“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question… A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.” – George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1945
By Tamzyn Murphy Campbell
BSc, BSc Med(Hons) Human Nutrition and Dietetics, RD
It’s January 2013. Waiting for his talk to start, in his grey suit and Nike trainers, Professor Tim Noakes looks far trimmer than when I saw him last, five years ago at a talk on University of Cape Town’s medical campus. His weight loss should come as no surprise though, considering he’s been following his own advice, avoiding carbohydrates, which he claims is the key to solving our global obesity epidemic.
“I’ve been declared officially mad by my faculty,” begins Prof Noakes. Despite being shunned by his peers for his unconventional dietary advice, Prof Noakes appears happy and relaxed and impossible not to like with a big friendly smile stretched across his face. Maybe it’s insanity that’s got him so at ease in the face of scorn. Or perhaps he’s just calmly confident that he’s right. As he explains later in the talk, he has acted ethically by correcting the misconceptions responsible for our ill health as soon as he became aware of them.
Let me walk you through Prof Noake’s argument and then you decide on which side of the nutritional fence you’d like to sit.
WHY THE CONTROVERSY?
It’s accepted as fact that we get fat because we eat too much and exercise too little: the twin sins of gluttony and sloth. The prevailing belief is that a high fat intake promotes weight gain and heart disease. Authorities say that saturated fat (mainly from animal-derived food sources) raises cholesterol, which in turn clogs our arteries leading to heart disease. This knowledge stems from the Seven Country Study, published in 1963 and conducted by a scientist called Ancel Keys who found that men in countries with diets high in saturated fat suffered from more heart disease. What Keys failed to mention was that countries that didn’t support this finding were left out of his study. He also failed to report that heart disease incidence happened to increase with a higher sugar intake.
Flying in the face of what we accept as the fundamental truths of nutrition, Prof Noakes declares that fat doesn’t raise cholesterol and cause heart disease nor promote weight gain and we certainly aren’t getting fat because we’re eating too much and exercising too little. He doesn’t expect us to blindly believe him though, presenting us with statistics and cutting-edge scientific intervention and review studies that back up what he has to say. This unconventional opinion, especially from such a well-published and respected scientist, has thrown the South African scientific and medical community into a furor. But according to Prof Noakes, the most outraged are those scientists who are receiving funding from the food industry.
MONEY, POLITICS & CORRUPTION
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” quotes Prof Noakes when a member of the audience asks how we can possibly believe him when so many scientists disagree. The food industry’s lifeblood is tasty and addictive food and beverages, packed full of carbohydrates and sugar. According to Prof Noakes, if South Africa’s university departments who rely on industry funding – such as cardiology, pharmacology or nutrition – were to speak out against carbohydrates and sugar (or the efficacy of prescription medication in the case of pharmacology faculties) then their research funding would be pulled and their departments may as well shut down.
Prof Noakes says that a researcher who acts as industry’s mouthpiece stands to gain a lot of money and exposure: “These companies will support any researcher that will stand up here and punt exercise to lose weight [in order to avoid recommendations that’ll reduce their sales]”. He goes on to say that industry-funded study results are biased, misleading and often downright wrong. “Ninety-five percent of nutrition advice is based on association studies,” Prof Noakes explains, “and 85% of association studies are wrong.” Association studies show how factors change in relation to each other but are unable to show that one factor causes the other. For example, in Ancel Keys’ Seven Country Study heart disease increased in countries that had higher saturated fat consumption. This doesn’t mean that saturated fat caused the increased heart disease. Other factors could be to blame. As it turns out, sugar consumption happened to increase along with saturated fat in these countries and could possibly explain the increased heart disease risk.
According to Prof Noakes, the two biggest funders of US nutrition research, the National Institute of Health and the US government, will only fund studies that show that high carbohydrate intake is healthy. This is following a decision made by the US senate, in 1977, to fund corn, soya and vegetable oil agriculture, and the development of US dietary guidelines in the same year recommending that Americans get 50–60% of their total daily energy from carbohydrates, while limiting dietary fat and cholesterol. Prof Noakes explains that these decisions were made to be in line with what grain farmers and the major industry-controlling food companies wanted.
CARBS MAKE US FAT
Prof Noakes explains that we’ve genetically evolved to eat a low carbohydrate diet, saying that we don’t actually need to eat carbohydrate to survive, whereas protein and fat are essential for survival. Also, it appears that our calorie and carbohydrate consumption has increased concurrently with obesity over the decades, but our fat intake has remained relatively constant. This implies that it’s not the fat that’s to blame for our ballooning waistlines.
So if Prof Noakes is right and carbohydrates really are to blame, then how do they do it? Prof Noakes claims that carbohydrates upset the body’s natural energy-regulation ability – your homeostat that’s supposed to balance your calories consumed with the calories you burn (calories in versus calories out). Eating more carbs these days means we’re getting lots of glucose into our bloodstreams. Our bodies have to secrete more of the hormone insulin to keep these potentially damaging glucose levels under control. And as it turns out, insulin promotes fat storage and makes us eat more.
Prof Noakes says that insulin promotes liver triglyceride (fat) production and storage, leading to metabolic problems including diabetes and obesity. Insulin also encourages fat storage in adipose tissue (fat stores), particularly in those who’re genetically predisposed, thereby promoting weight gain. According to Prof Noakes, those who are naturally carbohydrate resistant consistently oversecrete insulin in response to eating carbs. This consistently high insulin means that dietary carbs are continuously being converted to fat and stored away for a rainy day.
All of this carbohydrate conversion and fat storage leaves little energy available to your cells, so you quickly get hungry again, craving a quick-release energy source like, you guessed it, carbohydrates. And so the vicious cycle begins. Prof Noakes says that since he’s been on his low-carb diet he only gets hungry every 16–24 hours. To make matters worse it turns out that carbs are addictive. They temporarily boost the pleasure chemicals in your brain and your mood. Then they drop again, leaving you craving your next carbohydrate fix. “Addictive food choices cause obesity in those with insulin resistance,” says Prof Noakes, “it took me 14 months to stop adding sugar to my tea and coffee but it’ll take me one day to go back.”
SOME AND NOT OTHERS
Why then do only some of us get fat on a high-carbohydrate diet, while others can eat what they like and stay lean? Prof Noakes explains that if you’re genetically prone to carbohydrate or insulin resistance, as most of us are, then your body goes into fat production and storage mode in response to carbohydrates and insulin, resulting in constant hunger, inactivity and, consequently, weight gain. If you’re one of the lucky few who can eat what you like and stay lean then your body is better able to utilise carbohydrates as a fuel source rather than storing it as fat in response to insulin. Prof Noakes says that the amount of dietary carbohydrates different people can tolerate varies. “The difference between being lean, as I am, or fat is 25g of carbohydrates,” claims Prof Noakes. This amount is very low. Most people will be able to lose excess fat and maintain a stable healthy weight at somewhere between 20 and 120g of carbohydrates daily.
Prof Noakes also implicates carbohydrates in the dreaded middle-age spread: “As we get older we get more carbohydrate resistant”. So if you could eat what you liked in your youth but are now finding that a spare tire has settled around your middle, cutting all starches and sugars may help you maintain a svelte shape.
CARBS MAKE US SICK
“Eighty percent of diseases are caused by nutrition.” According to Prof Noakes, carbohydrates aren’t just to blame for the obesity epidemic but also for the chronic diseases that plague modern society. “There’s one cause [carbohydrates], one treatment [cutting carbohydrates] for all conditions,” reveals Prof Noakes – listing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, gout, cancer and even Alzheimer’s. Prof Noakes calls insulin the aging hormone, saying, “Alzheimer’s is caused by high insulin” and “cancer, specifically colon and breast cancer, is driven by high insulin”.
Prof Noakes addresses critics’ main arrow in the quiver against a low-carb diet, being that its high fat content increases heart disease risk. It turns out that well-designed, up-to-date research indicates that saturated fat appears to have no effect on death rates and heart disease. A higher carbohydrate intake, on the other hand, increases all the heart disease risk factors. It boosts levels of fats, bad cholesterol (small LDL), insulin and glucose in the blood, while reducing the good cholesterol and boosting your belly.
“If you are eating these [starches] then that’s what you will die from,” Prof Noakes acknowledges with a sad smile.
If you struggle with your weight, get hungry every three hours or so and dread exercise then Prof Noakes explains that you’re probably carbohydrate resistant and can benefit from cutting down on dietary carbohydrates. His advice? “If it doesn’t occur in nature, don’t eat it.”
A low-carbohydrate diet is typically high in fat and moderate in protein. You’ll need to cut out all grains, sugar and trans fats. Stick to meat, poultry, fish, eggs, vegetables (like spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, lettuce, cucumber, carrots), nuts, avocado pear and olive oil. Prof Noakes warns to stay away from most other vegetable oils though, specifically those high in pro-inflammatory and blood-clotting omega-6 fats like sunflower and corn oils. Full-cream or low-fat dairy products are acceptable in moderation. Depending on how much carbohydrate you can tolerate before you start to balloon, you may even be able to squeeze in a few legumes, a touch of starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruit (like berries and apples) – though it’s probably best to tread with caution when trying these food items on your low-carb diet. Prof Noakes cautions to watch out for sweet beverages, advising sticking to unsweetened water, tea and coffee. And he suggests that most people could benefit from supplementation with omega 3 fats and vitamin D (particularly if you have mid to low range vitamin D levels like he has), due to the strong scientific evidence supporting their use.
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