In South Africa, Going Carb-Free Is a Political Choice
A diet trend in Cape Town and Johannesburg has far-reaching historical implications
In the dappled, Jacaranda-scented shade of Johannesburg’s majority-white suburbs, or the sun-drenched patios of Cape Town’s coastline, bacon and eggs have made a grandiose return. But beside the English breakfast staple, you’ll find no trace of toast or porridge. Muffin baskets are quietly ushered from the periphery. Quinoa granola and chia seed smoothies are decidedly out of fashion. Only in South Africa could bacon and eggs turn into a politicized controversy.
The man responsible for this is Tim Noakes, a homely, affable white sports scientist in his sixties, often spotted around Cape Town in his trademark uniform of high-waisted trousers, golf shirt, and sneakers. He doesn’t look like someone who would start a “real meal revolution,” the name he chose for his nationally best-selling recipe book which has ushered in a wave of devotees to the gospel of Low Carb High Fat, also known as Banting, after the 19th century undertaker who cured his obesity by drastically cutting out sugar. The Banting diet does just this, while going for broke with eggs, bacon, butter, cream, avocados, and nuts.
Restaurants ride the wave with special “Banting” menus that include cauliflower-crust pizza and sushi rolled with carrot and cucumber instead of rice. Supermarkets pile up the pre-peeled boiled eggs, while their avocado baskets look like watering holes in a drought. Healthstores cannot meet the demand for flax crackers.
The tenets of Banting will be familiar to anyone who witnessed the craze over the Atkins diet circa 2003. In its wake, dieticians the world over are coming around to the belief that since the 1960s, our vilification of saturated fat in favor of high-carb alternatives has caused current crises of obesity and heart disease. But, like Atkins, Banting still causes palpitations in international health science circles. The common wisdom among the cautious is that Noakes takes it too far—especially with his claims that cholesterol is not as harmful as it is generally believed to be. In an open letter to the Cape Times, a group of doctors based at the University of Cape Town lambasted Noakes: “Having survived AIDS denialism, we do not need to be exposed to cholesterol denialism, too.”
But the battle over bacon and eggs in South Africa goes far beyond dietary science. The debates over Banting have organized along visibly political and racial lines. And in day-to-day South African politics, this also makes the science irrelevant. Banting has become a trope, a way of describing things; it has infiltrated the rich tapestry of vernacular metaphor. Op-eds have called for a more “Banting” approach to politics: that is, a focus on muscular policy over sugary spin. Ironically, whether people can get behind Banting usually depends entirely on how you spin it. Where extreme political divisions can feel palpably personal, this is the politics of food at its most literal.
Noakes’s all-or-nothing approach has landed him in trouble more than once, but his story of “enlightenment” is also what has fed his cultish, almost biblical persona. His first book, The Lore of Running (published in 1985, when he was 27) proselytizes carbo-loading, something he attributes to being young and naïve at the time. A few years ago, feeling awful after years of following a low-fat, high-carb diet, he chanced upon an email advertising the Atkins diet — wildly popular in America in the early aughts, and all but dismissed as bogus since then. He bought the book as a desperate measure; an hour later he dramatically declared, “I’ve eaten my last carb.” “Tear out the chapter in the Lore of Running,” he told the Mail & Guardian, a South African newspaper. “I was wrong.”
Now it is his gung-ho attitude toward dispensing the “good news” that has, despite his soaring popularity, placed him under scrutiny from health boards and the public alike. Noakes has publicly suggested that certain politicians may be carbohydrate-intolerant; he has said that poor children should be eating animal organs instead of the customary maize porridge. Most recently, he appeared before the Health Professionals Council for advising a woman, over Twitter, to wean her baby from breast milk to Banting. Die-hard supporters showed up in red T-shirts to match the cover of his book, and changed their profile pictures to a rasher of bacon in an AIDS-ribbon loop. Noakes, in the role of charismatic rebel, claims he is up against the agendas of Big Food and Big Medicine.
While most of the country lives on fast food and cheap meat, sliced bread, beans, and maize porridge, Banting has been mocked as the fare of the white, wealthy, and gullible. Its menu is full of pricey staples like organic pork, salmon, nuts, coconut oil, and avocados; its bastion is the high-end supermarket, Woolworths. “Banters” belong to the subset of South African society that seemed to discover politics for the first time when, in December, President Jacob Zuma impulsively dismissed then-Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene — spooking ratings agencies and investors, and leaving the country instantly poorer. Students who had organized under the banners of “Rhodes Must Fall” and “Fees Must Fall” — and who had been fighting the state for almost a year to “decolonize” university campuses and lower tertiary education fees — were less than amused to see the equivalent of a Whole Foods crowd co-opt their name by forming “Zuma Must Fall.”
It was not the name that was the problem — student activists were rallying against Zuma too — but the entitlement of the people behind it. Their loose collective seemed to materialize the instant their wealth was threatened, and not a second before. As they gathered outside Parliament to protest, what followed was a carousel of clueless stereotypes. Protesters treated it like a fun day out, taking selfies. A woman in a Nelson Mandela t-shirt sat cross-legged, meditating in the middle of the hubbub. Her portrait soon became a meme, a symbol of everything that goads and grates about this particular group: superficial hippie-dom, consuming the trappings of a movement without participating in the work of it. Desiring peace at the expense of a disenfranchised majority. Being ostentatiously happy in Cape Town’s plush oases while the rest of the city suffers in poverty. Supporting the right-of- center opposition party instead of the radical left. Its hashtags: #campsbayyoga #sohappyincapetown #waldorfmarket — and #banting.
The appeal of Noakes’s all-or-nothing approach speaks to a nervous gentry in a high-stakes, winner-takes-all political atmosphere, in which the tone has long been one of desperate measures and damage control. The association of Banting with the Zuma Must Fall movement is no coincidence: At its heart it’s a symptom of a society hankering for a hero, a dispenser of easy solutions to complex problems. In times of chaos, people are wont to turn to their diets as a means of control, and the wealth and stability of South Africa’s predominantly white middle and upper classes has never been as threatened as it has been in recent years.
On the other hand: Noakes works hard to prove that far from being a fad among the elite, Banting is quite literally a matter of life and death. He recently partnered with local actress Euodia Samson to introduce the Banting lifestyle to the poorer regions of Cape Flats. These vast, windswept plains beyond Cape Town’s city center are well known as the inhospitable territory to which, during apartheid, many people of color were forcibly relocated after their homes were demolished to make room for white development.
Working with a group of 40 women, most of them obese and many with diabetes, Samson helped them to source food like salmon off-cuts, chicken livers, and sausage without fillers, explaining that Banting is quite simply the way their grandparents used to eat. Forced removals were the reason these families veered away from a more Banting-friendly lifestyle, Samson told the Cape Times. “They couldn’t take their pigs and ducks and veggie gardens from Constantia to a second-floor council flat in Manenberg or Lavender Hill.”
Many of the participants — mainly mixed-race, or “colored,” as it is called in South Africa — had lost family members to diabetes or similar diseases. On the day of the launch, an emotional Noakes said that it was always his intention to bring Banting to the people. To the goliath nemeses he had already invoked — Big Food and Big Medicine — he could now add South Africa’s favorite enemy: apartheid. As with all disasters, diabetes and heart disease have affected the poor most gravely. In a country where state-subsidized white bread is still a staple for the poor, and where it is often slathered with margarine — still being advertised as “good for your heart” — the realization that starch and sugar have literally been killing people all along is horrifying. It gives “white guilt” a whole new dimension.
Whether Noakes is correct or not, he is a white man in high-waisted trousers who professes to know what’s best for the poor, and in the world of South African identity politics, that’s a tough look to pull off. Supporting Noakes would mean, to some degree, aligning oneself with this look, even if it sits uncomfortably with one’s politics, and it’s this discomfort that deters many from engaging with his science in the first place. Tim Noakes becomes “Tim Noakes,” a stand-in, a cipher. It’s not his science that’s on trial, but all the baggage that Banting brings with it.
To many, Noakes appears to live in Opposite Land, where bacon fat is good and whole grains are bad, where the bizarre is right and the conventional wrong. To challenge received wisdom is particularly risky in a society where the truth might have been switched up one too many times, a society built on layers of conflicting narratives — from the heroism of the Afrikaners to Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation, to the more recent call for violent emancipation of the disenfranchised by the red beret-wearing Economic Freedom Fighters. How successful you are depends almost entirely on who you are — and what you represent. The ensuing chaos appears as a racket of jammed signals, a pastiche of memes. A meditating woman, a march. A Nelson Mandela T-shirt, a red beret. A rasher of bacon in an AIDS-ribbon loop.