Episode 124 - Better Light Than Never (Light Week)
Audience feedback – none!
I quickly found my topic this week. I started by looking at the use of halos through history, but this was a tad dull but surprisingly widespread throughout history. It would appear that the pious and self-righteous have always given off a glow. It was also a very visual topic for a podcast. What I will quickly say on this topic is that the word halo has a number of synonyms. I didn’t realise that ‘nimbus’ was one, but also ‘gloriole’ which sounds like something Geoffrey Boycott would mutter surreptitiously to the owner of an adult book store. I then briefly looked into light infantry through history; nothing jumped out immediately. Then I discovered the Letter of Corpulence Addressed to the Public, by William Banting. How does this fit into the topic of ‘light’? I hear the audience cry in beautiful harmony like a Welsh male voice choir. Well, it’s a pamphlet from 1863 about how to lose weight, i.e. how to go from being heavy, to light.
With around 2/3s to 3/4s of adults in Western cultures being overweight, I’m going to have to tread carefully on this topic so as to avoid offending any of our fatty-fatty bum-bum, pie-face porky, big, round and bubbly, jam roly-poly, biscuits smashing listeners. Just joking, if anyone is new to this podcast, there’s plenty of mockery, and the mockery is distributed fairly and without maliciousness. Mmmmm, did someone say deliciousness? I’m hungry.
So who was the author of this pamphlet? I hear the Welsh miners cry. Well, it was one William Banting, a London based funeral director to the rich and the famous, undertaker to the stars, corpse collector of the royal family no less. I shit you not, the Banting family buried King George III, George IV, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and Edward VII. Not all at the same time I might add, “we only do 5 at a time – it makes it more cost effective. Pop the corpse in the cellar with the others.”
But we’re not here to talk about corpses, we’re less about the hearse and more about the hersheys, less about the cremation, more about the carnation, less about the undertaker, more about the larder raider.
William Banting was corpulent and unhappy about his corpulence. These are his words, “Any one so afflicted is often subject to public remark, and though in conscience he may care little about it, I am confident no man laboring under obesity can be quite insensible to the sneers and remarks of the cruel and injudicious in public assemblies, public vehicles, or the ordinary street traffic; nor to the annoyance of finding no adequate space in a public assembly if he should seek amusement or need refreshment, and therefore he naturally keeps away as much as possible from places where he is likely to be made the object of the taunts and remarks of others.”
Banting was a whopping 202lbs, or 92kgs, which might not seem like much today, but he was only 5ft 5inches tall. Banting managed to drop his weight to 71kgs in 12 months. And like all people who lose a significant amount of weight using a system that worked for them, he was determined to tell the world about it. So let’s get on to this pamphlet he wrote about his journey that was published in 1863.
The pamphlet begins, “Of all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine any more distressing than that of Obesity.” That’s because you’ve been burying kings and queens all your life, try burying some commoners and you might find out how distressing malnutrition and starvation are.
“Few men have led a more active life—bodily or mentally—from a constitutional anxiety for regularity, precision, and order, during fifty years’ business career, from which I have now retired, so that my corpulence and subsequent obesity was not through neglect of necessary bodily activity, nor from excessive eating, drinking, or self-indulgence of any kind.” Erm, I think we’ll be the judge of that shortly. It’s nice to know that even 158 years ago, people were desperately telling themselves that their excess weight was caused by eating too much.
Banting goes onto talk about how, from his 30s, he began to put on weight and tried all sorts of things, on the recommendation of reliable authorities, to lose weight. Banting tried rowing a boat every morning, but found that this just made him hungrier. He tried ‘sea air’, presumably purchased by the bottle from some charlatan, “freshest sea air! Collected only yesterday!” He tried bathing. He tried riding on horseback, he even claims to have consumed gallons of ‘physic and liquor potassae’ – goodness knows that that is! He was also prescribed vapour baths and shampooing. “Well my knits have disappeared, and I have long flowing hair like Faf de Klerk, but I’m still fat!” Turkish baths became the fashion and he began going three times per week, but alas, no weight loss!
Things were getting worse for Banting. Boils and carbuncles, trouble going to the toilet, pain walking down stairs, an umbilical rupture, hearing problems, but then, Banting met a man who would change his life. That man was Soho physician William Harvey. Harvey told Banting that he didn’t need all these silly remedies, he simply needed to cut back on the following: bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes. At first Banting was confused. What?! How can a man live without these things? Then Harvey explained that there are other types of food. What?! What are these mysterious foods of which you speak? Broccoli? Protein shakes? Kale!?
Well, I have what we would now call his meal plan in front of me now:
For breakfast, I take four or five ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork; a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast.
For dinner, five or six ounces of any fish except salmon, any meat except pork, any vegetable except potato, one ounce of dry toast, fruit out of a pudding, any kind of poultry or game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira—champagne, port and beer forbidden.
For tea, two or three ounces of fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milk or sugar.
For supper, three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret.
For nightcap, if required, a tumbler of grog—(gin, whiskey, or brandy, without sugar)—or a glass or two of claret or sherry.
It reads a bit like a drunkard’s paleo diet doesn’t it? Plenty of meat, plenty of booze, probably could do with a bit more fruit and veggies to get it all flowing though. Perhaps that is where ‘Balm of Life’ comes in; Banting would drink this in the morning and apparently it worked wonders for carrying “away all the dregs left in the stomach after digestion.”
But what exactly was Banting’s diet beforehand? Well… “My former dietary table was bread and milk for breakfast, or a pint of tea with plenty of milk and sugar, and buttered toast; meat, beer, much bread (of which I was always very fond), and pastry for dinner, the meal of tea similar to that of breakfast, and generally a fruit tart or bread and milk for supper. I had little comfort and far less sound sleep.” Just add some dogging and you’ve got yourself a truck driver’s lifestyle there.
Here are the results of the diet:
• I have not felt so well as now for the last twenty years.
• Have suffered no inconvenience whatever in the probational remedy.
• Am reduced many inches in bulk, and 35 lbs. in weight in thirty-eight weeks.
• Come down stairs forward naturally, with perfect ease.
• Go up stairs and take ordinary exercise freely, without the slightest inconvenience.
• Can perform every necessary office for myself.
• The umbilical rupture is greatly ameliorated—and gives me no anxiety.
• My sight is restored—my hearing improved.
• My other bodily ailments are ameliorated—indeed almost past into matters of history.
To summarise, Banting had basically stumbled upon an early low-carb, low animal fat diet. He was eating lean meats and avoiding starchy vegetables. Banting felt like he had been given a new lease of life! He lived happily ever after to the age of 81. Good for him I say! His pamphlet was undoubtedly popular because his surname became a verb meaning ‘to diet’, as in, are you banting?
To finish, I would like to draw attention to one of my favourite parts of the pamphlet, an early disclaimer:
“I do not recommend every corpulent man to rush headlong into such a change of diet (certainly not), but to act advisedly and after full consultation with a physician.”