We debate Tim Noakes on which diet will save the world

Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor asks:

A while back I wrote a piece expressing concern that diets of the Banting ilk were causing adherents to move away from vegetarian - and thus more environmentally-friendly - food choices.

I mistakenly labelled such diets "high protein" when most purport to be "high fat". A better label to my mind would be "high animal-product" diets. But call them what you will, my concern remains: are they stalling the move to "meat-light" eating?

Tim Noakes responds:

With the exception of the Dukan diet, the other low carbohydrate diets promote high fat, not high protein intakes.

It's the combination of low carbohydrate (including avoidance of GMO cereals and grains) and high fat intakes (with complete avoidance of "vegetable oils") that makes these eating plans so successful (especially for those with insulin resistance).

Watch: Tim Noakes on carbohydrate intolerance

But the discussion of whether this or that diet is "green" is probably irrelevant since adoption of the low-fat high-carbohydrate diet after 1977 produced the diabetes/obesity epidemic that, it is predicted, will bankrupt medical services in the USA by 2026 (perhaps even sooner in South Africa).

Read: South Africans are the fattest in sub Saharan Africa

It's also predicted that the added financial burden of the diabetes/obesity epidemic will be an important factor pushing the US over the "fiscal cliff" within the next 10 years.

The only proven way to reverse that epidemic is to return to how we ate before 1977: by eating more fat (from real foods) and much less carbohydrate.

Any analysis of the environmental cost of eating more fat and less carbohydrate must  include the environmental cost of treating the obesity/diabetes epidemic that was caused by the opposite dietary change introduced after 1977 and which caused both epidemics.

EnviroHealth Ed:

I agree the obesity epidemic is linked to the environmental crisis (See 'Fat Planet' for more on this).

As you say, obesity and diabetes are having a grave economic impact in terms of higher medical costs and more people dying or becoming disabled in their prime productive years - which means less money for green and other essential causes.

And there are additional environmental consequences: larger people require more food to be grown and transported, which requires more land and fossil fuel. Transporting larger people themselves takes more fossil fuel.

So any diet that lowers obesity levels safely is valuable, for both human and planetary health.  

But whether the rising obesity rate over the past 40 years has been only because of eating more carbs is debatable.

The causes of rising obesity may include several factors: among these, the increase in total calorie intake, in energy-dense foods and in sedentary lifestyle habits.

Furthermore, the food-environment relationship doesn't stop with the obesity issue, serious as it is. There are many other complex factors at play, making it confusing to choose wisely what we put on our plates.

Nonetheless some well-informed guidelines have emerged: avoid foods requiring heavy resource inputs and long-distance transport, eat modest amounts, and cut down on animal products. Practically all agriculture has a negative environmental impact, but livestock farming has the greatest.

There's more to health than personal weight loss. In our time, the definition of human health must include healthy ecosystems.

Tim Noakes responds:

The cause of obesity is pretty clear: insulin-resistant people eating more carbs. It's not because we've become lazier; biologically that can't explain the problem.

Also, industry wants us to believe we don't know the cause since that lets them keep driving the epidemic with their addictive foods.

I'm not an expert but understand that the production of corn, soy, wheat etc., is dependent on fertilisers produced from the oil industry and is therefore unsustainable in the long term.

What is the environmental cost of producing the fertilisers and the weed killers used to support global agriculture?

The issues are much more complex than anyone will admit. Each group chooses arguments that support their position whilst ignoring the larger picture.

Then industry gets involved by supporting any scientists who support their needs (animals versus cereals/grains) and the truth becomes hidden.

Let's first sort out the best nutrition for humans to be optimally healthy. That's my interest.

All humans have the right to that information. Then they can decide what to eat and whether they can justify those choices based on effects on the environment etc. If the finding is uncomfortable or inconvenient, then let's address that after we've sorted out the first question.

The problem is that if you're wrong on the obesity issue you're compounding the greatest health problem in the history of medicine. We can't go on ignoring what we know; we must try something else.

Probably tens of thousands of South Africans who've struggled to lose weight are finally succeeding by simply cutting sugar and carbs as we propose. This after they'd failed to lose weight according to the other theories of what causes obesity.

Watch: What going low-carb can do for you

Now they've found something that works. And we ignore it because it's inconvenient or conflicts with other agendas - yours being your belief that the only way to save the planet is for us all to eat grains.

The real problem is that agriculture/grains have allowed the population explosion which then means that the only way to sustain the unsustainably large population is to convert the world to one massive grain field with no other life forms. Is that sustainable?

EnviroHealth Ed responds:

Modern industrial agriculture and population numbers are indeed unsustainable. Saving the planet (i.e. ourselves) will require addressing these issues along with others of resource over-exploitation and pollution.

Reducing the vast areas devoted to monoculture crops is an important aim; we do need to eat less carbohydrate and sugar.

But curtailing consumption of animal products is even more important. Remember that a huge portion of that grain (roughly a third) is grown just to feed livestock.

Livestock farming contributes the greatest percentage of greenhouse gases in the agricultural sector, and takes up the most land. (Greenhouse gas emissions attributable to animal food production are roughly equivalent to the entire transport sector's contribution. Agriculture now covers about half the world's land surface; of that, 70% is devoted to livestock.)

We should also aim to eat less processed food; the more a product is processed, the more resources it consumes. In this I fully agree with the Banting tenet of choosing whole, "real" foods we prepare ourselves.

Read more:

Eating meat made our ancestors smarter
What Tim Noakes eats
Meat is macho, salad girly: does food have gender?

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