In the recent article Banting or ranting?, published in the Daily Maverick and Health-E News, author Wilma Stassen cast a sceptical eye on the success of Low-Carb High-Fat (LCHF) eating, otherwise known as Banting. Less a balanced review and more a general takedown of Tim Noakes and his bestselling nutrition books, it concluded by suggesting that Noakes was peddling junk science. LCHF fans in turn laid the smackdown on Stassen in the 150+ comments that followed, and Noakes himself has countered attacks like this on numerous occasions. But what's Joe Average, the guy stuck in the middle of this increasingly polarised debate – who doesn't know his insulin resistance from his heart-diet hypothesis – supposed to think?
“Today, anyone who has delved into the questionable history of (nutritional guidelines) simply has to be sceptical of ‘prevailing wisdoms’ and the advice that is peddled from so many competing platforms. When a study suggests that something may cause something else, should we believe it? But who sponsored the study? What’s the agenda behind it? Is the science accurate and unadulterated or has it been distorted – for any number of reasons? In short, how do we know what advice to follow … when nutrition in general is so divided by different lines of thinking and conflicts of interest?” – from the Introduction to Raising Superheroes.
Let me begin with a full disclosure: I worked on Raising Superheroes, the latest The Real Meal Revolution book by Tim Noakes (with co-authors Jonno Proudfoot and Bridget Surtees). Indeed, I even edited Noakes’s contribution to the book. I have a royalty interest in sales of the book (though none in The Real Meal Revolution) and I hope to work with him in the future. So bear that in mind as you read on.
Right, that’s off my chest – and that should probably be the default beginning to any article on any emotive topic in which the claim “you are a mad” or “you are corrupted” (often the same claim) is levelled from either side of the diametrically opposed debate with equal ferocity. When “objective” opinions are few and far between, I’m a firm believer that vested interests should be declared up front. Think of conversations on the Israel-Palestine question, or fracking in the Karoo, for example.
In the case of Low-Fat High-Carb versus Low-Carb High-Fat proponents, the former claim that Noakes and his disciples are mad (“lunatics”) for defying the establishment and the common wisdom that eating fat leads to getting fat, while the latter claim that anti-Banters must be mad (“cognitively dissonant”) to wilfully overlook the weight of science and the plethora of anecdotal evidence that has shifted in their favour across the globe. Noakes has supposedly been corrupted by ego and/or financial interests, while those opposed are in the pockets of Big Food or Big Pharma, or (more likely) have simply staked their careers on a way of thinking that appears to be wrong and (quite understandably) are having trouble acknowledging that.
The opposing sides use the same arguments (“you are mad”, “follow the science”, “this is junk science”) and often the same language (fats/carbs have been/are being unfairly “demonised”).
But of the many questions that a polarised spat like this raises, the most relevant one is how are you, the guy at home, supposed to know who to believe and what to do?
So this reply is directed at the average reader out there, as represented by the guy – one Geoff Coles – who simply wrote “I dunno!” as a comment to Stassen’s article.
Because a lot of this stuff is important. What should you be eating? Especially if you’re overweight, diabetic and generally unhealthy? And, perhaps of more concern, what should your children be eating?
Now, this being a response to Stassen’s article from someone who is invested in the Noakes side of the debate, you might expect me to dismantle the science in it point by point. Thing is, I’m not a scientist. I’m not qualified to do so. (Neither, unfortunately, are many of the article commenters, except perhaps from their own anecdotal points of view.) So I’m not even going to touch on the science. I can, however, very quickly point to a couple of canaries in the coal mine that betray the fact that Stassen was similarly not qualified to write the article in the first place.
One, she calls Banting a diet “low in vegetables” when it is, as anyone who’s merely paged through The Real Meal Revolution will know, in fact very high in vegetables. This is either an error of confusion, as high-carb vegetables are discouraged from a Banter’s diet whereas low-carb vegetables are a staple, or perhaps it’s a bit of lazy bias sneaking in (Banting diet = bad, vegetables = good, don’t really think about it, don’t fact check). I doubt it is a genuine attempt to mislead, though some might say I’m being naïve.
Two, she writes that Raising Superheroes was published “to help pro-Banting parents raise their children in a pro-Banting way”, when the book is described on its own cover as “not a Banting cookbook” that “doesn’t offer no-carb eating for kids”. This point is reiterated in the very first paragraph of the introduction.
This second error is either (very) lazy journalism – she hasn’t even glanced at the book – or it’s a weasel way to align Raising Superheroes in the reader’s mind as a Banting book without actually saying as much (“pro-Banting way” doesn’t necessarily mean “Banting”, I suppose). I’d guess the former, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Of the various options that explain these two simple errors, none bodes well for the integrity of the article as a whole. Either you’ve got a time-constrained writer just churning out another article without really getting her head around the topic, or you’ve got a journalist displaying bias, conscious or otherwise, rather early in the piece.
So before we’ve even got to the crux of the piece – that is, the science, with all the complexities and nuances it involves – it is already compromised.
So, first trick, Geoff Coles and others: look out for the canaries and be wary of whatever argument and “science” follows.
Now, second trick: be similarly wary of the “experts”.
There can be a misconception for the reader that presumably qualified interviewees quoted in articles are infallible. They are not. In fair reporting they are often chosen specifically to present differing viewpoints, in which case some of them (in clear-cut matters of science) are by necessity going to be objectively wrong (whether or not it can be proved yet). I would argue that Stassen’s article is not fair reporting, as she has loaded the arguments against Noakes, giving him the merest right of reply and quoting no-one else to support him, while selectively using three experts to argue against him.
More to the point, though, these experts all have their own agendas. In this case, at least two of them have had run-ins with Noakes in the past and are thus a short phone call away when he needs a bit of a bashing. I can only speculate on their specific agendas, but I can tell you about another expert quoted in a similarly critical article which should illustrate my point.
One of the first mainstream articles on Raising Superheroes appeared in The Times. The book was “reviewed” by the lone expert quoted in the article, a registered dietitian, who, among other negatives, had this to say: “The public is being taken advantage of, by virtue of this cult popularity and the ‘Dr’ prefix guaranteeing that this is the current and safe method to follow. None of the authors (of Raising Superheroes) are trained dieticians.” (sic)
The final line – for which The Times issued an official apology – is untrue; Bridget Surtees is a registered dietician with 18 years’ experience, most of it in paediatrics in London and Sydney. Like Stassen, The Times’s expert had missed this nugget of information in her “review” of the book even though it is there for all to see on the cover. Later, in her begrudging e-mail apology to the authors she concluded with this: “Perhaps it’s a good time to request an apology to dieticians for suggesting that the public read The Real Meal Revolution and not consult with dieticians?” With a little more research, I subsequently discovered that this supposedly impartial reviewer in fact promoted a diet, and had written several books, that focused on … wait for it … low-fat high-carb eating.
And there it is: the agenda.
Point is we’ve come to a time in the modern world in which we live when interests are always vested and there’s always an angle. The subject of the story has one agenda (sell what it’s selling), the source has a competing agenda (sell the competing product), the journalist has her own agenda (sell newspapers/downloads).
The upside, though, is that this is also the age of information democracy. The internet, for all its faults, allows us access to information that people could only dream of seeing in the 1970s and 1980s when the guidelines that came to influence the modern Western diet were decided upon on and implemented by untouchable men behind closed doeers.
So, to the third and final trick: do the hard work yourself.
If there is a contested science matter that affects you directly then there is only one solution: you have to put in the hours and do the research. Are you overweight, diabetic, have heart problems, or any diet-related illness? Then you should be reading about low-carb, high-fat eating (and other things). Not because I say so (ha ha) or Noakes says so or some guy you know who lost 25kg in a week says so. But because it’s a global movement underpinned by apparently credible science that is gathering momentum and has been doing so in the US, Europe and South Africa for years now. Try to find the least invested writers and then weigh up the argument as best you can. For some recent (mainstream) reading see here here and here.
After that, if you want the details I suggest reading The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz, The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes and, of course, The Real Meal Revolution (but actually read it; don’t just check out the recipes and decide they’re not for you).
And if you’re a parent and wondering what to feed your children to steer them clear of the ever-rising tide of obesity – see this uplifting story for inspiration. Again do your reading. Of course, I’d suggest you start with Raising Superheroes, but don’t stop there. Noakes’s 20,000-w0rd “compendium” of the current science on children’s nutrition refers to 135 books and papers all referenced at the back. Excuse the sales pitch, but there’s no overview like it out there. And critically, virtually all the references are available online, whether through Takealot and Amazon for the books or journal websites for the papers. Most of the advice in Raising Superheroes is widely agreed to be indisputable by those on either side of the LCHF debate – most notably, sugar and refined carbohydrates are bad; real, non-processed foods are good – but if you’re not convinced by anything Noakes suggests in his review, go to the source.
This approach might sound a little bit like hard work in comparison to reading a clickbait article with a catchy header and scrolling through the comments, but in the end it’s up to you to look out for number one. DM
Tim Richman is the director of Burnet Media, the publishing consultant on Raising Superheroes. He writes in his personal capacity.
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Tim Richman is the director of Burnet Media, an independent publisher and publishing consultancy based in Cape Town. He has authored and edited numerous books, including the Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Kak? series. He believes the time may be right for a new instalment.
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