‘Principle over profit’ – The Noakes Foundation COO Jayne Bullen on overcoming dietary disease, the greatest obstacle to human health

The organic improvement of human health as a priority has been sidelined, with the predominant focus having shifted to, more often than not, medical interventions that treat symptoms but not core issues. However, there are still a handful of organisations working tirelessly to shift the paradigm around human health. BizNews spoke to Jayne Bullen, the COO of The Noakes Foundation, MD of the Nutrition Network and Co-Founder of Eat Better South Africa – three organisations aiming to fix the future outlook of human health, by changing the way people eat and the food policies to enable this. Bullen’s genuine belief in the work that these organisations are doing was a breath of fresh air and a real sign of hope that the obstacle of dietary disease facing both national and international populations can be overcome. – Nadya Swart

Excerpts from the interview with Jayne Bullen

Jayne Bullen on what sparked her passion for human health care

It’s a combination of things. The first was that I lost my childhood nanny that I loved dearly, very young. She was young. She was morbidly obese, and she was ill. And she dropped dead of a heart attack. I think she was in her very early fifties. And, as South Africans, we know that she was like my second mama. I absolutely loved her and she had a huge influence on my life. And her untimely death sparked that question in my mind, which is: “Why are so many particularly women in our country unwell and dying early of diseases that didn’t seem to exist before?” So it’s always been on my mind. 

And then when I was 21, I was diagnosed as pre-diabetic and have been on a long health journey myself with the journey of so many. Obviously, I’ve learned now over these years that it’s such a universal problem that we’re all facing, which is that I was eating the wrong foods for a very long time and doing all the right things and exercising and eating what was perceived to be healthy foods and getting worse. So my metabolic disease worsened over those years significantly, until the point where I had to make a dramatic change in my life in terms of the way that I was eating and go against convention to find some of the answers. 

So, it was a combination of those things that really got me really excited about the work and the potential that this work has to help improve the health of our country and South Africa and more and more internationally because we’re all fighting the same battles. 

On The Noakes Foundation and the journey to fix the crisis in the underserved, poorer communities in South Africa

The Noakes Foundation was founded by Professor Tim Noakes, obviously, and his amazing family. And it was very much his journey. So, he lost his father to diabetes way too young. And he had a very, very personal cause behind trying to understand the answers of why his father was so sick, and there was very little that he could do, anyone could do to help him. And then he got diagnosed at the exact age that his father was. And he then went on this journey where he defied convention, rebelled and fully reversed his diabetes. And in the process, incidentally, having actually retired, made some money and decided to put it into this Foundation as the seed capital for the Foundation. 

So, that was where we started. We started at The Real Meal Revolution in South Africa when there was this kind of revolution of ideologies and the way people were eating. And we grew from there. That was where we began. And then very, very quickly, we did a pilot study on a group in Ocean View, which is an underserved community outside of Cape Town for those of you that aren’t South African and don’t know it. And that was really a couple of us that came together and decided that we had to do something to fix the crisis in the underserved or poorer communities in South Africa. 

And we all know it. We all see it. We see people walking on the roads that aren’t… It’s illogical that they are the size and the health that they are. And we knew something had to be done and it was obvious that state health care wasn’t tackling this. I think that’s the problem that we face; that it’s not being tackled or addressed at a kind of policy level quickly enough to save the lives, the decades of lives that we’re losing now. So, we wanted to do something innovative and quick and it worked. That was where we created Ear Better South Africa from. 

On the greatest obstacle facing the improvement of human health

Dietary disease. I’m going to say it’s dietary disease and lifestyle disease. So, chronic disease or NCDs is taking over most of the other things that we previously considered life threatening conditions. It’s taken over AIDS and HIV by far in South Africa. Diabetes is one of our number one killers. If you bundle them together, so if we put hypertension, diabetes and cancer into the same category, because our understanding of the physiology of these diseases is that they are driven by dietary and lifestyle conditions, it’s outright the number one killer in the world. 

And the tragedy of this is that we actually just need to eat slightly differently and do things slightly differently to be well. Our food is poisoning us and our food is meant to be our medicine. So we’ve got a lot of work to do in that area, but the solutions are incredibly simple. Ultimately. 

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