The Angry Chef: taking on the pseudoscience of food

French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin left us with a legacy of diet and cuisine. A rather excellent cow’s milk cheese is named after him, as is the Savarin mould, perfect for those who like their desserts with holes in the middle. His writings remain his greatest contribution, and one quote of his in particular has continued to underscore modern notions about the relationship between food and medicine. In his seminal work, The Physiology of Taste, published in 1825 shortly before his death, he writes, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” His words have been paraphrased down into the catchier (but let’s be honest, not quite the same) ‘You are what you eat.’

I think that every single clean eating, food blog I have seen (and I have seen many, despite how much they irritate me) include reproductions of Brillat-Savarin’s sentiment. In fact, food pseudoscientist-in-chief Gillian McKeith, who is one of many Clayton College of Natural Health fake PhDs, created a tragically popular brand around the idea that “You are what you eat.”

Let’s not forget that Brillat-Savarin also said the slightly less paraphrased “a dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.” Obviously, he had more diverse views on the relationship between our bodies and food! Sadly, his ideas have been warped and co-opted by the pseudoscience industry.

You are not exactly what you eat

Although Brillat-Savarin’s writings contain much rumination about food and health from an observational view of a non-scientist, my understanding of his original quote is that he was commenting on how food choices reveal character traits, rather than one’s well-being. Sure, in the framework of biochemistry, his quote is also true, but not without glaring caveats.

The beauty of metabolism is that our bodies can take in a load of foodstuffs combined with a single gas from the air and generate energy and other compounds that form our tissues. We have very complex systems that regulate these processes. More or less, scientists have a grip on these inputs and outputs–it takes the chemicals that constitute food, breaks them down, makes new chemicals, and uses these to sustain life. Oddly enough, this is why a vegan is still composed of meat! The body does not care if a bit of carbon came from organic kale or a Snickers bar. We are what we eat to an extent, in that our bodies are incredibly good at processing food into other biological stuff, including energy.

Unfortunately, self-appointed health gurus take “You are what you eat” to mean that we consist of the essences of our food that is matched in purity and quality of dietary inputs. In their eyes, what we put into our bodies will affect all aspects of health maintenance and disease processes. A cheeky variation on this idea is similar to what computer programmers say about writing code: “garbage in, garbage out.”

The chef gets angry

I want to make it clear that I am an advocate of a healthy, balanced, and varied diet. I teach healthy eating and simple home cooking in my local community, working with parents and young people wanting to improve cooking skills and eat healthier. Many people eat so poorly that they are at risk of becoming nutrient deficient and increasing their risks for chronic diseases. But if you eat a balanced diet with plenty of different fruit and vegetables and not too many calories, you are less likely to succumb to such poor outcomes. Healthy eating is actually pretty simple. Not easy for many, but simple all the same. No food is bad, nothing needs to be excluded (except the poisonous kind!), just eat sensibly and include lots of different stuff, colours, textures, whatever.

Now, consider the messages written on “clean eating” websites for a moment. Yes, doing this makes me angry. People tell me that I should not get so annoyed because these sites are harmless and just informing those interested how to eat healthily. Have a look for yourself.

Deliciously Ella is one of the top rated food websites in the UK with twenty-five million views last year. The star is Ella Woodward, who was recently voted as one of the top 100 most powerful people in the food industry by Grocer magazine. The list of foods that Ella advocates avoiding includes wheat, dairy, fish, meat, anything with ‘chemicals’ (not sure what food doesn’t have chemicals), products labelled as healthy in supermarkets, chocolate, sugar, and rice. Look at some of the science that supports this advice. She claims that lemons are alkalising for the body and that white rice acidifies it. Lemons are acidic, and good luck trying to change the pH of your body. You’d surely die anywhere too far from a pH of 7.4. In case you think she is not someone to fear, she is currently studying to be a naturopathic nutritionist at a ridiculous College of Naturopathic Medicine. As Britt has written, naturopaths are not good. Period.

Ella gets it in the neck from the Angry Chef blog because her site is so popular whilst spreading utter shit for advice. Sadly, she is one of the more respectable nutrition gurus. There are bountiful sites containing black lists of foods based on spurious, often blatantly wrong, non-scientific nonsense. Some of these bogus reasons include appealing to Ayurvedic traditions, the quackery of alkaline diets, or anti-inflammatory diets that stipulate that all nightshades are going to overload your body with phantom inflammatory factors.

Take, for example, the FODMAP diet, a seemingly sensible evidence-based diet, possibly effective in treating IBS; it has been hijacked by health bloggers. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, perhaps the most influential healthy eating blog on the planet, endorses dietary advice from the “spirit world” through a guy named Anthony, the “medical medium“. And then there is the Food Babe, who you can always count on for unsubstantiated scare tactics surrounding nutrition and environmental health.

We need more scientific ambassadors to kill the woo

I feel bad for the target audiences of these websites. Many are women who are pressured by social factors to tirelessly want to improve their bodies. They are probably confused, worried about health, worried about diets and keen to try any quick fix. Seeing huge lists of food that need to be excluded to maximise health is perhaps sending a comforting message that this struggle is under their control. Having that message validated by science-y sounding word salads helps drive the message home. It is no surprise that alternative medical practitioners contribute to eating disorders!

Advice on dietary health is thrown around for free on the internet, and it is unregulated. It is morally troubling that this trend is being driven by publicity hungry celebrities and journalists keen to believe self-appointed experts (especially those that can claim to be one of the many ‘nutritionists to the stars’). If the gurus are young and photogenic, their message seems to sink in even deeper.

Is there anything that can be done? Regulation? Denouncements by respectable scientists? Can blogging play a role?

Pseudoscience and quackery need competition. Scientists needs to fight back. We need photogenic, social media savvy communicators with good PR connections blogging and vlogging about eating a healthy balanced diet in order to dispel the pseudoscientific garbage. We need celebrities willing to talk about sensible, evidence-based dietary advice. We probably need to shout more too.

Get out there. Spread the word. Run a healthy eating class in your community, focused on cooking healthy, balanced food. If you are a scientist, go into a school and talk to students about healthy eating. Start a blog. Write a recipe book.

Good luck trying to lobby your MP or other government representative. Lobby celebrities with an interest in science. Shout from the rooftops – healthy can be achieved by eating a balanced diet but it is not going to cure your cancer.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the real healthy eating message is boring compared to the fantastical messages of the quacks. Yes, the pseudoscientists are better at spreading their fear than reasonable folks are at communicating the facts. But think about how powerful our message is. You can eat healthily without ever having to swallow a wheatgrass-kale smoothie. Coffee is okay. You can have a Snickers bar now and again. There is nothing boring about that. It’s actually quite delicious!

If we hone the message right, we can muster a powerful force for good. We have the resolve of scientific truth, evidence-based intervention, and critical thinking. These are perhaps the most important and beautiful creations of the modern era. They have transformed our world.

Imagine an army of people who stand for this truth, combined with savvy media tactics of the quacks. It could be powerful enough to overwhelm the might of the multi-headed, Paltrow guru-monster and her army of vaginal steam cleaners. Or, the Food Babe army and its shit.

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Science will win

A couple of weeks ago I went out into my garden at exactly 6:27am and looked out into a cold, dark sky. Exactly as predicted, the International Space Station appeared over the horizon, reflecting the sunlight from its orbit above the Earth. For three minutes, I watched this marvel advance silently across the sky. This was a perfect expression of the power, triumph, and beauty of science. I could wait in my garden for 10,000 years, and I will never see an Ayurvedic, homeopathic, or naturopathic space station powered by healing crystals or water memory or chakras. Science is in a different league than these traditional systems. When used without arrogance or self-righteousness, spreading the message of truth from the bottom up, science will win.


Angry Chef is the bullshit fighting alter ego of a real chef with a background in science. He blogs at angry-chef.com and is on Twitter, @One_Angry_Chef

Image credit: 1) Screenshot, www.angry-chef.com; 2) jl.cernadas, some rights reserved.

  • NS Alito

    Too many natural-obsessed people I know think that organic crops are grown without pesticides. The snark in me wants to advocate for scary-labeling foods with ingredients “GROWN WITH PESTICIDES(!)” before–or along with–any requirement for GMO labeling.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Oh boy, this is a topic I can get my teeth into (if you’ll excuse the pun which I only realized was a pun as I was typing it.) Yes, young, fit, photogenic people seem to be over-represented among bogus food gurus and insecure young women seem to be over-represented among their targets. Also mommy bloggers (who frequently have bogus “natural” health credentials) busily working on convincing other moms and moms-to-be that if they allow a speck of processed food to pass the lips of their offspring (or their own lips while they are nursing, pregnant with, or even thinking about getting pregnant with their offspring), they will be dooming those children to a life of disease and misery and even decreased intelligence. (There is definitely a subset within this subculture that seems very bent on creating little ubermenschen that will out-compete the lowly, unwashed masses of children who sometimes eat candy. Which, let’s just say, is problematic for a whole lot of reasons that don’t even have to do with food.) I’m not necessarily proud of this, but sometimes I creep on the mothering forums nutrition boards out of morbid curiosity. I encountered one woman who wrote a post asking the community for help with her crippling anxiety about food, which was so severe that she felt panicked at the idea of eating a salad at Panera Bread because she feared that the soy or canola oil in the dressing would permanently damage the health of her not-even-conceived yet children. I didn’t know if I wanted more to give this poor woman a hug or a smack.

    And then, of course, there are the usually affluent, usually white people who are convinced that it is now their mission to knock some sense into these clueless, fat, low-income minorities about “eating clean”–completely ignoring the many challenges to even just cooking basic healthy meals that most poor people face. And generally showing no respect at all for things like cultural foodways. I recently talked to an idealistic young undergrad (who I try to cut some slack because he is so young) who, despite having no experience doing this kind of work, spoke grandiosely about his lofty post-college plans to overhaul school lunches by making these kids eat things like organic kale and almond milk. I am an MSW student with a focus on work with at-risk youth who put in some time teaching in under-served, urban settings before deciding to go back to grad school for social work and I pulled cafeteria duty plenty of times. I told him that I’d been rather more worried about my students getting enough to eat to begin with, that I’d been thrilled when they chose to drink plain old non-organic cow’s milk over pop or the “juice drink” pouches that they usually preferred, that you can’t actually make a kid eat anything and healthy food is only healthy if you eat it, and what was so great about almond milk anyway (which, btw, they would have no access to in their neighborhoods)?

    The conversation basically went:

    Him: Lots of these kids are food insecure. If you have only healthy, clean food available, they will eat it because it’s the food they can get.

    Me:…
    Me: Um…you can’t use the threat of starvation to coerce poor children into eating according to your standards because it’s um, wrong. Also, it won’t work anyway. I mean, yeah, they will eat unfamiliar food that they don’t like if they are literally starving but, until that point, a lot of them will skip meals and just be hungry. Which can lead to problems focusing in class and behavior issues which are highly consequential to exactly the kinds of kids you are wanting to help, who are fighting an uphill battle to stay out of the school-to-prison pipeline.

    Oy.

    I am a farmer’s market-loving lady who loves to cook healthy, tasty food from scratch (it’s fun) and would love it if a lot of the kids I worked with could eat more healthy, tasty food (it’s not as easy as so many people seem to think it is…). I was originally pretty happy about how increased concern about the food system was bringing some issues, like eating local and supporting small farmers (although that’s a complicated issue too) and the (in)humane treatment of meat and dairy animals to the fore. Also, more farmer’s market fun for me! But the “food movement” has created several pretty scary monsters.

  • http://www.hempista.com/ Hempista

    Found this blog today and I must say that as a patient and herbal wellness book author I am loving this site! I have real food allergies, the kind that require real medical intervention in the form of epi pens. I also have multiple autoimmune disease. I see real MD doctors and I also enjoy herbalism at home, but I would not see an ND–only MDs. There are many reasons for this, even though I am a person that does enjoy herbs and gets a lot of benefit from them–the problem that I always run into with woo is how they are always trying to “cure” my food allergies and autoimmune. If I listened to some of these people I would be dead because they would have taken my epi pens away.

    Anyways–glad to see Food Babe called out here. She tells people to fake food allergies in restaurants to get what they want. As a real food allergy patient I find this reprehensible and she’s never retracted or removed that from her site.

  • ffs

    A distant friend-of-friend is a raw vegan yoga instructor (what else) who chronicles her adventures in clean/pure/holier-than-thou eating on FB. Every other week involves some kind of juice or water fast to eliminate unnamed ‘toxins’. Where they could possibly come from in her raw-glutenfree-organic-vegan existence isn’t clear. No hang on, it’s the chemtrails and the other assorted poisons the government is using to wipe out sheeple. She doesn’t explore what the government is going to do without sheeple, sadly.

    Anyhow, during these lengthy fasts she looks and feels awful which is of course the detox working rather than the predictable impact of not eating for extended periods. So far it’s just pointless self-punishment but she’s an asthmatic with heart condition who is convinced that her raw vegan regime has eliminated any need for medication.She even talks about the possibility of eventually eliminating the need for food. Worse still, she has two young children who have to follow a raw vegan diet too. (Thankfully they don’t have to fast – yet.)

    Though no expert, she seems to me like a good candidate for orthorexia like many wellness bloggers and their followers. The anger, paranoia and fear she has on display probably also speaks to some kind of underlying anxiety disorder. Or maybe just lack of carbs. On top of this is a deadly dose of stupid. But what comes through most clearly with her and fellow travelers is a pathological fear of disease, aging or dying that’s been warped into a fear of living.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Eventually eliminating the need for food? Errrr, yeah, I don’t like to internet diagnose anyone but I think it’s safe to say that someone who dreams of eliminating food has some kind of eating disorder.

      Also, raw vegan diet for kids? Yikes! I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure that it would be difficult to impossible to make such a diet nutritionally appropriate for children.

      • ffs

        Yeah, I think a couple of intersecting disorders is fairly likely. She’s quite convinced her kids have allergies/intolerances to just about everything but vegetables (Just like mommy!) hence imposing it on her children. Goes without saying that she is anti-vaxx, anti-antibiotics and pro essential oils and fasting as miracle cure-alls. I can only hope that her delusions and stupidity don’t visit more suffering on her children than they have already.