By Marika Sboros
As I predicted, the backlash against University of Cape Town sports scientist Prof Tim Noakes has begun. I anticipated that it was likely after MPs invited him to address Parliament last week. They asked him to speak on Banting, as low-carb, high-healthy fat (LCHF) diets are popularly known in South Africa.
I didn’t think it would happen quite so soon. Or that his own UCT colleagues in the same Health Sciences Faculty would be firing the biggest “guns” of all.
Certainly, the weapons aimed at Noakes don’t get bigger than this. Academics from UCT’s highest reaches have written an open letter to the Cape Times attacking him. They’ve done so without giving him the opportunity to defend himself first.
Here’s who have aimed at their target and what they’ve said:
The signatories are Prof Wim de Villiers, dean of Faculty of Health Sciences, Prof Bongani Mayosi, head of Department of Medicine, Prof Lionel Opie, emeritus cardiology professor (a mentor and lifelong friend of Noakes), and Dr Marjanne Senekal, associate professor and head of Division of Human Nutrition.
In it, they attack Noakes for what they say are “outrageous, unproven claims about disease prevention”.
It is the latest salvo in a war against Noakes that began a few years ago. That was after he dared to change on optimum nutrition.
The academics also attack Noakes for “maligning the integrity and credibility of peers who criticise his diet for being evidence-deficient”. They also say that he has not conformed “to the tenets of good and responsible science”.
Unprecedented – and libelous?
It’s an action that Noakes and his lawyers say is libellous. Certainly, it looks that way. And it is unprecedented in the history of UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences.
Noakes has responded, also in a letter to the Cape Times. He says that the Faculty has consistently misrepresented his public message. He vigorously disputes that what he is saying is unscientific.
Noakes accuses the academics of “cognitive dissonance”. That’s the psychological term for what happens when people are faced with compelling evidence that conflicts with a deeply held belief. They either go with the evidence and change their minds or, if cognivitely dissonant, stick to their old belief.
Noakes says the academics are “guilty of failing fully to inform (UCT’s) past and present science, medical and dietetics graduates in a manner appropriate for a faculty that considers itself to be a world-leader”. He also says that promoting unscientific dietary advice is contributing to epidemics of obesity and diabetes in South Africa. And that this will bankrupt medical systems in the near future.
An ugly spat
He has written to UCT pointing out that the allegations against him are libellous, and unscientific. And that the letter’s authors have not followed proper UCT procedure in scientific disputes.
It’s an ugly spat, and odd that the UCT academics have attacked a colleague so publicly with impunity.
The university should at the very least have had independent scientists look into the issue. UCT should also have considered all the research available on both sides of this controversy before a letter went out in its name.
The fact is, as Noakes makes clear, that nutrition is not an exact science. And no one, including Noakes, currently has all the answers. He also makes the point that he does not claim that the diet he now promotes is one-size-fits-all.
Here are the letters from UCT academics and Noakes’ response:
“The apparent endorsement by Members of Parliament of South Africa of the latest fashionable diet, ‘Banting’ (‘SA’s Ticking Time-bomb’, Cape Times, 19 August 2014) and the message it sends out to the public about healthy eating, is cause for deep concern – not only regarding Parliament’s support for it as an evidenced-based ‘diet revolution’, but sadly, the long-term impact this may have on the health of the very people they have been elected to serve.
“Any diet for weight loss and maintenance should be safe and promote health in the long-term. Currently the long term safety and health benefits of low carbohydrate, high fat diets – such as Atkins, Paleo and South Beach, and in which Banting falls – are unproven, and in particular whether it is safe in pregnancy and childhood.
“Importantly, while the consumption of a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet may lead to initial weight loss and associated health benefits – as indeed would a balanced weight loss diet – there is good reason for concern that this diet may rather result in nutritional deficiencies, increased risk for heart disease, diabetes mellitus, kidney problems, constipation, certain cancers and excessive iron stores in some individuals in the long term.
Science and diet
“Research leaves no doubt that healthy balanced eating is very important in reducing disease risk (see web page below dedicated to this debate).
“It is therefore a serious concern that Professor Timothy Noakes, a colleague respected for his research in sports science, is aggressively promoting this diet as a ‘revolution’, making outrageous unproven claims about disease prevention, and maligning the integrity and credibility of peers who criticise his diet for being evidence-deficient and not conforming to the tenets of good and responsible science.
Where is academic freedom?
“This goes against the University of Cape Town’s commitment to academic freedom as the prerequisite to fostering responsible and respectful intellectual debate and free enquiry.
“This is not the forum to debate details of diets, but to draw attention to the need for us to be pragmatic. Research in this field has proven time and again that the quest for lean and healthy bodies cannot be a quick-fix, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. The major challenge lies in establishing sustainable and healthy dietary and physical activity patterns to promote long-term weight maintenance and health after weight loss and includes addressing psychosocial, environmental and physiological factors.
“Our bodies need a range of nutrients sourced from a variety of food groups to survive. Diets like the Banting are, however, typically ‘one dimensional’ in focus. They promote increased intake of protein and fat containing foods at the expense of healthy carbohydrate-containing foods, and focus on adherence to a limited food plan. Ignored are the other important factors impacting on health – like physical activity (the important of which we cannot emphasise enough), environmental factors, and individual health profiles.
“UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences, a leading research institution in Africa, has a reputation for research excellence to uphold. Above all, our research must be socially responsible. We have therefore taken the unusual step of distancing ourselves from the proponents of this diet. To foster informed engagement of the issues related to the Diet debate, the Faculty has established a (page on its website) with material on this.”
Response from Prof Tim Noakes:
“For whatever reasons, the Faculty of Health Sciences of the University of Cape Town manages consistently to misrepresent my public message. It is simply the following: a high-carbohydrate diet is detrimental to the health of persons with insulin resistance. Carbohydrate restriction in this group can be profoundly beneficial as it can reverse obesity and in some cases type 2 diabetes mellitus. These conditions will ultimately bankrupt South African medical services unless we take appropriate preventive actions.
“This message first presented publicly in my book, Challenging Beliefs in 2011, has never changed.
“It is also the message I presented to members of staff at Parliament a week ago.
“If that message is without scientific support, then the Faculty of Health Sciences has every right to cross the civil divide as it has now chosen; an action which, I suspect, is unprecedented in the history of the Faculty of Health Sciences and perhaps the history of the University of Cape Town.
“But if there is evidence for my position, then the Faculty is guilty of failing fully to inform its past and present science, medical and dietetics graduates in a manner appropriate for a Faculty that considers itself to be a world-leader.
” An outline of the scientific evidence for my position is presented in about 20 000 words in our book Real Meal Revolution.
“That work includes references to the most important scientific works (of an abundant literature) supporting my interpretation. For the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences consistently to deny that peer-reviewed evidence is a classic example of cognitive dissonance.”
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