Professor Noakes Found Innocent (Again)!

Photo Credit: © The Noakes Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Photo Credit: © The Noakes Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Today, Professor Tim Noakes was found innocent of all charges in proceedings against him by South African medical authorities. This is his second acquittal; the first came in April 2017, which was then appealed. 

The charges against Prof. Noakes were clearly baseless from the start. He was accused of endangering the public and of "unprofessional conduct" for giving "unconventional" advice to a breastfeeding mother, by tweeting to her that she could safely wean her child on to a low-carb, high-fat diet. 

This single tweet -- which was posted in February of 2014 -- sparked more than 4 years of hearings, with Noakes defending himself at his own expense and under the threat of losing his medical license. If you want to read the official, unanimous (13-0) decision, it is here.

The larger story behind the Tim Noakes hearing is truly alarming: it reveals that the S., African Dietitian's Association -- coupled with university professors and S. African Medical authorities -- had been devising a "plan" to silence him, even before filing charges based on his tweet.

His offense? Realizing that the current international dietary guidelines are not based on rigorous evidence -- and telling the world about it.

Until recently, Professor Noakes had focused on exercise science, at the University of Cape Town. In the 1980s, he became the head the school's Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine and later teamed up with former South African rugby player Morne du Plessis to launch the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.

Few scientists enjoyed his acclaim; indeed, he has authored or co-authored of more than 500 scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals.

However in recent years, Noakes became interested in nutrition, after discovering that despite being a successful marathon runner for decades, he had developed type 2 diabetes. His research led him to recant the idea of "carb loading" for endurance athletes and he himself adopted a low-carbohydrate diet. Upon publishing The Real Meal Revolution, a South African bestseller, Noakes became a famous advocate for this dietary approach.

Noakes' change of views on nutrition, however, alienated colleagues who had long backed the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet enshrined in all countries' dietary guidelines. Noakes was shunned from his university, and former colleagues even penned an open letter accusing Noakes of "making outrageous unproven claims."

For the first hearing of the Noakes case in the fall of 2016, Nina Teicholz, Executive Director of The Nutrition Coalition, flew to Cape Town to deliver testimony on how low-carbohydrate diets are, indeed, evidence based, and that paradoxically, it was the "conventional," low-fat diet that has long lacked a solid scientific foundation. Other expert witnesses included Dr. Zoe Harcombe, author of two important papers (here and here) establishing the lack of evidence behind the UK or U.S. dietary guidelines on fat, and also Dr. Caryn Zinn, a dietician from New Zealand. That hearing ended with Professor Noakes being acquitted on all counts.

A few months later, when S. Africa authorities appealed their own decision, an international group of doctors launched a petition in defense of Professor Noakes, signed by more than 37,000 people when it was delivered to S. African authorities in February of this year. (The petition, which was supported by The Nutrition Coalition, will now be closed- at nearly 43,000 signatures total.)

The implications of the "Noakes Trial" could very well be far reaching. With the low-carbohydrate diet now established by authorities as not "unconventional," (or, as pronounced in the judgement of the first trial, "not 'not evidence based'") for children, it should become more difficult to prosecute health professionals who promote this diet for health. Such cases have been pursued in recent years against doctors and dietitians from Tasmania to Sweden. (For a recounting of all these cases, see the last chapter of Diabetes Unpacked.) Hopefully the Noakes case will put an end to questions about this evidence. (The Nutrition Coalition maintains a list of the at least 70 clinical trials showing low-carb diets to be safe and effective.)

For more on the Tim Noakes case, read The Lore of Nutrition, by Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros, or Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick, by Daryl Ilbury.