Cape Town – A relieved Professor Tim Noakes put his head in his hands and struggled to hold back tears on Friday when he was found not guilty of unprofessional conduct after being charged by the Health Professions Council of South Africa.
“What happened was people tried to demonise me as being some unconventional freak who had suddenly gone from being one of the best scientists in SA to a complete idiot,” he said after numerous congratulatory hugs and handshakes from loyal banters who attended proceedings.
“My wife and I decided we weren’t going to allow my legacy to get lost because of that and we would fight it as best we could.”
Noakes – whose book The Real Meal Revolution promotes a low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF) diet – was charged with unprofessional conduct for giving unconventional medical advice via Twitter three years ago after he advised a breastfeeding mother to wean her baby onto LCHF.
The independent committee made its finding following a protracted hearing into a complaint by the former president of the Association for Dietetics in South Africa, Claire Julsing-Strydom.
The mother’s tweet on February 3, 2014 read: “@ProfTimNoakes @SalCreed is LCHF eating ok for breastfeeding mums? Worried about all the dairy + cauliflower = wind for babies?? [sic]”
Noakes advised her to wean her child onto LCHF foods, which he described as “real” foods.
His tweet read: “Baby doesn’t eat the dairy and cauliflower. Just very healthy high-fat breast milk. Key is to ween [sic] baby onto LCHF.”
Committee chairperson Joan Adams said four of the five members found him not guilty.
She said the HPCSA – the pro forma complainant – had not proven on a balance of probabilities that Noakes had been acting in his capacity as a medical practitioner – his Twitter bio does not list him as one – when he sent the tweet as he was presumably acting as an author and proponent of the LCHF diet.
The council had also failed to prove that he had been giving Leenstra medical advice, that they had had a doctor-patient relationship, or that the advice was potentially harmful.
Noakes was also found to not have contravened any law, regulation or ethical rule or that the advice given was unconventional or not evidence based.
The outcome was met with thunderous applause from his loyal supporters, who had attended proceedings in their numbers since the start of the hearing.
The A1-rated scientist said he was elated with the outcome following hard work by his advocates Michael van der Nest and advocate Ravin “Rocky” Ramdass, who represented him for free.
“This is the moment we’ve worked for three years so it’s really exciting. The fact is that Advocate Adams read 10 rulings – she gave 10 different decisions and they all were in our favour. So she found us guilty of absolutely nothing.”
He said he and his wife had decided to fight the charge against him and “do whatever it took” to protect his legacy.
“And we did that. It took us three years but we achieved it. It has been very demanding on us and on our lives. Financially, it has been huge, but the real concern was the emotional strain that it had on us. As my wife said [of] the people who laid the complaint: ‘Did they ever consider the consequences to my wife, myself and our family?’ I think that was the hardest bit for us to cope with.”
He was disappointed that the committee did not acknowledge the evidence he presented by saying that people had to change their diets if they wanted to be healthy, he said.
“However, I think that people will look at the judgment and say that [while I] was charged with giving unconventional advice, [the committee] never found that. They didn’t find that [I] gave unconventional advice, therefore the advice [I] gave was evidence based.
“Therefore, the question becomes [whether] the advice that is currently being given by dieticians and by many doctors could be unconventional, because it promotes the low-fat diet, which we proved is not evidence based.”
The question the HPCSA and medical schools in SA should be asking is whether they are teaching the most up to date dietary advice, Noakes said.
“And Advocate Adams raised that question: She said things change with time and what South Africans have to do now is to question. Are we giving everyone in SA the best dietary advice or not? Or has the time come that we should change it?”