Two books were published on the same day last week about the science of food. You can read my review of The Pioppi Diet by Aseem Malhotra and Donal O’Neill tomorrow, but first…
The Angry Chef: Bad science and the truth about healthy eating by Anthony Warner
I am not very interested in food, which is to say I am no more interested than someone who eats it needs to be. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been taken to some fine restaurants in my time, but I have never been served anything that can compete with a chicken bake from Greggs. Cooking is boring and if it was possible to live without eating, I wouldn’t really miss it. It gets in the way of drinking and then you have to wash up.
I don’t understand why people watch cakes being baked on television, but I understand that this is a popular form of entertainment. I am also aware that health and wellness bloggers exist, but I have also assumed they are spivs and/or idiots and have never read their work. And whilst I am theoretically sympathetic towards people who harm themselves as a result of believing nutritional crackpots, a large part of me thinks that they are narcissistic fools who have brought it on themselves.
Consequently, I’ve never heard of most of the people in this book. I had no idea that people turned to Gwyneth Paltrow for nutritional advice. Why would anybody do that? My only real interest in nutritional gobbledegook is when it starts to influence policy, as it has in the current hysteria over sugar. Aside from that, these people can go to hell in an organic, gluten-free handcart, as far as I’m concerned.
Anthony Warner, having a bigger heart than I, cares a great deal about this stuff. He really likes food. He even enjoys cooking it. This is fortuitous for he is a chef. An angry chef. Angry because he cannot avoid people with imaginary food intolerances and daft beliefs about nutritional science.
I don’t blame him. Some of the food fads described in this book are contemptibly stupid. The alkaline diet is particularly cretinous. Debunkable by anyone with a GCSE in chemistry, it is, as Warner says, ‘a huge steaming pile of imaginary bullshit’. He has similarly blunt descriptions of detox (‘a vast bullshit-octopus’), clean eating (‘a huge and unrepentant tide of nutribollocks’), advocates for the paleo diet (‘packs of pseudoscience wolves’) and food gurus in general (‘poorly qualified and unaccountable fools’).
If the fads are united by a common thread, it is a yearning for purity; for a rural idyll that never was. Mistrustful of science and anything that is ‘man made’, the nutritional dupes fall for anything marketed as ‘natural’. The paleo diet explicitly cries out for a return to an age in which people were in touch with nature, and all the fad diets seek to flush out the chemicals of the modern world and take us back to The Garden. It’s all tree-hugging hippy crap, of course. Polio and syphilis are natural. Vaccines and anaesthetic are man made. Nature wants us dead.
It would be wrong to see the wellness gurus and their followers as being totally anti-science. Rather they take a tiny bit of science and use their feelings to work out the rest. There really is such a thing as detoxification (from alcohol, for example). There really are people for whom being gluten-free is more than a quirky affectation. Too much sugar really is bad for you.
But these people take it all too far. More often than not, the solution being peddled by the snakeoil merchants is total abstinence from one or more ingredient. As Warner notes, if you’re feeling lousy, the chances are that you will sooner or later feel better with or without the guru’s help (regression to the mean), but it is all too tempting to credit the guru for your recovery. If you are fat and the guru tells you to cut out an entire food group, the chances are your restrictive diet will cause you to consume fewer calories, but rather than accept the laws of thermodynamics, you may be tempted to attribute magical fattening powers to specific foods.
Extremism sells. Nobody makes money from telling people to eat a balanced diet in moderation and do a bit of exercise. We seem drawn to self-flagellating exercises in self-denial, up to and including fasting, so long as we are allowed pockets of excess. Yes, you can gorge yourself on this particular food, say the gurus, so long as you abstain completely from that particular. It is as if the combination of gluttony in one area and total abstinence in another adds up to moderation.
Such diets tend to be difficult to adhere to and fail. It is mostly harmless stupidity for people with more money than sense, although it must be rather tedious for those around them. The dark side comes when the quacks cause people to develop eating disorders or sell fake cancer cures. When it comes to these charlatans, Warner’s anger is more than justified.
The Angry Chef deserves to be widely read. It covers all the bases with aplomb. The world needs a popular science book to help people tell the difference between science and opinion, as evidenced by the fact that it is currently being beaten on the Amazon sales rankings by The Pioppi Diet: A 21 day lifestyle plan which I will be reviewing tomorrow.