“I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.”

Mae West


A sorry failing of us humans is our desire to always look our best - and we go to extraordinary and sometimes fatal lengths to achieve this. In the past we thought nothing of using lead based make-up for that perfect white complexion, removing teeth to give a fashionable ‘hollow cheeked’ look and even following potentially fatal dietary regimes.

Such was the case with one of St Margarets most illustrious residents, the writer and humorist Thomas Chandler Haliburton. In 1863, realising that he was seriously overweight, Haliburton took up the fashionable Banting diet, the high protein forerunner of the Atkins Diet. Initially he managed to lose 10 inches around his waist. Unfortunately the Banting Diet had the same regrettable effect on Thomas Chandler Haliburton as the Atkins Diet had on its creator. Haliburton died on August 27th 1865 and was buried in All Saints Churchyard in Old Isleworth. To the abiding gratitude of the pallbearers, he was a few stones lighter than his former self!


The Banting Diet was appeared in 1863 when William Banting published ‘A Letter on Corpulence addressed to the Public’. He had been so obese that he was unable to climb the stairs and was losing his hearing and his sight. After many unsuccessful attempts to diet Banting was eventually advised to give up milk, butter, sugar and potatoes in favour of meat, fish and fruit. His breakfast consisted of 4 ozs (113 grams) of meat, fish or bacon and one ounce of toast. For dinner he had rather more meat, fruit or vegetables (apart from potatoes) and at tea time a rusk and a little fruit. His supper was 4 ozs of meat or fish. He drank tea without milk and several glasses daily of sherry or claret. On this restricted diet William Banting lost 2½ stones in 9 months and enjoyed better health than ever before.

“I am now in that happy comfortable state that I do not hesitate to indulge in any fancy in regard to diet, but watch the consequences, and do not continue any course which adds to weight or bulk and consequent discomfort.”

The problem with the diet is that although it worked for William Banting, for others, without proper medical supervision, it was a potential killer. According to the American Heart Association the Atkins Diet, a modern variant of the Banting Diet, was responsible for the death of its creator Dr. Robert Atkins in 2003.


In 1824 the ‘Family Oracle of Health (Vol 2)’ took up the ‘slimmer, healthier’ cause with a diet and lifestyle regime called “Beauty Training for Ladies”.

Ladies seeking physical perfection were advised to rise early and take a long walk (½ - 3 miles), before a breakfast of plain biscuit, (no bread), broiled beef steaks or mutton chops, (underdone and without fat) and half a bottle of Scots ale or one cup of strong, black tea. All this had to happen before 8.00am. Breakfast was followed by another long walk (up to 3 miles) and then at 2.00pm dinner, which rather disappointingly was exactly the same as breakfast, with the occasional addition of a mealy potato or boiled rice. Supper at 8.00pm consisted of cold fowl, or cold roast beef or mutton (with no fat). If the lady had passed on the half pint of Scots ale at breakfast she was obliged to drink it now. Butter, cream, milk, cheese or fish were forbidden. Nervous dieters were advised that this was the regular regime of Queen Elizabeth 1 and Lady Jane Grey. Like many other diets ‘Beauty Training for Ladies’ was badly balanced. The exclusion of diary products and green vegetables could result in vitamin A deficiency, the absence of fruit could lead to anaemia and scurvy! You may have looked terrific for a week or two - but then your teeth would start falling out!

During the 1890’s there was a craze for the ‘fruit cure’ diet using, depending on the fashion of the time grapes, oranges or grapefruit. The essential feature of the ‘fruit cure’ was a drastic reduction in the amount of ‘normal’ food with a huge increase in the amount of fruit eaten. A daily intake of 10 oranges might be balanced with just 2 rusks. Although the flood of essential vitamins did produce an initial feeling of well-being, in time the’ fruit cure’ lead to fatigue and malnutrition.


In the 1920’s some people were tempted to try the Tapeworm Diet - “no diet, no baths, no exercise” with its beguiling promise – “Eat! Eat! Eat! & always stay thin!” All you had to do was swallow a tapeworm. The principle of the diet is the tapeworm eats part of the food you consume and with the resulting smaller intake you lose weight. Some scientists estimated that those infected with a single tapeworm could lose up to one or two pounds each week.

There are some problems with this idea. The first is that as well as eating some of your food the tapeworm would also take in a lot of the vitamins and nutrients that you need to stay healthy. Like most sensible people the human stomach doesn’t like tapeworms and to protect itself produces a large pool of fluid in the stomach called ‘ascites’. This gives you a potbelly, which is probably not the effect you were hoping for when you first swallowed your tapeworm. Tapeworms can also cause cysts in muscles, liver and eyes and in the case of the pork tapeworm possibly kill you – dead!

Obesity can have a detrimental effect on health. About 46% of men in England and 32% of women are overweight (a body mass index of 25-30 kg/m2), and an additional 17% of men and 21% of women are obese (a body mass index of more than 30 kg/m2 ). Overweight and obesity are increasing. The percentage of adults who are obese has roughly doubled since the mid-1980’s.

Science recognises the problem and offers carefully controlled diet and exercise regimes to address the issue. With proper medical supervision they do work - which is more than can be said for the slimming solutions of the past. Ask Thomas Chandler Haliburton.

“It’s not women’s fault that diets don’t work. It’s not perversity of lack of willpower. God did this - in Her great wisdom.”

Dr. Wayne Callaway

“Adopting a new healthier lifestyle can involve changing diet to include more fresh fruit and vegetables as well as increasing levels of exercise.”

Linford Christie

– from Martyn Day