It's given rise to 'Banting friendly' restaurant menus, caused a national cauliflower shortage and is said to be a fast track to weight loss. Could the high fat diet catch on here? We take a closer look

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Weight loss plans come and go but there’s one that seems to have made a lasting impression in South Africa and it’s called the Banting diet.

Currently at the peak of its popularity, it isn’t in fact new. Its roots stem back to 1862 when an obese undertaker named William Banting paid a visit to his doctor, William Harvey, and was recommended a rather extreme eating plan that was high in fat but low in carbohydrates in order to help him lose the extra weight. In 2012, it was revisited by scientist and professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town, Tim Noakes who, having rid his diet of carbohydrates, saw dramatic weight loss. He joined forces with Paleo nutritionist Sally-Ann Creed and chef Jonno Proudfoot to release The Real Meal Revolution   £13.60, in 2013, a book that has become a bestseller in South Africa.

Since then, a whole community of ‘Banters’ has sprung up - with entire Instagram accounts such as @bantingfoodco  and @bantingblondes  devoted to it. You can subscribe to its online Banting Course  complete with coaches and resources. Following publication of the  Real Meal Revolution book , there was even a national cauliflower shortage reported (cauli features strongly in Banting recipes) and a number of restaurants also include Banting options on their menus too. So what's the fuss all about? Here's what you need to know about the diet plan that's taken South Africa by storm.

How does it work?

The Banting diet (aka the Real Meal Revolution ) operates much in the same way as many other low-carb, high-fat diets out there such as the Ketogenic diet  and the Atkins diet. The process of ketosis is central to how it claims to increase weight loss. The idea is that depriving the body of glucose (from carbs) encourages it to switch to burning fat for energy instead. In terms of cravings, the theory goes that if you’re full on fats, your cravings for carbs are reduced, you eat much less during the day and weight loss results.

The differences between the Banting, Ketogenic and Atkins diets lie in subtle variations between the types of foods you can eat. The Banting diet involves eating a greater amount of protein than if on the Ketogenic diet but less than if on the Atkins diet, and eating more carbs than if on the Atkins diet (still a low amount though). Although it's most similar to the Ketogenic diet, green leafy vegetables are encouraged in the Banting diet but they’re not in the Ketogenic diet (if followed strictly).

What can you eat?

The foods that you can and cannot eat are categorised into four lists. The first is a Green ‘eat to hunger’ list that includes foods such as all green leafy veg as well as others such as aubergine, cauliflower, peppers and tomatoes; all meats, and, its most controversial point, fats that include any rendered animal fat (lard, tallow, duck and bacon fat), firm cheeses, butter, ghee, olive oil and seeds. The foods on this list should make up the majority of what you eat on the diet.

The second is an Orange ‘exercise self-control’ list that features nuts, dairy products such as full-fat cheeses and milks; certain vegetables such sweet potatoes, beetroot and parsnips, tea, coffee, lentils and a wide array of fruit such as berries, apples, bananas and kiwis.

What can’t you eat?

These are detailed in the next two lists. The first is a Light Red ‘hardly ever’ list that features amongst others, fruit or yoghurt smoothies, vegetable juices, dates, dark chocolate, gluten-free grains and grain products such as buckwheat, bran, quinoa, oats and types of rice, as well as flours such as corn flour and almond flour.

Then there’s the Really Red ‘never ever’ list which includes any food with added sugar, fast food, foods containing gluten such as all flours and breads made from grains containing gluten, barley, rye, spelt, wheat, wheat germ and grain-based products such as commercial cereals and breaded or battered foods. Fats that are ‘forbidden' are ones such as industrial seed and vegetable oil derivatives, butter spreads, canola oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, margarine, sunflower oil and safflower oil.

Who’s it for?

As is evident from the above dos and don’ts, the diet is pretty extreme in its approach. While the Real Meal Revolution recommends it for anyone suffering from metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and those who have hypertension, are overweight or obese or have high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or hypercholesterolemia, it says you should avoid ‘Banting’ if you have a medical issue and haven’t consulted your doctor first and if you are particularly lean, do regular high-intensity exercise or have no weight problems.

Those who are extremely overweight stand to benefit most and ideally it shouldn't be pursued by those who are just looking to shift a few pounds. According to South African dietitian Caryn Davies, “In my opinion, it may be an option to consider for those who are obese, at cardiovascular risk and diabetic individuals who need a dramatic method to attempt health improvement, but it is not for an otherwise healthy individual looking to lose weight.”

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Are there any side-effects?

In terms of short-term cons, the Real Meal Revolution website warns of the risk of developing halitosis as a side-effect of ketosis, stemming from the secretion of ammonia through the lungs due to the burning of fat. There are also some further unpleasant extras that can be experienced. “Some people have experienced nausea and fatigue on the diet,” points out Caryn. “It is also quite expensive,” she says. At 32USD per month for the first three months and 9USD per month thereafter, it certainly adds up.

Can it boost energy levels?

Some advocates of the plan have achieved positive energy-boosting results from it and haven’t necessarily been particularly overweight, to begin with. Rebecca Joseph  found it useful in this regard while starting up her yoga-inspired jewellery line Rebecca Joseph Jewellery  and running her interior design business at the same time. “I’d been overdoing it in London - drinking too much, eating too much and sleeping too little,” she tells us. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to run both businesses successfully if I continued on like that.”

Having come across the Banting diet on a trip to South Africa, she decided to give it a go after hearing everyone rave about how great they felt. She found the guidelines easy to follow and the online community forum suited her London lifestyle. “As I was running two business alone from my 45 square metre London flat with no work colleagues to talk to, the Banting online community forum, which is part of the programme, made me feel more connected and engaged,” she says.

It wasn’t smooth sailing though and the effects of ketosis proved difficult to deal with. “By week three I felt terrible – it was like a hangover without the fun night before!” This did pass for her though. “Four weeks into the diet and I felt brilliant. I was full of energy and buoyed on by friends commenting how good I looked.” She stayed on the diet for five months and as well as sleeping better and feeling more energised, she also found that she’d lost weight around her hips and dropped a dress size too.

To bant or not to bant?

As with any high-profile diet, the Banting diet has attracted both diehard fans and critics. Reducing a macronutrient such as carbohydrates to this extent is a pretty extreme measure and certainly requires careful consideration and consultation with your doctor. “Exclusion of any particular food group may result in dietary deficiencies at micronutrient level, making supplementation an essential, yet often neglected component of exclusion diets,” Caryn says. “There are various important questions to be asked before embarking on any restricted diet,” she says. These include whether the diet’s balanced, if it’s expensive, its side-effects and whether it’s sustainable. Bearing these considerations in mind, it looks as if the diet doesn’t meet these requirements. Furthermore, foods such as grains, fruit and legumes are highlighted by Caryn as providing some of the largest sources of fibre to the diet, and deficiencies could cause constipation and increase the risks of colon cancer too. Many of these foods can be found on the Banting Orange or Red lists.

She adds, “Most people can achieve health and weight loss without the need for extreme dietary measures. Carbohydrate-containing foods have unfortunately been misguidedly labelled as ‘bad choices’, yet there is far more nutritional benefit in a whole fresh fruit or ⅓ cup of quinoa than in a crispy rasher of bacon or a fat pork sausage.” When it comes to carbs, her recommendations are whole-grain, low GI alternatives that are minimally processed and eaten in moderate amounts, according to individual tolerance. These will add B-vitamins, fibre and roughage to the diet, among other plant compounds and micronutrients. The other aspect to bear in mind is the room for error that the diet poses. “The dangers are misinterpretation,” says Caryn. “For example, the use of unhealthy fats and reduced intake of fibre from whole grains that may cause digestive issues.”

The bottom line? Extreme dieting that involves cutting back on a particular macronutrient is a step that shouldn’t be taken lightly and could be potentially harmful, so it’s worth reiterating that it is important to consult your doctor first to devise a dietary plan that has your individual needs in mind.