Michael Bywater

From Fad to Worse

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

By

Oneworld 326pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Angry chefs create angry reviewers and Anthony Warner scores double here. First, because his anger is so bloody righteous, and second, because what I really want to do is just type out a list of all his arguments and then stand over you while you read it, jabbing my finger and shouting ‘See? See?’ and ‘Have you got to the bit about Gwyneth Paltrow’s mouthwash?’ (coconut oil, which may have antimicrobial properties in vitro but supposedly cures everything and makes you thin, and which she also recommends as a sexual lubricant, though not, as Warner hopes, at the same time). 

Paltrow’s website, the aptly named goop.com, a brain-melting detox-and-mindfulness version of the Mail Online’s Sidebar of Shame, is inordinately popular, but with whom? It can’t be men, and I can’t imagine many women old enough to be worried about cancer, death and crepey wattles being thrilled by the thought of Ms Paltrow lubing up or gargling with pointless nut slobber. And that’s before you’ve even started to wonder about what, and whose, she’s lubricating, and why.

I recommend Listerine as a corrective and I recommend it now. But even more do I recommend Warner’s astringent and meticulous denunciation of every health stunt, food fad and wisdom-of-the-ancients hopmadoodle going: paleo, antioxidants, alkaline ash, lo-carb, hi-carb, Atkins, fat-free, fat-rich and the intellectually insupportable GAPS diet, which desperate parents have used to treat their children’s autistic spectrum disorders, inflammatory bowel disease and cystic fibrosis. Which leads us to the big problem: the foodsters have blood on their hands. Their obsession with nutritional magic and their abandonment of fact or reason, together with the glossy, thin, preternaturally limber, shiny, thin, and terribly happy but totally thin and at peace lifestyle they promote, pushes vulnerable people into risking malnutrition and, worse, the relentless curse of anorexia nervosa, the most often fatal of all psychiatric disorders. Food fads kill. The obsession with control of the body, and what we put into it, kills.

Then we have the gluten-free diet, useful for people with a very specific and verifiable condition named coeliac disease, and no good for anyone else. See, for example, a recent British Medical Journal article (BMJ 2017;357:j1892), which concluded that it potentially increased your risk of heart disease and that if you didn’t have coeliac disease you shouldn’t go gluten-free. The authors of the paper analysed data for a cohort of 64,714 women and 45,303 men. So why is ‘gluten-free’ a badge of wholesome purity? Food faddists and their predators do not study a cohort of 64,714 women and 45,303 men. Food faddists read goop.com, study nothing but their own certainties, their inner feelings, the contents of the ‘free from’ shelves at Waitrose and anything else that doesn’t need statistics, a distinguishing between correlation and causation, or a willingness to see one’s model of things toppled by verifiable and repeatable fact derived from experiment, observation or reason. Their bellies are here, but their brains are in Narnia. It’s distressing.

Warner, a biochemist turned chef, loves reason. He also loves food. Not surprisingly. Food – I don’t mean the stuff Palaeolithic man wore his teeth out on, which is of no relevance to us now, is a great and joyful gift to humanity. Despite sugar (gives you diabetes) and butter (causes heart attacks), and despite the absence of quinoa and kale and probably grated frozen turnip skins and a special gravel found only in the hills of Meteora, which is why 137-year-old monks are still as sexually active as… oh, to hell with it, you know what I’m talking about. Despite it all, we have survived and are, by any measure, healthier and longer-lived than at any time in human history – even despite the certainty of the faddists that their doctors hate them and want them to die.

Warner’s dismantling of the faddists’ fads, their gullibility and idiocy (in the classical sense of the word – the behaviour of someone who is turned only towards themselves, in contrast to scientists, who belong to a mutually critical enterprise) is precise, witty and more humane than I can find it in myself to be. To offer people hope of curing their cancer by poking coffee grounds up their arse, or instructing them to drink ‘magnetised’ water or follow an alkaline diet or any of the other lunacies that always appear to involve money changing hands seems to me unforgivably cruel. Warner, with the glee of a scientist spotting another layer of complexity to poke around in, thinks that very often the perpetrators of food fads are genuinely persuaded of their efficacy themselves. Perhaps. You don’t have to be evil to be very bad. Warner also dismisses Brillat-Savarin’s dictum that ‘we are what we eat’, pointing out that the best refutation is that vegans are made of meat.

But what Brillat-Savarin said wasn’t a physiological but a semiological observation: what and how we eat is a statement to others of how we should, or would like to, be seen. If I want linguine with a nice Loyd Grossman sauce and a bit of grated Cheddar, I am telling you one thing; if I choose fresh pappardelle with a single-estate olive oil and a shaving of truffles, I am telling you another. Food is a complex sequence of signs, with an intricate syntax of its own. But, yes, it also declares a yearning: for health, for purity, for glossy hair, for not growing old and dying. For attractive, confident, happy and thin.

I mention Grossman because his pasta sauces are said to be Warner’s handiwork. He designs the recipes you buy at the Tesco Metro or Little Waitrose on your way home – the stuff most of us actually eat most of the time. Faddists would say he’s a criminal, a murderer of innocents: he works in the food processing industry. But heaven help us, what is the gut but a great food processing plant? That’s what the body does. And it’s wondrous and intricate enough without slathering coconut oil all over it. The science Warner so ably and accessibly defends is more strange, more incorrigibly plural, than any detox bollocks or ancient wisdom can ever be. If you think that’s heretical, you really should read the book.

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