Protein vs. carbs: the great debate


Nutrition, like any other field of knowledge, is often rocked by controversies. While some may throw up their hands in horror, I find such differences of opinion refreshing and stimulating. Our knowledge would after all not expand, if no one ever challenges existing beliefs.

The professor’s opinion

A recent report of an interview with Prof Tim Noakes, doyen of the Sports Science Institute in Cape Town, which was published in the Southern Suburbs Tatler in August 2011, quotes Prof Noakes as saying that “Everything we have been taught about nutrition is wrong!” (Kotze, 2011)  In the interview, Prof Noakes basically said that nutrition recommendations stating that carbohydrates should form the basis of the human diet (an approach which he too supported and wrote about until recently), are responsible for the obesity epidemic and many of the degenerative diseases that plague mankind.

In addition to blaming the current nutrition fraternity for propagating the wrong messages to the public, food technologists for producing the offending foods, and the pharmaceutical industry for cashing in on fixing the diseases thus created, Prof Noakes states that, “Prior to World War 2 people ate a high protein diet and were healthier for it. We can trace the increase of disease and obesity to the introduction of flour, sugar and processed foods into our diet.”(Kotze, 2011).

Prof Noakes advocates drastic changes and suggests that everyone should read books such as Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes or The Dukan Diet by Dr Pierre Dukan, that sportsmen and women should stop using energy drinks or fruit juice, and switch over to drinking tap water, and that we should all start eating proteins big time (Kotze, 2011).

The reaction

Needless to say, these rather drastic pronouncements by Prof Noakes, have resulted in a lively exchange of ideas. Nick Starke (2011), one of SA’s leading food technologists, has come to the defence of food technology. He points out that unless you grow your own food, slaughter your own livestock and catch your own fish, modern humans are reliant on the techniques and processes developed by the skills of the aforementioned maligned food technologists to preserve and distribute foods grown or produced further afield than your back garden.

It would be fascinating to see what would happen to the world if all food processing shut down for just one month. You would not be able to pop over to your local supermarket to buy your food supplies, starvation, which is already rife, would affect more and more people, vast quantities of good food would rot before it could reach us and the world as we know it would probably come to a grinding halt. This would probably reduce the world’s population and lower average life expectancy dramatically. An apocalyptic scenario which is too horrid to contemplate.

What would such a changeover entail?

As a nutritionist, I would also be interested to see what the good Professor’s suggestions that we switch from eating carbohydrates like grains and cereals to proteins and fats, would have on health and the world in general. I can’t figure out how Prof Noakes concluded that our recent ancestors in the pre-World War 2 period ate a diet high in protein. Protein foods such as meat, fish, eggs, milk and dairy have always been luxury foods, mainly accessible to the upper classes (the ones portrayed as roly-polies with gout!).

I do agree that in past centuries indigenous populations in Africa, America, Australia and other parts of the globe ate unrefined diets consisting mainly of wholegrains, roots, wild fruits and vegetables, together with small quantities of meat, some sour milk, and fermented drinks such as sorghum and millet beer. These populations had a low incidence of degenerative diseases and obesity, but their ‘caveman-type diets’ were also low in fat and meat was a luxury. The Masai and Inuit (cited by Prof Noakes as examples of healthy populations existing exclusively on protein foods), who previously survived on milk and meat, or fish and seals, respectively, also did a great deal of physical exercise which is one factor that has disappeared from our modern world. Old age, which permits us the dubious "luxury" of developing degenerative diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, heart disease and cancer, was also rare and on average, few of our ancestors survived beyond the age of 40 in the 1800s or 50 in the 1900s (Wiki-Answers, 2011).

I too am an advocate of drinking water, but given the disastrous situation at most of our sewage plants in SA, our polluted rivers and springs, acid mine water runoff, contamination of our water supplies by hormone disruptors derived from pesticide residues and female hormones thanks to contraception and HRT, and the prediction that future wars will no longer be fought over ideals, but the dwindling water supply of our planet, I am worried that it will soon no longer be safe or feasible to drink water that has not been processed.

Is it possible?

If Prof Noakes is correct and the human race needs to change from eating grains and cereals to eating meat and fish, then we face a great dilemma which has nothing to do with nutrition, and everything to do with other factors such as production capacity, global warming and the population explosion. Let’s say the 2011 census finds that South Africa has a population of 50 million people and 50% of these people are adults and every adult needs to eat at least 100 g of meat or fish a day. This would translate into a total requirement of 2 500 metric tons of these protein foods per day and 912 500 metric tons per annum.

According to a SA Agricultural Baseline report, published by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy in 2009,  South Africa produced 859 000 tons of beef and veal, 164 000 tons of mutton and lamb, 208 000 tons of pork and 1 421 000 tons of chicken in 2007-2008, thus a total of 2 652 000 metric tons of ‘meat’ per annum, not all of which was consumed locally, but also exported to other countries. No figures for fish production are available (BFAP, 2009). It would, therefore, appear that at this moment, we are still able to provide 100g of animal protein per day to 50% of our population.

However, according to the FAOSTAT Database for Food Balance Sheets (FAO, 2011), food supply data as cited above, is based on live animal weight (i.e. including skin, bone, and intestines plus content). In general, a carcass weighs 45% less after slaughtering and additional losses occur when the carcass is cut up (3-5% due to trimming, 15% from bone) and during cooking (34-45%). Provided no wastage occurs, then only about 1/3 of the original weight of a meat carcass as cited in supply data is consumed. It is, therefore, probable that our production of animal protein may no longer meet present day demand.

Because carbohydrates remain the most efficient source of readily available energy, we would not only have a protein shortage if we had to remove all grains and cereals from the South African diet, but also face a serious dietary energy crisis as we would need to make up the kJ-deficit from sources like fruit, vegetables and animal foods. This would thus increase the demand for protein foods even further, which would rapidly outstrip supply.

If we look at these figures, and consider the crisis our meat producers find themselves in having suffered a loss of R4 billion (Gosling, 2011), the empty over-fished oceans and climate change that is transforming once verdant pastures into barren deserts, then I wonder where the additional animal protein is supposed to come from?

So even if international nutrition bodies such as the World Health Organisation take heed of Prof Noakes’ call for us to switch to an animal protein-based diet, there is no way that any, but an elite few, will be able to put this recommendation into practice. The way things are going, we humans will anyway soon all be reliant on microorganisms to produce our food supplies à la Soylent Green!

The balanced approach

In view of the impossibility of changing our present day diets to a high animal protein intake, perhaps the approach of the nutrition and dietetic fraternity is not so stupid after all. The basis of our approach is to encourage the populations of the world to eat a varied diet that includes all the food groups (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) within the constraints of their budgets and local availability, and not to overdo any one type of food, to do regular exercise and above all to strive for moderation.

Could this be a case of “Let them eat meat!” instead of “Let them eat cake!”? And we all know what happened to Queen Marie Antoinette after making the latter pronouncement!

  - (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, first published in September 2011)


(BFAP 2009. The SA Agricultural Baseline 2009. Bureau for Food & Agricultural Policy. ; FAO 2011. FAOSTAT database for food balance sheets.; Gosling M, 2011.R4bn loss.; Kotze K, 2011. Everything we have been taught about nutrition is wrong, says professor. Southern Suburbs Tatler, August 18 2011, p. 23; Starke A N, 2011. Letter to the Editor of the  Southern Suburbs Tatler, 19 August 2011; Wiki-Answers, 2011.

Read more:

Tim Noakes on carbohydrates
Protein: enough is good but is more better?
Carbs and weight loss
Tim Noakes: refined carbs may be toxic
Carbo facts for sport fanatics
How Tim Noakes wants you to train

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