Felice Jacka is an Australian professor of epidemiology. In her official capacity as an expert, she made a public health warning from her Twitter account: “If your/an MD is advocating an extreme diet of any type, please understand that they may NOT be the best person to listen to.” In her other tweets that followed, it was made clear that doctors had no right to recommend any diet other than whatever is officially declared healthy by the appropriate government and medical institutions.
She made this statement after watching a video of Dr. Shawn Baker informally discuss the carnivore diet, as if in doing so he was a public threat and an immoral actor who must be publicly called out and shamed. Her professional assessment was that he wasn’t being scientific enough. Fine. If she wanted a more scientific analysis of the evidence, she could have turned to talks given by Georgia Ede, Zoe Harcombe, Amber L. O’Hearn, and Paul Saladino. Her damning indictment of the carnivore diet was rather strong after watching a single Youtube video of a casual talk. That doesn’t seem like a scientific response.
Or she could have checked out the informal survey that Dr. Baker himself recently did in exploring people’s experience with the carnivore diet. Her complaint was that his experience was merely anecdotal. Sure. But he isn’t alone, which was the purpose of the survey he did. Look at the carnivore groups on social media, some of which have hundreds of thousands of members.
Carnivore is not a minor diet. She calls it “extreme”. It’s no more extreme than veganism and certainly far less extreme than the modern industrial standard American diet (SAD). I’d also go so far as to say, in terms of history and evolution, carnivore is also not nearly as extreme as the diet advocated by the AHA and USDA, the diet that the data shows Americans have been mostly following and that has led to a disease epidemic.
It’s not only the carnivore diet Jacka targets. In her book Brain Changer, she has a small section on the ketogenic diet in relationship to schizophrenia. She writes that, “Until we have the evidence from such studies, however, we would definitely not recommend such a diet, as it’s extremely strict and demanding and requires close medical supervision.” There she goes again: “extremely” — as if she were talking about potentially violent political activists. Her language is consistent in talking about any diet that dares to cross the line.
Let me set one thing straight. No, the ketogenic diet isn’t extremely strict or particularly demanding. Those who go on it often find it to be the easiest diet they ever tried, as hunger and cravings tend to decrease. It still allows for a wide variety of animal and plant foods. If ketosis is all you care about, you don’t even have to worry about the quality of the food, as long as it is low enough in carbs. Go out to fast food and eat the hamburger but without the bun. And if you want snack foods, have a bag of pork rinds instead of a bag of potato chips. Plus, there are all kinds of prepared products now marketed as keto, from protein bars to cauliflower pizzas, and nearly all stores carry them.
So, why all this fear-mongering about alternative dietary approaches? In response to Jacka, Dr. Ara Darakjian tweeted, “This seems overly restrictive on a physician’s freedoms. Why should there be a gag rule? If a physician believes differently they have to stick to the party line? I’ve never recommended carnivore but I don’t think it’s wrong for other MD’s to advocate based on anecdotal evidence” That is a good point. Why not allow doctors to use their best judgment based on their own professional experience?
A light went off in my head when I saw that mention of a “gag rule”. The specific doctor she is criticizing, Dr. Shawn Baker, was the target of a witch-hunt that involved a several year legal battle and resulted with the state board temporarily taking away his license to practice. So, it seems like no accident that he still is being targeted. It turns out he was vindicated and his license was reinstated. Still, he was forced out of work during that time and, along with severe disruption in his life and his family, because of legal costs he lost his house.
His sin in that earlier situation, however, wasn’t about the carnivore diet. He was simply recommending lifestyle changes as a prevention for surgery. By the way, he doesn’t only recommend a carnivore diet but also keto and moderate low-carb, even plant-based in some cases. He treats his patients as individuals and seeks the best treatment according to his knowledge. Sometimes that involves a particular dietary approach or another, but according to Felice Jacka that should not be allowed, a powerful message considering the doctor she chose to use as an example.
When I first saw her tweet, I didn’t know she was Australian. It occurred to me to see where she was from. I wondered this because I knew some other major cases of witch-hunts. The moment I saw that she is employed at an Australian university, another light bulb went off in my head. One of the worst witch-hunts against a low-carb advocate sought to destroy the career of the Australian doctor Gary Fettke. I don’t know if she was involved in that witch-hunt or supported it in any way, but it seems likely she wouldn’t been on the side defending Dr. Fettke’s rights.
I also left some tweets in that thread she started. I brought up some criticisms of the field of nutrition studies itself. She defended her field of expertise since, after all, her authority rests upon it. She said to me that, “I don’t agree that there is (largely) not consensus among nutrition professionals and researchers. But it’s not the point I’m making. MDs are charged with practising evidence-based medicine. Whether or not you or they dont agree with the evidence for whatever reason.”
Responding back to her, I wrote: “Consensus from evidence-based medicine in a field suffering from one of the worst replication crises in scientific history is precisely part of the problem.” That was a tougher criticism than it might seem, since the main replication failure of nutrition studies has been epidemiology, Jacka’s sole area of expertise. After that simple comment, she blocked me. There was nothing else I said that was mean or trollish. The closest I came to being antagonistic was in saying that I’d rather trust the expertise of those who are world-leading experts in keto and low-carb diets: Benjamin Bikman, Jason Fung, etc; also, Tim Noakes (another victim of a witch-hunt, as shown in the documentary The Magic Pill, in Daryl Ilbury’s book The Quiet Maverick, and in Noakes’ own book Lore of Nutrition). She obviously is not in favor of open scientific debate and inquiry.
There are powerful interests seeking to maintain the status quo. A simple tweet might not seem like anything to be concerned about. Then again, Tim Noakes troubles began with a single innocent tweet that was used as evidence. He fought back, but it also took years and immense amounts of money. If he wasn’t such a brilliant and determined guy, the powers that be might have been successful. Still, the attack did effectively make Noakes into an example. Few people could have stood up to that kind of organized and highly funded onslaught. When someone like Felice Jacka complains about someone like Dr. Shawn Baker, there is always an implied threat. Most doctors probably remain silent and keep their heads down. Otherwise, the consequences might mean the ending of one’s career.
“Can my kids do keto too? Yes, kids can do keto. In fact, ketogenic diets were first tested on children that had epilepsy, and it was found to be safe and effective.”
How come no one ever asks if sugary breakfast cereal, grape juice, and white bread with margarine is “safe for kids?” We have entered bizarro world when we’re asking if it’s safe for kids to not eat sugar or carb-load like they’re about to run a marathon. As I explain here, there is nothing — no vitamin, mineral, or other essential nutrient — that you can get from high-carb foods that you cannot get from LOW-carb foods.
He feels people don’t understand that carbohydrates are not a food. Carbohydrates are a highly neuroactive drug that we’ve now placed in our food system and we’ve told our population that this highly neuroactive drug is healthy for them. People don’t have a relaxation methodology. Babies are weaned onto carbohydrate rich foods so they’re getting this wonderfully neuroactive euphoria that is satisfying even before they know they’re human. And so they develop this euphoric relationship with a drug called carbohydrates. They seek it in their diet and society gives it to them. Society condones it.
from LowCarbUSA, Keto For Kids, Autism and ADHD
Soon after birth, human babies are in ketosis, and remain so while breastfeeding . They use ketones and fats for energy and for brain growth.
When this has been studied, in the first couple of hours after birth, babies aren’t immediately in ketosis. There is a short delay . During that brief period before ketogenesis starts, lactate (confusingly not to do with lactation) becomes an important fuel to suppport the brain . Some researchers speculate that this delay in ketogenesis could be because of a limited supply of carnitine, which is supplied by milk, but they also note that glycogenolysis and gluconeogenesis (the process by which glucose is made out of protein) are not active immediately . Therefore, it could simply be the case that ketogenesis takes time to get started. In other words, it may just be keto-adaptation.
Note, though, that the mothers of these babies were unlikely to have been ketogenic. As it happens, if the mother is in ketosis (as has been studied through fasting), ketone bodies will pass through the placenta and be used by the fetus , . At the same time, gluconeogenesis is induced in the liver of the fetus, likely as a result of the insulin-to-glucagon ratio , . Therefore, it is possible that the fetus of a ketogenic mother would already be independently ketogenic at birth.
As far as nutrition on the ketogenic diet, there are some specific ways ketogenic foods are beneficial for kids:
Infants, toddlers, and growing children need a good amount of iron [*] and fat [*] in their diet for proper growth. Healthy ketogenic foods provide plenty of both. These are important for brain development and growth as well as absorbing and using fat soluble vitamins and building nerve tissue [*].
With refined, high-carbohydrate foods widely available and affordable, it’s unfortunately no surprise that one in six U.S. kids and teens are obese and type 2 diabetes is now seen so commonly in children. The connection between the intake of these foods and high blood glucose and insulin resistance is reason enough for parents to show concern about the high-carb foods their children are consuming.
If you look at these foods’ labels, you’ll see they’re fortified with vitamin and minerals for this exact reason—on their own, they’re very nutritionally poor.
We can see that glucose is not the primary fuel because babies are born in ketosis(1) and mother’s milk is low carbs high fat (LCHF), which keeps the newborn in ketosis all through nursing. Milk gets more glucose as it matures, and at full maturation, its nutritional content per cup (8 oz) is 10.77 gr fat, 2.53 gr protein, 16.95 gr carbohydrates (in the form of lactose) and total energy of 172 kcal; it also contains 87.5 gr water. Subtracting the water and looking at the macronutrient ratios only, this glass of mature nursing milk is 55.5% fat, 5.57% protein, and 38.71% carbohydrates (in lactose so not free sugar). In terms of fatty acid composition: 4.942 gr saturated fat, 4.079 gr monounsaturated fat, and 1.223 gr polyunsaturated fat, which in percentages: 48.24% saturated fat, 39.82% monounsaturated fat, and 11.94% polyunsaturated fat(2). One must agree that babies are not fed poison by their mothers and that Nature didn’t provide nursing milk such that it is toxic. In fact, we can see that babies grow very rapidly by nursing milk and we know from studies that babies who are nursed, have a better chance for survival, grow healthier, faster, and their brain develops better.
As babies grow, they retain metabolic flexibility, meaning they stay in ketosis for periods time, which changes by age and how often they are fed, and they may temporarily enter the carbohydrate metabolic process when they eat (1,3,4). […] Note that babies are born with 0.5 mmol/L or higher level of BHB and remain in ketosis until they are fed. In the case of infants, the needs for energy arises very quickly, as shown in Figure 1, and in approximately 20 minutes after feeding the baby is back in ketosis.
Thus ketosis, in one scenario, is a state into which our metabolism reverts to when food is not immediately available on demand — this is labeled “starvation”. However, studies on the fetus in utero show that the fetus, which is never under nutritional duress, is also in ketosis time to time(5,6) and there are ketones in the placenta(7). Therefore, it is very difficult to suggest that ketones are a backup fuel of any kind if even the fetus is in ketosis time to time in the womb. Clearly, being in ketosis provides some benefits that are not possible to achieve using the glucose metabolic process. The ketogenic and the glucogenic metabolic processes have distinct functions, each specialized to benefit us in some way.
And here is the important part. The human body is a smart one. It had millions of years in which to figure out the order via evolution. It picks based on an order of urgency, and priority will be given to the most dangerous of fuels, which have negative consequences if they remain in the body for long. The body will use the dangerous fuel first over fuel that can be stored without negative consequences.
So what will the order of preference be in burning the 3 fuels?
Alcohol, glucose, and then fat (aka ketones).
And this is in order of urgency and not based on which is primary.[…]
In the original article, you will find discussion on Cahill’s landmark article (1), which you may or may not be familiar with. His work is focused mostly on ketosis during starvation. By starvation, understand “fasting” in modern terms. Babies, for example are in ketosis all through their early teenage years–as per Cahill–even 20 minutes between feeding initiates starvation responses in babies. But there are articles showing that the fetus is also in ketosis in the womb, where there is no starvation, and babies remain in ketosis even after eating–clearly no starvation there. So there is more to ketosis than meets the careless eye. […]
With all due respect, I disagree with glucose as the primary human fuel. Glucose is not primary or secondary or any-ary. It is a fuel that is urgent to be used up as fast as possible and so it gets used first (after alcohol) but not because it is primary but because we need to get rid of it faster than fat.
I have had the opportunity to evaluate the 5-hour blood test results of children of all ages—I think the youngest was 5 years old and the oldest 16, so far. I have yet to see a blood ketone test of a child anywhere in this age group that is not showing ketosis both before and after a meal—even if the meal has fruits and dairy in it.
I suppose ignorance is bliss. Few doctors or researchers have the same opportunity I have in being able to measure the blood ketones of various ages of children for five hours postprandial plus fasting and premeal measures, therefore, most don’t realize just how much our kids are in ketosis.
Thus, while today in most countries around the world any type of food is just a short walk/drive away 24/7, and we need not experience hunger and starvation, our children are still in ketosis 24/7. Shouldn’t that tell us something about the importance of ketosis?
As well as needing fat for fuel, a baby’s brain requires specific fat for normal cognitive development and intellectual skills. Without that specific fat, there is the serious risk of developing brain dysfunction.
There are two fats that are essential for optimal brain function in the developing foetus and the newborn baby: the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and the omega-6 fatty acid ARA (arachidonic acid).
Both these fats form part of each cell membrane, and control what passes in and out of each nerve cell. They help develop the central nervous system. They are involved in communication between nerve cells, the firing of neurons, the regulation of neurotransmitters and the development of cognitive skills. […]
What happens without enough of these two fatty acids?
Only two mammalian species have disproportionately large brains and advanced cognition — humans and bottlenose dolphins. Both depend on DHA for that cognition.
Children who lack DHA are more likely to have increased rates of neurological disorders, in particular attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism.
“It is our contention that the movement in the 19th to 21st centuries away from traditional use of sea foods and increased emphasis on land based food supply is a likely cause in the rise in brain disorders including mental ill-health, stress, and other psychiatric disorders.”(Crawford et al 2014).
Today, ADHD is the most frequently diagnosed neuro-behavioural disorder of childhood, and it is becoming increasingly prevalent. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that there had been a 42% increase in the number of children diagnosed with the condition since 2006. In America today, 11% of children aged 4 to 17 live with ADHD.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that ADHD may be preceded by low DHA in the womb.
The link between dietary fat and autism is also strong, and low levels of both DHA and ARA have been found in children on the autistic spectrum. In a study published in 2015 in International Journal of Molecular Sciences, the fatty acid profile of 121 autistic children, aged 3–7, was analysed and compared with children without the condition. The autistic children were found to have levels of ARA and DHA that were “particularly decreased”, compared to the non-autistic controls.
* * *
This reminds me of the case, in South Africa, brought against Tim Noakes. He recommended a low-carb diet to a pregnant woman. Public officials considered it to be a crime against humanity that must be harshly punished. After the first attack on him failed, he was forced to endure a second trial. The government spent millions of dollars persecuting him and he not only proved his innocence but proved that the low-carb diet was scientifically valid. It was the greatest boost for the low-carb diet since Ancel Keys led his crusade against it.
Lore of Nutrition by Tim Noakes & Marika Sboros pp. 32-34, Introduction by Marika Sboros (see more at: The Creed of Ancel Keys)
This is the story of a remarkable scientific journey. Just as remarkable is the genesis of that journey: a single, innocuous tweet.
In February 2014 , a Twitter user asked a distinguished and world-renowned scientist a simple question: ‘Is LCHF eating ok for breastfeeding mums? Worried about all the dairy + cauliflower = wind for babies??’
Always willing to engage with an inquiring mind, Professor Tim Noakes tweeted back: ‘Baby doesn’t eat the dairy and cauliflower. Just very healthy high fat breast milk. Key is to ween [ si c ] baby onto LCHF.’
With those few words, Noakes set off a chain of events that would eventually see him charged with unprofessional conduct, caught up in a case that would drag on for more than three years and cost many millions of rands. More difficult, if not impossible, to quantify is the devastating emotional toll that the whole ordeal has taken on him and his family, as critics attacked his character and scientific reputation at every turn.
At the time, it was open season on Tim Noakes. Doctors, dietitians and assorted academics from South Africa’s top universities had been hard at work for years trying to discredit him. They did not like his scientific views on low-carbohydrate, high-fat foods, which he had been promoting since 2011 . His opinions contrasted sharply with conventional, orthodox dietary ‘wisdom’, and the tweet provided the perfect pretext to amp up their attacks and hopefully silence him once and for all.
Within 24 hours of his tweet, a dietitian had reported him to the Health Professions Council of South Africa for giving what she considered ‘incorrect’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘potentially life-threatening’ advice. To Noakes’s surprise, the HPCSA took her complaint seriously.
Noakes is one of the few scientists in the world with an A 1 rating from the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) for both sports science and nutrition. In his home country, he has no equal in terms of expertise in and research into LCHF. Few can match his large academic footprint – quantified by an H-index of over 70 . The H- or Hirsch index is a measure of the impact of a scientist’s work. Noakes’s impact is significant. He has published more than 500 scientific papers, many of them in peer-reviewed journals, and over 40 of which deal exclusively with nutrition. He has been cited more than 17 000 times in the scientific literature.
Yet, remarkably, the HPCSA chose to back the opinion of a dietitian in private practice over an internationally renowned nutrition research scientist. They charged him with ‘unprofessional conduct’ for providing ‘unconventional advice on breastfeeding babies on social networks’ and hauled him through the humiliating process of a disciplinary hearing.
The public quickly dubbed it ‘the Nutrition Trial of the 21 st Century’. I’ve called it Kafkaesque. The HPCSA insisted that it was a hearing, not a trial, but the statutory body’s own conduct belied the claim.
At the time of Noakes’s tweet, I wanted to give up journalism. After more than 30 years of researching and writing about medicine and nutrition science, I was frustrated and bored. People were growing fatter and sicker, and the medical and dietetic specialists I wrote about weren’t making much difference to patients’ lives. Neither was my reporting.
Then I started investigating and writing about the HPCSA’s case against Noakes. The more questions I asked, the more walls of silence came up around me, and from the most unexpected sources. There’s an old saying that silence isn’t empty, it is full of answers. I found that the silence was loudest from those with the most to hide. I could not have foreseen the labyrinthine extent of vested inter ests ranged against Noakes, or the role played by shadowy proxy organisations for multinational sugar and soft-drink companies in suppressing and discrediting nutrition evidence.
It took a US investigative journalist to join many of the dots I had identified. Russ Greene’s research led to the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a Coca-Cola front organisation. In an explosive exposé in January 2017 , Greene showed how the ILSI has worked to support the nutrition status quo in South Africa, as well as the health professionals and food and drug industries that benefit from it. It has opened a branch in South Africa and has funded nutrition congresses throughout the country. It has also paid for dietitians and academics opposed to Noakes and LCHF to address conferences abroad . *
Of course, it might be coincidence that so many doctors, dietitians and academics with links to the ILSI became involved, directly and indirectly, in the HPCSA’s prosecution of Noakes. Then again, maybe not.
The HPCSA’s conduct throughout the hearing and since its conclusion has been revelatory. To a large extent, it confirms the premise of this book: that those in positions of power and influence in medicine and academia were using the case to pursue a vendetta against Noakes. The trial highlighted the inherent perils facing those brave enough to go against orthodoxy.
Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick
by Daryl Ilbury
Into this turgid culture of food and identity stepped Tim Noakes on 5 February 2014, when he replied to a question posted two days earlier on Twitter, addressed to him and Sally-Ann Creed, a nutritional therapist (and co-author with Noakes of The Real Meal Revolution ). It was from a breastfeeding mother, Pippa Leenstra: ‘Is LCHF eating ok for breastfeeding mums? Worried about all the dairy + cauliflower = wind for babies??’ Noakes’s reply was the following: ‘Baby doesn’t eat the dairy and cauliflower. Just very healthy high fat breast milk. Key is to ween [ sic ] baby onto LCHF.’
It’s neither an offensive tweet by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it fall foul of any media law – it’s not libellous and there’s no encouragement of harm to others. People could disagree with him and had a voice to do so; that’s the point of social media: it is a platform for public discussion. And people did disagree, quite vocally, and there were others who supported his advice, equally vocally. Importantly, the question demanded a public, not private, response, which the person asking the question was free to accept or reject. And, as a medical doctor, Noakes didn’t cross any ethical boundaries in replying on a public platform. He didn’t publish any confidential patient information or dispense a diagnosis for a specific patient without seeing that patient; he simply provided generalised nutritional advice based on scientific evidence. Breast milk is high in fat, and there is scientific evidence to support the benefits of an LCHF diet. There is also evidence to the contrary, but, as we’ve realised, that’s science for you. The secret in making sense of science is context, and this is where it clashes with social media.
The character limitation of Twitter is one of its selling points; it demands concise expression, a sub-editor’s dream. It also means that tweets can be short on context, unless accompanied by click-through links to supporting evidence. Therefore tweets can be open to interpretation. However, this misses the main point of the brevity of Twitter messages: they are designed to encourage debate. Whether Noakes should have said ‘Key is to wean a baby …’ as opposed to ‘Key is to wean baby …’ is a matter for retrospective semantic debate. The fact is he provided a broad opinion on a public platform as a scientist and researcher of human nutrition.
Importantly, in her original tweet, to which Noakes replied, Pippa Leenstra never referred to herself or her baby. She spoke of ‘breastfeeding mums’. She was doing the media equivalent of asking a question in a town hall where the discussion was around LCHF. At that moment, Leenstra was a media consumer of medical or health information.
Not everyone saw it that way. One of those was Claire Julsing-Strydom, who at that time was president of the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), the professional organisation for the country’s registered dietitians. Julsing-Strydom’s reaction was to register a complaint with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. It was a decision that would effectively threaten to destroy Noakes’s career, and make Julsing-Strydom the focus of a social media witch-hunt.
According to its website, the HPCSA provides the public with the right to request an investigation of any registered health practitioner whom they believe has acted unethically or caused harm. The site includes a downloadable form and an email address for Legal Med, the department within the HPCSA that handles complaints. To make sure that no health professional is a victim of a truculent member of the public with a hefty doctor’s bill in one hand and an axe to grind in the other, there is a due process of investigation and assessment before any measure of disciplinary action is followed. Only the most serious cases demand a professional-conduct committee hearing, which is what Tim Noakes would be called before.
As I said at the beginning of this book, I am not going to go into the trial in detail; instead, I will focus on the following: the complaint, the charge that resulted, two key components in the case against Noakes, and the unexpected outcome of the hearing. The main focus will be on how this was all covered in the media.
By now you know that whereas content is king, context is King Kong, and in this case the context behind the complaint makes for interesting reading, for two reasons: firstly, it shows that Noakes’s tweet was judged in isolation, and, secondly, it suggests that the complaint may not have been thought through.
What most people may not know is that directly after Noakes’s reply on Twitter to Pippa Leenstra, someone else entered the discussion: Marlene Ellmer, a paediatric dietitian and someone well known to Julsing-Strydom. Ellmer tweeted the following: ‘Pippa, as a paeds dietician I strongly advise against LCHF for breastfeeding mothers.’ Leenstra replied by posing the following question to both Noakes and Ellmer: ‘Okay, but what I eat comes through into my milk. Is that not problematic for baby and their winds at newborn stage?’ Ellmer responded by tweeting another message with her email address, encouraging Leenstra to contact her directly. Noakes didn’t do this, which is important to note, as we shall soon see. Leenstra tweeted to Ellmer that she would contact her, and after the discussion played out further with various people providing input, Leenstra tweeted: ‘Thanks, but I will go with the dietician’s recommendation.’ This she did, rejecting Noakes’s LCHF suggestion.
Let’s summarise: at that point Leenstra had posted a question on a public forum, received different opinions, including from two health professionals – one of them a registered dietitian – and been provided with the contact details of one of those professionals with an invite to get hold of her. Leenstra was free to choose which one to follow up with, and she agreed, publicly, to contact the registered dietitian. Theoretically, things could have stopped there.
However, the day after Ellmer’s invite for Leenstra to contact her, Julsing-Strydom entered the discussion and reacted with a tweet directed to Noakes, written thus: ‘I AM HORRIFIED!! HOW CAN YOU GIVE ADVICE LIKE THIS??’ For those unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of social media, the use of uppercase letters is normally reserved to express a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure or hostility. On its own, Julsing-Strydom’s use of uppercase in a tweet is perfectly acceptable; it shows how she must have felt reading Noakes’s tweet, and there are possible reasons for that. Firstly, she had a four-month-old daughter she was breastfeeding, so she had a personal as well as a professional interest in the topic under discussion. Secondly, as she would later testify, she had had a strongly worded engagement the previous month with Noakes over what she saw as his dispensing nutritional advice to breastfeeding mothers during a talk. It’s easy to imagine that for Julsing-Strydom the tweet was the last straw, and so she submitted her complaint, including screenshots of Noakes’s tweet, to Legal Med. The accompanying email read:
‘To whom it may concern. I would like to file a report against Prof Tim Noakes. He is giving incorrect medical [nutrition therapy] on Twitter that is not evidence based. I have attached the Tweet where Prof Noakes advises a breastfeeding mother to wean her baby on to a low carbohydrate high fat diet. I urge the HPCSA to please take urgent action against this type of misconduct as Prof Noakes is a celebrity in South Africa and the public does not have the knowledge to understand that the information he is advocating is not evidence based. It is specifically dangerous to give this advice for infants and can potentially be life-threatening. I await your response. Claire Julsing-Strydom.’
The wording is a little breathless, and the reason for that would emerge in the hearing.
The complaint contains many factors that Legal Med would have considered, but five pertain to focus points covered so far in this book: the limits to the public’s understanding of science, in this case that of human nutrition; the complexity and unreliability of academic research behind that science; the media profile of Tim Noakes, and the idea that he is a ‘celebrity’; that the complaint related to something said within a disrupted media environment; and the suggestion that nutritional advice is a clear-cut case of right or wrong.
What the legal department would have known when they received the complaint was that the complainant was another health professional; this wasn’t just someone with a beef about their proctologist having cold hands. This meant that the complainant would have understood the potential outcomes of submitting her complaint, especially one claiming that an act by a fellow health professional was ‘life-threatening’. The fact of the matter is that Legal Med saw sufficient seriousness in the complaint to investigate.
However, inconsistencies in Julsing-Strydom’s complaint soon came to light. She supposedly submitted it on behalf of ADSA, and yet didn’t make that clear in the complaint. When questioned in the HPCSA hearing that her complaint triggered, she replied that it was the first time she had registered a complaint, saying, ‘I was not aware that this email would actually be, you know, used at this level.’
Now, after 30 years of interviewing people for the media, if there’s something I’ve learnt it’s that the most honest comments are usually unconsidered – made as an aside, when thoughts are wandering, or if a little flustered. Perhaps, I thought, Julsing-Strydom hadn’t really thought through what was going to happen once she submitted the complaint.
Furthermore, a forensic analysis of Twitter timelines and the submission date and time of the complaint shows that Julsing-Strydom publicly expressed her horror on Twitter on 6 February 2014 at 07:48, and sent her email to Legal Med less than an hour later, at 08:47. It’s fair to say that Julsing-Strydom was upset when she wrote that email.
Based on the findings of a preliminary committee of inquiry, the legal department of the HPCSA sent a letter to Noakes on 28 January 2015, saying that he was to be summoned before the Professional Conduct Committee of the Medical and Dental Professions Board. The charge against him was attached to the letter, and it makes for puzzling reading: ‘That you are guilty of unprofessional conduct, or conduct which, when regard is had to your profession is unprofessional, in that during February 2014, you acted in a manner that is not in accordance with the norms and standards of your profession in that you provided unconventional advice on breastfeeding babies on social networks (tweet).’
It is so badly written that it would send any sub-editor reaching for a stiff shot of whisky, so it was invariably presented in the media thus: ‘charged with providing unconventional advice on social media to breastfeeding mothers’.
When I first read the charge, that part about ‘social networks’ intrigued me the most. Providing advice on a public social media platform is an ethical catch-22 for any clinician: if they provide generalised information, they can be accused of not taking into consideration the specifics of the patient; yet if they ask for specifics, they risk encouraging the sharing of confidential information on a public platform. There’s also the ethical conundrum that if they open a consultative dialogue with someone other than a patient, they can be charged with supersession, essentially ‘stealing’ a patient; and for the HPCSA, that is grounds for discipline. How is that for irony?
I sensed confusion in the poorly worded charge. On a hunch I contacted the HPCSA and asked for a copy of their guidelines for how registered health practitioners should engage with the public on social media – if the HPCSA were charging Noakes because of his use of social media, they’d obviously have the necessary guidelines in place. I received the following reply: ‘Kindly note that the HPCSA doesn’t have guidelines around how registered health practitioners should engage with the public on social media.’ The HPCSA was clearly in unfamiliar territory. I thought it didn’t bode well for a speedy, clear-cut course for the hearing; and I was right.
What started on 4 June 2015, and was supposed to be wrapped up in little over a week, would drag on for almost two years, and if its aim was to deliver a swift, unsparing and public reprimand of a dissident scientist, it failed.