Tim Noakes, professor in Sports Science at the University of Cape Town, and author of the book Lore of Running, holds unconventional theories in this field. In a career spanning decades of research, numerous awards and accolades, his views have been vindicated through such extensive work.
In an exclusive interview with BBQ, he discussed fitness and healthy living, outlining his motivation for taking on established norms in global industries and education.
Noakes says one of the challenges facing society today is “the addiction to success”. According to him, we all tend to think we are currently doing terribly important tasks, only to realise much later in life that perhaps we should have done things differently, in reference to busy corporate executives who neglect their health to focus on careers.
“I say sort out the nutrition first, given that all the exercise in the world won’t change your life if your nutrition is bad,” Noakes advises.
His explanations on what nutrition is and what constitutes a healthy food intake has set him apart internationally.
For starters, he believes in the convention that nutrition and exercise are poles apart, but he places the food that we eat as a first principle of consideration ahead of exercise.
“Nutrition is critical. Most people have changed to a so-called healthy, prudent diet that supposedly protects their health. The reality is that, under certain circumstances, many people who eat a carbohydrate-rich diet end up getting fat or even becoming diabetic,” says Noakes.
He views the relationship between exercise and nutrition as rudimentary, saying “nutrition is 75% important – once that’s sorted out, it’s exercise all the way.”
He alleges that all we know about nutrition is what the industry brings to our attention. He is adamant that most of our beliefs about nutrition are simply driven by someone else’s agenda and their wealth.
“That is why I have gone out on a limb. My opinion is this: refined carbohydrates cause obesity, not fat. It’s not the fat in the diet, but the carbohydrates in the diet that are a problem,” says Noakes.
In spite of his views attracting widespread criticism, his academic career and the popularity of his messages continue to soar.
According to Noakes, another commonly accepted myth is the belief that cholesterol in the diet and in the blood causes heart disease. “It’s an inflammatory disease,” he explains. “It’s not saturated animal fats, but the man-made vegetable oils that are toxic.
Noakes says sugar is a part of our diet which is not essential but, on the contrary, can often be damaging.
By way of illustrating the relationship between industry interests and notions of diet, Noakes says “a great example is Coca-Cola funding the 2012 Olympic Games. We are going to see athletes standing next to the famous trademark, Coca-Cola, yet sugar is completely unhealthy and unnecessary in athletes’ diets.”
So why is sugar, a material he says we do not really need as humans, so pervasive in society? “The only reason we have not seen major issues with sugar is because the industry has infiltrated major organisations.”
To prove a point, Noakes challenges us to find out who funds the diabetes and diabetic associations – it is confectionery, sugar and margarine manufacturers. As a result, the entities they fund have become powerless. “Even the World Health Organization says sugar can be a useful part of the diet, and I believe they are absolutely wrong. They have been bought out by industry,” he says.
Noakes has his own views on why myths detrimental to health are still embraced in society: “My dad was in the tobacco industry in the 1960s, and it was already known by the 1930s that nicotine caused addiction. Maybe my dad didn’t know, but the industry knew. The food industries, some of which are now controlled by the former tobacco industries, use the same tactics as did the tobacco industry to increase the use of their products,” he says by way of analogy.
“The tobacco industry knew nicotine was addictive – everyone knows sugar is addictive and is probably leading to more cases of diabetes globally, yet they continue to operate at will and sell more products. They will do whatever it takes to stay in business because they have so much money.
“And the prudent diet promotes the notion that eating fat causes heart disease and diabetes – in the end, you have a multibillion-dollar industry that is driving our ill-health,” says Noakes.
He advises getting rid of sugar in our diets “because it is nothing more than an addiction that leads to overeating of other carbohydrates.”
Noakes believes sugar is ubiquitous, and the best way to get rid of it is to reduce the total carbohydrate intake. “Sugar is hidden in cereals, yoghurts, sauces – in fact, everywhere. As long as you keep using it, you are always at risk.”
He advises avoidance of sugar and polyunsaturated oils for a “good start” to healthy living. “To get rid of that, you need to dispense with processed foods – including confectionery and bakery foods – and the food frying in your local take-away or restaurant.”
Noakes says a healthy diet includes foods grown above the earth, encouraging people to “eat as much as you can”. That means no potatoes and going for salad that is low in carbohydrates. Cauliflower, mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach, peppers and broccoli are highly recommended on the professor’s list.
Any meat is fine, but must come from grass-fed animals. Today, 90% are feed-lot fed on corn and other inappropriate foods.
However, regardless of the method by which the animals are fed, “the protein is still better than carbohydrates”, says Noakes. Fish is the number-one choice.
Plenty of dairy intake is not necessarily a problem, particularly if it comes from animal species that eat much grass.
Nuts, eggs and water are also recommended.
As a rule of thumb, Noakes avoids bread. “The only reason you get fed bread at a restaurant is so you will eat more; that is why the meal starts with bread. When you get home, your body burns carbohydrates at night instead of fats and that’s when you struggle to lose weight, since your body never gets a chance to burn its fat,” he explains.
Given South Africa’s competitive marketplace, needs for a healthy diet as outlined earlier have taken a back seat. However, Noakes insists the old adage “it’s never too late” applies in this case. “You derive huge benefits the moment you change. And illnesses like heart disease – which are so strongly linked to nutrition and stress – can more easily be avoided. With the right nutrition, you can rapidly reduce your risk of an acute heart attack.”
‘He took more hits than most people’
Muhammad Ali’s greatest opponent was not Joe Frazier in the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, nor George Foreman during the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ – it is Parkinson’s disease.
Noakes says Ali’s traumatic brain injury from his boxing career is paradoxically largely due to his own phenomenal success.
“I think there is a known link to brain trauma from major blows, and he took more hits than most people.
“It was because he was good – he didn’t go down. Had Muhammad Ali gone down more often, he would have been hit less and, as a result, suffered less brain damage,” he notes.
Noakes says this is the easiest and most logical explanation, given the link between brain injury and Parkinson’s.
“He would last 15 rounds, and I think that cumulative loading was the problem, despite the fact that his ability to go on for so long was central to his success.”
He adds without a second invitation: “He was the greatest. The one quote of his I love most is: ‘I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was’,” referring to the link between mind and body.
Drawing a business analogy to this, Noakes believes the power of positive thinking shown by legends such as Ali is incredible. “It reminds me of Nike, before they produced their first shoe. They said they were taking Adidas out and had to convince the Japanese – who initially provided them with shoes – that they had a nationwide distribution network way before they did.”
He affirms that Parkinson’s is not curable at present, and remains most visibly marked by a rigid face and expressionless facial features.
In conclusion, BBQ asked Noakes to disclose the best yardstick for determining one’s weight, and sought his wisecracks on how to find the right information on diets and nutrition.
“Establish your body mass index by taking your weight in kilogrammes, divided by your height in metres squared. If it’s above 25, you are eating too much,” he says.
To critics of his unconventional views – particularly industry players – Noakes counters thus: “You can’t make informed decisions unless you have access to all the information – and that is what has happened. In medicine today, more research is being done, but there is less factual information getting through to the young doctors – because it’s all controlled by industry.
“However, fortunately the Internet comes to our rescue as, eventually, facts do get out into the public domain and it will no longer be possible to mislead people with half truths.”
His message is primarily targeted at the importance of individual health: “Ultimately, your body is yours and you are at liberty to experiment with what works. There is no need to accept what I say; try it and draw your own conclusions.”