Books

Fad fury

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

Anthony Warner is angry. He’s angry about diets. He’s angry about detoxes. He’s angry about pseudoscience — and he has good reason. Fad diets are nothing new: for centuries, there have been charlatans whose dubious diets will help you lose weight, love life and beat cancer. But the rise of social media over the past 15 years has given such charlatans unprecedented reach. Their regimes and recipes, their coffee table books and Instagram posts suck in the young, the gullible and the vulnerable. Anthony Warner’s mission is to set the record straight.

Warner has been writing as ‘The Angry Chef’ on his blog and elsewhere for several years. As he himself states, this is a character he consciously developed to fight the falsehoods he finds everywhere in the food world. This character explores these issues in expletive-strewn diatribes, railing against those who sing the physiological virtues of tongue-scrapers and coffee enemas.

Warner holds a degree in biochemistry, and has spent 25 years in the food business, moving from restaurants to food development. He knows his stuff — and he has roped in an anonymous scientist, ‘Captain Science’, for good measure. Though he isn’t the first to set about debunking bunkum, he does it with considerable flair.


Each diet undergoes a brutal and meticulous dissection. Undermining the diets’ flimsy foundations is easy enough, but Warner also shows how almost any restrictive diet is likely to result, at least initially, in weight loss. He deploys behavioural psychology to show why so many fall into the wellness web — why diets become lifestyles, and why some of those lifestyles become so popular. He shines a light on the darkest corners of fad diets, too, where autistic children are ‘treated’ via the GAPS diets, cancer patients abandon conventional treatments and eating disorders blossom. As he describes what fad diets do to vulnerable people, it’s easy to see why he’s so angry.

Warner’s analyses are clever and original, digging deep, and avoiding easy conclusions. This is particularly true of his examination of clean eating. Too often, Warner believes, we dismiss its proponents as unscrupulous money-grabbers. Instead, Warner acknowledges that many genuinely believe their own spiel, and tries to show us why.

This book is best when it’s answering the why. Why do people choose pseudoscience over science? Why do they spend vast sums on activated almonds and spirulina extract? Warner convincingly argues that the problem lies in the nature of science and its inability to give definitive answers. Our ‘instinctive brains’, as he calls them, tend towards the simple and the categorical, even if not backed up by proof. It is human nature to search for answers, and we are likely to take answers where we can find them, even when they lack rigour.

From time to time, the anger can become a problem. There are structural stumbles, particularly in the early pages where Warner seems to have so many ideas to cram in that the approach feels rather scattergun. It is, at times, less of an argument and more of a rant. Warnings litter the early chapters, telling the reader that they may well not like what they read, and will be tempted to put the book down. They come across as condescending, rather than humorous. Moreover, the secondary voice that Warner occasionally employs to argue against feels like a straw man. Other characters appear — ‘Science Columbo’, ‘Paltrow Science’ — but they feel gimmicky, and I’m generally glad to see the back of them.

But as the book develops, it matures. I like Warner most when he’s less angry and more heartfelt — when his empathy for those unable to enjoy food or life due to these restrictive regimes shines through.

This is an important book, and a good one. It’s ambitious and well-researched and timely; the arguments are put forth robustly. Food science can be a dry topic, but Warner manages to make it an entertaining one. His tone is refreshingly straight-forward, often aided by his opponents’ comical proclamations (Jasmine Hemsley: ‘All your toxins come out on your tongue, so you want to remove them. I use a tongue-scraper’). Its faults are occasional and stylistic, and heavily outweighed by everything the book has going for it — most of all, Warner’s disarming passion for his subject. Maybe it’s time for a new moniker: The Earnest Chef?

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