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High fat and animal protein diet debate disturbs South African nutrition community

From our General Secretary Namukolo Covic

Recent debate over high fat and high protein diet regimens has disturbed South African nutrition and other health professionals. At the head of this debate is one of South Africa’s most respected sports nutrition scientists, Prof Tim Noakes of the University of Cape Town (UCT). Prof Noakes has for some time been publicly advocating that currently accepted dietary recommendations favouring low fat carbohydrate based diets do not promote good health, and that the recommendations in his opinion may in fact be contributing to increased noncommunicable disease (NCD) risk. He was recently invited to participate in a highly publicized public debate on the issue as part of the UCT centenary celebrations but decided not to complete the debate to the disappointment of many who would have liked to have more clarity on the issue (Bateman, 2013). In a published interview he indicated that in his opinion the debate was not aimed at getting clarity on the matter but at his public humiliation (Bateman, 2013).

South Africa is currently facing an escalating overweight and obesity problem due to a rapid nutrition transition taking place (Vorster et al., 2011). The nutrition transition is resulting in a shift in dietary patterns towards a more westernised diet comprised of higher amounts of fats, including saturated fats, animal source proteins and sugars. At the same time the country is also experiencing increased prevalence of NCDs such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension. Diabetes and hypertension ranked 6th and 8th among the top ten underlying causes of death in 2009 with hypertension having moved from 10th position in 2007 (Statistics South Africa, 2011). Against this background for such a leading scientist to advocate a high fat high animal source protein diet has indeed disturbed not only nutrition professionals but also other health professionals.

The stature of Prof. Noakes as a scientist who has over the years greatly influenced thinking particularly in sports nutrition means there is need for this debate to be put to rest sooner rather than later. It is important that credible scientific evidence be used to move the debate to a conclusion. As public health nutritionists with a mandate to work towards disease prevention and better health through prudent nutrition, we must actively engage in this debate and contribute towards correctly informing the populations we serve. A detailed commentary on the UCT centenary celebrations debate has been published by Bateman (2013) in the South African Medical Journal.


Bateman C (2013) Indaba: inconvenient truth or public health threat. SAfr Med J, 103 (2) 69-71. Available online.
Statistics South Africa (2011) Release P0309.3. Mortality and causes of death in South Africa 2009. Findings from death notification. Available online.
Vorster H H, Kruger A, and Margetts B M (2011) The Nutrition Transition in Africa: can it be steered into a more positive direction? Nutrients, 3: 429-441. Available online.

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