Some insight on the banting diet for athletes - Mariella Dierks

I get asked what I think about ‘banting’ about 99% of the time when I have just told someone what I do and truth be told: there is no quick answer to this and even this little article does not cover it all.
These days ‘banting’ refers to the low-carbohydrate diet, or as it is known as in South Africa, the Tim Noakes diet.
Firstly lets set the records straight with a little history lesson, and begin with Mr William Banting. His diet emphasized cutting out sugar, starch, beer, milk and butter and eating more meat, greens, fruits and dry wine.
Hence Banting and Noakes differ in this regard because the Noakes diet prescribes cutting out all fruit (only allowed sometimes) and allows dairy and emphasizes the intake of fat and vegetables (to put it in a very small nutshell).
What both have in common is the cutting out of whole food groups, which is the first point I would like to address:
Each food group, whether it is fruit, vegetables, dairy, whole grains, legumes or meat, contains important nutrients that our bodies need, and by cutting out a whole food group we are depriving our bodies from these beneficial nutrients and are putting our health at risk.
The modern, busy way of living/ urbanization has resulted in an increased consumption of processed; take out foods and a lot of food and drinks that are nutrient poor and high in sugar. These foods are not beneficial to us and can result in weight gain and an increased risk of several other health issues such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease to name a few.
Non-the less these foods have become a staple in most peoples diets nower days, therefore replacing the nutrient dense foods we, as athletes, should be eating.
These foods should not be consumed on a daily basis and I agree with cutting out processed carbohydrates and sugar. However whole grains, legumes and fruit are very important foods that should not be avoided as they form part of the food pyramid and contain very important nutrients that our bodies need in order to function optimally. (What needs to be said about fruit is that it does contain sugar and we should not eat copious amount of it because of this, but it also contains fiber and a lot of beneficial vitamins and minerals).
A phrase I like to use is “Everything in moderation”, however some seem to struggle with this concept because it is rather boring and for some, difficult to adhere to. For some it seems to be easier to completely cut out something, in this case carbohydrates, than have the discipline to make better choices or only have them every once in a while as a luxury. What I would like to emphasize is that with both fat and carbohydrates one needs to consider the quality and not only the quantity. So when I speak of eating carbohydrates as a luxury I am referring to refined carbohydrates or foods high in sugar. Not all carbohydrates are bad, just as not all fat is bad.
For optimum health we need to consume healthy fats (such as fish, nuts, avocado, vegetable oils) and healthy carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes, fruit). But unhealthy fats such as deep-frying oil, high amounts of animal fat and trans fats, as well as unhealthy carbohydrates such as refined carbohydrates and sugar, should be avoided as high intakes of both these can result in weight gain and obesity, which has been found to increase the risk for several non-communicable diseases.
I wrote my honors thesis on the topic of low carbohydrate diets and we conducted pilot interviews where we asked the participants who had been on the low-carbohydrate diet, what they had changed in their diet ie what were they eating before and what were they eating afterwards.
The findings were rather interesting:
We found that a common trend was that the participants had cut out all the processed carbohydrates and sugary foods and drinks, of which they were consuming a lot before, and simply started making healthier food choices. Carbohydrates have become the base of most meals meaning they make up most of the calories consumed and when reduced, total energy intake will also be reduced, resulting in weight loss. Note they were still eating fruit and most did not go for the extremely high saturated fat intake ie adding butter to everything and consuming very large amounts of animal fat as the Noakes diet dictates7.
Therefore weight loss was most likely achieved as a result of cutting out nutrient poor, empty calorie foods and adapting a healthier lifestyle and making better choices.
What needs to be remembered is that the calories alone are not the only factor. Our bodies also need nutrients! If we make the right food choices we will ensure our bodies receive what they need. An easy phrase to live by is: Will this fuel and benefit my body?’ If the answer is no- for example in the case of a cheeseburger, chocolate or a mountain of pasta, then it is probably best to stay away from it.
The South African Food Based Dietary guidelines are a good and effective way to ‘eat’ by. They are science-based guidelines, which have been developed to provide guidance for the general population with regards to making better dietary choices to ensure nutritional requirements are met from a macro- and micro-nutrient perspective.
•    Enjoy a variety of foods.
•    Be active.
•    Make starchy foods part of most meals.
•    Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit everyday.
•    Eat dry beans, peas, lentils and soy regularly.
•    Have milk or yoghurt everyday.
•    Chicken, fish, meat or eggs can be eaten daily.
•    Drink lots of clean, safe water.
•    Eat fats sparingly. Choose vegetable oils, rather than hard fats.
•    Use sugar and foods and drinks high in sugar sparingly.
(Vorster et al., 2013)
In summary I again need to say that it is all about balance and moderation.
We need every food group in our diet to ensure that we are providing our bodies with the nutrients it needs and to prevent any nutrient deficiencies.
Having said that, we are all still only human and a treat from time to time is only normal- it is simply a matter of ensuring that it does not become something that is consumed in large amounts on a day-to-day basis.
So enjoy your food, fuel your body with a good variety of whole, unprocessed foods that will nourish your body and your body will thank you for it.
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