Eating fat is good for you. That's the extraordinary claim by South African health and exercise guru Tim Noakes, who has snatched headlines with his controversial new diet plan – high fats, moderate protein and next to no carbohydrates, ideally none.
Speaking at an Extraordinary South Africans event in Johannesburg in late January, Noakes, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town, explained to an engrossed and crowded room why a plate of bacon and eggs may be good for you.
The Extraordinary South Africans series of talks at Gallagher Convention Centre gives a platform to South Africans who are not afraid to confront lazy thinking. An author, serial runner and globally respected researcher, Noakes fits the bill: he's in the middle of a global challenge to dietary convention, and doesn't shy away from a rumpus.
Noakes is a world-class scientist, so his assertion that there is "no evidence that a low-fat diet is healthy" has caused an outcry. The evidence, he said, is that fat is good and carbohydrates bad – contrary to what massive food corporations tell us. Carbohydrates are profitable, he said, but big industry shouldn't determine what people eat.
"It has taken me 61 years to suspect that bread and cereals – the biblical staff of life – as well as rice, pasta and refined carbohydrates may not be healthy for me personally as I had always believed."
Noakes claims that fat is a US government-endorsed scapegoat for obesity. "It was made up initially by a couple of scientists, and then the US Senate got behind it. They produced the US Dietary Guidelines and said fat was bad, and that you should eat more carbohydrates. Industry got behind it because you can make more money selling carbohydrates. From that moment, Americans became more obese."
Over his long career Noakes – particularly in his classic runners' bible The Lore of Running – always recommended loading up on carbohydrates to improve sporting performance. Only in the last few years has he made a U-turn, concluding that carbohydrates are in fact the cause of diet-related illnesses such as obesity and type-two diabetes.
At his talk, Noakes apologised, putting up his hands to say: "I'm sorry for telling you all those years ago that carbohydrates were the way to go: bulk up the diet with those and this creates healthy bodies." Recently, the Harvard school of public health released a statement admitting they, too, were wrong about carbs.
Noakes has backed up his views with a sumptuous book of recipes for unorthodox meals, The Real Meal Revolution, co-authored with Nutritional Therapist Sally-Ann Creed and "chef-athletes" Jonno Proudfoot and David Grier.
With the tagline "Changing the world one meal at a time", the book implodes conventional beliefs about weight loss, heart health, obesity and cholesterol. It is full of fat and protein – beef steak with horseradish crème fraiche, for example, or bacon fat cherry tomatoes with bocconcini cheese – but also lots of vegetables and nuts.
Noakes is no maverick outsider easily ignored. He holds a Doctorate in Science, the highest degree the University of Cape Town can award, and is globally recognised as a leading sports science expert. With cold-water swimmer Lewis Pugh as his subject, he has conducted ground-breaking research in the Arctic and Antarctic on how the human body adapts to extreme temperatures, and has authored numerous well-regarded books on exercise and health.
Fat, Noakes says, is the body's preferred fuel. People don't need carbohydrates for energy. In the introduction to The Real Meal Revolution, Noakes and his co-authors insist that their revolution is not some "newfangled diet involving bizarre strategies and supplements".
"Rather..." they say, "...it's a return to your dietary roots, bringing you back to the way humans are meant to eat and returning your body and mind back to the trim, happy, energised state our ancestors experienced thousands of years ago. They didn't get fat or suffer from obesity, diabetes or other lifestyle illnesses."
Noakes himself is diabetic, and so has to cut carbohydrate consumption down to 25 grams a day. If he doesn't, his insulin levels become unstable and he puts on body fat.
"Metabolic syndrome, diabetes and insulin resistance are all agitated and brought on by the consumption of carbohydrates, and can be controlled – and in some cases reversed – by reducing the consumption of carbohydrates," he said.
Three years ago Noakes had an epiphany. He realised his diet was killing him and vowed to do something about it.
"I submitted myself to an experiment of rigorously avoiding all bread, cereals, rice, pasta and refined carbohydrates and replacing that nutritional deficit with healthy meats, fish, fruit, vegetables and fats, including nuts. Five months later, I was at my lightest weight in 20 years and running faster than I had in 20 years."
Noakes said there are four absolutes of diet:
"It's the European paradox: high fat equals low heart disease," Noakes said. "Carbohydrate requirements are zero grams per day, but you can't cut out fat and protein. We don't understand health and, unfortunately, the population have been made obese and ill due to incorrect facts. There is no evidence that a low-fat diet is healthy."
by Melissa Jane Cook