In Depth

Low-carb on trial? Maybe not, but the hearing of Tim Noakes says a lot about the politics of food.

Tim Noakes is something of a low-carb celebrity. In 2014, he published The Real Meal Revolution, a polemical advocacy of the low-carb diet – which Noakes calls “the Banting diet” – that reads more like an empowering self-help guide than a book about food. It begins:

“Understanding that conventional wisdom on nutrition fell flat, you opened your minds, cast aside your preconceptions and began testing the facts for yourselves. By sharing your stories and the lessons in this book you are setting in motion a groundswell movement towards a true revolution in the way we eat.”

Low-fat diets are made to sound more like the matrix than a dietary choice.

carbohydrates tim noakes

Tim Noakes is famous for advocating a low-carb diet.

Tim Noakes accused of professional misconduct

Now Noakes, a researcher with the highest possible rating, is facing a hearing for professional misconduct. It’s not a trial, but it feels like one from the coverage, and the frenzied interest certain parties have in its outcome. It’s been framed as “low-carb on trial,” a hearing to decide which diet is the best once and for all, but the reality is a little bit different. The accusations against Noakes are nothing to do with low-carb; they concern his decision to give dietary advice for an infant to a new mother, without any knowledge of broader medical context. When asked, via Twitter, how the low-carb diet works for a newbor, Noakes replied: “Baby doesn’t eat the dairy and cauliflower. Just very healthy high fat breast milk. Key is to wean baby on LCHF.”

The accusations against Noakes are nothing to do with low-carb; they concern his decision to give dietary advice for an infant to a new mother, without any knowledge of broader medical context

Noakes argues that he was simply trying to avoid encouraging the mother to feed highly-processed breakfast cereals to her child.

“By implication I was saying that the child should not be weaned onto the traditional high-sugar, high-carbohydrate processed cereals.

“Ironically these were the first ‘industrial’ (i.e. highly processed foods) and they led in time to the highly processed foods that we now eat (and consider to be healthy), in part because as infants our taste was conditioned by our early exposure to these non-foods.

“The aim of The Real Meal Revolution is to encourage the public to understand that they will be healthier eating real foods not fake industrial processed foods. And this needs to begin from birth.”

Noakes sees the hearing as an opportunity to publicly advocate the benefits of low-carb.

“I think it could be a turning point in the debate about what our infants, and in turn our adults, should be eating.

“If the representatives of [the Health professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), who have brought the action against Noakes] are prepared to listen to the science, they will realise that there is something very seriously wrong with the teaching of nutrition in South African, as it is in the rest of the world.”

fast food tim noakes

Este Vorster argues that the increased rates of obesity might have nothing to do with high-carb dietary guidelines; it could just as easily be the rise of fast food.

The trial so far

But for those hoping to see low-carb pitted against low-fat in a legal setting, the trial has, after three days, been a disappointment. It’s been largely a legal debate, with witnesses testifying against Noakes being scrutinised for their familiarity with Twitter – or lack thereof – and dismissed for having a lower researcher rating than Noakes. So far, the lawyers have picked at details.

When low-carb has come up, some of the arguments have been weak to say the least. Noakes’ lawyer pointed to evidence that the ancient Egyptians – who, research suggests, ate a high-carb diet – had high rates of heart disease and obesity. As an argument in favour of low-carb, that’s fairly ludicrous – and we say that as low-carb supporters. We simply don’t have enough knowledge of the wider dietary or healthcare context of ancient Egypt for that to be a meaningful argument. All of those arguments were pointed out by Este Vorster, a retired public health professor who was testifying in support of the complaint against Noakes.

More reasonably, Noakes’ lawyer pointed to the huge spike in rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity since the introduction of low-fat, high-carb dietary guidelines in the late ’70s and ’80s.

Vorster identified that there is currently no evidence to suggest that people actually followed the guidelines. Other factors, such as the rise of the fast food industry, could explain the higher rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes

“I can’t agree with that,” Vorster said. She identified that there is currently no evidence to suggest that people actually followed the guidelines. Other factors, such as the rise of the fast food industry, could explain the higher rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Despite Vorster’s rebuttal, there is ample evidence to suggest that a low-carb diet is effective, especially for people with diabetes (particularly type 2 diabetes). Hundreds of studies have reached the same conclusio, coupled with the staggering anecdotal evidence we’ve seen on the Diabetes Forum. That said, we urge anyone interested in following the low-carb diet to speak to their doctor first. Again, it won’t work for everyone.

Diabetes.co.uk fully endorses the low-carb diet – hence the release of the Low Carb Program – but without the us-and-them attitude. Different diets work for different people, we believe, but the low-carb diet should be the first port of call for people with diabetes looking to improve their blood glucose control.

sugar tim noakes

There is still great debate about the role of sugar and carbohydrates in the development of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The hearing of Tim Noakes: what does it have to do with the politics of food?

The hearing, however, has relatively little relevance to low-carb. At least, on the face of it. According to Noakes’ supporters – and they are many – the hearing is an attempt by ultra-powerful multi-national food companies to discredit him, because if everyone properly followed a low-carb diet it would hurt these companies’ profit margins. And that’s where, to anyone interested in the low-carb diet, the real intrigue lies: regardless of the real reason for Noakes’ hearing, the trial has revealed how deeply political dietary advice has become.

Certainly, there’s no shortage of political controversies relating to the food industry. In March 2015, Action on Sugar found that breakfast cereals actually contain more sugar now than they did in 2012, which would support Noakes’ attempts to think of an alternative diet for the child of the mother who tweeted him. Graham McGregor, Chairman of Action on Sugar, blamed the lack of government interventio, saying:

“One of the greatest failures in tackling Britain’s obesity epidemic is the government’s appeasement of the food industry; we cannot allow this to go on any longer. The so-called ‘Responsibility Deal’, which allows the food industry to regulate themselves (likened to ‘Dracula being put in control of the blood bank’), has clearly failed. It’s time for it to be scrapped.”

In February, many commentators were shocked by the extent of financial links between leading researchers and food companies. Professor Susan Jebb, an academic at the University of Oxford, had at that time received £1.3m of funding from sugar companies. Professor Simon Capewell said that he “was shocked, quite honestly; this is heart-breaking news and basically it appears a lot of people have been seriously mislead.” The links between sugar companies and scientists created an “inherent conflict of interest,” he said.

There was overwhelming evidence that sugar was linked to tooth decay, so the sugar industry did everything it could to undermine the findings

The researchers shot back, quite reasonably, and explained that as a result of the trials they had conducted that were funded by sugar companies, they were recommending sugar intake guidelines that were half what the World Health Organisation supported. Regardless, the incident highlighted the uncomfortable tension between food companies and the untainted nature of public health dietary recommendations.

Another recent study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine uncovered the extent to which the sugar industry shaped public health policy in the ’60s and ’70s. There was overwhelming evidence that sugar was linked to tooth decay, so the sugar industry did everything it could to undermine the findings. They funded research into a vaccine against tooth decay – so that people wouldn’t stop consuming sugar – threw money at research into enzymes that break up dental plaque, and made every effort to pick holes in the damning research. When the government eventually composed a plan to stop tooth decay, it was almost identical to the plan that the sugar industry had provided. Why? Because eight out of the 11 members of the government committee were also members of the International Sugar Research Foundation – a foundation funded by the sugar industry.

The history of the relationship between government policy and the food industry is worrying. Perhaps Noakes’ supporters, who suspect that the real reason Noakes is on trial is because of the wishes of “Big Food,” have a point. It suggests that finding out from a scientific viewpoint which diet is the best for health is only half the battle. Dietary advice is about a lot more than food, it seems. It’s about consumerism and greed and the exploitation of people by excessively powerful corporations. It’s a common narrative in the current political climate, and nowhere is it more prevalent than in the food we eat.

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The hearing is, by all accounts, progressing at a snail’s pace. By the sounds of things it’s all a bit of a mess. But there have been some interesting revelations about dietary guidelines, so, in the interest of low-carb, we’ll be keeping up with all the developments in Noakes’ case.

Featured image source: kitchen.net.

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