Is Banting the Real Meal?

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The number of diets, weight-loss tools and healthy-living options available to us today is almost overwhelming. Yet, obesity and health-related problems are at a peak. Is a low-carb, high-fat diet the answer?

The latest South African diet fad is Banting, and scientific discussion of low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diets has heated up since the first international LCHF Summit held earlier this year in Cape Town. Professor Tim Noakes, co-author of the Banting recipe book The Real Meal Revolution, and Karen Thomson, author of The Sugar Free recipe book, were hosts of the summit. The Banting diet claims to hold the answers to all of our dieting failures. But does it, really?


Developed in 1921 to help to reduce seizures in paediatric epilepsy, the ketogenic diet (one of the most well-known high-fat, low-carb diets) proved very effective. Doctors discovered that by eating mainly fatty foods, and less than 50g of carbohydrates a day, the body switched gears and began to glean its energy from ketones present in the fat, as opposed to glucose. Subsequently, two diets grew out of the ketogenic roots: the high-protein Atkins diet and the high-fat Banting diet, which have shown to be helpful in insulin resistance, diabetes and neurological disorders. Outside of the ketogenic diet, the low-carb Paleo and ancestral diets, now common throughout the US and Europe, are focused on high-quality whole-food nutrition as opposed to counting carbs.

In general, most low-carb diets avoid dairy (unless raw), grains and pulses. They encourage eating wild game or grass-fed meat, pasture-reared eggs, and large quantities of organic vegetables, fruit and fermented foods. Whether the intention is to step away from processed foods or to keep the animal products high, the low-carbohydrate diets are certainly highlighting some important dietary facts.


Fats do not make us fat; they are fuel for our brain and our body. For decades we have been told to watch our cholesterol (fat) intake. Dieticians deemed natural saturated fats as the “bad guys”, while processed hydrogenated fats (trans fats) used in low-fat foods were promoted as being good for our health. Our body uses cholesterol to make hormones and nourish our brain; cut it out and the result can soon be disastrous. Dr Anne Childers, a renowned American psychiatrist, states: “Low cholesterol leads to behavioural problems. From a psychiatric standpoint, we should stuff people with bipolar disorder and ADHD with fats.”

In addition, there is no evidence that backs up the health claims used to promote the hydrogenated fats found in margarine, cooking oils and processed foods. “There is no safe level of trans fats,” affirms Childers. “This change in traditional diets has led to increased problems, such as metabolic syndrome and mental health concerns.”

As of February this year, saturated fats are no longer seen as dietary “criminals”. In fact, an in-depth study published in the British Journal of Medicine in February 2015 showed the benefits of dietary fat, pushing the UK and the US to change their dietary guidelines: “Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” Interestingly, while the Banting diet usually claims it is based on an “ancestral” way of eating, Dr John Wright, a Cape Town-based gastroenterologist, points out that Banting is actually quite a new approach. “The problem with a high-fat diet today is that traditionally we didn’t eat high saturated fat. Wild animals don’t have that much fat on them, and the fat they do have is mainly unsaturated. Our domesticated livestock have mainly saturated fat, so eating large quantities is probably a step too far.”


Toronto-based nephrologist Dr Jason Fung, who was speaking at the LCHF conference, says very clearly: “Insulin drives obesity.” Insulin is the hormone that deposits glucose (sugar) into our cells for energy, but the blood can hold only one teaspoon of glucose at a time. The liver has a small reserve of 500g of glucose, in the form of glycogen. Refined carbohydrates are produced when food is processed, stripping out everything but the highly digestible carbohydrate (starch or sugar). Unlike fats, these carbohydrates break down into glucose and create instant insulin surges. As soon as there is too much glucose into the blood, the body will quickly turn it into fat and store it in your cells, possibly leading to fatty liver disease and weight gain.

When this process goes on, the body protectively creates insulin resistance, the precursor to Type-2 diabetes. In an insulin-resistance state, you are 10 times more reactive to carbohydrates, making weight gain more probable.


The Banting diet has often been publicised as the one solution to insulin resistance and weight excess. Yet Stellenbosch University conducted a three-year study, published in Plus-One in July 2014, which compared a low-carb diet with a balanced isoenergetic diet. Both diets showed equal results in insulin levels and weight loss. Beyond insulin resistance, there are other hormonal factors that influence one’s weight. Looking further afield, hormone health experts such as Dr Bridget Briggs, an integrative medicine GP from California, are voicing concern over ketogenic diets. “A low-glycaemic diet is important for hormonal balance, but starchy vegetables are important; too-low carbs puts strain on the hormonal system.” Adrenal hormones are in charge of glucose and insulin balance: in states of chronic stress or fatigue, adrenal hormones can drop too low, preventing the body from gaining fuel from fats alone.

Carbohydrates are then needed to reinstate adrenal health. In addition, the thyroid also needs insulin to function; if insulin drops too low from a ketogenic diet, it can impair the conversion of thyroid hormones T4 to T3. Another hormone, oestrogen, is essential to menstrual reproductive cycles; Briggs explains that along with adrenal fatigue, “oestrogen dominance” is one of the major conditions of the 21st century. Oestrogen is commonly administered to feedlot animals and chickens to fatten them up. Ingesting this meat could create hormonal havoc. “Unopposed oestrogen can become dangerously high,” says Briggs. “Unsafe tissue levels can lead to a risk of breast cancer and reproductive cancers in women and men.”

In May 2003, the Nurses Health Study, conducted on over 90 000 women, clearly linked red meat and dairy to breast cancer. So while one may want to try the Banting diet, it is important to eat meat from grass-fed animals (the only source of meat and dairy that is free from added oestrogen); eating anything else may be equal to playing Russian roulette with one’s health.


One of the main counterparts of insulin resistance is inflammation. Australian orthopaedic surgeon and inflammatory disease expert Dr Gary Fettke explains: “Inflammation is at the basis of every single condition, whether it is cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease or neurological disease. High stress, hormones, bowel organisms and chemicals all play a role in increasing our insulin levels and inflammation.”

Inflammation is the body’s reaction to toxic invaders. Once detected, the surrounding tissue is pumped with extra blood and immune cells to fight the toxic presence. When inflammation is consistently activated over a long period, the tissue becomes damaged and can eventually lead to leaky gut syndrome and autoimmune diseases. Cholesterol in the arteries was once seen as the enemy. It has now been established as a positive player in this inflammatory process.

In January 2008, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology demonstrated that the plaque on the walls of arteries (atherosclerosis) was in fact “plaster” protecting the arteries from inflammatory damage. Doctors and nutritionists who realise the importance of cholesterol in the body are now speaking out against the anti-cholesterol drugs “statins”. “Statins block the mevalonate (cell growth) pathway,” says Zoe Harcombe, obesity researcher and author, “which means that cells cannot replicate or repair themselves properly.” This is shown in the “Statin Adverse Effects” study published in the American Journal of Cardiovascular Drugs in 2008. It might take only a few simple lifestyle changes to reduce inflammation in the body and reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases.


Another notable problem with the Banting diet is constipation. Wright has witnessed this imbalance in many of his patients. He explains: “You need fibre to feed the bacteria in the colon and there isn’t much in the Banting diet.” One of the downsides of a long-term ketogenic diet is the damage done to the gut flora. Bacteria play an important role in the gut, absorbing nutrients, destroying pathogens and metabolising hormones; they grow on resistant starches and soluble fibres found in starchy vegetables. This digestion creates butyrate, used to tone the intestines and protect against colon cancer. The Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, in February 2007, recorded that a low-carbohydrate diet noticeably decreases the level of butyrate. Dr Eric Westman, one of the main American researchers on the ketogenic diet, explains that the gut can use ketones instead of butyrate for the same role, but no scientific evidence supports this claim.


According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) report, concern was voiced regarding the level of global meat consumption already in 2010. “A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.” This is one of many international calls to action to drastically re-evaluate our food choices.

As Fettke says: “We need to get back to eating local, seasonal and natural food.” Today we are spoilt for choice with delicious, nutritious whole-foods such as avocados, pasture-reared eggs, olives and coconuts; therefore, there is no need to privilege only one type of food over the rest. Each one of us is unique in his or her own complexity; there is no science to support one diet that would fit us all. We can all benefit from some good fats, but as for growing forests of cows instead of food forests, it simply isn’t sustainable. For many, cutting out the junk, staying away from the sugar and leaving the grains for the birds is a more realistic way forward for our physiology and our ecology.

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