In a tumultuous month of South Africa political protest, NH21 Weekly noticed that one story had passed by surprisingly quietly considering the magnitude of its potential ramifications within the public health sector.
Prof. Tim Noakes, emeritus professor in the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town, and founder of the Tim Noakes Foundation, was found not guilty of unprofessional conduct, in a trial originating from a complaint made by Johannesburg dietitian Claire Julsing Strydom.
The charge; that he had given unconventional medical advice during a public tweet forum, in which a new mother had asked whether a low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF/Banting) diet was suitable for breastfeeding mums; to which the Prof replied that the baby needs only breastmilk until being weened onto LCHF.
This issue it seems (for those who do not follow diet and nutrition news as closely as this natural health practitioner) is that such advice is counter to the commonly accepted dogma that dietary fat is the causa primaria of wide array of cardiovascular pathologies; and that our best hope for a long and fruit-full (pun intended) life, is adopting a low-fat diet.
In 2013 Prof. Noakes was part of the team behind the highly popular book ‘The Real Meal Revolution’ that championed the cause of LCHF eating, and the belief that saturated animal fats are the primary food requirement of Homo sapiens; further contending that a vegetarian diet is “a very unsuccessful way of attempting to lose weight while building muscle and attaining excellent health.” (1)
The book contains a ‘red’ list of foods to avoid that includes rice, oats and even parsnips; on the basis that all sugars, and especially starches, are the cause of insulin resistance, leading to pancreatic failure, obesity, and the beginnings of heart failure.
He may have a point, at least in part. Globally, 415 million people have diabetes. The International Diabetes Federation predicts this number to rise to 642 million by 2040. It is estimated that one out of every three people born today will become a diabetic, and that half of all Americans will be diabetic by 2050. (2)
This despite the majority of the developed world adhering to the low-fat dietary advice endorsed by government health policy makers worldwide. As Tim and his peers are at pains to question; if the dietary recommendations of the international heart foundations are correct, why are these figures rising so consistently?
Convenience foods and ready-made meals have undergone several steps of nutrient depletion in their manufacture, transportation and storage; meaning that the nutrient quantity when put on the table is far less than it would have been if prepared from raw materials in the home.
One ‘problem’ is many people find that saturated fats taste good. Fried foods are extremely popular; but if too much fat is eaten, and the energy it contains is not used up in exercise, it can lead to furred up arteries and obesity.
Yet so too can excess sugar. When food manufacturers try to reduce the fat content of foods by producing low-fat versions, people don’t tend to find them as appealing. The flavour is then ‘improved’ by adding sugar; meaning that many low fat foods have the same or more calories as the full fat versions.
Nutrition looks at food in relation to the physiological processes that depend upon its absorption by the body; such as growth, energy production and repair of body tissues. Proper nutrition is essential for good health.
The body requires various nutrients and sufficient energy to function optimally. These two components are found in the foods we eat and liquids we drink; however, the quality of these nutrients can vary greatly.
Human ‘energy’ describes the ability to move and function. It is made possible by the metabolism of nutrients from food. Before they can be used, foods have to be broken down and assimilated, which occurs when food molecules enter the cells and undergo chemical changes there.
Energy requirements vary between individuals, yet in general must always balance the amount of energy needed to maintain life, with daily levels of energy expenditure, in order to sustain body weight, composition and overall health.
There is no single diet that meets the needs of every person in society; individual needs vary throughout the seasons and are dependent on factors such as physical activity, plus mental and emotional wellbeing. Every individual is different. Nutrient requirements are influenced by age, gender, body size and physique, exercise, work load, physiological and biochemical characteristics, personal tastes and preferences etc.
A food ‘group’ is a classification of various foods based on the nutritional properties of each type, and their principal effects on the body. Eating a certain amount from each group, and not exclusively avoiding any one, is recommended by most dietary guidelines in order to maintain a state of health; which unfortunately makes both the low-fat and low-carb diets fundamentally flawed.
The three basic groups are foods that provide energy, those of building and repair, and those that are protective and antioxidant. The components of food are divided up into the following categories;
Water, carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.
The manner in which each person allocates these components in their diet depends greatly upon lifestyle factors including exercise and activity levels, and what they are hoping to achieve with their health. If the body does not receive the proper nutrients from food, normal physiological functions are impaired. But by choosing the healthiest forms of each nutrient, and eating them in the proper balance, the body is able to function at an optimal level.
Dietary fat is, like all nutrients, essential to human physiology and function. Fat is the principle form in which the body stores energy. It also serves as insulation beneath the skin and around certain organs.
Fat is necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) from the intestine, and to provide essential fatty acids; a group of unsaturated fatty acids that are required for normal growth but which cannot be synthesized by the body. These belong to the groups Omega-3 and Omega-6 which include linoleic and linolenic acids. Essential fatty acids are components of cell membranes and help to regulate inflammation within the body.
Furthermore, as Noakes was attempting to explain to the tweeting mother, during infancy fat is necessary for normal brain development. The myelin sheath of a nerve cell, for example, is a fatty substance that protects the delicate axons and increases the speed at which electrical impulses travel along nerve fibers.
A QUESTION of BALANCE
Humans require a broad range of foods from a variety of different sources. Multiple factors affect this; not least modern socio-economic dynamics including the availability and affordability of food. Also, despite our common genus, humans have many unique wants and needs; making dietary advice virtually impossible to mass prescribe.
The key is to manage and gratify the appetite, whilst determining how, when and what to reduce. Learning that less can be more, and how to eat everything in moderation is crucial. To understand what works best for each individual requires that we cultivate our innate intuition; a process supported not by dietary prescriptions, so much as templates.
Individually tailored eating plans must be based on a combination of sound nutritional principles and personal discernment of the physical, mental and emotional feeling of the food in the belly. In doing so, no food need be off-limits, yet no food can have an emotional hold over us either.
In the words of Albert Einstein;
“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
Many people are now championing Prof. Noakes for his stand against the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), whom it just so happens receive annual funding from non-other than Huletts Sugar (“making every day sweeter”), Nestle and Unilever; each among the world’s largest producers of health-destroying convenience foods.
Prof. Noakes low-sugar message is bad for their business and surely the real reason for his ‘trial’. That he was not sentenced for sharing the results of his research with the public, is of fundamental importance to free speech and civil liberty. We cannot allow the work of respected academics to be censored for going against the putative ‘norms’; and anybody working in the field of dietary education owes him gratitude for standing in the dock on our behalf.
What is not being mentioned however, is his previous scientific acuity that we should, in fact, eat plenty of carbs; as was the basis of his other best-selling publication ‘The Lore of Running’ – a book he now admits was inaccurate yet remains this day endorsed as “the bible of sport” by his very own foundation! (3)
Like many a zealot before him, Noakes has swung wildly to both ends of the spectrum; completely bypassing the ‘middle-ground’ and making monsters out of naturally occurring whole foods; almost all of which can form part of a well-rounded, seasonally variable, whole foods diet that promotes health and wellbeing.
The problem is not whether we should, or should not, be eating fat; but that the foods we eat have changed more during the past 100 years than in the previous 10,000; much of which has not been for the better. During this period, the food manufacture and supply system has shifted away from fresh, seasonal ingredients; to the highly processed, synthetically manufactured pseudo-foods that fill the shelves of modern supermarkets.
Nutrition can be a controversial subject. Many people who become interested in nutrition find themselves prey to two silent fears; fear of eating and fear of not eating. Yet by focusing predominantly on plants, with the addition of high quality whole foods from all the major groups, one cannot go too far off course; and may well notice sooner if they do.
Re-learning to cook simple meals at home, so as to see exactly what is being put into the body, can be a valuable first step towards regaining health and discerning the types of foods that serve each person best.
One wonders if the millions of Rand’s wasted attempting to silence science might weigh heavily on the mind of Claire Pulsing Strydom, now that her ridiculous and unwarrented complaint has come to naught.
Yet perhaps we might have averted the entire episode, if instead of arguing the nuance of convoluted science, we leant more on the side of sheer logic to determine how best to eat in this modern age of globalized food manufacture. On that point, none have consolidated the literature so effectively as author Michael Pollan, who famously scribed the following;
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (4)
- The Real Meal Revolution, 2013, Quivertree Publications
- In Defence of Food, 2008, Penguin Press