Food industry is out to get me, says Noakes
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Cape Town - “This has all been to shut me up,” Professor Tim Noakes said after he emerged victorious from a lengthy legal battle to prove his innocence against allegations of professional misconduct.
The Banting expert was speaking shortly after the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) found him not guilty of the charge.
The case of misconduct was brought against the sports scientist and author after it emerged he had given nutritional advice to a breastfeeding mother on Twitter in 2014.
Noakes said the case was about “shutting up any voice trying to change public opinion about food and the food industry”, adding that a number of people had tried to discredit him and tarnish his legacy as a researcher.
“This case and the industries behind it were trying to shut me up and shut everyone up about what we should eat,” Noakes said.
The complaint was brought to the HPCSA by former president of the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), Claire Julsing-Strydom, after she saw a Twitter conversation between Noakes and Pippa Leenstra, who asked if a breastfeeding mother eating dairy and cauliflower would give her baby wind.
In his response, Noakes said: “Baby does not eat dairy or cauliflower. Just very healthy high fat breast milk. Key is to ween (sic) baby on low carb high fat (LCHF).”
The controversial tweet led to the three-year long investigation and hearings. It also sparked public outcry from those who believed Noakes’s conduct was unprofessional and potentially harmful.
According to the ADSA, Noakes should have known better than to give “unsolicited medical advice” on social media. They argued he should have referred Leenstra to a dietitian to avoid causing confusion on the social media platform.
“Although with good intent, Noakes did not act as a reasonable doctor,” the ADSA submitted.
Giving the judgment on Friday, the chairperson of the Professional Conduct Committee, Joan Adams, said the complainant had failed to prove Noakes had been giving medical advice or that he and Leenstra had a doctor-patient relationship which could have resulted in Leenstra applying Noakes’s advice. Instead, because of a lack of this relationship, Leenstra spoke of consulting other people on the matter.
Adams said people who use Twitter were not vulnerable, uninformed or ignorant.
“If Ms Leenstra’s baby was in real medical threat, she would not have wasted time on Twitter, she would have sought medical assistance,” Adams said.
Four of the five member committee found Noakes not guilty, while one member, Alfred Liddle, disagreed.
Liddle broke down and cried when he told the committee that Noakes should have know his actions could mislead many people. He would not comment further.
According to the ADSA, Noakes’s advice was “not based on current scientific evidence; contradicted international and local guidelines for complementary feeding adopted by organisations like the World Health Organisation; could negatively affect a baby’s health, growth and development; and was provided via Twitter without an examination or consideration of the baby’s health or age and therefore nutritional needs”.
However, Adams said “unconventional” did not mean unprofessional. She said the committee found Noakes’s tweet at worst unclear and at best promoting breastfeeding, but not harmful in anyway.
Noakes was elated after the judgment, saying he was relieved.
He said the verdict cleared him of any wrongdoing and was a 100% victory.
He and his family had suffered a lot of strain as a result of the case, but had decided to fight, he said.
Reacting after the verdict, Leenstra said: “I honestly don’t have a reaction, I don’t have an opinion on him and merely asked a question. I wasn’t even aware that the case was carrying on and that there was a verdict until one of my friends told me. His case really has nothing to do with me.”
Cape Town-based paediatric dietitian, Bridget Surtees, said she was thrilled about the verdict.
She said she had backed Noakes all along and was giving her clients the same advice: to feed their children a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet.
“This means eating whole foods and avoiding sugar and processed foods. We should be eating food in a form that is closest to the natural form,” Surtees said, adding that the country should assess its nutritional guidelines and make adjustments.