South Africa's guru for benefits of saturated fat faces hearing

Butter! Cream! Meat! (And don’t forget to eat the fat!) Roast chicken! (Skin on please!) Duck fat! And burgers with bacon strips on almond flour buns, dripping with thick slices of melted cheese, are also on the menu.

With this tempting mantra, South African diet guru and self-proclaimed maverick Tim Noakes believes he can save the world. But not if his detractors can help it.

Noakes, South Africa’s answer to the controversial inventor of the Atkins diet, Robert Atkins, has been hauled before the Health Professions Council of South Africa on a charge of professional misconduct for tweeting advice to a nursing mother to wean her baby onto a low-carb, high-fat (or LCHF) diet, avoiding infant cereal.

Noakes, a sports and exercise scientist, developed the “Banting” diet in South Africa. His eat-all-you-like list of saturated fats flips the guidelines laid down by the top U.S. nutritional panel, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which recommends limits on saturated fats -- less than 10% of daily calories.

In the Banting world, pasta, bread, potatoes, rice, croissants, pastries, most cakes, soya and oils made of seeds – anything containing refined carbs and sugars - are poisons to be eschewed at all costs. Small helpings of fruit and a teaspoon a day of honey are permitted. And saturated fats are king.

Noakes’ organization calls the council session, which began Monday and is expected to last a week, “the most significant medical hearing in history.”

Claiming the LCHF approach outperforms the standard diet in correcting “all coronary risk factors,” Noakes is a prolific and controversial tweeter in support of his views. In 2013, he urged followers to ignore the advice of a British dietitian, Catherine Collins, whose views differed with his, because she was “obese.”

“Will believe her when she loses wt,” Noakes tweeted.

The Banting diet is named after a short, portly 29th century British undertaker, William Banting. He grew to a prodigious 202 pounds, unable to even tie his shoes, thanks to his love of beer, bread, sugar, potatoes and butter. He was miserable, taunted in public, compelled to go downstairs backward because of his painful knees and ankles, puffing and blowing with the slightest exertion, his body pocked with boils and carbuncles.

Banting’s 1863 “Letter on Corpulence, addressed to the public,” proclaimed the “miraculous” diet recommended by a doctor, banning all things that he loved, but prescribing instead meat, fish, poultry, wine, grog, black tea and an occasional biscuit. He lost 35 pounds in 38 weeks and became so famous that the word “bant” entered the English language of the day, meaning “to diet.”

Like most would-be revolutionaries, Noakes is a divisive figure. His legions of supporters follow the celebrity with almost cult-like zeal. South African supermarket shelves are crowded with Banting-friendly cauliflower wraps, cauliflower “rice” and almond flour bread. 

But his opponents – much of the medical and nutritional establishment – see him as a false prophet leading his followers potentially to diseased arteries and heart attacks.

Noakes has long been regarded with a baleful eye by South African dietitians, but the February 2014 tweet to Pippa Leenstra, the nursing mother, was “the last straw,” according to Claire Strydom, then president of the Assn. for Dietetics in South Africa. She filed a complaint with the Health Professions Council of South Africa that Noakes had behaved unprofessionally by offering online dietary advice for an infant he knew nothing about.

Strydom told the hearing Tuesday that the association had contacted Noakes in the months before his tweet, pleading with him not to offer advice on social media about infant diets, but he ignored them.

In the U.S., dietary guidelines are recommended only for children over 2. But Noakes told South African media at the hearing he had no regrets about the tweet because “what I said is correct.”

Noakes’ supporters see the hearing as a witch trial, shrouded by dark conspiracies. They contend that Big Food -- the food processing, sugar and grains industries -- is lurking in the background, pushing killer foods onto the global population and resisting the truth of the LCHF diet. They see dietitians as Big Food’s “proxies” and skeptical scientists as old fogies.

Noakes’ followers have turned up to his hearing in Cape Town wearing revolutionary red T-shirts (the color of his book cover) and posed for selfies with him. On Twitter, they have posted photos of a looped ribbon reminiscent of those worn to create awareness about HIV or breast cancer – except theirs is made of bacon.

Noakes told journalists Monday that he had been “waiting for this case for years. I finally get the chance to present the evidence. I am not invited to present the evidence to the South African community. I don't get invited to talk at conferences on this topic.”

His lawyers told the panel they had not found any South African experts willing to testify in Noakes’ favor, so the panel agreed that experts from Canada and New Zealand will be allowed to present testimony via video.

Noakes and his legal team appear to be using the hearing to discuss the Banting diet, not just the tweet Noakes was charged over. They presented 4,000 pages of research to the hearing.

Este Vorster, a nutrition expert asked by the health professions council to testify at the hearing, said Noakes had acted unprofessionally in dispensing advice to a baby's mother on Twitter, according to local media. She said he was not qualified to advise and should have arranged for a professional assessment by a registered dietitian.

Under tough cross examination from Noakes' lawyer, Ravin Ramdass, Vorster admitted Wednesday that she was not a dietitian and hadn't studied the LCHF diet. 

Noakes has published a study in the South African Medical Journal in which 127 people self-reported on the benefits of his diet.

His critics include University of Cape Town academic Jacques Rousseau, who lectures in critical thinking and ethics. He calls Noakes a “celebrity scientist” and accuses him of “sloppy thinking” and of abandoning the domain of rigorous scientific methodology, steady reasoning and hard evidence for hyperbole and anecdotes in order to prove his LCHF theory.

“Noakes is encouraging incompetent and pseudoscientific thinking on matters of science, and encouraging a cultish adherence to a model that hasn’t yet been scrutinized in full, and for which we have no long-term data," Rousseau argued in a blog. "This is irresponsible, and an abrogation of his responsibility as a scientist and an educator.”

He argues the hearing is "a huge waste of time and money, and will serve only as a PR opportunity for Noakes."

The hearing continues Thursday.

Follow @robyndixon_LAT on Twitter for news out of Africa.

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