What inspired you to start Angry Chef?
I used to spend a lot of time complaining about the sort of unregulated health advice being spread by a new generation of online influencers. Although some of it was sensible in an ‘eat more vegetables’ sort of way, there was also a lot of dangerous nonsense knocking around, and I found a lot of it quite upsetting. There seemed to be a culture of demonising certain ingredients, and a lot of fear being generated about perfectly sensible food choices. There did not seem to be enough people calling out the bullshit, and after much ranting to friends and colleagues, I decided to do something about it.
Why do you think there is so much wrong information and pseudoscience out there?
I think we all have access to so much information these days, and much of it is completely unregulated. The way that we acquire knowledge has completely changed in the last twenty years, and often there aren’t enough checks and balances in place. Because of the amount of information available, we all have a tendency to take shortcuts to help us decide what to believe, and sometimes that can lead us down dangerous paths. We are drawn to certainty and simple messages, and often the world of science and evidence based medicine cannot provide that. Sometimes things are complicated, and so anyone selling a false message with great certainty is likely to be more compelling. This is especially true if the person selling the message is an aspirational figure, leading a glamorous life, or if they are someone who seems similar to us, or perhaps if they have some of the trappings of respectability. We will often not check the source of their advice, especially when it is something we want to believe. We need to become more critical, and perhaps look to more respected (if dull) sources of advice like the NHS, Public Health England, Cancer Research, The British Heart Foundation, or the World Health Organisation.
What do you think has caused recent interests in clean eating, detoxes and cleanses and could you explain some of the dangers of these ways of eating?
People want to achieve things effortlessly these days. They want a glamorous lifestyle, but the dream is to achieve that without ever looking like you are trying. The diet culture of the 1980s seems a little too retro and hard work for a generation with the world at their finger tips. But sadly there is still a great aspiration of thinness, especially for women, and for many people restrictive diets are a shortcut to achieving this. Detox, clean eating, cleanses, they all disguise restrictive weight loss diets under a veil of pseudoscience, pretending that brutally restrictive eating is actually being undertaken for some vague notion of wellness, or ‘getting the glow’ (whatever that means).
What do you advocate as best practice for eating?
Obviously it depends upon your situation and specific needs, but in general, try to eat as varied a diet as you can, not too much or too little, move around a bit if you can, and try not to worry too much. Guilt and shame around food can be extremely harmful, and guilt has no place in eating. Try not to feel guilty, and definitely never make anyone else feel guilty about something their choices. Try to eat lots of different vegetables, maybe a bit of fish now and again.
What are your thoughts on the relationship between 'clean eating' and body image?
That is a difficult issue. Most of the prominent ‘clean eating’ type bloggers have a particular body image, and there is often an implicit connection made between what they eat and how they look. There is a sense of ‘eat like me, look like me’ which is always troubling, especially when you learn how many eating disorder patients are following these sort of restrictive clean eating diets. But apart from in a few extreme cases the link is always implicit, and I am not wanting to criticise anyone for the way they look. I wish that there was a bit more body image diversity in the healthy eating space, but that is not the fault of any individual and I am not sure what can be done to address it. Unfortunately, society strongly equates thinness with health these days, and so the people successfully selling healthy eating messages tend to be thin, as do the models used to sell ‘healthy’ products. Anyone who diverts from this norm is likely to be ridiculed, which shows a huge ignorance of what ‘healthy’ actually means. It upsets me a great deal, but it is a tough issue to try and tackle, because it is based on fairly embedded prejudices in our society.
Lots of people say food is just "fuel". What are your thoughts on this?
There are a lot of people who reduce food down to this, including some health campaigners and public health bodies. Food is so important, used as a signaller of status, a way of celebrating, a reinforcer of our most important social bonds, and as a source of great joy. If we want to address people’s diets, we have to take all that into account. You can’t just say to someone, ‘don’t drink that can of drink, have a glass of water instead’, because you are completely failing to understand what that drink means in their life. It might be brief moment of pleasure in a tough time, a status signaller telling the world something about them, a shared experience with friends and family. In order to improve people’s diets, we need to understand all these things, and move away from the judgemental, risk management approach. Shame and guilt are not effective at motivating people in the long term, with plenty of evidence that they make things worse, and yet most public health messages follow this approach. If we view the achievement of health as the ultimate goal of all of our eating, and we continue to view being healthy as a great moral virtue, all choices that divert from this will make us feel guilty. We need to get away from the idea of guilty pleasures or earning treats, and just focus on enjoying a rich diversity of foods. We need to educate people about how to enjoy a varied and interesting diet, and to value many different food items. It is only when the food we want to eat becomes the same as the food we should be eating that any change will be sustainable.