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This South African Doctor Is Fighting to Make Keto the Dietary Standard

Or at least, something very like it. But is that in any way a good idea?

Tim Noakes is the outcast bad boy of the dietary world. Noakes — or “Prof” as his evangelists refer to him — believes a low-carb, high-fat diet should be the standard diet of all humanity. And by “standard,” we mean the only diet of humanity.

According to Noakes, not only does turning to this diet cure (yes, cure) diabetes, but it will make you less anxious, less depressed, cause you to lose weight and unshackle you from your blind dependence on bread.

Noakes’ loud, dogmatic approach to spreading the gospel of a low-carb, high-fat diet (and the Twitter wars that lie therein, one of which landed him in a four-year court battle) has earned him an equally devout following. As that following grows, both inside and outside the nutrition world, you’ll find more and more Noakes’ devotees spending their time denouncing any and all positive science about literally any other diet: Any study pimping balanced grains are merely done by “shills” who are only “protecting the industry.” After all, Noakes says, his foundation’s main purpose, right now, is “a fight to the death to combat the way industry is distorting the messaging, trying to say that low-carbohydrate diet will kill you.”

We reached out to Noakes to see why he believes this diet is the way of the future, and his game plan for world domination. And because arguing is fun, especially on the internet, we also ran all his claims by registered dietitian nutritionist Jill Nussinow. Let’s dig in!

A Primal Diet

Noakes is well-versed in the historic implications of his championed diet, which was first proposed in 1862 thanks to an overweight undertaker by the name William Banting. “He was a guy who chronically overweight,” says Noakes. “He’d tried everything — the exercise bit, the low fat bit. He tried everything, and nothing worked. Eventually, this low-carbohydrate diet was prescribed for him, and he lost 40 pounds over a period of about eight months or so. He described his diet, and it became the original diet for obesity.”

In the same way that some populations are allergic to dairy, Noakes adds that certain populations are simply more adept to burning fat than others. No humans, though, should maintain a diet that’s higher than 35 percent carbohydrates, according to Noakes. “Humans evolved as carnivores, and we became dependant on fat. So for most populations, fat was in the diet for two or three million years — to take it out of the diet has been very bad for those of us who were basically fat-burners,” he says.

Noakes adds that if you were to take certain populations that are principally fat burners, rather than carbohydrate burners (“For example, the plains Indians in North America, Australian Aborigines, all the Pacific Islanders,” he explains) and expose them to a diet where carbohydrates make up more than about 35 to 40 percent of the calories, “diabetes and obesity becomes epidemic.”

Noakes uses this anecdote to make the point that a low-carb, high-fat diet isn’t some fad diet, another version of buying a crate of Slim Fast protein shakes. “It’s the original diet that was used for the control of obesity,” he says. “Right up to the end of the Second World War, it was appreciated that carbohydrates caused you to get fat, and if you wanted to lose weight, you should stop eating carbohydrates.”

What the dietitian says: “People have been eating bread for thousands of years,” argues Nussinow. “Maybe what they made it from was different, but people have been eating bread for eons.” Still, Nussinow says the issue today isn’t really about bread — it’s about balanced diet and exercise.

“It’s about how much activity — or lack thereof — people are getting, and that food has become complicated,” says Nussinow. “I look at it this way: 130 years ago, baking a cake took a lot of work. Today, people can get one any day of the week. It’s all the processed food that’s the issue. It doesn’t matter if it’s whole wheat pasta, it’s not the same as eating wheat berries, especially if they’re sprouted or fermented.”

Nussinow — as with many dietitians who dispute Noakes’ claims — argues that when it comes to diets, it’s simply impossible to find a one-size-fits-all solution. “We aren’t all the same. We have different microbiomes and need different food to get optimal nutrition for health and energy. If there was one diet that worked for everyone, I would’ve likely discovered it by now and be retired sitting on a beach somewhere,” she concludes.

How Carbs Came to Power

Specifically, Noakes contends, it was in 1977 that the grain industry started pulling the levers on consumption in the name of capitalism. “Industry got involved and they started sending out the message that carbohydrates were healthy. And that changed everything.” Noakes is possibly referring to the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 that subsidized farmers and rewarded them for producing excess crops.

“It all stems right back to 1977, when farmers were encouraged to plant every spare acre under grains, and those dietary guidelines came out, which I emphasize were never based on science,” Noakes says. “We’ve become fat and diabetic thereafter. They completely reversed what people believed, in the sense that we knew carbohydrates make you fat, but we accepted it, and the consequences have been drastic for all of us.”

What the dietitian says: “First off, the Food Pyramid was not released in 1977,” says Nussinow. She’s not wrong, although its prototype, the “Hassle Free Daily Food Guide,” was released by the USDA in 1979, and as Noakes contends, it included the update to cut down on fats while weighing carbohydrates as one of the main four food groups.

But Nussinow argues that the food pyramid wasn’t merely pushed onto the public at the whims of the grain industry: Rather, it was fully checked and accepted by the nutrition industry, too. “The Food Guide Pyramid was a widely recognized nutrition education tool that translated nutritional recommendations into the kinds and amounts of food to eat each day, and the same goes for MyPyramid, which replaced it in 2005.”

One thing Nussinow and Noakes agree on, however, is that the food industry certainly does not have consumers’ best interest at heart. “No matter what way people choose to eat,” says Nussinow, “the main thing is to get rid of the highly processed food — [which is] what the food industry is pushing on people and that they’re buying.”

Explaining the Diet

“A low-carb, high-fat diet is very simple,” says Noakes. “We exclude cereals and grains — that’s the key. Exclude the starch-based foods like potatoes and rice, focus on eating meat, fish, dairy, nuts, vegetables, very minimal fruits. That’s what we promote as our diet, and we tend not to stray from it.” Noakes adds that while leafy vegetables do contain carbs, so long as you’re sticking to just leafy vegetables, you’d be eating less than 100 grams of carbs a day, “which is ideal for most people,” he says. “But if you’ve got type II diabetes like myself, you’d want to get it right down to 25 grams a day.”

Most people think that moving to a low-carb, high-fat diet means they’ll have to eat meat, and lots of it, but that’s not the case, says Noakes, who gets “a little sensitive” at the notion. “I get attacked that I’m promoting a meat-only diet, but that’s not true — that’s a carnivore diet. I do think a carnivore diet has benefits for certain people who are allergic to plants. But for my diet, my fat comes from avocados, coconut oil and dairy produce, particularly cheese. It’s actually quite difficult to get meat that’s got fat on it these days (besides lamb and fatty fish) because they remove the fat from most meat products. But it’s still a great source of other nutrients that you need.”

What the dietitian says: “What I learned in getting my master’s degree in nutrition is that we need carbs, about 40 percent, for your brain to work efficiently,” says Nussinow. “Burning fat isn’t efficient.” Some researchers have gone so far as to suggest carbs even accelerated the evolution of the human brain, although others have poked holes in that theory.

Nussinow says that, regardless of what the brain needs, “Fat has more than twice the calories of carbs, so those calories can add up quickly — for some people it can cause issues. From my own personal experience, I can tell you that I’m not a low-carb eater, nor a high-fat eater, and I’ve maintained my weight for more than 30 years.”

The Benefits

Noakes contends that the more hooked you are on carbs, the more you’ll realize how “sick you are,” after switching to a low-carb, high-fat diet. “What you’re going to notice is you’re going to get a sugar withdrawal,” he says. “So you’ll feel crappy for a week or two, but thereafter, you’ll start to feel more energy. You’re more alert. You don’t have brain fog. You’re less anxious, less depressed, and you start to live in a different view.”

Beyond the mind, Noakes says that in the first two weeks, if you haven’t already lost around four pounds, you’ll start to lose more weight. “By six weeks or two to three months, you’re completely changed,” he adds. “Now you’ve become a fat-burner. Your brain’s adapted to the changes, and you just feel magnificent.”

What the dietitian says: Nussinow sees some legitimacy here, but argues that, again, it’s not so simple. People do need carbs, she says, but it’s the type of carb that matters. “Cut out the CRAP (Carbohydrates Refined And Processed) and your ‘diet’ will improve,” she says. “Eat more vegetables than you think that you need and your health will improve. I’m not sure about the changes and depression, but if your gut isn’t working well, then your brain doesn’t work well. Your gut needs fiber, prebiotics, mainly vegetables to work well, and probiotic food, which is something missing in our modern diets and not so easily replaced with pills.”

The Fight to Change the Global Diet

“We’re fighting against an industry that makes a trillion dollars a year in the sales of foods,” Noakes says. “The sales of cereals and grains and other processed foods is going down. It’s going to be a fight to the death, and we have few resources. So we have to combine and keep getting the message out that what they’re saying isn’t true.”

When asked what his first move would be if made Food Czar of the Universe, Noakes says he’d, “Ban all supermarkets first off, ban all cereals and grains and flour, and get people to eat more of the other produce. And all the sweets and the chocolates — they would have to go as well.”

What the Dietitian Says: Nussinow falls back to the no-diet-fits-all approach. “We don’t all need the same things to survive and thrive. There seem to be seven variations of the gut microbiome and feeding them is different — if you can shift what the gut likes to use to send signals, you can change things up, but we’re far from knowing [how to do this effectively] at this point.”

While Noakes’ low-carb, high-fat diet might work for some, Nussinow makes the distinction that “it’s not the only way,” adding that it’s also important not to generalize grains. “Most people don’t eat whole grains, and if they did, they’d be better off. If people are eating straight flour combined with sugar, it isn’t good.”

Nussinow concludes that, while the Standard American Diet certainly isn’t for everyone, it’s a pretty good diet for a wide swath of people. She adds that David Jenkins — the father of the Glycemic Index — just came out saying that eating a plant-based diet is “the way to go.”

For Noakes and his evangelists, he says they’re merely fighting back against an industry that’s dominated the dietary conversation for decades, in the same way the tobacco industry once influenced scientists and the media. “However much industry tries to fight back … eventually there’s going to be a majority of people that realize the diet is actually fantastic and they feel so much better on it. This scam that a high-fat diet is dangerous will finally be overturned.”

He does, though, concede that without all their cereals, breads, pastas and sweets, “People wouldn’t like living under Czar Noakes. But at least they’d be healthy.”