RISING Your new book The Angry Chef is out and it singles out the healthy and ‘clean eating’ advice we get on Instagram – what’s the single biggest problem with it?
ANTHONY WARNER ’It's the way that people are assimilating information these days. Most of the information on healthy eating is coming from sources where there’s no real verification and, generally, people with no qualifications. There’s a lot of information out there that really isn’t correct, and it’s actually quite dangerous, so it’s very hard for people to make that judgement just with the sheer volume of information. Many of the claims being made for products or ingredients, they would not stand up if they were going to be advertised.’
RISING Yes, so coconut fat has been in the news recently as being as unhealthy as a saturated fat – is that a good example?
AW ‘Coconut oil is a really great example. It would not be legal to advertise to say it’s a fat-burning fat, or it helps you lose weight, or the claims being made about how it fights disease and does all sorts of things. Those claims don’t stand up, but if there’s an influencer out there, there's no real regulation about what they can and can’t say, even if they write it in a book or put it on their website.’
RISING Lots of people complain about conflicting studies in the press – are those sensational headlines to blame, or what?
AW ‘There’s a lot of attention on single scientific studies, and they get picked up and sort of assimilated as something that’s a known ‘fact’. That's not the purpose of a scientific study! It’s creating misunderstanding about how the process of science works. If you want good information about nutrition and health, you have to look at it in totality of the evidence, because the way that food affects our health is an incredibly difficult thing to study. It’s not easy to create experiments that give really definitive results, so you've got an enormous amount of uncertainty and an enormous random element within anything studying the effect on diet and health, because people are just different.’
RISING So you’d agree that the meta-analysis of lots of different studies is the way to go?
AW ‘The process of putting all that evidence together into really well-conducted systematic reviews and meta-analysis is a very complicated and slightly boring area, and it doesn’t appeal when that’s done and people look at it and go: “Well, there's not much we can say. Just eat a balanced diet.” That’s not a really exciting picture.’
‘Look for the source – if it’s a single study I would take it with a pinch of salt’
RISING So what would be your advice if a study comes out tomorrow telling me not to eat whey protein, or apples, or something?
AW ‘Look for the source of the information. If it’s a single scientific study, I would take it with a pinch of salt. No one from any serious bodies are saying we should do anything other than embrace a wide variety of different foods. Now, that’s kind of the best health advice from almost anywhere. Obviously, stuff comes up now and again, but nothing has really come up seriously about food apart from that study about processed meat. Really look at what that risk is actually saying, and learn a little bit about how to interpret levels of risk, learn the difference between absolute and relative risk, because that’s really, really important in understanding how big your actual risk is.’
RISING Sounds complicated – what is the difference between absolute and relative risk?
AW ‘The absolute risk of anyone developing bowel cancer in their lifetime is 6%. So six in 100 of us will develop that at some time in our lives, which is quite high and that’s for people who aren’t eating processed meat. If you eat 150g of bacon every single day – and that’s quite a lot – then that risk will increase to 7%. That’s the absolute risk. But in relative risk that’s an increase of 18%, because one is 18% of six.’
RISING Do you think the clean eating movement is really all about weight and not looking fat, but pretends to be about health – so is it just a big con that plays on our anxieties?
AW ‘Most of the clean eating bloggers I don’t think are deliberately setting out to mislead and harm people. But the problem is, these days people want to achieve things effortlessly. Making a big effort seems sort of old-hat, especially with diet. You see these people on these blogs and they’re: “Look, me and my lifestyle are so great, and I’m just effortlessly achieving this perfection,” and that perfection, it’s not entirely a coincidence that it always involves being pretty thin.’
‘To say that food is dirty and unclean, it implies anyone eating it is also dirty and unclean’
RISING But we’ve tried to lose weight and build weight at various times and it’s really hard...
AW ‘The reality of it is, it’s very difficult to actually lose weight, unless you are trying to lose weight. That’s why clean eating has adopted all this pseudo-science – because what it is, essentially, is a diet where you exclude lots of foods. Because it can’t really say that it’s a diet – because that would be making an effort – it sort of makes up reasons why they're excluding foods, like gluten, like wheat, like dairy, like whatever things they are excluding, like any processed food, like any refined sugar – but apparently honey and agar syrup, they’re fine, for no real reason.’
RISING The name itself – clean eating – seems pretty loaded when you look at it?
AW ‘It’s sort of claiming that certain things are bad and not clean, that certain things are dirty. Those are really quite harmful associations, I think, to make with food. Though perfectly sensible dietary choices, saying something’s dirty? The use of language is very important and to say that food is dirty and unclean, it kind of implies that anyone eating it is also sort of dirty and unclean.’
RISING So is the rise of clean eating reflecting a bigger problem with food?
AW ‘One of the big problems we have with food is the slightly messed-up psychology we’ve got ourselves into with eating. I think that’s probably one of the most damaging things, and I think it's something that we really need to confront, and it’s a thing that's not confronted at all.’
‘People aren’t eating instinctively – they're neglecting to listen to their body’
RISING You hear people talking about rewarding themselves with food all the time – it seems normal but should we re-think it?
AW ‘Absolutely: I’ve earned the food, I’ve earned a treat, I’m going to eat this. I think that belief that you somehow have to earn food, and you have to otherwise restrict yourself, and you have to justify eating something that you enjoy eating; I think is genuinely damaging. It's been drummed into us not to listen to our bodies, to deny ourselves stuff. That’s what we think of being healthy as, with denying and not having things, and stopping eating things.’
RISING So can I just eat what I want, whenever I want, then?
AW ‘Well, no, but in creating the association “this is bad”, “this is good” and “I'll just eat the good things and I’ll deny myself all the bad things,” it creates a really messed-up relationship with food. People aren’t eating instinctively, as they should be. They're neglecting to listen to what their body is telling them, and instead they’re sort of taking these fairly arbitrary rules about what they should and shouldn’t have.’
RISING What about diets – your book seems to think they’re pretty much bollocks?
AW ‘If you're overweight and you go to a doctor, the first thing they'll say is, “Go on a diet and lose some weight” but actually if you look at the statistics for diet, generally, over five years diets are incredibly ineffective, in terms of sustaining long-term weight-loss. The vast majority of people will fail on a diet. Some people will say about 95%, and some people will say 80%, but in almost every study you will see, the vast majority of people do not succeed in losing weight over five years’ time. It’s just not working.’
RISING OK, so eating a varied diet never sounds that sexy – so do you think it’s your job, as a chef, to make healthier choices tastier?
AW ‘I think chefs, celebrity chefs have a really important role, actually, in making all sorts of different food delicious, and making vegetables and things tastier and nicer to eat. Talking about sustainability, encouraging people to make dishes which, perhaps, have some meat on, but aren't reliant on having a massive steak; making delicious things which have less meat in.’
WHAT NEXT? Got something to say to The Angry Chef? You can do it here on his combative Twitter feed – just don’t tell him you’re going gluten free for fashion!