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

To anyone expecting a review of Pottlikker Papers this week, I apologize. Unforeseen circumstances have caused me to postpone that review for one on The Angry Chef. I fully intend to provide the promised review sometime in the next two months.

Many of us are tired of hearing about the dangers of processed food and how the most recent diet trend can solve all our health problems. Fortunately, I found a book for us. The Angry Chef, aka Anthony Warner, brings out his knives to slice and dice all the nutritional pseudoscience that pervades the internet, mainstream and social media, as well as the food section of the nearest bookstore or library. He serves up a refreshing dish of morsels about food and health. I found it to be the best book I have read, including my own, for calling out the pseudoscience that passes for popular nutritional advice. I am pleased that many of his points are ones that I made in my book or on this blog site. I confess to slight distress that he is better at making these points than I am. I must provide one warning.

CAUTION: The Angry Chef contains some profanity in almost every chapter. It is not needed to make the author’s points and may tend to detract from his message rather than enhance it.

Anyone who has read previous book reviews on this site will note that this one will not be conventional as I will be using Warner’s own words from the book to introduce each topic.

“Pseudoscientific beliefs are mostly born out of misunderstandings of science, based on grains of truth that are over-extrapolated to become vast monsters of woo.” Woo is a more-polite way of saying BS, one of the few times Warner refrains from going vulgar. The Angry Chef pulls no punches and does not appear concerned about offending the “food gurus” he calls out by name throughout the book. In his discussion he takes on ancient wisdom, antioxidants, clean eating, homeopathy, nostalgia for the good-old days, personal anecdotes and superfoods.

Warner utters such heresies as home cooking is not always healthier than restaurant or processed foods and that we should beware of advice from anyone who has a food philosophy. Along the way the Angry Chef describes why a universal cure for cancer is so elusive and how the fear of cancer is such an effective means of selling the latest diet craze. Although much of the diet advice we read about today is reasonably harmless, the payment for rigid adherence to some of the more extreme beliefs over modern medicine can be, tragically, a shortened lifespan.

 “The truth is that any diet that creates rules and restrictions will result in weight loss.” The Angry Chef  debunks alkaline diets, detox diets, the GAPS (Gut and Physiology Syndrome) diet, low-carb diets, paleo diets and others. Whenever categories of foods are excluded, calories go down and so do essential vitamins and minerals in many cases. He provides a provocative explanation on how and why food bloggers become so excited about their dietary practices and why they feel compelled to share them with the world. Sorry, you’ll have to read the book to find out his hypothesis. We learn how a diet can start with a little bit of science and evolve into a successful website and even a best-selling book. He illustrates this point by describing his made-up karyotype diet based on the number of chromosomes in a plant or animal—one should eat foods only from organisms that have fewer chromosomes than humans. It seems like a much more reasonable approach than designing a diet for a person’s blood type.

“As anyone working in public health will tell you, the real problem with dietary guidelines is not the advice: it is that no one follows it.” Sugar makes it to the chef’s menu. Warner suggests that most of us could cut down on sweets, but he scoffs at the idea of a Sugar Conspiracy which claims that Big Sugar was able to convince dietitians and nutritionists that fat was much less healthy than sugar. The problem with sugary foods is that they provide excess calories usually without compensating micronutrients. The idea that Big Sugar was able to outcompete the special interests of the dairy and meat industries to convince the world that fat was much more dangerous than sugar is difficult to believe.

The Angry Chef suggests that the food gurus who are now condemning sugar are following a similar path to their counterparts who condemned fat a generation ago. It is not the dietitians and their dietary guidelines who are to blame, but the press who made fat the enemy, he contends. Scientists in nutrition and food science are at a disadvantage in providing a consensus view of food issues when critics sell simple answers to complex questions with unwarranted certainty. The dialogues between Palrow Science, who has all the answers, and Science Columbo, who is bothered by just one little thing, show that the Angry Chef is very good at approaching difficult topics with humor.

“Monosodium glutamate (MSG) might be replaced by a yeast extract or a natural flavoring with similar properties caused by identical chemical properties.” Food chemistry and the public’s fear of anything chemical entering the body is another prominent theme in the book. The author places the blame for “clean eating” on the development of clean labels by the food industry in the 1990s. He provides an interesting history of the term and how it developed. The Angry Chef suggests that clean eating took us beyond diets as Millennials find dieting requires too much sacrifice (his thoughts not necessarily mine). Strangely enough his emphasis on the word “clean” to justify the movement’s appeal ignores the other end of the mantra—living dirty to cultivate our microbiome. I will come back to this topic next week on this site.

 “Science in schools is taught as a series of black-and-white facts, looking at things that are definitely true and trying to explain why.” Warner states that nutrition is complex and not amenable to simple statements declared with certainty. In their desire to simplify food issues, food writers use the term “chemical” in a pejorative sense. Food gurus push relative risk when absolute risk is more relevant. The Angry Chef selects bacon to illustrate his point. Relative risk, as used by food writers, overstates the danger at 18%, while an absolute risk of 1% is more realistic. He states that “Science should teach children to doubt, to question and to understand the wisdom of knowing your ignorance.” Other topics that he tackles are autism and eating disorders with respect to the foods we eat. I guess that we should not be too surprised that NPR is looking for a new science editor but seeks no education requirements for a background in science or health.

“If there is one thing that every food writer, chef, and campaigner can agree on it is that eating processed food, factory produced, industrial food products is wrong.” The Angry Chef meets my Defense of Processed Food when he writes about “convenience foods.” Many of the ingredients we use to make foods at home are processed—made in a plant rather than grown on a plant—in obvious disregard of one of Michael Pollan’s rules. Possible reasons for the author’s aberant views on nutrition incude a degree in biochemistry and ten years working in the food industry as a chef in product development. Warner encourages us to be rational about food, trying a wide variety of dishes and not eating to excess. Despite his skepticism of anyone who espouses a food philosophy, he proclaims that we should Embrace Variety, Achieve Balance which sounds like a fine food philosophy to me! Please don’t tell him I revealed it.

“We have created a society where clean eaters, health obsessives, body shamers, fattists and anyone pedaling restrictive diets are seen as virtuous and good.”  Is our society doomed to a world where celebrities and self-appointed food gurus are much more credible than health professionals with backgrounds in nutrition and food science? Or is there room for a blogsite defending processed food and an Angry Chef who points out the foibles of nutritional pseudoscience? Only time will tell. I suspect that a book written by a chef will have more credibility than any written by a scientist. The Angry Chef should be on the bookshelf of any chef, dietitian, food scientist or nutritionist who believes in evidence-based research and rational food choice. It would also make a good gift for any friend or relative who seeks a magic bullet to health and happiness in life through food.

Next week: The evolution of clean food

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