Breaking Down the Bad Science of Food and Diet Fads

Book review: The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating, by Anthony Warner (Amazon / Book Depository)

I am a chef with a passion for cooking, a background in biological science and a fascination with the way our diet affects our health.

I have been down the rabbit hole, transported into a world of strange pseudoscience, arbitrary rejection of modernity and dangerous dumbfuckery that has come to dominate the discussion on food and health.

The Angry Chef blog was started by Anthony Warner, a British chef working in the food manufacturing industry. Warner was fed up with the wellness movement and never-ending health trends and diet fads that all have, at their core, potentially dangerous restrictions backed by dubious science promising questionable medical benefits.

With a background in biochemistry and help from scientific and dietary nutrition experts, Warner set out to debunk these claims, which are at best misleading and unhelpful, and at worst, dangerous. He employs a colorful vocabulary and a wealth of meticulously explained, readable science, making an educational, hilarious exposé of popular food myths. He’s assisted by an anonymous collaborator, a research scientist in dietetics and biological sciences, who concludes: “the more you learn about diet the less interesting the final message is. Eat everything in moderation and move around more.”

That’s the core message here, and it’s a simple one. Almost too simple, but this is a rigorous, scientifically underscored book-length treatise in support of it and against a tendency of the instinctive brain towards big, generalized ideas that sound sensible but aren’t.

To cook from raw ingredients may be simple and effortless for a chef or food obsessive, but for many it is stressful, joyless and difficult.

It’s worth addressing Warner’s job in the food manufacturing industry. This isn’t a commercial for convenience food, but he makes a case for the role of prepared foods or ingredients in busy modern lives, including that they’ve freed up women to work outside the home and pursue other endeavors. I know not everyone will like this, but being such a woman who’s happy to have a frozen pizza or bag salad mix when overworked (sometimes just when lazy), I’m wholeheartedly on board.

He makes a strong argument for utilizing the benefits this industry can provide and allowing public health bodies to engage with it rather than reject it entirely for fear of being vilified.

If it doesn’t work for you, fine, but it shouldn’t deter from the important messages he conveys. The most important of which, and the closest it comes to providing any food philosophy, something Warner clearly wants to avoid doing, is to advocate for eating variedly.

The book also relieves guilt around food choices, and alleviates some of the burden associated with “clean” eating, cooking from scratch, and juggling the time commitment for cooking “healthy” in hectic everyday life. It’s so valuable for that. Shame and guilt are so intertwined with diet that they’re not even painted negatively: “guilt-free” options are ubiquitous in marketing, cookbooks, supermarkets. Warner is clear: “Try not to feel guilty. Most importantly, never make anyone else feel guilt or shame about the food they eat.”

Where has this book been all my life? Eating disorders and their connection to restriction and guilt/shame associations are also handled admirably.

In addition to the flawed thinking behind “clean” eating, he addresses the “cult” of gluten free (NOT people with celiac disease), the misunderstood evolutionary science behind paleo, dangerous claims of the “GAPS” diet, the utter ridiculosity of the alkaline ash diet, the myth of superfoods and toxins/detoxes, and many inaccurate claims by his nemesis, Gwyneth Paltrow, and her reprehensible GOOP. Even Chinese medicine is covered, with an interesting look at culture, wealth, status and their historical influence on health and diet.

His work debunking the alleged dangers of nefarious but unnamable toxins, including that the body is bombarded with them in our filthy modern era, was a fantastic chapter. Warner breaks down this oversimplification of “natural = good and unnatural = bad” with hard-to-argue examples: “Botulism toxin is an entirely natural substance … yet one of the most poisonous that we know of.”

People have always believed in the purity of times past and the contamination of modernity… As each of us age, we have the tendency to mistake our own decline with that of the world, to believe that there is something good and pure about the past that we have lost, when what we really mourn is the loss of our own youthful vitality.

He tracks the arguments made by health gurus to their sources and examines the research or claims their theories stem from. Often, cited laboratory research doesn’t translate to identical effects in the human body. Or they cherry-pick elements of studies and apply them without considering that correlation doesn’t imply causation, the all-important concept Warner stresses repeatedly as “without doubt the most important thing that science can teach us.”

Or, quite simply as in the case of toxins/detoxing, there wasn’t a problem in the first place.

That is not to say [Maine blueberries, ginger, kale, walnuts, garlic, green tea and numerous other substances named as detoxifying] are not good for you, just that they cannot unpoison you, especially when you haven’t been poisoned.

After examining coconut oil, “the most bizarre of the miracle superfoods”, a chapter on sugar begins: “If the world of action movies has taught us anything, it is that when something is imbued with magical superpowers, it needs to have an equally powerful archenemy. Although there are a few candidates for a potential nemesis to our brave superfood heroes, these days the Lex Luthor of bullshit nutrition is our old friend sugar.”

His sense of humor makes reading this more fun, but it also helps make the science accessible. I worry somewhat about oversimplification, but he does take care to cover the concepts of moderation and paying better attention to what we eat and how much. And if working out nutrition for yourself hasn’t been successful, he explains the importance of dietitians trained in dietary science who can assist, so why do we turn to Instagram wellness gurus instead?

No food should be feared, no choices deemed ‘wrong’. We should be free to embrace the huge variety that the world of food has to offer us, not restricted in our choice based on the moral values and pretensions of others.

Warner also “picks on” Michael Pollan, but with the caveat that he admires his work and wants him to do better from a scientific perspective. He identifies why some of Pollan’s ideas, like not eating anything our great-grandmothers wouldn’t recognize as food, are problematic:

If we dropped in on our great-grandmothers at a typical meal time we would find people scraping an existence with nutritionally poor, unbalanced meals and food scares that make horsemeat contamination look like a pyjama party.

And why do we insist on ignoring experts and discounting science? We don’t do that elsewhere.

We need experts. We need them to drill our teeth, to fix our laptops, to build bridges and perform surgery. We should not pick and choose when we engage with science. We should not decide that in some areas we have the expertise because of some instinctive sense of what is right. Just because the outputs of nutritional science can seem less tangible than those of engineers, surgeons or computer programmers does not mean that they are any less significant.

Warner writes that “It has been said that the energy required to refute bullshit is many times the energy required to produce it; I only have so much time, and this book can only have so many words,” and I feel similarly trying to review it. There’s so much I’m not even mentioning. I think The Angry Chef could frustrate those who have anecdotal evidence of diets working and might ascribe his opinions to an underlying agenda, but I would encourage anyone considering the trends covered to read it with an open mind.

Despite his swearing and annoyances, the foundation here isn’t opinion. We have to stop pretending science is deceiving us because it’s not providing the easy, sweeping solutions we’d prefer. And to be clear – it doesn’t discount legitimate medical reasons for avoiding certain foods or eating specific diets.

Pseudoscientific beliefs are mostly born out of misunderstandings of science, based on grains of truth that are over-extrapolated many times to become vast monsters of unstoppable woo.

Funny, smart, readable science on the dangers of trusting inexpert claims and the solid information necessary to counter unstoppable woo. Must-read for anyone navigating the plethora of health and nutritional claims and confusing studies we’re bombarded with.

The Angry Chef:
Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating

by Anthony Warner
published 2017

Amazon / Book Depository

25 thoughts on “Breaking Down the Bad Science of Food and Diet Fads

  1. ‘Funny, smart, readable science on the dangers of trusting inexpert claims and the solid information necessary to counter unstoppable woo.”

    This whole review made me want to read this book. This sentence clinched it. I get very frustrated listening to the people I love always trying the next woo thing to lose weight and/or be healthy. Thanks for the lovely review.
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You and me both! It’s so frustrating, especially people I’ve known forever who bounce from one to another, first carbs are the devil and then it’s eating like cavemen, then on to the next thing that sounded good on morning TV and no consideration of how or if any of these things actually work.

      This is comprehensive and well organized and hard to sum up really, since he makes so many important, detailed points. I loved it. I’m glad I could convince you, definitely give it a try!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. Science can’t work properly when it’s coupled either with commercial greed, or with emotional baggage. Adding shame and guilt into the mix is a total disaster (and a health hazard). I think we should still be looking for the grain of truth in some of these notions, but without being so quick to jump to conclusions and over-apply them.

    The mind tends to look for simple solutions to complex problems. The ultimate solution may be simple, as the most profound scientific discoveries are, but it shouldn’t be simplistic — and above all, it shouldn’t be self-serving. One’s own prejudices and opinions should be right out, and that’s where I wonder if Warner is aware of his own blind spots. There’s a problem we all must struggle with, anyway.

    Like

  3. Sounds fascinating. I despair for our country and the wholesale acceptance of pseudo facts, not just in food. Critical thinking is definitely on the wane.

    The Houseguest works out and says diet needs to be everything in moderation. Gluten free, anti GMO and fad diets and cleanses drive me bonkers. A coworker did a 10 day cleanse and told me the toxins were still coming out when she used the toilet. I had explained the cells of the intestinal lining only live 3 days so the body is constantly ridding itself of them and that’s what she was seeing but she ignored me.

    Does he address GMOs? I learned about the attacks on GMOs from a guy whose intellect is brilliant. He was hardcore anti GMO at first because, as he puts it, his liberal bias blinded him until he started digging into the real science.

    I’ll definitely have to get this at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does feel like it’s on the wane at times…and that it’s just easier to accept broad statements that appeal to some part of our brains that deals better with black and white situations instead of having to parse anything more complicated, or that lacks the easy answer we want.

      Don’t get me started on the toxins, it makes me twitch! He has this hilarious point in the book about asking anyone peddling a detox product or philosophy to name a single toxin. And just the idea of the inside of our bodies being something dirty that needs “cleansing” drives me nuts too. Our poor, under-appreciated livers…

      He doesn’t address GMOs, only the general idea of anything that smacks of too much technology or seeming “unnatural” being shunned by these types and why that’s such a narrow, uninformed view to take. He spends a lot of time on that and it’s illuminating. I already agreed with those ideas, but he puts it so much better than I ever could (and obviously, backs it up with the science and data that’s not even that hard to dig up, if anyone would bother using that critical thinking to look a little closer at some of these arguments.) I’m not super knowledgeable about GMOs but what I’ve read of the science behind it doesn’t make me bothered about them.

      I can’t recommend this one enough, I think you’d like it! If anything it’ll give you a little more to explain to your coworker, although it sounds like not much is going to sink in there…too many toxins blocking her, I’m sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review!! This sounds great! It’s can be tough dealing with those three variables of modern food life: speed, health, and cost. We want things fast and healthy, but we also want them cheap. That doesn’t always add up! Sounds like he has some good answers in regards to this or comments on how others have tried to solve the equation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I agree, that’s such a difficult point to navigate and when we can’t do it seemingly as well as others can, there’s that whole guilt/shame element thrown into the mix. Anything discussing how we can better manage these things and what’s even worthwhile to focus on among them is so helpful to read. Definitely give this one a try!

      Like

  5. Oh, I’m so happy this book is out there! Yes, it may sound like an oversimplification but eating in moderation and moving around more is still the answer. I just shake my head at all these diets that detox, eliminate whole food groups or are gluten free. Give me a break. I over simplified and and have lost a tremendous amount of weight as a result. And, I’m eating everything, just limiting carbs (still eating them) and sugar for health purposes. Also, it’s a mix of prepared foods, cooking from raw ingredients and fast foods.

    Amen to the author! Fantastic review💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the thing – I’ve found it’s what works for me too but people don’t want to hear it. Always some better, faster, healthier way, apparently…😒 You and I are quite similar there, I also have to limit sugar for health reasons and have to watch the carbs since starting to work at home a couple years ago…if I know it’s going to be a busy work day and I can’t move around enough they make me sluggish. Otherwise I eat what I’m in the mood for and like you, combine from homemade, prepared, and takeout when it’s a long day 🙂 It made a huge difference, and I’m just happy, where food used to be such a source of stress and a constant time-suck of anxiety. I almost can’t believe this was all it took. I’m so glad it was what you needed too, that makes me happy to hear!! Even though you already know the stuff in the book I think you might like it anyway. I learned a lot about the science behind why and how things work the way they do that was helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Fascinating review! I read a great deal of health/diet-book proposals last year for a publisher, and found myself frustrated by how unrealistic and dangerous many of the proposed diets and routines were. The book seems comprehensive and useful, and the discussion of shame/guilt in relation to diet is also interesting. Both really are inextricable from the way we discuss food and health, and it definitely seems like something you’d have to consciously unlearn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The dangerous ones are the scariest, because it seems like people don’t actually realize how dangerous they are. Consciously unlearning those negative associations is so important but tough, especially when that message seems reinforced in so much that we take in, whether consciously or subconsciously. This is definitely a comprehensive look at a lot of these issues, I already agreed with the basic ideas but it was helpful to have so much data and research backing up specifically why these things are so. But even more frustrating to know more about it while seeing these fad diets and superfoods peddled everywhere!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’d love to read this book; I think there are many aspects to the ‘wellness’ industry that are peddling hope but without any real underlying promise of real effects. And it is very hard for people to navigate all the diet advice which is often conflicting so it’s not surprising people are looking for easy solutions. I like the balanced approach of the Angry Chef, taking a lot of the guilt out of food. Fab review. I’m going to have to look this up (please library 🙂 )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s so true, and such a big problem. The average person just wants the distilled scientific findings and how they can be used, and that’s understandable. He makes a good point here about how science can actually be quite difficult to interpret on a layperson’s level, but we don’t want to hear that, we want to know that x food causes y result and that’s just how it goes. I thought his approach was quite balanced too, this book made me feel a lot better about many of my own choices. It’s a couple of years old so should be a good library candidate 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, it amazes me too! This is definitely a good guide for why the claims they make don’t make sense. His argument, and what’s based on the research he’s pulled from dietary experts, is that you should eat a highly varied diet and in moderation. Simple as that. It’s a great read, hope you like it!

      Liked by 1 person

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