I’m a 49-year old South African who lives in Cape Town and spends time every month in Singapore, where I previously lived for 16 years. I have a great affinity for this amazing little island that has been so good to me, where I built a business, got married and where my kids were born. I joke with people that I’m 1/3 Singaporean.
My university degree is in accounting. However, I didn’t last long in the rigid world of auditing – 3 weeks to be precise. Instead, I co-founded a company in Singapore called NMG, with 3 actuaries. Geoff, one of my partners at the time, always tells me I was the only entrepreneur among the group (which is not true) but my thriving university T-shirt business must have somehow convinced them.
In 1994, we stumbled upon an opportunity in the employee benefits area, and I ended up building this division of NMG into the largest administrator of flexi-benefit plans in Singapore. We became an insurance broker too.In 1994, we stumbled upon an opportunity in the employee benefits area, and I ended up building this division of NMG into the largest administrator of flexi-benefit plans in Singapore. We became an insurance broker too. I developed expertise in insurance, particularly health insurance, and financial planning. Actuaries know insurance, and they are very good with numbers. My partners were generous, sharing their knowledge sufficiently well for me to become proficient myself.
I developed expertise in insurance, particularly health insurance, and financial planning. Actuaries know insurance, and they are very good with numbers. My partners were generous, sharing their knowledge sufficiently well for me to become proficient myself.
In 2004, a US listed company acquired our employee benefits business, bringing to successful conclusion, at 36 years old, the first chapter of my career. I worked for the US multinational for a while, but after 2 years I yearned for the creativity, independence and pace of a smaller business, where new ideas can be put to the test.
So, in 2006, I took a break from formal employment. By this time I had two young kids. My wife, Lara, and I decided to move back to South Africa. We wanted our children to experience Cape Town and be close to their cousins. We also missed our family.
During this next period, I invested in various businesses, got involved in software and developed some student accommodation projects. I also joined a big insurance company for a while to learn more about health and wellness. But crucially, over the past 3 years, I’ve had the time and space to build a whole new set of knowledge around my true passion – what it takes to keep healthy and prevent chronic disease. What a journey it’s been!
In retrospect, I have always been fascinated with health. I remember, as a young athlete, being really interested in VO2 max and muscle fibres, and I recall, vividly how we tested our blood type in Grade 10 biology class.
Yet, in 2014, I found myself overweight, out of shape and out of sorts, and wholly unprepared to deal with my own health issues. I wasn’t very fat, but neither was I thin and my blood sugar was creeping up. At the time, I had no idea what this meant. I found myself at 91kg (I’m 1.8m tall) unable to lose weight even though I exercised and ate what I thought was a healthy diet. My doctor told me nothing was wrong. I thought this was just the way it was – as you get older, you put on weight and you slow down. There isn’t much you can do about it. All the diets I had tried before were hard, I was always hungry and the weight always came back after a while.
Wellness was vague concept, beyond what seemed obvious: don’t smoke, don’t eat too much, don’t eat fat, or too many sugary things and do some cardio. Oh, and get regular medical check-ups. Nobody really understands their blood results – you typically look at the ranges and ask the doctor if something is out of range, especially cholesterol. Everybody seems worried about cholesterol. That was wellness, or so I thought. Did anything really make a difference? It was hard to tell. Who really knew?
One day in 2014 I saw an interview on CNN with Dr Robert Lustig, who had just published a new book, called Fat Chance. It was about sugar, processed food, obesity and disease. I bought the book immediately, and, for the first time, I discovered a doctor who really understood the body and could explain complex physiology – how we put on weight, lose weight and become metabolically sick. Dr Lustig is a Pediatric Endocrinologist, one of the world’s leading experts on obesity. He explained that what made us fat and sick wasn’t the amount of food – it wasn’t the calories per se – but rather the type of food we ate, especially the effect of food on our insulin. Dr Lustig did not like sugar, or the processed food industry.
What resonated with me was that Dr Lustig wasn’t selling a diet or trying to make money in any obvious way. He wasn’t paid by the food or pharmaceutical industries. In fact, he was upsetting a lot of big business, and not making himself very popular. His main agenda seemed to be public health. I realized, for the first time, that our dietary guidelines (the food pyramid) were problematic and started understanding the distortions caused by political and commercial interests. I was hooked.
With time on my hands and a spark that had been lit, I plunged into this passion, reading book after book (by Gary Taubes, Nina Teicholz, Dr Stephen Phinney, Prof Tim Noakes, Dr Jason Fung, and many others). I watched YouTube videos and presentations, particularly those of Ivor Cummins (aka The Fat Emperor) – a remarkable engineer – found experts, talked with doctors and eventually read scientific papers and research studies myself, all the while acquiring more technical knowledge and improving my understanding.
While I was learning all this, it was clear that I needed to change my own way of eating, and I knew what to do. Cut carbohydrates as much as possible. Strictly no sugar, no bread, pasta, rice or flour, no starchy vegetables, not even carrots and beetroot (Who knew they had sugar?), no fruit beyond a few berries – wow, I thought fruit was super-healthy! Lots of meat (preferably pasture raised and grass fed), chicken, and wild fish; dairy was fine, but it should be full fat, and lots of other healthy fat too, especially from animal products (that’s right!) avocados and olive oil. And definitely no vegetable oil – although vegetable oils are fats, they are processed polyunsaturated fats that have consistent and serious associations with inflammation and cellular damage in humans. This was something I’d never heard of. This was Low Carb.
Because I like to measure and understand things, I wanted to know what was happening inside my body. I became fascinated with my own biomarkers and ended up measuring a lot of things, partly out of the challenge to understand, but also to see if this new way of eating was benefitting me on the inside. I measured blood sugar, insulin, cholesterol, inflammation and liver function. Once I figured out how to have my own blood tests done, provided I paid for them myself, I became a regular at the lab.
My next step was buying a blood glucose meter. I started to track and measure my blood glucose, sometimes up to 8 times per day, to see what was happening when I ate different food, when I woke up and when I exercised. My family and friends thought I was nuts. In some ways they still do. But everybody should be taught to measure their blood glucose and track what they eat. You don’t have to do it all the time, but every so often it’s important to see the patterns and remind yourself how different food affects your blood sugar. If your blood sugar is elevated too frequently, you need to change your diet and watch those carbohydrates and sugars.
As my weight began to fall, I was encouraged by the results. Whenever I stalled (and there were many times), I learned new things and mastered new techniques, like intermittent fasting, which is a total game-changer. My return to a good, healthy weight wasn’t quick. I now realize you have to be patient, as your body resets its thermostat. My goal weight was 82kg, but by the time I reached it, I knew that Low Carb was about long term health, not just weight, although the two are related. This new lifestyle had become a habit, I felt great, so I carried on, eventually reaching 75kg.
I never thought I would ever see this number in my adult life. I’ve lost 17.5% of my body weight and I feel as if someone has given me back 20 years.
There are many things I love, like ice-cream, crème brulee or bagels. But I know they are verboten! Eventually, you’ll wean yourself off sugar to the point it is no longer a craving. When someone puts temptation in front of you, it does take willpower and conviction to say “no”. On the odd occasion, I still have the bad stuff, although my goal is never to have it. When I do indulge, I regard it as a slip. We are all human. Forgive yourself for mistakes, but don’t give yourself permission to make them. There’s a difference. Permission is a slippery slope.
Low Carb is no longer a diet but a lifestyle that can be sustained forever. Once you realize how many chronic diseases are linked to poor food choices, and that Low Carb reduces so much risk, there’s no turning back. I think you get to the point where you master everything sufficiently well that it’s relatively easy to maintain. You don’t have to think so hard anymore. The hassle and effort go away and you find enough variety to enjoy your food. You don’t need to study every nutrition label or ask every waiter about ingredients. You know most of the answers. You’ve done the heavy lifting and you get to autopilot. Think of it like becoming a black belt at martial arts.
I care so much about diabetes because it turns out that the primary cause of diabetes is the same as obesity – poor diet, defined as too much sugar, too many refined carbohydrates, refined vegetable oils and processed food. And the same problem probably causes most heart disease too, and stroke, and dementia, and it is linked to many cancers. We are all at risk and more than half the world’s population is already metabolically unhealthy – on the path towards chronic illness. These seemingly different diseases and conditions are actually connected. They are all manifestations of an out-of-whack metabolism, causing hormones to “dysregulate”, insulin to become elevated and inflammation to become chronic as the body struggles to contain the onslaught.
Some of the damage and consequences of diabetes.
Source: International Diabetes Federation 2017
Once you understand that all these diseases are linked to the same root cause, it’s easy to see the solution. Fix your diet! If you do this, you can solve most of these problems for yourself! We can solve the world’s health crisis. The power and elegance of root cause is that if you solve the problem at the root, you solve all the complications up in the tree, with one solution. (Thank you Ivor Cummins). If that isn’t an “OMG” insight, then nothing is!
What I find truly exciting, and hopeful, is that the results we get from eating properly are dramatic. This stuff works, it works quickly and every person needs to know it. We can prevent so many diseases and so much suffering, but only if we act in time. Once these diseases have ravaged the body, and secondary complications set in, there is no turning back. Failed kidneys and amputated feet don’t get better. But if we intervene successfully and learn to eat well, we gain years of health and vitality.
Spinnach was formed to help spread this message to the world, and to create products, services and resources to help people succeed on their health journeys.
Spinnach is dedicated to all the amazing doctors, scientists, researchers, authors and activists – the leaders of the modern Low Carb movement. Your brilliance and bravery to speak the truth and share the knowledge has allowed us all to learn and to fix ourselves, and help our children stay healthy.
And to our predecessors, we stand on the shoulders of giants – Joseph Kraft, Robert Atkins, John Yudkin, Alfred Pennington, William Harvey and many others. You knew the secrets, if not the science, long before us, though you didn’t have the internet, nor its connected global community to support your efforts. You were too easily silenced or ignored. Here’s to you. And here’s to our health.