The world is changing fast and to keep up you need local knowledge with global context.
A South African Sunday newspaper is the latest to leap on the bandwagon attacking Cape Town sports scientist Prof Tim Noakes and his low-carb, high-fat (LCHF, aka Banting) diet. It calls Noakes a ‘mampara’ (idiot), and accuses him of changing his mind on his diet, and blaming co-authors of his runaway best-seller, The Real Meal Revolution, for the change. It feeds on the anti-Noakes media hype including claims that his diet is dangerous – and so is he. Here’s what’s behind the latest full-cream-milk storm in a teacup about Noakes and Banting. MS
By Marika Sboros
Has Cape Town sports scientist Prof Tim Noakes really changed his mind again? You could be forgiven for thinking he has – if you read a report in the South African Sunday Times saying he has done just that.
Or if you saw the newspaper’s street poster posing the (presumably rhetorical) question: “Is Tim Noakes A Joke?”
If you are one of Noakes’ many enemies, you’d be licking your lips in anticipatory glee at more vicious meat to attacks on him, his low-carb, high-fat (LCHF, aka Banting) diet, his runaway best-selling The Real Meal Revolution book, and the prospect of apparent rebellion in Noakes’ so-called “Banting” ranks.
You’d be bitterly disappointed.
Turns out once again the report is without foundation, a fabrication that feeds off the anti-Noakes hysteria among doctors and dietitians who regularly claim his LCHF diet is dangerous, criminal, a killer – and so is he; that if you stay on it long enough, you’ll have a heart attack, a stroke, develop dementia, diabetes, colorectal cancer, or any other disease they can think of to put blame on his diet.
Noakes says he hasn’t changed his mind on anything – not the vast body of solid science on which his diet is based, and definitely not on dairy, the food that set off the latest wave of vitriol against him.
It’s true though, that Banting fans have been having a hard time of it recently, as the fury directed at Noakes grows, including from his own university. The more successful Noakes has become, the more weight people lose on his diet, the more they report feeling better and healthier on it, the more vicious the attacks become.
The medical and dietetic establishments have turned him into a dietary antichrist. They appear especially affronted by Noakes having the temerity to change his mind spectacularly on the role of carbohydrates in the diet in 2009, for promoting his LCHF diet and documenting it in The Real Meal Revolution.
The anti-Noakes camp has swelled after a vigorous bout of Banting bashing by British nutrition guru Patrick Holford, during his recent lecture tour in South Africa. Holford believes Noakes is “right about the cause of obesity, diabetes and heart disease” – it’s too much sugar and insulin resistance – but “wrong about the cure”. He says Noakes’ LCHF diet is unsustainable long term, has too little fibre, and its “high-protein” emphasis on meat and dairy makes it a “recipe for colo-rectal cancer”.
Bowel cancer fears
By way of back up, Holford cites British bowel specialist Dr Roger Leicester and others that Atkins diets (and by inference Noakes’ diet, though Noakes says it’s neither high-protein nor Atkins in disguise) are at the root of a “worrying increase in constipation and colon cancer”. Leceister is quoted in a Daily Mail report saying: “Bowel cancer is more likely to develop when people eat a lot of animal fat and there is slow-moving transit of food in the gut”.
Holford also refers to research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition this year, saying that the association between red and processed meat consumption and colorectal cancer is “convincing”.
Noakes says that’s all unscientific twaddle, including the Sunday Times report that sets the scene with the headline: “Noakes admits to souring on dairy”.
The report’s author says that after complaints from dieters who weren’t losing weight fast enough, Noakes “admitted” that mainstays such as cream and full-fat yoghurt were “quietly removed” from his diet’s all-you-can-eat “green” list on his Real Meal Revolution website; that these products were moved to the site’s “orange” list; “branded” as to be “eaten with caution”, but are now “back in favour”on the green list.
The newspaper also gives Noakes its ultimate insult: declaring him “mampara” (idiot) of the week, for “changing his mind again” and giving dietary advice that “sure is a moveable feast”. It accuses him of passing the buck for his mind change by blaming his Real Meal Revolution co-authors: Cape Town nutrition therapist Sally-Ann Creed, chef Jonno Proudfoot, and chef David Grier (who just happens to have had nothing at all to do with this almighty ado about nothing.)
So where on earth does this full-cream-milk storm in a teacup come from?
Noakes says the Times report is a “disgrace” – the journalist who wrote it has selectively misquoted and/or deliberately distorted what he and his co-authors told her, and what they’ve all said and written on the diet.
He says he has not “soured” on dairy; he did not remove dairy from the “green list”, the products were not “branded” as bad, they couldn’t possibly be “back in favour” because they’ve never been “out of favour” – except for some people who may not lose weight fast enough.
“Nothing at all has changed,” Noakes tells me via email. “I told the reporter that, and I’ve always said dairy can be a problem for some people wanting to lose weight fast, and in that case, we advise that they should simply restrict intake. It’s all there, in the book, on the website. There’s nothing new.”
Noakes also makes clear in emails to the reporter before publication (copies of which he sent to me), that many people, including himself, do very well on the diet even when they include dairy products.
“I’ve lost 20kg,” Noakes told her, “and I’m rock stable at this new weight despite eating lots of dairy. But for some individuals, it seems that they do eat too many calories when they include dairy.”
So who made the changes to dairy on the green list and why?
Proudfoot runs the website. He tells me he removed dairy from the diet’s “green” (eat freely) list, onto the “orange” (with caution) list, after complaints from some dieters that they were not losing weight fast enough, after suggestions from Creed that it could be because they were eating too many calories in dairy, and because it’s in the book and on the website that dairy can be problematic for weight loss.
After queries from dieters on and off social media, Proudfoot says he decided to put it back on the green list, with a note to visitors to the site, explaining dairy in more detail.
That’s all there is to this saga – no change to the science and theory on which the diet is based, no hidden agendas, and no buck passing.
The Real Meal’s green, orange red and orange list is simply “a way for us to communicate to people which foods should be enjoyed freely and which foods should be approached with caution”, Proudfoot says.
“Dairy should be enjoyed freely unless you are struggling to lose weight. In this case, we advise that you omit it. That’s all there is to it.
“I explained all that to the reporter on the phone. She ignored 95% of what I said, and took the rest out of context”.
‘Good faith lacking’
And far from “scrambling” to release a press statement on the change, as the Times reporter wrote of The Real Meal Revolution camp, Proudfoot says he told her he was preparing a release to clear up confusion about dairy. She repeatedly asked him not to release it until after publication of her report, he says, saying her newspaper had “a greater reach”, and her report would be “positive”.
“I agreed, thinking she was acting in good faith. In hindsight, that wasn’t so smart,” Proudfoot says.
Creed too confirms there’s no change of thinking by The Real Meal Revolution authors.
And what of accusations that Noakes’ diet is so lacking in fibre, it’s lethal, and Leicester’s media quote that Atkins-type diets trigger “constipation, causing bloating and swelling, and psychological problems such as lethargy and lack of sex drive”?
Another dietary red herring, says Noakes, and lack of science.
Leceister should “update his knowledge”, says Noakes. He and other gastroenterologists would help “many more of their patients if they were to read the growing literature of the value of this eating plan on gastrointestinal function”.
Noakes makes some points about fibre in his diet:
- The Real Meal Revolution is full of fibre – see all the vegetables on the “green list”.
- The clear evidence is that carbohydrate in the diet is linked to colon cancer.
- Bloating and swelling are due to wheat in the diet, as anyone on this diet will tell you. Once they stop eating wheat, their bloating miraculously cures itself, as do most other intestinal problems such as reflux oesophagitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
- Most people on this diet report a great surge in energy, their mental health improves and they would absolutely never go back onto the diet that Prof Leicester promotes.
Another criticism often levelled at Noakes is that there is no science behind his diet, and he is in effect “experimenting” on the public.
In an emailed response, Noakes says: “How are we experimenting on the public? Every time you put something in your mouth you are performing your own experiment.
“For 50 years we’ve been told to do an experiment (high-carb, low-fat eating) that is killing us. Is it not time to say: perhaps there is a better way. We are saying: if what we say does not work, then maybe there is a reason; maybe there is a better way, for example eating more protein and less dairy produce. How can that ever be wrong?
And in answer to whether there will be changes to his diet in future, Noakes gives the answer he gave to the Sunday Times reporter before publication:
“I am sure there will always be changes, as new knowledge appears (early on in the diet, he removed alcohol from the list, and nary a word was said) But the key – to reduce the carbs – will never change. It’s the key on which the diet is based. Without low carbs, there is no benefit to the eating plan.”
*Follow me on Twitter @MarikaSboros
*Subscribe to my weekly Health Matters newsletter by clicking here
Cyril Ramaphosa: The Audio Biography
Listen to the story of Cyril Ramaphosa's rise to presidential power, narrated by our very own Alec Hogg.