Pretoria - Professor Tim Noakes was being used by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) as a “guinea pig” to test waters on guidelines for the conduct of health professionals on social media, which did not exist.
Defence advocate Michael van der Nest SC, said the HPCSA had freely admitted it did not have any guidelines or any norms and standards for health professionals with regards to their conduct on social media.
Van der Nest said the case was nothing more than a “disgruntled dietitian” who had reported Noakes to the HPCSA because he was threatening her livelihood and that of other dietitians.
He was speaking during the second day of proceedings into the appeal by the HPCSA in Pretoria, seeking to overturn a not guilty verdict against Noakes for advising a mother to wean her baby on to a low-carbohydrate, high fat diet in 2014.
In April, Noakes was found not guilty of misconduct after the regulatory body received a complaint about him giving the advice to a mother on Twitter.
Noakes had advised the mother via Twitter to wean her child on to low-carbohydrate, high fat foods. He described these as “real” foods.
The mother tweeted: “@ProfTim-Noakes @SalCreed is low-carbohydrate, high fat eating ok for breastfeeding moms? Worried about all the dairy + cauliflower = wind for babies??”
Noakes then advised the mother to wean her child on to low-carbohydrate, high fat foods, which he described as “real” foods.
In response he tweeted: “Baby doesn’t eat the dairy and cauliflower. Just very healthy high-fat breast milk. Key is to wean baby on to low-carbohydrate, high fat.”
Van der Nest said the dietitian used the mother’s tweet as a pretext. “Somehow she managed to get the machinery and might of the state, a statutory body, to prosecute him. How was that allowed to happen?” Van der Nest asked.
He added that the HPCSA was unable to prove a doctor-patient relationship between Noakes and the mother.
He contested the body’s decision to charge Noakes with giving “unconventional advice”.
Van der Nest said: “Since when do we prosecute people for being unconventional? Science needs people to be unconventional to move forward.”
He lambasted advocate Ajay Bhoopchand, for the HPCSA, for comparing Noakes's advice to that of apartheid era Dr Wouter Basson and the Life Esidimeni hospital scandal. These comparisons were “wholly inappropriate”, Van der Nest said.
People died as a result of ingesting chemicals that Basson had developed as part of the apartheid government’s chemical weapons programme against its opponents. There was no evidence or claim of any harm whatsoever from Noakes’s tweet, he said.
Speaking to the Pretoria News following the adjournment of the appeal, Noakes said that for the first time in four and a half years he was confident the decision would go his way and that he felt as though he was seeing the end of the road.
He said he believed there were two crucial issues that had led the HPCSA to continue to prosecute him for the matter.
Firstly, that failure to prove a doctor-patient relationship could coincidentally result in it being more difficult to prosecute him.
Secondly, that if he was exonerated, the public would realise what he had been saying about diet all along was correct and that dietitians who stood up against him were in fact wrong.
He said: “The bigger implication is that if I am right, the dietetics training will need to change and that is what dietitians are worried about as they are not prepared to change the way they teach.”
Noakes said that having read up on the body of work on the low-carbohydrate, high fat diet before he was diagnosed with diabetes in 2010, he also realised he was simply eating too much carbohydrates. Reducing and adopting a new diet, he said, had changed his health profoundly.
He said his pro low carbohydrate, high fat stance stemmed from shocking statistics showing that diabetes was the most prevalent condition in the world with 400 million cases. A total of 15 000 South Africans were being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes every month due to a poor diet.
“But I’ve got the knowledge of how you prevent and it’s my responsibility as ordained by the HPCSA that if you know something you must act on it and that is what I am doing and now I am being prosecuted for that,” Noakes said.
He rubbished assertions that he did not have the expertise or experience to give neonatal or infant care advice, stating that the prosecution had conveniently chosen to forget that he was an A1-rated scientist in nutrition.
Babies were the same as adults; the only difference is that they required a higher fat diet as their brains must be developed; so they needed the low-carbohydrate, high fat more than adults in reality.