“Not just a tide, a tsunami” – Leading health and nutrition journalist Marika Sboros answers my questions about the low-carb high-fat (LCHF) diet and explains why the scientific consensus is starting to turn on diet and nutrition
Marika Sboros is one of South Africa’s leading health journalists, with over 30 years experience in the newspaper industry. She has written for several major South African publications, including the Rand Daily Mail and Business Day (owned by Times Media Group), where she currently writes a regular fitness column and commissioned features.
At her highly recommended health and nutrition website FoodMed.net, she writes in-depth about the science behind low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diets – or “Banting” as they are known in South Africa.
Since launching last year, FoodMed.net has become the go-to source for all things nutrition-related, with particular emphasis on the Kafka-esque “trial” of LCHF pioneer and University of Cape Town (UCT) emeritus professor Dr. Tim Noakes.
In 2014, the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) charged Noakes with unprofessional conduct for giving “unconventional advice to a breastfeeding mother on a social network [Twitter].” That was for a single tweet in February 2014, in which he said good first foods for infant weaning are LCHF.
Last month, I contacted Marika to ask her about the LCHF diet, and about recent efforts by health authorities from around the world to shut down doctors, nutrition scientists, and even journalists whose work challenges the conventional wisdom on nutrition.
She generously agreed to answer my questions.
Q. How did you come to write about the LCHF diet?
A. Nearly three years ago, I started noticing a spate of nasty media reports aimed at South African scientist Prof. Tim Noakes. The reports created the impression that he had lost the scientific plot, that he was doing something terrible, advising beyond his scope of medical practice, expertise etc. Worst of all, that he was telling people to eat foods that would end up killing them on a grand scale.
That piqued my interest as a journalist. I had interviewed him many times in my career – mostly to do with high-carb eating, the benefits of carbo-loading for athletes, optimum nutrition for long-distance runners, that sort of thing. I had always found him to be very rational, a man of huge integrity and intellect. So, I wondered what could be behind this apparent change.
I contacted him to ask for a Skype interview. He agreed immediately, and we ended up speaking for ages.
One question I asked: “I see you only eat apples these days. Why?”
He answered: “I don’t eat apples. I only eat berries.”
“So why did you tell this journalist you only eat apples?” I asked. He told me he had never spoken to the journalist. I was gobsmacked. The journalist, who I knew well, had quoted him verbatim in a lengthy interview in a well-known magazine.
I wondered what on earth would motivate a good journalist to do something like that? I started digging deeper into media coverage and found it littered with similar instances of journalists quoting him directly without ever speaking to him – and without checking their facts.
LCHF proponent Prof. Tim Noakes (source)
I was skeptical about what Prof. Noakes was saying about the research that prompted his dramatic scientific U-turn – what I call his “Damascene” moment. However, because I had respect for him as a scientist and an ordinary human being, I started reading up on the literature, just as he had done.
Slowly but surely, the same awful realisation began to creep up on me: the “experts” had got it all very wrong for decades. We had all been fed a big fat lie. The diet-heart hypothesis was unproven dogma – and still is. It’s the basis on which the “experts” told us to avoid healthy animal fats. Far from avoiding fad diets, I had been on the biggest and most dangerous fad diet of them all most of my adult life because I listened to experts I trusted. I was horrified at the implications, both for my family’s health and people across the globe.
Thus began my journey, my very own Damascene moment, in February 2014.
A year later, I attended the first Low Carb Summit Prof. Tim Noakes and Karen Thomson organised in Feb 2015. Karen is a dynamo all on her own. She is author of a brilliant book, Sugar Free: 8 Weeks to Freedom from Sugar and Carb Addiction. I recommend everyone to read it.
She was so incensed at unprovoked, irrational attacks on Prof. Noakes, who she knew well, she mustered global scientific forces to support him.
The summit was an eye opener, a seminal event for me on my scientific journey. I met many of the world’s finest LCHF minds. Among them: Prof. Steve Phinney, Dr. Eric Westman, Dr. Jay Wortman, Dr. Jason Fung, Dr. Michael Eades, Dr. Aseem Malhotra, Dr. Gary Fettke, and British obesity researcher Dr. Zoe Harcombe. It was a revelation.
What was also a revelation was how nice and decent and perfectly rational these experts were – and are. They were approachable. They also didn’t speak with one “voice.” Some don’t even call their theories LCHF. However, they all say that when people eat real food, that is unprocessed food, as close to its natural state as possible, and avoid grains like the proverbial plague, they naturally tend to eat LCHF.
I began to feel even more confident that I was on to something really big in the world of nutrition science.
I attended the first HPCSA hearing against Prof. Noakes in June 2015. I started off skeptical of his view that there was a concerted campaign to discredit him. I came away convinced of it – and it had nothing to do with him trying to convince me.
I watched in horrified fascination as the HPCSA got to work – as they tried to load the panel with dietitians against him. It made me suspicious. All my interactions with the dietitian who started it all, Claire Julsing-Strydom, just confirmed all my suspicions about hidden agendas. As soon as I started asking questions Strydom didn’t like – about her links with Big Food and the Association for Dietetics in SA (ADSA) of which she was president at the time – she went silent. Until then, I had had a good relationship with her professionally.
Ditto for the HPCSA. They simply wouldn’t talk to me about why they were going after Prof. Noakes as if he were a medical devil incarnate.
Prof. Noakes at the “Banting for Babies” trial early last year (source)
Again, that piqued my interest as a journalist. If there were nothing to hide, why were they keeping everything such a secret?
From there, the rest, as they say, is history. The more I dug, the more orthodox doctors I spoke to, the more their criticisms – more like venomous personal attacks on a distinguished colleague – just didn’t make sense scientifically, ethically or professionally. It all seemed like a vicious over-reaction.
Would you say your experience with LCHF reflects the general experience of others who have come to the diet?
I can’t really answer for the experience of others. I know there is great variety. From my own experience, I can say that I only started on the lifestyle about nine months after I started writing about it. Twitter trolls kept accusing me of being a “closet Banter,” a “cheerleader” for Prof. Noakes, etc. They said that made me biased, unethical, etc., ad nauseum. So I thought I might as well be hanged for the lamb (a great LCHF food) as for the tougher sheep.
I decided to give LCHF eating a try. I had no preconceptions, as I had tried every other diet under the sun in more than 30 years writing on health. Not for weight loss, as I’ve never had a weight problem, but just for health. I was also mostly vegetarian at the time and didn’t much relish the prospect of eating meat.
I went cold turkey (another good Banting meat). I cut out all bread, pasta, pizza, chocolate, sugar, all personal favourites. I was a BIG chocoholic. My experience was astoundingly positive. After a week to 10 days I started feeling different, better in many subtle ways. Especially mood swings and that predictable “afternoon slump” that would have me reaching for a high-carb snack as if my life depended on it. The only variable that had changed was to my diet.
I kept it quiet at first because I knew if I started bleating about my personal experience, it would energise the trolls. Now I don’t care what they say and no longer bother to give them oxygen. If anyone accuses me of bias in Prof. Noakes’ favour, or any other LCHF expert, I say: “sure I’m biased – in favour of good science.” And if anyone can show me the science to prove they’re wrong, I’ll publish it.
Why the recent clampdown on journalists (Nina Teicholz, US) and doctors (Dr. Gary Fettke, Australia) who question the conventional wisdom on nutrition?
On a macro level, I see it as powerful, global vested interests at work, drug, food and soft drink industries who have a lot to lose if the low-fat, high-carb paradigm is no longer mainstream. On a micro level, it is individual doctors, dietitians and academics who are in bed with those industries and who have bad cases of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.
As Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Prof. Rory Collins in the UK and his irrational support for statins is but one of the most egregious examples.
One thing all these people lack is humility – and the courage it takes to say: “I got it wrong. I’m sorry.”
Is the tide turning on the old ways of thinking about nutrition, and do you see the science vindicating Prof. Noakes and Dr. Fettke, as with Nina Teicholz last month?
Oh I’d say the tide is most definitely turning. Developments in the HPCSA hearing – trial really – against Prof. Noakes in South Africa is one big sign. Another is Down Under – the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) attack on Dr. Gary Fettke; in the US, the attacks on Nina after publication of her groundbreaking book, The Big Fat Surprise. That’s another book I think every doctor and dietitian should read.
US author/journalist Nina Teicholz (source)
Recently, nearly 200 assorted Canadian doctors and other health professionals having the courage to speak out.
And most recently, another blockbuster book by US science writer Gary Taubes, The Case Against Sugar. It continues the demolition job science has done on the science – or lack thereof – on which official dietary guidelines have been based for decades.
Not just a tide, a tsunami.
Any recommendations from the LCHF cookbook you think might possibly sway a long-time vegetarian like myself?
I’ve never heard any LCHF “guru” or pioneer I’ve spoken to say that LCHF is for everyone. They all say that there is no one-size-fits-all diet. LCHF is brilliant for those who are obese, diabetic, have heart disease, even cancer. But it’s very much trial and error.
Prof. Noakes once told me he knows of a vegan extreme athlete who is LCHF, and eats only avocado and coconut oil! He says he wouldn’t advise that anyone else do that, but it works for the athlete. His times are good, all his health markers are good – his microbiome clearly copes with that diet.
I have told Prof. Noakes to write Banting for Vegetarians. He has put it on his lengthy “To Do” list.
One of his favourite sayings has become indelibly etched in my mind: “If you have to exercise to regulate your weight, your diet is wrong. Get rid of addictive foods.”
Great advice for us all.