HomeCategoryPotato potahto: The real skinny on carbohydrates

Potato potahto: The real skinny on carbohydrates

In true bipartisan fashion, you either belong to the Tim Noakes fraternity, who believes that potatoes are bad and evil, or you belong to the Angus Buchan fraternity, who preaches that you should have faith like them.


If you’re like me, your eyes start to glaze over (like fruit on top of a cheesecake, or like ham in aspic) — but not before you’ve rolled them — the minute someone says the word “Banting”. Banting is another seeming-fad where the facts are blurred by the hype.

Banting certainly does help with cutting the calories, but should we eliminate all starch completely? I always take my doctor’s word for it. He’s 72, looks great, is in shape, and doesn’t smoke.

But what to do when the chocolates come calling in the grocery aisle…

Did the original Banting simply mean cut out the rich processed carbs, and not really natural starches like the potato? In my quest to learn more, I went and did a bit of research.


The Banting Diet is not new. It is named after William Banting (1796-1878), a British undertaker who was overweight but managed to lose his pounds by engaging in a diet that was low in carbohydrates. It turns out he based his diet on the advice of one Dr William Harvey, who in turn based his advice on lectures he attended in Paris on the management of diabetes, delivered by Claude Bernard, a French physiologist.

Coincidentally, there was also a Canadian chap by the name of Frederick Banting (1891-1941), a distant relative of Banting the First, who co-discovered insulin (ironic, given the connection to diabetes).

Perhaps it was the first Mr Banting’s position as an undertaker that convinced him of the dangers of being overweight, and the importance of cutting back on the carbs. He saw a lot of dead bodies in his time.

In 1863, some 15 years before his death, he wrote and self-published a book called Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public.

In the booklet, which became a smash hit, he outlined the eating plan he followed: avoiding sugar, saccharine matter (sugary foods), starch, beer, milk and butter. Cutting back on such carbs helps to induce a process called ketosis. In a nutshell, it means that the body burns fat instead of sugar that it has converted from carbohydrates. This promotes fairly rapid weight loss.


The body is a very smart machine, but it also operates as a managed system, which makes it predictable to some extent. When the calorie intake is reduced, the body compensates by burning away what has been stored. But when the body senses a change in diet, what it often does is drain off the excess water and start to burn away muscle instead of fat. This does not lead to sustained weight loss.

Additionally, if the body senses that it is being starved of nutrition, it will want to hold onto energy deposits and will continue to store instead of burn. But if the source of energy is removed — in this case, carbohydrates — then the body has no choice but to start ketosis. In this regard, Banting is a distant cousin of the Keto diet.

Ketosis begins the process of fat burning faster, so the experts say, which leads to rapid weight loss if you’re very overweight. This rapid weight loss may be exactly what you need to control your runaway cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure and excess fat. If you’ve ever watched an episode of My 600-Pound Life, Dr Now sometimes restricts his patients to a mere 800 calories a day, because in many cases their obesity is life-threatening. This massive restriction in calories will lead to rapid weight loss.

However, the jury is still out on how healthy Banting is over long periods of time. The American Dietetic Association, the American Heart Association, the Australian Heart Foundation, the US institute of Medicine, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Health Organisation, both bodies of the United Nations, all agree that cutting carbohydrates completely from nutrition is not a good thing. You could argue it’s the politics of making money, but that’s what they are saying.


As you make your informed decision on whether it’s for you, you may want to consider the following elements:

• Starch is converted to sugar very quickly in the body, and it’s burnt very quickly, so if you have a weight issue, eating starch is like throwing petrol on the fire — you burn it very quickly and then you are hungry again. So what do you do? You crave more starch.

• In a Banting paradigm, it’s very important to eliminate starch. Some say there is no nutritional value in starch, so all it does is fill you up temporarily. It’s the government’s way of feeding people cheaply.

• Starch is the reason we have the diabetic epidemic today, because too many people are having too much sugar, and starch is pure sugar, which is just diabetes on a plate.

• There is no way around fruit and vegetables. They are good for you!

Whatever your final decision on eating carbohydrates, all the scientists agree that there is one thing you need to remember: weight gain took a long time, and weight loss will too. Trying to short circuit the process will only lead to short-term losses, and the pounds will quickly return. Changing your lifestyle is the only sure way to keep the pounds at bay.

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