Dr Robert Atkins is often believed to have invented the low carbohydrate diet when he developed and published his Atkins Diet in the 1960s/70s. But the truth is that low carb diets were being followed and even prescribed by doctors long before Dr Atkins popularized them for the general public.
Many people believe that the diet followed by human beings in prehistory, before the development of agriculture, was a low carbohydrate diet. At this time people would have eaten whatever was available to them. This was the time of the ‘hunter-gatherers’.
In some places, there would be a lot of fruit available, and it might even have been the main food source for some people. That would not be a low carbohydrate diet. But in cooler climates, people would have relied more on hunting animals, and the diet would have been high in protein and low in carbohydrates.
With the development of agriculture, of course, people came to rely more and more on high carbohydrate foods that they could grow. Wheat and other grains provided plenty of calories per acre and so these were popular agricultural foods. Of course, at that time people wanted to have a high calorie diet because starvation, not obesity, was the main risk.
But as societies became richer, weight related issues began to arise. Doctors began to be aware of the benefits of a low carb diet for certain diseases and conditions. In the early 19th century diabetics were already being advised to cut down on high carb foods like bread, potatoes and sugar.
It was just one step from there to the first low carbohydrate weight loss plan. This was published by William Banting in England in 1863. Banting was not a doctor, but a craftsman whose health had been seriously threatened by his obesity. His doctor had suggested a diabetic diet, having noticed that this had resulted in weight loss for many of his patients.
So Banting gave up most of the carbs and starches in his diet, including beer, as well as milk and butter. He ate mostly meat, green vegetables and fruit, with a little wine. He lost weight so successfully that in 1863 he wrote and published a booklet called “Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public”.
This publication was hugely successful. Originally, Banting just had a few copies printed at his own expense, but soon it was widely circulated and a commercial publisher took it up. It became so well known that around the turn of the century the word “banting” was in common use, meaning “following a weight loss diet”.
Unfortunately, Banting’s low carbohydrate diet also attracted a lot of criticism, especially from health professionals who pointed to his lack of qualifications. Rumors circulated about how the diet had affected his health, although he lived to the age of 80. Similar rumors would later arise over the health and death of Dr Robert Atkins, in an attempt to discredit the Atkins Diet.
The first half of the 20th century was a lean time for most Western nations because of the wars in Europe. Weight loss became less of an issue until the 1950s and 60s, when fat was seen as the main enemy to health. So when Dr Atkins published his diet in 1972, there were not many people still living who remembered the earlier popularity of low carb diets, and most people thought it was a brand new idea. But in fact, Dr Atkins only rediscovered and revised the low carbohydrate diet.