“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”
It’s a quote made famous by Warren Buffet, but if anyone knows just how true those words are it would be Tim Noakes. According to his latest book, ‘Lore of Nutrition’, his CV runs 100 pages and is peppered with degrees, awards, research, publications and the not so small breakthroughs he has made towards the science of sport with his Central Governor Model of exercise regulation and waterlogged. It took him nearly six decades to build that CV. And it took one tweet containing 119 characters to destroy it.
In his latest book “Lore of Nutrition”, Tim Noakes along with co-author Marika Sboros spill in excruciating detail, Noakes’ descent into quackery and all but excommunication from the medical and scientific fraternity that once held him a high regard.
It all began in 2010, in what he calls his damascene moment. The moment he discovered the centuries old Banting Diet, declared Carbohydrates as public enemy number one and all but a tiny fraction of the population inherently unhealthy.
What followed was on the positive side, the birth of an entire industry that has seen the word “Banting” mainstreamed, weight lost, health improved and cauliflower becoming a credible replacement for grains.
On the negative was the removal of Noakes’ regular column in the Discovery Health Magazine, funding pulled from his research; and public attacks on his integrity and science by fellow colleagues, doctors and dieticians.
He had, as described in the book, “morphed from a distinguished scientist with a globally acknowledged reputation into a faith-based nutrition activist, ruthlessly advocating an unproven, clearly dangerous ‘fad’.”
It reached its tipping point on 3 February 2014 when a new mom, banting because her husband wanted to, tweeted Noakes and one of the co-authors of the popular book The Real Food Revolution. In a 119-character tweet, Noakes responded ending off with “key is to ween [sic] baby onto LCHF”. That tweet caused uproar from dieticians, specifically Claire Julsing Strydom, who accused Noakes of giving irresponsible advice, unscientifically based. She promptly reported him to the Health Professional Counsel of South Africa, effectively launching the Nutrition Trial of the 21st Century which saw Noakes take on Dietitians, Doctors and huge corporations in a 3-year trial.
I recently sat down with Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros to talk about the Lore of Nutrition, the future of health, social media and of course the Low Carb, High Fat Diet.
The Book: Lore of Nutrition
The book is an interesting and eye-opening read as it takes you behind the scenes of a world first nutrition trial; a diet that has spurred the type of hate and passion you normally only see in politics; and inside the dark underworld of academics, health professionals and the large corporations funding them.
What this book is not, is an easy beach read or a book you’ll consume in an afternoon. At least I didn’t. It’s a dense read, which at times is difficult to get through. Its 383 pages are filled with nutritional research, scientific jargon and legal proceedings.
I saw on Twitter, as one does, reviews of the book which say the Lore of Nutrition reads like a spy thriller or court room drama. To me the book reads as Noakes’ Reputation album. He’s meticulously kept receipts of everything said and done (“no one would have thought I would’ve kept all that stuff for 5 or 6 years”). But unlike Swift, there are no cryptic clues as to identities and events. He clearly lists every person and organisation who turned on him, slandered him and tried to break him. And well, this is Tim Noakes. There will be plenty more explanation, and so there was…
The first thing I wanted to know was why write the book. Both Noakes and Sboros have their own personal, professional and altruistic reasons.
Noakes says there are hundred of reasons he wrote it. For his own sanity, to change the way people think about nutrition, secure his scientific legacy which was all but destroyed, thank those who supported him, tell the public what had happened and “to lay down the future of where we think the future of science is going”.
When asked who he’d want to read the book, he said medical students before going into medicine, so they know what they’re up against. It was also written for academics, doctors, endocrinologists, physiologists, cardiologists, anyone who is treating patients, – and according to Noakes, giving the wrong dietary advice. But that doesn’t exclude the lay person who has an interest in health and nutrition.
“We wrote it for the world as well, because this is a unique event in the history of medicine, so we had to recall that as well.”
As for what Noakes hopes someone takes out of the book, it’s “that we have been completely brainwashed and that you have got to watch out for that brainwashing because it’s becoming more and more prevalent”.
For Sboros, who had followed and reported on the entire trial, writing the book was a journalist dream come true. It had all the makings of a brilliant story – intrigue, deception, sophistry and dodgy dealings bordering on criminality. Furthermore, Sboros a journalist on this case since day one had tried to reach out to the other side. Only to have every door slammed in her face, adding fuel to her horrid fascination of doctors, dieticians and academics all ganging up on one person and supressing evidence. To Sboros it is a human-interest story.
Sboros has made no secret as to her loyalty to Noakes. She’s been interviewing him and follows a LCHF lifestyle. I asked her how she reconciled that bias with trying to stay neutral and fair as a journalist. Sboros says that there is a difference between neutrality and good journalism.
“I don’t think that anybody should stay neutral in the face of injustice. I think that there is a moral imperative here. As a journalist it’s your duty to do proper research to be fair and balanced. To be objective is a myth because we all come with our backgrounds and socialisation. Silence serves oppressors; it doesn’t serve people who are victims who are being oppressed and facing injustice.”
As for her stand impacting her career, she’s an independent journalist and sees how the internet has completely changed the nature of journalism. For Sboros the fallout can only be positive.
The Diet: Low-Carb, High Fat
Tim Noakes defines the Low-Carb, High Fat Diet by the amount of carbs consumed per day – between 25 grams and 200 grams.
“Once you cut the carbs, the fat will be the dominate source and protein you eat to balance…If you just eat to satiation, your body will tell you when it needs protein and when it needs fat. It turns out to be 70% fat, 5-10% carbs and the balance protein.”
The key he says to the banting lifestyle is getting your fat intake up to 70% and cutting carbs to under 200g per day. It is not, he emphasized a high protein diet.
What has always stood out to me about the LCHF diet, and a theme I noticed throughout the book, was the constant association between LCHF and Type 2 Diabetes and Obesity. It’s what most of the research revolves around, what Noakes brings up time and time again. It’s a diet, touted as being able to reverse the symptoms of diabetes and solve the obesity epidemic. But, what about those of us who are not diabetic, not obese, not Insulin Resistant and not presenting with any food or health issues. What then is the real benefit of a LCHF diet?
After informing me that those people are unique, an approximate meagre 5% of people and that people don’t understand how few people are healthy, Noakes went on to explain the science of the diet.
“The biology is very important, and this is what people don’t get. Every time you eat carbohydrates you secrete insulin and that makes you insulin resistant. If you eat carbohydrates all your life you will become insulin resistant. The speed at which you do depends on your genes. If you’re like me, you’ve got a family history it happens quickly, some people it occurs [as young as] two. That’s the problem. Everyday you’re slightly less well, if you eat a high carb diet… I’m 68, if I had known at your age what I know now I would be much healthier at 68 because I wouldn’t eat the carbs. That’s the problem, you can get away with it for 10-15 years but then it catches up to you and it’s too late”.
However, all humans are not the same. We are not all predisposed to the same diseases and have the same health destinies. In Lore of Nutrition, Sboros writes how Noakes and other LCHF don’t claim it is a one size fits all approach, and yet reading the book and speaking to Noakes it becomes clear that to him, LCHF is the only diet to be on, based on logic “if you’re insulin resistant you have to eat low carbohydrate and most of us become insulin resistant at some point in our lives so that’s why I think it so important [to be on a LCHF diet]”.
It’s at this point, he turns the discussion to “Real Foods”, stating “if you eat real foods you will be LCHF. That’s the first thing everyone should be on – a real food diet”. He defines real foods as “something that was alive until recently. That doesn’t come from any factory”.
But one can argue this definition includes any plants, fruits and vegetables. Negating the fruit, of which he has made it clear he is no fan of, he said vegetables are not excluded and it is possible to be a vegetarian on a banting diet but “we don’t promote vegetarianism because it’s a very difficult diet and it’s highly processed. Most vegetarian diets are incredibly processed. And they’re full of sugar – where do you get the taste – sugar…”
One thing they do not promote and which he’s vehemently against is wholegrains.
“You cannot digest wholegrains because if you eat a real wholegrain it’s designed not to be digested by humans. There is no such thing as a wholegrain that I know of. And cereals and grains are a cause of major issues in the gut which is another reason why we don’t promote them”.
“It’s important that people are mindful and aware of what they’re eating.”
In the book, he says, that as a scientist his goal is to bring information to people and they can draw the conclusions they want. It’s what he’s been doing for decades and will no doubt continue to do. Is there no right or wrong answer, just decisions made from the information we know? Does he not think LCHF is the be all and end all?
“Yes, absolutely. Let’s say you picked up a scientific paper and it said that the majority of people [who] picked up a LCHF diet benefited from it – that still doesn’t tell you that you’re going to benefit from it. You can only find out by yourself.”
At a recent conference an athlete came up to Noakes to ask him if carbohydrates may work better than fats on a 20km time trial, even though he found fats were better for longer distances like 100km. And so, they tested him and discovered that he performed better with carbs at 20km, but worse at 100km.
“There’s no way he could have ever known that unless he tested himself and that’s the point. That’s what science is there for – to give you the information and then you must use it.”
But, says Noakes, “you’re not getting all the facts. You’re only getting facts that industry wants you to have.” This comes down to what Marika had mentioned earlier in the conversation “It’s important that people are mindful and aware of what they’re eating.”
Social Media: How it’s starting a Health Revolution
In the age of social media, everyone is an expert and everyone dishes out advice. Few, if any, are getting sued for it. What made the HPCSA sue Noakes over a tweet? Was it his reputation as a scientist or the dogmas surrounding carbohydrates and heart disease he was determined to change?
According to Noakes, there is a global attempt to shut up everyone like himself.
“They are petrified of social media because social media brings out what we call ‘the wisdom of the crowds’. You soon discover what works and that’s frightening for them. If you look at South Africa three years ago, no one knew what banting was. Today we know there are millions of people eating banting, and that’s a huge threat. Another problem is that it spreads organically because people see that you ‘re looking so much healthier and want to follow the way you do it. It just happens that I was targeted because I was a good scientist and was very well known. Unfortunately, I came up with the wrong advice, so they had to take me down. Who’s driving it and why the Health Professional council got involved tells you that there’s something else even above the Health Professional Council that’s trying to shut us up”.
To Noakes Twitter is an incredible method for disseminating information and he sees social media changing the health industry for the better.
“It can’t be negative – For the reason that the stuff that works goes to the top and if it doesn’t work, it goes to the bottom. There’s no place to hide on social media.” And he should know, he gets attacked on an hourly basis from the scores of people who believe he and the LCHF diet he advocates for, are at best nonsense and at worse irresponsible and dangerous.
“We are being tested every hour and if we say something stupid were going to be exposed and so there is absolutely no place to hide.”
The Future of Health
With the rise of social media and the internet, we have more access to information and experts than ever before. More and more people are starting to question traditional medical advice and looking at what they eat and their lifestyles to heal their bodies.
It’s no longer a pill we want to help us get healthy, it’s a superfood. I asked Tim Noakes if he saw a future of health where Eastern and Western medical principles could be applied together. Where doctors would not only care to prescribe a pill, but to assess the foods we’re eating – to prevent and not always just treat.
In true Noakes fashion, he took me on a historical trip to 1910 when you had homeopaths, chiropractors, naturopaths and doctors all practising and getting along just fine. That was until US oil producers Rockefeller and Carnegie decided that they wanted to monopolise medicine so the pharmaceutical drugs that came from their products – OIL would dominate. They decided that the German model of medicine was the way to go, which is pharmaceutically based, and science driven. A method where you need to test everything and measure it and if you can’t measure it doesn’t exist.
the patient will decide the future of medicine, because they will support those people who are doing what works
All medical schools in the USA are based on that model which is the pharmaceutical model of disease. He says it has hit a wall because most of the medicines we use don’t work. “Treating a diabetic with medication doesn’t work because it’s a nutritional disease. What’s happening is that patients are realising that and won’t go back to the doctor”. He sees medicine splitting – we’ll continue to have pharmacological medicine in the public sector because those doctors are not answerable to the patient. But in private practice where there’s a direct relationship, it’s going to move away from purely pharmacological medicine. If you provide stuff that doesn’t work you’re going to lose your patients.
In the end, “the patient will decide the future of medicine, because they will support those people who are doing what works and it doesn’t matter what that is…and this book is going to make it happen quicker.”
As for the emergence of superfoods, medicinal herbs and ancient food becoming mainstream, Noakes is not against them although he won’t advocate for them.
“As a scientist you have to say where is the scientific evidence – which they haven’t got and they can’t ever get because it’s too difficult to do those trials. [So] you have to [look at] the next level – where did the idea come from. I can say that the idea you should eat a High Fat diet comes from the Mosai and goes many years back. So, if you can show me a population that is healthy eating that food then I would have to say that seems to be a good idea. I think particularly with cancer – that’s the next big one. A lot of these products are being used in cancer patients with benefit. I would want to know why that is. I wouldn’t exclude it, but I wouldn’t yet promote it. Except, when a patient has cancer – you should be able answer those questions very early with patients that have cancer. The books I’m reading now on cancer. – a lot of things work with cancer and they’re exactly what you’re talking about [adaptogens and superfoods].”
If you can show me a population that is healthy eating that food then I would have to say that seems to be a good idea.
Personally, Noakes is more into Vitamins than superfoods, specifically high fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin D and Vitamin K2.
Extremisms: A balancing act
People have often referred to Noakes as an extremist, and not in a positive way. They say he has swung too far from one side of the pendulum (carbo-loading) to the other (carbo-cutting).
When asked, he fully owned up to being extreme and the personal reason he’s so passionate about LCHF.
“I am an extremist in my own pursuit for health. I haven’t had a sweet for 6/7 years and that’s why I’m lean. I wouldn’t be lean otherwise. People think you’re lean because you run a lot. It’s not. I’m lean because I don’t eat the rubbish, I don’t eat the sugar. But I must be an extremist now because I understand what’s going to save my life. I watched my father die from Type 2 Diabetes and that’s a big influence on my life. Because that’s the worse disease. He [was] an astonishing powerful man with a fabulous brain reduced to absolutely nothing. He was just a shell in his bed when died. He couldn’t turn himself, he had to have 24/7 nursing. That should never be allowed to happen. And I was party to it because I should have known [that was] not the right way you treat diabetes. For me not do something about it would be criminal. Not to voice what I have voiced, it would be criminal not to do it.”
Sboros doesn’t view Noakes as being extreme but rather “extremely devoted to health and eating real food”. To her, stuffing yourself with cakes, cookies and processed foods is the extreme diet because of the effects it can have on your health.
For me not do something about it would be criminal. Not to voice what I have voiced, it would be criminal not to do it.
Later, I asked Noakes what balance meant to him. He chuckled, as he often did throughout the interview when talking about the people and organisations out to get him and anything he didn’t quite agree on. He then replied, “all I know is that since I’ve been doing crossfit my balance has improved dramatically. I can now stand on one leg which I couldn’t do beforehand.”
The Lore of Nutrition, published by Peguin Randomhouse is available at various retailers and bookstores nationwide.
This article is based the book – Lore of Nutrition and an interview with Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros. Some answers have been condensed for clarity