Rob Opie on Wellness – is Tim Noakes’s ‘Banting’ diet missing a key ingredient?

18 June 2024, Tuesday

If you don’t know what or who’s behind the Tim Noakes (aka Banting) diet, you must have just popped in from another planet.  Noakes, professor of sports science at the University of Cape Town, and an internationally renowned scientist, infuriated doctors, dietitians and academics with his spectacular about turn on carbohydrates for health a few years ago. He says humans don’t need them. He also no longer believes in a cardinal rule of cardiology: that saturated fat causes heart disease. Fans of Noakes and his diet are growing faster than waistlines are shrinking, and science backs him. Still, human brand specialist Rob Opie thinks Noakes may be missing a key ingredient in his diet’s recipe. MS

By Rob Opie*

Years back, when I was studying the University of Cape Town, we enjoyed our annual visits to the Knysna marathon immensely. For most of us, it was just one huge party. We were happy to tuck into a few ice cold beers on the Friday night before the race. For more serious athletes, it was all about carbo-loading and PB (personal best) times. Cape Town sports science Prof Tim Noakes helped to fill pasta and pizza joints, where the “real runners” congregated.  They followed his advice to the letter on carbo-loading.  They regarded his book, The Lore of Running, as law and lore indeed.

Then he did a complete about turn a few years ago, saying  he got it all wrong about carbo-loading. It isn’t just the pasta and pizza restaurants that have been knocked off balance by Prof Noakes’s low-carb, high-fat (LCHF, aka “Banting”) diet. Doctors, dieticians, academics have come streaming out the woodwork to attack him for his views, saying he got everything wrong, and his diet is dangerous.

But has he got everything right second time round? Yes, and no, I say.

After UCT, my career was focused on food, with over two decades invested in feeding South Africans. The one thing we knew for sure was that South Africans – well most of the 53 million of us – were “carbohydrate switchers”, and still are. They switch according to which form of carbohydrate is best value and convenient at the time – to keep stomachs full through long working days – switching from pap, to rice, pasta, potatoes and the convenience of bread. In reality most South Africans therefore can’t afford any specialist low-carb diet that Prof Noakes’s advocates. He has said poor children should eat organ meats rather than pap and bread. That makes sense, since these meats are affordable, and nutritious.

Steak a better bet

But  back to running, where from my own experience, I know that pizza did not improve my running. In fact it got worse. So, I agree with you, Prof Noakes: a steak is always the better bet. Proteins are vital building blocks and saturated fab is fab for body (and mind).

Prof Noakes’s heart has always been in the right place in helping people to do life better, but as a scientist, is he not complicating things again? The  human body has simple, natural ways of telling us what it thrives on, and what it merely survives on. It sends messages all the time when things are not right: from indigestion to bloating, to allergic reactions, to excess weight, to fatigue, right through to life-threatening diseases. That’s just how it works. Our job is to take heed of these messages.

We now live in the most technologically advanced food world mankind has ever known, yet most of us remain steadfastly ignorant of most of the potent universal laws of life and health that govern our daily lives.

Universal law

When it comes to food, the most important universal law is balance. The body works much like a swimming pool – get the ph balance wrong and the pool goes green. In the same way, your body chemistry requires balance, and the food you eat affects that balance. Too much or too little of anything for too long creates an imbalance. That creates the groundwork for any state of “dis-ease” – from minor illness to major  life-threatening “dis-eases” – to develop. The trick is to get the acid /alkaline balance right, so that the body can do its job – and function optimally!        

Luckily for us, the human body is blessed with its own inbuilt sensors that constantly send out messages. Just one example: like most of us, you will at some time have experienced a certain message known as a “babbelas” (hangover).  It’s just your body talking to you as it does all the time, sending you a message that you’ve overdone things, and disturbed its balance. Too much acidity in this case.

If we all listened a little more attentively to what the body tells us daily – what it likes and what it doesn’t like, but most of all what it really needs – we would reap the rewards of improved vitality , called happiness and health. (and maybe a six-pack stomach with a little extra effort!)

So thank you, Prof Noakes for confirming what I always suspected about the benefits of a big, juicy, fat South African steak, and  for helping so many people lose weight, and manage serious medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease along the way.

But for me, diet will always remain a four-letter word, about “eating to live”, rather than “living to eat”. Keep it simple and balanced. And if food is really to be our medicine, and medicine our food, as the ancient Greek Hippocrates advocated, that requires balanced living and eating in the physical, chemical and emotional realms of life and health .


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