Once upon a time, I was a clean-eating fanatic, spending a small fortune on agave syrup and coconut oil, evangelically telling anyone who’d listen that I was “detoxing my body and purifying my life”. Deliciously Ella, the Hemsleys and The Naked Chef were all much-loved bookmarks on my laptop; Holland & Barrett was my local hangout.
I’d like to say it was at this point that the blogger Angry Chef came along and opened my eyes to the bullshit that infiltrates the wellness industry. But he didn’t; in fact, he didn’t come along until a few years later and, by that time, I had grown tired of it all by myself. What he did do, however, was show me the confusion around clean eating – the “Nutri-bollocks” (his word; a fine word) and the wildly inaccurate and very often cynical pseudoscience that pervades healthy eating today.
Angry Chef (real name Anthony Warner) has a biochemistry degree and has spent his much of his career in working kitchens. He started his blog in 2016 so he could vent. Admittedly, plenty of dietitians and registered nutritionists have also banged his same drum in recent years (esteemed dietitian Ian Marber being one of them). But Angry Chef has perhaps been one of the most successful in getting the message through, fighting it precisely where it has been playing out, on the internet, using sarcasm, wit and a heap of F-words as his weapons to stop the spread of what he calls an “unstoppable multiheaded health Hydra”. This is where I found him, on Twitter, in fine form, squaring up to a clean-eating blogger who was claiming something bonkers (I've long forgotten what).
And now he has written a book, The Angry Chef: Bad Science And The Truth About Healthy Eating, which, like his blog, is an absolute corker. In a Red Sea of bullshit, Angry Chef is the modern-day Moses and his gospel is worth learning by heart: “We have created a society where clean eaters, health obsessives, body shamers, fattists and anyone peddling restrictive diets are seen as virtuous and good. This needs to change.”
He has no time for detoxes, saying that the idea that we can detoxify our bodies by controlling our dietary intake is "benchmark pseudoscientific bullshit”: "Our bodies have excellent systems for removing any potential toxins – our liver and kidneys don’t need any help.”
(In case you haven’t noticed by now, the word “bullshit” features prominently in his book.)
He questions the exaggerated claims of many wellness bloggers, calling them “glamorous people living fast-paced and impossibly exciting lives, who are no more likely to discover the secret to health through diet than scientists working in laboratories”. His send up of Gwyneth and Goop (page 97) is hilarious.
He gives short shrift to superfoods, especially kale and coconut oil – “never trust anyone who tells you a food has magical powers”. He preaches moderation over exclusion: “sugar is sugar – it is only toxic if you eat too much of it”. And nothing escapes his Nutri-bollocks-ometer: the “miracle” properties of antioxidants, the Paleo diet, the GAPs diet, the alkaline ash diet and the gluten-free diet (as a “lifestyle choice”) all come under his “Where's the science?” scrutiny.
In a Red Sea of bullshit, Angry Chef is the modern-day Moses and his gospel is worth learning by heart
So, will Angry Chef succeed in his mission? That depends – he is the first to accept that he needs to be a realist. He knows that clean eating has become an acceptable euphemism for getting thin. He accepts that much of the quackery around the movement’s wackier ingredients (sex bark, moon juice etc) is not taken seriously – “no one believes it if they really stop to think about it” – but points out that people gravitate to rules they can follow. He quotes expert evidence that says clean eating’s moralising language and restrictions can be a huge distraction for anyone whose eating patterns are inclined to disorder. Also, that cutting out whole food groups can be downright dangerous.
I can see why clean eating has found a niche – we live in a confused world where people don’t know what, or who, to believe. A “wine gives you cancer” headline will be followed by a “wine is good for you” story the next day. No wonder no one is sure of what’s true any more – and what we should, or shouldn't, be paying attention to. It's these contradictory messages which are perhaps what makes Angry Chef most angry. He pinpoints that the media, the public – even the world of science itself – are inclined to accept – and want – a quick answer. But one “wine gives you cancer” survey is just that: *one* survey, not the sum of its parts, not “the new truth”.
These headlines, he says, will keep on confusing as long as science is allowed to carry on being communicated badly, and as long as some researchers, university press departments, journalists, charities and campaigners have a vested (often financial) interest in gaining publicity. When contradictory headlines abound, pseudoscience flourishes, exploiting gaps in scientific consensus. "If you are going to wrench a belief out of people’s minds, you need to have something to replace it that doesn’t fill any gaps.”
And, he surmises, there is a steep hill to climb: “Sensible talk of moderation, small improvements and slow incremental changes will never make as good headlines or be as powerful and emotive as those of pseudoscience.”
In short: serious science will never be black and white. In fact, it is very often grey or tomato-red and mushroom-beige. It's up to Angry Chef to keep pointing this out.
There is an inextricable link between health and food, certainly. Obesity is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed, definitely. But there is no magical cure, no miracle elixir, no "moon juice". The answer is boringly, blindingly obvious: food shouldn’t be a scary battleground, and when things are eaten in moderation, *nothing* is unhealthy.
Until we all pay attention to this, the wheel of bullshit will keep on whirling and Angry Chef will stay angry.
And I will be right behind him, every step of the way.
Buy Anthony Warner's book, The Angry Chef: Bad Science And The Truth About Healthy Eating here.