Before Atkins

Low-carb dieting did not begin with Atkins. Sure, Robert Atkins was the best-known low-carb theorist, and he created the most successful diet, described in The New Diet Revolution published in 1972. But the first bona fide low-carb diet book actually came out in 1864.

That book only happened because William Banting thought he was going deaf. Banting was a prosperous London undertaker of 66 who stood only 5 feet 5 inches but weighed 202 pounds. In 1862 Banting took himself to an ear, nose, and throat surgeon named Dr. William Harvey, who promptly decided that Banting’s problem wasn’t deafness; it was obesity. Fat was pressing on his inner ear.

Dr. Harvey banished from his client’s diet all starch and sugar, forbade beer and potatoes, and left the undertaker to exist on meat, fish, vegetables, and wine, with an occasional crust of toast. Banting lost 100 pounds. Inspired by his results on this high-calorie, low-carbohydrate diet, Banting published in 1869, at his own expense, the first commercial low-carb diet book, Letter on Corpulence. Banting’s book began the nascent debate Is it what we eat or how much we eat that makes us fat?”. The debate accelerated when Wilbur Atwater invented the calorie.

The First Calorie Counter

Sometime between 1890 and 1900 an agricultural chemist named Wilbur Atwater figured out that if you burned food to ash in a little oven called a calorimeter, you could measure the amount of heat it produced. He called the unit of measurement a calorie and constructed vast tables of the caloric content of food. The idea that we all “burn” calories has been the dominating hypothesis in weight loss to this day.

Other scientists began to measure how much heat was produced (read: how many calories were “burned”) in the course of daily activities, from resting to vigorous exercise to digesting food to running marathons. It was now possible to form an equation: calories in versus calories out. The guiding concept of weight management was officially born.

The theory, called the energy balance theory, goes something like this: if you take in more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight. If you burn more calories than you take in, you’ll lose weight. It doesn’t matter where those calories come from.

Yet Banting, unscientific though he was, had made an interesting observation: what he ate made more of a difference to his fat cells than how much he ate. While no low-carb theorist of today would deny that calories are important, we also believe that the kind of calories we eat determines our hormonal response to food and our tendency to store or release fat.

Slimming at DuPont

Shortly after the First World War, the large American chemical firm E.I. DuPont, became concerned about the growing obesity problem among their staff. They hired Dr. Alfred Pennington to find out why traditional low-calorie diets were bombing. Pennington concluded that our old friend, the formerly fat undertaker William Banting, was right all along. Obesity, Pennington decided, was due not to overeating but instead to the body’s inability to use carbohydrates for anything other than making fat.

Pennington put DuPont executives on a high-fat, high-protein, low-carbohydrate unrestricted-calorie diet. His dieters reported they felt well, enjoyed their meals, and were never hungry between meals. The 20 obese individuals he treated lost an average of 22 pounds each, in an average time of three-and-a-half months.

Inuit Do It

At about the same time an explorer named Stefansson took off on a series of Arctic explorations where he lived with the Inuit and shared their diet of all meat, all fat. The view then – as now – was that if you ate a lot of meat, you would develop, among other things, hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, and very likely, a breakdown of the kidneys. Yet the Inuit Stefansson lived with were healthy and robust on their diet of meat or fish and fat.

Stefansson’s own health was examined rigorously upon his return, with the findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, July 3, 1926, in an article titled, “The Effects of an Exclusive Long-Continued Meat Diet.” The result? No evidence of the diet’s harmful health effects was found.

Some time later, in 1944, a cardiologist at New York Hospital named Blake Donaldson consulted with Stefansson and decided to try a meat-only diet for his obese patients. He allowed them to eat as much as they liked but the minimum was an eight-ounce porterhouse steak three times a day, with a cooked weight of six ounces lean meat and two ounces fat.

Foreshadowing many of the low-carb diets of today, Donaldson kept his patients on a strict version of the diet until they reached their target weight and then added back more variety. Donaldson treated some 15,000 patients and claimed a 70-percent success rate using this diet. Obviously something was contributing to the diet’s success besides just calories.

Is it Really All About the Calories?

By 1958, Dr. Richard Mackarness, the doctor who ran Britain’s first obesity and food allergy clinic, had published Eat Fat and Grow Slim in which he argued it was carbohydrates not calories that were the culprit in weight gain. Mackarness was the first to speculate that the reason some people couldn’t lose weight was because they couldn’t process carbohydrates.

In the 1961, a New York doctor named Herman Taller published Calories Don’t Count. Taller, a fat man all his life, wondered why a low-calorie diet didn’t work for him. Why did other people lose weight on high-calorie, high-fat diets? Taller postulated that all calories are not the same and that carbohydrates present a different problem to the body for some people. He pointed out that high-carbohydrate diets stimulate insulin and create more fat, particularly in people who are sensitive to carbohydrates

Taller suggested that in these people the metabolism is disturbed, with three results, and none of them good: (1) the body forms fat at a rate faster than normal; (2) the body stores fat at a rate faster than normal; and (3) the body disposes of stored fat at a rate slower than normal. Taller summed up: “The crux of the matter is not how many calories (we) take in, but what (our bodies do) with those calories.”

The Tide Begins to Turn

In 1972, when Atkins published the first edition of The New Diet Revolution, he was the first popular diet book author to seriously focus on insulin as a determinant in weight gain. His voice was drowned out by the low-fat, no-cholesterol, calorie-counting establishment and, although he remained active, his ideas didn’t catch on until the early 1990s, when an updated edition was published.

By the 1990s, though, it was obvious that low-fat dieting wasn’t getting results. The country was fatter than ever, diabetes was epidemic, and people were increasingly frustrated. The time was right for another look at the low-carb wisdom that had been around in one form or another since Banting’s days in the 1800s. To the chagrin of the medical establishment, Atkins resurfaced with a vengeance with his newly updated New Diet Revolution in 1992. It was followed by one of the most influential nutrition books of the 1990s, Barry Sears’ Into the Zone in 1995, a year that also saw the publication of the brilliant Protein Power by Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades.

After massive resistance by the establishment, serious research was finally comparing low-carb diets to “traditional” diets, and the results were impressive. Low-carb diets always produced better health outcomes, including blood lipid profiles, precisely the measures that low-fat, high-carb dieters forces had predicted would be disastrous on these regimens.

In what will probably turn out to be a signal event in the death of the high-carb dictatorship, Dr. Walter Willett – chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and one of the most respected mainstream researchers in the country recently came out publicly against the 1992 USDA Food Pyramid, which for a decade had promoted six to 11 servings a day of grains, breads, and pastas.

Low-carbing had come back, but this time with clarity and a scientific validation that had simply not been present in previous decades. It’s time to revisit the low-carb wisdom of the past, evaluate the wisdom of the present, and see what it has to teach us about living healthy in the twenty-first century.

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