only paid Dr. Harvey's bill but also gave him a hefty bonus.

He also decided the diet should be publicized to help other sufferers of "that dreadful tormenting parasite." But he knew that respected medical journals weren't likely to publish an article written by an undertaker based on personal experience. So in 1863, Mr. Banting printed and distributed 1,000 copies of his "Letter on Corpulence" at his own expense.

The response from the public was enormous. In the next eight months, Mr. Banting printed 50,000 more copies of the pamphlet, some of which found their way to Germany, France and the U.S. He received nearly 2,000 grateful letters from satisfied dieters, and his name became synonymous with dieting, so that people could be heard saying, "He should bant," or "She's been banting."

But if the public was sold, the medical establishment was not. Mr. Banting soon became a target of ridicule in newspapers and magazines, which suggested Mr. Banting's diet was unscientific and couldn't be explained in biochemical terms. Only wealthy people could afford to eat so much meat and so little bread, yet some doctors complained that the diet was "too great a sacrifice of personal comfort" for their affluent clients.

Great stuff.