The complexity of diets

Magnus Heystek wrote an interesting article in which he questions whether the fad diet of low carbohydrate, high protein, high fat (LCHF Banting diet) that Tim Noakes has been so outspoken about and strongly crusading for, is nothing more than a Ponzi scheme.

Ponzi schemes activate a fanatical, excessive, ‘all-knowing’ feeling that underpins a belief that exponential growth is guaranteed. It is a scam in which gullible public are enticed with the promise of very high returns in a very short time. It is also purported that these higher returns could not be found elsewhere for the investment being made. The power of the Ponzi scheme is the certainty, confidence and persuasiveness in how the founders and disciples of the scheme convince others to join the party.

Twenty odd years ago, Noakes was a proponent of carbo-loading for endurance sports. Only protein was eaten 3/4 days prior to an event, followed by the excessive consumption of carbohydrates a day or so before the day of competition. At the time, Noakes backed up this theory with lots of ‘scientific’ research in a book that he had written. He believed and made it known that this regime would guarantee improved performance. Most athletes followed this practice, no questions were asked. It was considered ‘fact’ because it was being advocated by a renowned scientist.

There are three sources of energy that humans consume and food is actually the least important. Breathing and drinking are more fundamental and significant than eating. If you stop eating and only breathe and consume water, you would probably live for about 60 days (depending on your constitution and the reasons for the extreme fast). If you stopped drinking water, you would probably last for 7 days. And if you stopped breathing? Probably 5 minutes? This was a well known fact that many of the wise masters/teachers understood many, many years ago. Conscious, mindful, relaxed breathing was considered an essential part to sustain health and enhance energy levels. Softer, internal exercise such as yoga, tai chi and meditation are embedded in the practice of breath.

Clean, unpolluted air and water is a bigger global issue than food and diets. Our environment has become toxic. Many of the dams, lakes and rivers in South Africa are polluted. Acid water from mines and bacterial E coli are frequently found in the water. Of greater concern, however, is the shortage of water being experienced in the country. Not many South Africans are even aware of this major problem.

There is a big psychological component to eating and dieting. This is more evident in societies that have an abundance of food. Obsessiveness, self-image and control issues can play themselves out around what we eat, when we eat and how much we eat.

Rousseau (2012) mentions a research study that examines four different diets that were tested on 811 overweight adults over a two year monitoring period. The diets varied in the amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrates. The subjects were randomly assigned to one of the four diets. The conclusion of the research was that ‘any type of diet, when taught for the purpose of weight loss with enthusiasm and persistence, can be effective’. Further, ‘reduced-calorie diets resulted in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macro nutrients they emphasise’. In other words, eating less is the important thing when it comes to weight loss, rather than what you eat.

In the 1990’s sport science was becoming more and more prominent in the world of elite sport. Technical and tactical information, video analysis, specially designed training programmes, conditioning, nutrition and dietary supplements all became part of the athlete’s preparation. In 1992, the Kenyan middle/long/marathon distance runners were dominating world events to the extent that 2 or 3 of their runners ended up with medals time and time again. I was interested in this and did some of my own research to investigate what was behind this success. I found that if their diet was measured according to our Western standards they would be considered undernourished. They did not go to gyms for training. They did not know how to work the sophisticated machinery that populate our gyms. They had no scientific training programmes, nor had any conditioning coaching. While there may have been physical and physiological factors that favoured them, these were not clearly measurable, and/or so vastly different from all the other athletes they competed against. So what then was underlying their success? They lived and trained at altitude. As children they ran everywhere. Running was their only mode of transport. More importantly, they trained together as a pack under the supervision of a catholic missionary who offered them emotional support. In their training they acquired a pack mentality where there was co-operative competitiveness in the group. During races they broke down their opposition much the same way as a pack of wild dogs do while hunting down their prey.

On a fundamental level, most modern industrialised societies eat too much refined and processed food that contain corn syrup and sugar, causing health issues. The addiction to sugar and processed food has a physiological and psychological component. Most processed foods are comfort foods. Prepared processed foods are readily available in vast quantities as well. In a consumer driven society, processed foods are convenient and are guzzled at a rapid rate. In today’s world, there is constant rush and ‘quick meals’ on the run, are the order of the day. Proper preparation of food usually takes time and effort. It has also been said that proper preparation of food is an endeavour of love and care.

By definition, healthy eating will exclude refined, processed foods as much as possible. This is pure common sense.

As a clinician I have noticed that a person’s relationship with food is driven by a personality dynamic that matches (or reflects) the way a person (a) deals with life demands and (b) interacts with others in life in general. For example, if a person is controlling and obsessive in his dealings with others, he/she will most likely be controlling and obsessive about food and diet.

My own personal philosophy is what dictates my eating habits, and the attitude and relationship I have to food. I have been following a vegetarian diet for 30 years. This decision was not due to poor health, but rather was based on my own personal philosophical view of life. I do not eat red meats, chicken or fish. I believe that I have managed to get all of the necessary nutrients (fats, protein and carbohydrates) eating all of the diverse foods that are available. Throughout this time, I have not put on weight and am blessed with good health. However, I do not take my health for granted, since I see health as an ongoing, never-ending mindful process of care of oneself. I exercise regularly and my eating habits are based on moderation, balance and simplicity.

Our competitive industrial Western societies do not take easily to the ideas of moderation, balance and simplicity. New ideas or fads that make you feel that you are one-up or better than others are quickly embraced and gobbled up in a fanatical frenzy, especially if significant rewards are received in the short-term. Quick fixes and short-cuts often lie at the heart of a fad. At present, there is just too much talking, selling and hype that surrounds the LCHF diet. It is for this reason that Heystek suggests that the LCHF diet that is being so strongly advocated by Noakes feels like a Ponzi scheme.

I recently watched a pied kingfisher dive and dive for food. Despite his numerous attempts no food was forthcoming. That is the harsh reality of nature. Despite this, nature continues to sustain itself in a dynamic way since the food chain is interwoven in a delicate, inter-dependent fabric. There are no excesses. Everything is in balance.

Never-ending persistence...
Never-ending persistence…
Working for food
Working for food…
Again and again...
Again and again…

One thought on “The complexity of diets

  1. Ian

    Hi Ken

    Thanks for another interesting article to ponder on.

    I’m interested that you refer to Heysteck’s article as a basis for your article. I saw his article when it was published and my initial thought after reading it was that he was merely writing on this topic to get a response and to get noticed – after all it is a fairly hot topic and having a contrary opinion to the Banting followers is sure to get some response. I didn’t find much background or basis for him having an informed opinion, but I guess he doesn’t need that to have an opinion.

    About 2 and a half years ago, just before Comrades, when I happened to be lean and trim (and actually quite fit), I attended a talk by Prof Noakes on his thoughts. To be honest, I went there with full intentions to take him on in a public forum on his views (which at the time were not really supported fully).

    Now I’m by no means an elite athlete, but I have done a few Ironman and a few Comrades and each time I have done some “tweaking” of my diet to get better performance. I’ve had a fairly intense interest in finding an optimal diet for endurance sport, stemming way back to ’92 when as part of a lightweight rowing squad, I needed to manage my weight down below a certain number, yet still be able to perform at a World class level. In those days, there was no such thing as sports nutrition.

    So at this talk by Noakes, I was ready to throw everything I’d learned (a lot from him) back at him. Well for almost 3 hours he had a packed audience glued to his every word. He told an incredibly good story and at the end I could not fault his logic. He was incredibly humble in his approach, starting his talk apologising for his previous teachings – “I’m sorry, I now realise I was wrong” was how he started. “As scientists, we know that in 10 years time, 50% of what we know now is wrong – we just done know which 50%”. I left that talk with a lot to mull over.

    Last December, I decided for myself to go onto the Banting diet (a week before Christmas was tough). Why? Well I had started getting into bad eating habits of chocolates etc. and had got to my highest weight. But I also wanted to see how I would perform as an athlete. I lost 10 kgs in 2 months. My biggest finding was how I felt running Comrades (and a number of other endurance events). I never got any stomach cramps late in the race, something that I and most long distance athletes struggle with. I also found my energy levels were way more consistent, particularly in that post lunch period.

    Unfortunately, much of the hype around the Banting diet is made by people like Heysteck, who have probably never met Noakes, or listened to what he says, or even understand what he is suggesting.

    What he is suggesting is very much about balance. It is true that that balance doesn’t include everything that has come into being to support our quest for instant gratification – namely the vast amount of carbohydrates.

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