Paul Kilfoil's World of Travel, Technology & Sport

Posted on  by Paul Kilfoil.
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The culinary buzzword of 2014 has become "What would Tim Noakes say?" These days you hear this phrase spoken everywhere - in restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets and at dinner parties. Never before in my life can I recall a theory about nutrition and eating to be so popular. In fact, the recipe book co-authored by Tim Noakes that describes in detail how to prepare food the "Banting way" has become the national number one best seller in bookshops! Imagine that - a recipe book at the top of the best seller lists. That would have been inconceivable a year or two ago.

Professor Tim Noakes

But just who is Tim Noakes and what gives him the right to tell us how we should be eating? Professor Timothy Noakes, to give him his proper title, is Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Cape Town and director of the Medical Research Council/UCT research unit for exercise science and sports medicine at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. He is widely acknowledged to be the world's leading authority in the field of sports and exercise science and regularly speaks at conferences on sports-related issues. He is both a medical doctor and scientist ; he has published many academic papers in scientific and medical journals, and has also written several popular books - his Lore of Running, first published in 1985 and now in its fourth revison, has been the bible of the long distance runner for decades.

In the 1980's Noakes dispelled the popular notion that endurance athletes should drink as much fluid as possible before and during competitive events when he discovered hyponatraemia - a potentially deadly condition that occurs when the human body is over-hydrated. He proved that the dangers of dehydration were minimal and far less severe than those of over-hydration. This research pulled the rug out from under those companies who produced sports nutrition drinks, and who had been encouraging athletes to drink as much of their products as possible ; these companies duly trotted out their own sports scientists who rubbished Noakes' claims in the popular press. Only years later, when evidence of the dangers of over-hydration became overwhelming, was Noakes vindicated.

Noakes was always primarily concerned with the more technical aspects of sports science - how to train efficiently, how to recover, how to mazimize performance and so on. That all changed when Discovery Health (a medical aid company in South Africa) published an article by Noakes in the Winter 2011 edition of Discovery News magazine. It was a fairly low-key piece, but in it he made the revolutionary suggestion that the key to healthy eating was not a high carbohydrate and low fat diet but rather a low carbohydrate and high protein diet. This idea was completely contrary to everything that dieticians and nutritionists had been saying for years ; indeed, he even said in his opening paragraph that "I suspect that this column will attract more unfavourable comment than perhaps anything else I have recently written."

The recipe book that became
a number one best seller

Since that first article over three years ago, the whole theory of low-carb, high-protein eating has exploded across the world in spectacular fashion. Noakes himself has written many subsequent articles on the subject and devoted a whole chapter to it in his book Challenging Beliefs. He also revised the runners' bible (the universally popular Lore of Running) to incorporate his nutritional ideas as they apply to athletic training. And, of course, he co-wrote the recipe book The Real Meal Revolution (with Sally-Ann Creed, Jonno Proudfoot and David Grier), which became the number one best seller in South Africa (as at the date of this blog it is still at the top of the best seller lists).

Controversy reigns, because many nutritionists, doctors and so-called experts took umbrage at how a mere scientist has told the world that much of what we've been taught about healthy eating is incorrect. So Noakes has endured a torrid time in the press and in the popular media, but he has stood firm and answers his critics by saying that he is simply reporting what his scientific research has revealed. And that is the key - Tom Noakes is first and foremost a scientist, and everything he does follows the accepted scientific approach ; no hocus-pocus or hare-brained theories, but research, experimentation and theories that explain the facts as we observe them. Unfortunately I don't have space in this blog to explain exactly how a low-carb, high-protein diet can be beneficial ; for that you'll have to do a bit more reading elsewhere.

All of this means that you cannot go into a restaurant anywhere these days without seeing "Tim Noakes breakfast", "Banting burger" or "Low carb lunch special" on the menu. And the most commonly overheard phrase when eating out is "What would Tim Noakes say about this?"

  © Paul Kilfoil, Cape Town, South Africa