In this series, we will look at the basics of metabolism and discuss the very well-known science around obesity. Many of the diseases that bedevil humanity flow from obesity, including cancer and Type 2 diabetes, and so understanding metabolism and the causes of obesity is ground zero in the fight for a long life and good health.
We may thank an early caretaker for those who suffered the scourge of diabetes and a fat undertaker for providing an early testimony regarding a carbohydrate-restricted diet and its effect on obesity.
William Banting was a British man who had grown to be quite obese later in life. In 1862, Banting was a 66 year-old retired undertaker noted for his corpulence. The weight gain had started in his thirties and some 30 years later, his weight topped 200 pounds and he could no longer tie his own shoes.
He took up rowing and cut back on his calories, but, while the rowing gave him renewed muscular vigor and a stronger appetite, he didn’t lose weight and the reduced food intake made him unhappy enough to report an outbreak of boils.
Frustrated at his declining health, Banting spoke to a physician who had recently returned from a trip to France where he had heard another doctor, Claude Bernard, lecture on diabetes. The detailed mechanics of diabetes were not fully understood at the time, but it was known that diabetes was a disorder that allowed glucose to build up in the blood of the diabetic which the kidneys would eventually be forced to filter out. The diabetic had detectable glucose in their urine unless they ate a diet of devoid of sugars and starches. These diabetic patients would be limited in body fat eventually and Bernard wondered if a similar diet would not produce the same effect in the merely obese.
Banting’s doctor proscribed this regimen to Banting and he took to it. He ate three meals a day of meat, fish, and fowl plus some cooked fruits, and he maintained his wine intake of several glasses per day. But, he avoided beer, milk, break, potatoes, and anything sweet.
The results were astounding to Banting and his doctor. Within a year he had lost a total of 50 pounds and reporting feelings of robust good health and cheer.
We know this because Banting published a pamphlet called Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public in which he described his experience. Banting’s pamphlet was in effect, the first diet book, and it was about cutting back on anything that would, in a diabetic, cause glucose to build up in the blood and spill over into the urine. We know now that it is carbohydrates that trigger the buildup of blood glucose which in turn causes the pancreas to secret insulin which moves the glucose into the adipose, or fat, cells. Diabetics don’t have insulin so the glucose shows up in the urine. Banting stopped this whole process by dropping the carbohydrates and his body weight fell just as it had for Bernard’s diabetic patients.
This tale is what opens Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. In the following pages, Taubes describes how the British medical establishment went on to attack Banting. They did not care that his diet was so widely popular and effective that his name was taken up as a verb, and those that ate as he did were said to be on a ‘bant’. Various doctors said ‘banting’ was dangerous and there was no evidence that restricting the sugars and starches as Banting did was really what caused him to lose the weight.
Taubes might well have stopped his incredible book at the tale of Banting because in the subsequent 150 years, the story of obesity has taken many twists and turns, but the medical response has been depressingly the same. Those that argue for a carbohydrate-restricted diet are STILL told by doctors that it might not be safe and that even if it worked, it was the calories, not the carbohydrates, that causes the weight lose. These same people would have lost weight, they claim, had they cut out the meat, fish, and fowl because it was the total calories that matter to eight regulation. In fact, doctors now have 70 years of conventional wisdom that tells them that that the meat and fowl will bring on heart disease and so those foods should be restricted, which means the person, who has to eat something, will default to the carbohydrates.
But, regardless of what still can’t be taken as accepted biological science, Banting walked in to history doing what the French doctor had recommended for his diabetic patients who had no insulin to help them lower blood glucose. Cutting out sugars and starches was the best could do, and they were very thin as a result.
We know now the role of insulin in diabetics as well as the obese. The biology is very clear. It is time we learn about it, and accept it. No one has to be fat. Everyone can lose weight and not starve themselves. Banting did it, and so can everyone else. In an odd twist of fate, William Banting is a distant relative of Frederick Banting, the man who won a Nobel Prize for discovering insulin and figuring out how to treat diabetic patients with it.