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Helen Moffett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Banting, women and rage

mushrooms smallI’ve stayed clear of the great Noakes/low-carb/Banting debate-cum-frenzy that has seized South Africa and especially Cape Town, not least because Tim is a friend and co-author. He gave me the opportunity to help write Bob Woolmer’s life work, which we brought to completion (in large part thanks to our editor, Tom Eaton, and the wonderful team at Struik) after Bob’s tragic death. There was something rare and special about that experience, and it’s no exaggeration to say it changed my life. So Tim is not an ordinary colleague, and I’ve watched the fur fly over his latest enthusiasm from a distance only.

I haven’t read The Real Meal Revolution. But I know the Banting basics, and as someone with PCOS and fasting insulin levels through the roof as a result, it’s done wonders for me. For decades, I bought the fat-free myth, once going completely fat-free for six months – results: a pathetic weight loss of 1,5kg and a scolding from my gynaecologist (“fat is needed for oestrogen production!”).

The Noakes diet is pretty easy for me because it’s similar to one my family always followed: no trans-fats or junk foods (slurryburgers and their ilk, with their associated animal suffering), bare minimum of refined processed carbs and sugar, vast quantities of veggies and leaves. So all I really had to do was cut out toast when it was midnight with 2000 words still to write, and add fat – organic butter, milk and cream, cheese, nuts, avos, lashings of olive oil – and bingo, off fell the weight, most likely because I was no longer hungry All. The. Time.

But the diets of individuals are boring to all but fellow-sufferers, on a par with describing the details of your operations. Banting works for me, a 50-something woman who has two infertility-related chronic conditions that buggered up my pancreas. Unless you have my identical health profile, I have no idea if it will work for you too. Personally, my views on nutrition chime mostly with this sensible piece. I’m also interested in this blog by a Mpumalanga doctor, who, desperate to do something for her rural, poverty-stricken and obese patients, tried “Banting on a budget”. Fat is not just a feminist issue, but also an issue of class and systemic poverty.

So. This is not a piece about Banting, or the great Banting debate. This is about rage – the wrath that the Noakes diet, and Tim himself, have triggered. And to some degree, the messianic fervour with which both the man and the diet are viewed by its acolytes. The latter is something I see in context – I’ve been party to Tim’s enthusiasms and ideas for nearly three decades (those involved in the cricket book will remember him waxing lyrical about Donald Bradman’s “rotary batting style”, and the central governor mechanism in the brain). I’ve also learned that he’s often (not always) right, and he has no problem with being proved wrong.

I suspect the adulation has to do with dieters being allowed to eat real food again. No more polystyrene rice cakes. None of those vile catch-the-back-of-the-throat chemical-syrup salad dressings and sauces. No more fat-free factory-made products spiked with corn syrup or artificial sweetener (seriously, folks, how can you drink diet cola? It makes me feel as if I’ve been sucking on a car exhaust). Celery sticks and carrot batons can now be dipped in guacamole or cream cheese. Your chicken breast can be drenched in blue cheese sauce. And so on.

But the shadow side is the rage Banting invokes in so many. And this fascinates me, because I believe that one of the things feeding the vitriol is gender attitudes. The fury is often wrapped up with (no doubt sincere) concerns about the long-term health impact of the high-fat, low-carb regime, especially for those with cholesterol issues. But high-fat diets have been with us for decades (Atkins, anyone?), and there’s been nothing like this opprobrium. And remember those X Diet books that made fat the ultimate enemy, and insisted that pre-diabetics eat carbs? (frankly dangerous, in my non-medical opinion). The author would share how she’d binge guilt-free – “Look, no butter!” – on bread and honey, and no-one tried to run her out of town.

Hear this. Dieting is one of society’s prime mechanisms for controlling middle-class women and keeping them docile (yes, I know, men have weight and diet issues too. Another topic, as is the fact that these are largely middle-class and Western problems, although they’re transmitted almost virally across class and cultural boundaries.)

Women are taught since girlhood that to be fat is a fate worse than death, that their bodies are to be policed and controlled and punished. That appetites – for food, sex, life – are dangerous.

And we get these messages early. Emma Thompson was dismayed at a child actress’s refusal to drink milk unless it was skimmed – the prepubescent mite was “scared of getting fat”. A friend encountered a preschool classroom in which playing at being “mommies and daddies” meant that the daddies were all in meetings and the mommies were all on diet.

The result is a fucked-up world in which billions are spent on the diet industry, and factories churn out tons of processed diet foods – all while millions don’t have enough to eat from day to day. Also issues for another post.

Meanwhile fat is shameful, especially for women. It ALWAYS indicates lack of self-control (the great “calories in, calories out” bleat of those who have never known insulin resistance or experienced hypoglycaemic shock in their lives – my last hypo episode cost me my two front teeth).

It’s in the interests of capitalist patriarchal systems to keep women shamed, docile and constantly anxious about losing any kind of control. (Men who lose their tempers are part of the scenery, as long as they don’t actually kill anyone; a woman in the throes of primal rage terrifies people.) And making women feel wretched and uncomfortable about food, as well as hungry a lot of the time, is a powerful mechanism for keeping them preoccupied. And a complex web of social choices is inflicted on us as a result.

We’re all familiar with the coffee-shop or restaurant scene: the man of the house is tucking into a full fried breakfast while his wife is toying with the fruit plate or the muesli-yoghurt option. Or he’s chowing down a burger and fries while she chomps her way through a salad (“no dressing, please”). He orders a whack of pudding; she says “I shouldn’t really”, patting her tummy. He snacks on nuts and biltong in front of the soccer; she might nibble on a piece of fruit. He knocks back the beers; she sips white-wine spritzers. We see this pattern repeated daily in middle-class life, also nearly every time we switch on the telly or watch a movie. Women do not have the same freedom to make food choices as men REGARDLESS OF WHAT EITHER OF THEM WEIGH.

Now imagine being a fat woman in this scenario. Maybe she’s that way because she can’t resist second helpings. Or her parents rewarded her with food as a child. Or she’s hitting menopause. Or she’s insulin-resistant. Whatever. She’s always going on diet. She consumes a joyless round of fat-free milk and cottage cheese, diet cereals, brown rice, low-GI bread, cabbage soup, wholewheat pasta with diet tomato sauce (corn sugar in that too), endless salads (but no olives, feta or avo, oh no). Until the hunger and boredom become unbearable and she finds herself at the bottom of a large bag of chips. And she is shamed and guilt-ridden all over again, and is too afraid to go for her annual checkup because she dreads the inevitable finger-wagging (so she misses the early warning signs of cervical cancer, but that’s another story).

Now along comes Noakes: and all of a sudden, our heroine is allowed to eat cream with her strawberries, lash coconut milk into her curries, share hubby’s biltong and nuts. A spread of cheeses, soft squidgy Camenbert, sharp mature Cheddar? Frittata and Spanish omelettes? Roast chicken with the skin nicely crisped? Bacon and avo in salads, drizzled with fruity olive oil? Bring it on. She can even have cheesecake, if she forgoes the sugar and crust.

You have no idea how radical this notion is: that women are permitted to enjoy food. This is one of the (inadvertent?) principles of low-carb, high-fat. No more plastic stuff jimmied up with corn syrup, salt and MSG to try to beat the blandness. Goodbye to cardboard fat-free “foods” fiddled with in factories. No more shame in ordering eggs Florentine for breakfast. No more sideways glances or chiding remarks when daring to eat boerewors or chops at the braai, or dotting veggies with butter or ghee or oil.

And I believe this makes a lot of people – men and women both – deeply uncomfortable without even realising the source of their discomfort. Women aren’t supposed to give themselves over to sensual pleasure or indulge their appetites – especially not fat women, goddess forbid. The idea of women unrestrained by moral guilt (over what they eat, for crying out loud) disturbs many.

I don’t think this is the only or even the main reason the Banting detractors invest so much emotion in their protests, and it’s just a theory. But it makes sense to me. A guy put paid to a friendship of decades the day he decided, unasked, to go through my fridge and pantry: “You’re not allowed these!” he cried, waving half a bar of chocolate and a packet of cashew nuts at me. “And definitely not this!” as he pounced on an ice-cream tub. (It was actually home-made soup from a friend, but WHO THE FUCK CARED, and what the sam hill was he doing in my freezer anyway?)

I shouldn’t have gotten angry: he was simply voicing attitudes to women and their food choices that lie just beneath the surface of most Western cultures. For decades, we’ve had rigid, controlling and judgemental notions of what women – especially fat women – may and may not eat. And Tim Noakes has gone and turned those notions upside down, and BAD VERY NAUGHTY WICKED AND FORBIDDEN foods are now Superheroine foods, ones that women can choose without guilt. No wonder the feathers are flying.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    December 15th, 2014 @15:02 #

    Good piece, Helen. I sometimes joke and make wry comments about this diet (I love potatoes and rice and bread, and, verily, my paunch does bear witness), but it's mainly because of its status as a 'topic of conversation' (Why can't people have such knowledgeable conversations about poetry?).

    I've never considered it from this political angle, though.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    December 15th, 2014 @17:54 #

    Thanks, Rustum. I'm imagining a world in which poems, not diets, are discussed at dinner tables *wistful*...

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Laura Childs</a>
    Laura Childs
    December 16th, 2014 @07:31 #

    Hi Helen!

    A friend sent me the link to your piece and I had goosebumps reading it! Brilliant take! You re-inspired me!

    My daughter and I have been on a similar diet here in Canada. Wecall it "low carb high fat" in Canada, sometimes ketogenic (because getting into that keto state helps burn off stored fat), but mostly we just eat as nature intended - not as our governments suggest. ;)

    Collectively we've lost over 100 pounds! Even at 50 years of age - when I'd all but decided I would be obese and unhappy for the remainder of my days - I lost 50 pounds. I'm sorry I sound overly excited...

    At any rate, I loved your article. Keep spreading the word! (And reminding me that I need to eat more vegetables with all my meat and cheese!)

    Cheers Helen!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    December 16th, 2014 @12:12 #

    Thanks very much, Laura. Someone on my Facebook page got very angry about the increased animal suffering allegedly caused by this diet: so this is a good place to remind everyone that it is perfectly possible to do low-carb/ high-fat as a vegetarian/ piscatarian. Also to note that the worst offenders driving the evil of factory farming are the massive junk food chains offering burgers, fried chicken, etc -- these foods are banned on the Noakes regime, which recommends "happy" meat.


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