The Noakes cult

Written by Brent on November 30th, 2014
Prof Tim Noakes speaking at the event

Prof Tim Noakes speaking at the event


In September I attended a private trade event hosted by PR-Net and Original Eating at which Professor Tim Noakes was apparently going to brief journalists on the latest research underpinning his LCHF (low carb, high fat) diet.

There is no doubt that the “Banting” diet works and it has taken the country by storm, but there is a big step between seeing it work and believing why it works. I arrived sceptical of the science behind it and, after listening to Noakes, I left even less convinced. He played too fast and loose with facts and peppered his talk with personal anecdotes.

For starters, there are all my skinny vegan friends whose diets are over 80% carbohydrates. Then there are all the people I know who shed 10kg simply by cutting out booze.

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I could see why Noakes has been so successful, as he spoke off the cuff in the middle of a circle of food company reps marketing LCHF product lines. The fact that Noakes used to promote a high-carbohydrate diet and was as convinced of the science behind that as he is of its opposite today, ironically only strengthens his message in the fruitcake world of diets.

The Noakes narrative has all the elements needed for a quasi-religious story. First, he lived in misguided ignorance. Then he had a Damascus road experience while out jogging. He actually used the words “it was like I was reborn”. There are none so convincing as the repentant. As a true believer, he must share the good news: you can eat fat. Positioning his diet as a social revolution rather than an eating plan, he believes we can all help to redeem mankind.

Noakes even invokes an idyllic, innocent, long-lost paradise when our ancestors ate hippo fat. At 65, a veteran of 70 marathons, saviour Noakes is living proof of his convictions — successful, apparently healthy and brimming with good feeling. And, as with any religious story, we need evil forces to fight, in this case a conspiracy between the devilish medical profession and giant global food corporations. Finally, we are facing an apocalypse thanks to diabetes; only revelations can save us.

To complete his message, Noakes singles out an individual in our midst for us to applaud, someone who has miraculously lost a lot of weight after years of struggling to little effect on the treadmill.

All Noakes needs now is an element of martyrdom and persecution, something I’m happy to provide.  Setting the pseudoscience aside, the consequences for the planet if populations in their billions went off rice and pursued Noakes’s protein-rich, high animal fat diet would be catastrophic.

It flies in the face of everything we know about greenhouse gases, water scarcity and environmental pollution, not to mention growing concerns about biological hazards and an emerging consensus on ethical issues attached to ever greater industrial meat production.

Under the guise of a specific health issue — the diabetes pandemic — all Noakes has really done is reinvent the Atkins diet (officially called the Atkins nutritional approach, first written about by Robert Atkins in 1972 and since refined several times) with a recipe book for the chattering classes who are struggling with their weight because of their overconsumption.

It is also foolish hubris on his part to want to extend his dietary experiments to farmworkers and their children. Then again, doing “good works” among the poor is essential to sustain and grow believers.

The phenomenal success of Noakes and his The Real Meal Revolution has already made itself felt on the restaurant scene in Cape Town, which is probably where his diet belongs.

Diners used to be indignant if there wasn’t the obligatory basket of free bread on the table when the drinks came. Nowadays, in Cape Town at least, waiters are told to “take it away” and patrons ask whether they may have their steak without the potatoes. In more than one establishment in recent months, I’ve been pre-empted by a waiter asking: “You want that without rice, I suppose?”

One of my regular sushi spots, Fugu, now offers a “slimmer’s platter” — mostly sashimi with maki rolled with carrot and cucumber slices instead of rice. My local Knead bakery is doing a rather convincing low-carb bread for R55 a loaf; it’s sold out by noon.

The Wellness Warehouse is struggling to keep up with the demand for flax crackers. The corner Italian restaurant is serving pizza with a chickpea flour base, which is mistakenly thought of as providing a low-carb alternative. Almost scandalously, coming from the land of the potato, Belgian restaurant Den Anker has introduced a low-carb weekend menu. The Kauai chain is planning low-carb wraps and even Butler’s Pizza is toying with home delivery of a low-carb pizza base. I had a sneak preview taste and it’s the most successful of the alternatives to flour dough I’ve tried.

Now two restaurants with Banting menus have opened. Once Bitten will review these next time to see whether chefs can make low-carb meals delicious, even if the science is hard to swallow.


Also see: DEN ANKER’S PALEO MENU (published March 2014)

Carbohydrates are suddenly back in fashion in Cape Town as the city overflows with “carbo-loading” cyclists gearing up for the 109km Cycle Tour of the Peninsula.

The health clubs are advising that you need 30g to 60g of carbohydrates for every hour of cycling. Gyms are recommending for “post-race munchies” burgers and wraps, energy drinks and fruit juice — a full horror list of carbohydrates for the ever-growing number of converts to low- and no-carb diets.

It may have all started with a morbidly obese London undertaker, one William Banting, according to The Real Meal Revolution by Prof Tim Noakes, nutritionist Sally-Ann Creed, and “chef-athletes” David Grier and Jonno Proudfoot.

The low-carb high-fat (LCHF) diet is also known as Banting, with strong similarities to John Durant’s “paleo diet” and the Atkins regimen. Banting made it into the Oxford dictionary, though by its definition “Bantingism” also excludes fat from the diet. William Banting thrived on Dr William Harvey’s eating plan and lived to a ripe old age.

There is a lot of evolutionary mythology and mumbo jumbo around carb-obsessed diets. I believe in a balanced diet of all the food groups. But whatever the scepticism, limiting carbs to between 25g and 100g a day, while still satisfying the body’s need to feel sated, does seem to work for weight loss, though probably not for the pseudoscience reasons given by its pedlars.

Just as artisanal bread-making is exploding on the local scene, along comes the demonising of carbs. It must be equally threatening if you’re in the beer business. After all, beer has long been considered liquid bread.

With this in mind, chef-patrons Doekle Vleitman and Rejeanne Vleitman of Den Anker restaurant, recognised for its Belgian beer and potatoes, and followers of the palaeo/LCHF diet at home, are introducing a palaeo menu on weekends.

The Vleitmans and Lies Bouckaert, founder of Den Anker with her late husband Denis, invited me to try their carb-free lunch menu, with the option to “drink your carbs” instead of eating them. In pursuit of a balanced diet, naturally I had to drink the beer pairings with the food courses.

I expected mussels sans pommes frites, marrow bones without baguette, and ice cream without waffles. What I got was more inventive.

For starters, seared tuna with sesame seeds, thinly sliced radish, a sprinkling of tiny shrimps (a distinctly Belgian touch) on a spread of “Banting mayonnaise”, which is made without using seed oils, and spiked with wasabi.

The carbohydrates came in the form of what my Antwerpenaar father called a bolleke, a glass of De Koninck beer, amber-coloured and top fermented from barley and organic Saaz-Saaz hops from the Czech Republic. No added maize or brewing sugars keeps this beer at 3.2g of carbohydrate per 100ml.

Then there was a choice of Wagyu steak tartare (an excellent option for protein junkies) or perfectly seared salmon with cauliflower mash, green asparagus (a Flemish passion) and caramelised shallots.

The carbs for these were a Maredous Blonde soft, malted beer (4.6g of carbohydrate per 100ml) and my favourite Belgian tipple, Duvel (3.8g of carbohydrate per 100ml). If you know how to pour this one the way I was taught in Belgium, a standard Duvel bottle just fills the glass with a large creamy head of froth coming up two-thirds of the glass to the rim.

It is beer refermented in the bottle for a fortnight in warm brewery cellars and then chilled for six weeks. The total brewing time for a Duvel is 90 days.

Dessert was a Liefmans sorbet from Liefmans Fruitesse beer (5g of carbohydrate per 100ml), a beer I personally can’t abide, along with chocolate cheese (not cheesecake), a block of which I once saw quivering in the glass counter of a Brussels fromagerie.

Liefmans is made with cherries, strawberries, raspberries, elderbe-rries and bilberries.

Den Anker has taken a lead, and we can expect to see more chefs, restaurants and menus responding to the changing eating habits of the well fed.


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