I’ve been really pleased recently to see a lot more debate around the topic of “wellness gurus”. Pleased isn’t even the right word, relieved is probably better.
The rise of gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, rational thought-free diets has scared me somewhat. What felt like it was going to be a January health kick fad a few years ago simply hasn’t gone away. The courgetti pics on Instagram may have died down, but I still go to events all the time where *most* people are excluding entire food groups (often more than one) for no real reason.
Of course, as a middle class woman living in West London working in fashion and media I am more likely to be surrounded by these “types”, but I’m seeing worryingly young girls – schoolgirls – develop irrational eating habits off the back of YouTube videos and selfies. It’s not just fashion types. It’s not just women. And it’s really quite scary.
I’m not here to say alkaline diets are complete nonsense (although I do think think that when it comes to the science, they *are* complete nonsense, despite how much I love some of the Honestly Healthy recipes) and I don’t want to attack anyone for what they believe when it comes to food, but I would be thrilled if just one person who reads this starts to ask more questions. It’s good to be inquisitive. It’s crucial.
Ruby Tandoh opened up a brilliant Twitter conversation on all things “wellness” last week (scroll through her wonderful Twitter feed or you can find a re-hashed summary here) and Gizzi Erskine has also made a stand against the ridiculousness of Instagram’s #fitfam. I loved this piece during GBBO last summer and this piece from this weekend’s Telegraph is excellent.
Women’s mags and newspapers have also written some great pieces on the very real condition Orthorexia (a medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods that they believe to be ‘harmful’ – with fixation on quality as opposed to quantity) and I’m really pleased these topics are being discussed. Although I’m well aware that a few weeks later these same mags and papers are often hailing the latest juice cleanse ‘advice’ on the food pages.
I mean I get it. These wellness gurus who have become household names are all conveniently gorgeous and they can quickly fill column inches playing to the desires the vast majority of us have: we all want to look our best and feel our best.
But we need to make sure we don’t lose our common sense in the tailspin.
All treats are guilt-free if you decide not to feel guilty about them.
— Poppy Dinsey (@PoppyD) March 2, 2016
This country has a serious obesity problem and great swathes of us *should* indeed be eating more healthily, but that doesn’t have to mean excluding entire food groups. And if we find it easier to exclude entirely than to eat in moderation, what does that say about us?
After an exchange of tweets Mr Angry Chef himself very kindly allowed me to ask him a few questions on all things wellness, so I’ll now hand over to him…
PD: Dietary fads are of course nothing new, but does the rise of Instagram, forums and blogs make it worse? Or are the current diet trends no different to the cabbage soup or South Beach diets of the past?
Angry Chef: That is a very interesting question. There have been fad diets for as long as I can remember and it is probably no worse than it ever was, but I do think the proliferation of forums for sharing means that there are more dangerous extremes out there. In the 80s and 90s, if a diet book was published containing explicitly dangerous advice it would probably be a big news story. These days people can easily be led to potentially dangerous, even fatal advice online and there is the potential for real harm. This means that people need to be more careful and better able to stop the bullshit for themselves, which in many ways is the idea behind The Angry Chef.
In researching for one post, I came across a number of forums recommending that people make their own baby formula using raw goats milk. According to the advocates it is ‘bound to be better than store bought formula because it is natural’. Without going into the science, this is terrible advice that could literally lead to babies being seriously harmed or even killed. There is so little regulation and accountability online and it terrifies me that people could find and believe the ‘all natural health’ message without understanding the dangers.
I’ve seen girlfriends gain weight by following “wellness” preaching. Does the language around ‘healthy fats’ just make it more confusing for people?
Fat did not suddenly become good for you overnight. The key is still to eat a balanced diet. This might be a slightly tired and boring message, but it is still very true.
Some fats are better that others and coconut oil is not the worst type of fat you can eat, but it is still over 90% saturated fat. The quantities some diets recommend consuming it in are potentially damaging for health.
Regarding weight loss, all fats are highly calorie dense, so any diet very high in fat is likely to be high in calories too. It is unlikely that you would lose weight on such a diet.
Lots of people say they feel “so much better” when they cut out gluten/sugar/dairy (the list goes on!), is this a placebo effect or are there legitimate benefits for people who aren’t coeliacs to give up gluten?
Again, it is a complex area. If someone feels better after making big changes to their diet, then there are likely to be lots of things at play. Maybe they are just benefiting from eating a bit of fruit and veg. Maybe previously they only ate Gregg’s sausage rolls. Maybe they are benefiting from a placebo effect. Maybe just getting some advice on health and nutrition made them feel better. Maybe they were just self-reporting a load of vague symptoms and there hasn’t been any real change. So much of the health blogging industry depends on vague terms like ‘a feeling of wellness’ and ‘getting the glow’. These are things that cannot be measured in any meaningful way, so it is often hard to assess if there really has been a change.
Unfortunately our brains are designed to believe the simple narrative – that a particular food stuff is causing a specific problem. In the case of Coeliac Disease, this is very much the case, but more often that not the reality is far more complex.
Self-diagnosis on intolerance can be a real problem. Dietitians have told me that it is increasingly common for genuine coeliacs to self diagnose a gluten sensitivity and undertake a gluten-free diet with the help of the internet.
Unfortunately they often get it wrong as completely removing gluten is a surprisingly hard and complex thing to do, and genuine coeliacs often end up doing themselves serious harm when small amounts of gluten get into their diet.
If anyone thinks they have an allergy or intolerance, they really need to seek medical help and diagnosis to find out what it going on. Self-diagnosis and internet treatments run the risk of people missing something really serious.
Why does so much of this pseudo-science seem so believable? Why do we see so many otherwise intelligent and questioning adults falling for it?
This is one of the main themes of my blog and is a very complex area. It does seem strange that a lot of otherwise rational and intelligent people are highly susceptible to believing unscientific woo when it comes to food. Gwyneth Paltrow has had an extremely successful career and presumably is bright and intelligent, but have you seen her website? She has someone on there providing ridiculous diet and health advice that he gets from spirit world communications.
Unfortunately, human brains are machines designed for jumping to conclusions. We tend to believe people who are certain and give clear, simple messages.
Unfortunately science, by its very nature, tends to doubt itself.
The whole scientific method is based on trying to challenge and disprove. Scientists tend to be very cautious about the message they give out because the scientific community will challenge any poor, incorrect or ambiguous messages. In the world of health bloggers and self appointed nutrition gurus there is no such process, and the messages that are given out are usually clear, unambiguous and wrong.
For instance, ask a Dietitian which foods are bad for you and they are likely to say something like – “Well that’s an interesting question, but it really depends what you mean by healthy – no food should really be classified as healthy or unhealthy as that is not really helpful – we don’t believe in classifying foods in that way and think that you should try to achieve a balance.”
Ask Ella Woodward which foods are bad for you and she will say ‘White rice, refined sugar and anything with gluten’.
Although the first answer is based in fact, the second one is far easier for people to believe, despite the fact that it is not true. Our minds are programmed to believe the simple clear answer and not the complex nuanced one. When you combine that with something called the ‘Halo Effect’ where we tend to believe answers from people we like, respect and aspire to, it is easy for false messages to get spread around by photogenic, appealing and media savvy communicators.
What types of claims should people approach with caution?
There are two main claims to be wary of…
Detox. Any food or diet plan that makes any claims about detox is quite simply making stuff up. Under normal circumstances the liver and kidney do a perfectly good job of removing toxins from your body. Toxins do not build up over time and your body does not need help removing them. Even after a few drinks, the body removes toxins perfectly well and no foods improve or assist the process. A detox is a serious medical procedure carried out in hospital to treat victims of poisoning or substance abuse. A detox does not occur when you drink a spirulina smoothie, when you fast, when you have lemon water, or when you eat coriander. If you are ever unlucky enough to be admitted to hospital with poisoning, you will not be prescribed a wheatgrass enema and a juicing diet.
Exclusion Diets. If someone says that you should cut anything out your diet for health reasons, they really should not be listened to. The only exception is if you are specifically told to cut something out by a qualified dietitian or a medical doctor (e.g. if you have been diagnosed as coeliac and been told to cut out gluten containing foods). There are real dangers associated with exclusion diets and if you are ever unlucky enough to need such an intervention, the process needs managing and medical supervision. Anyone who evangelically preaches the cutting out of whole food groups to people they have never met is dangerous and wrong. It is a path to eating disorders and nutrient deficiency and represents everything bad about the current health and clean eating craze.
What would be some simple, practical things people can do to ensure they’re following a healthier diet?
Follow guidelines based on science. There is lots of good advice out there. In general, eat a balanced diet, not too much, and try to eat lots of different stuff. You won’t go too far wrong if you follow these guidelines on the NHS website. These are guidelines are based on real, evidence based science. They have been developed over years by the most qualified and intelligent people in the world to help people make good choices. It seems amazing to me that anyone believes a random health blogger making stuff up over the power of evidence-based science.
If I did have to give one bit of advice myself, I do think that a lot of people could improve their diet by learning a few cooking skills (I am a chef after all). People’s diets will only improve sustainably when the food they want to eat is the same as food they should be eating, and learning some skills in the kitchen can make more nutritious foods taste much better.
Oh, and learn to cook fish. Fish is very good for you (as part of a balanced diet), and when cooked well is one of the most delicious foods on earth.
How would you advise people sense check the things they hear/read/see about food?
Be wary of anyone telling you how to eat. Dietitians are qualified to advise people about changes to their diet and to devise eating plans to improve people’s health. The term dietitian is protected by law, so only people who are qualified and registered can use that name and use the initials RD. Advice from anyone like this is going to be sensible and based on scientific evidence.
There are many Registered Nutritionists who do have qualifications, but they are advisers giving guidance about the health effects of food and do not treat patients. If a nutritionist is registered with the Association for Nutrition (AfN) then you can be pretty sure their advice will be trustworthy.
Unfortunately, the term ‘Nutritionist’ is not protected, so anyone can use it, regardless of qualifications. There would be nothing in law to stop you, me, or even my dog, from setting up as a nutritionist and taking consultations. The term Nutritional Therapist is not protected either (my dog could use this too, but considers himself overqualified) so anyone can set themselves up as a Nutritional Therapist. Even if they say they are a ‘Qualified Nutritional Therapist’, there are qualifications available to buy on the Internet for about £50 (the lowest I have found was £12) and many courses are of a pretty low standard.
Other titles to be wary of are ‘Healthy Eating Expert’ or ‘Nutrition Expert’. I would suggest that anyone who feels the need to give themselves the moniker of ‘Expert’ probably isn’t one.
Personal Trainers and Exercise Professionals often give out diet advice too and although there are many sensible PTs out there, all too often the advice is based on their own beliefs about food and not in any real science. When I recently asked for examples of poor nutrition advice from PTs, some of the answers I got included only eat chicken and pineapple; never eat fruit; only eat purple food; never eat purple food; don’t eat in the evenings; only eat in the evenings. The nutrition element of PT courses is very small and just covers the basics, so they should only ever be giving out advice based on standard guidelines – never suggesting large changes (like Low Carb High Fat and Paleo diets).
I would suggest you should only take advice about major changes to your diet from people who are qualified to do so – that means Medical Doctors and Dietitians – no celebs, no dogs, no Angry Chefs, no personal trainers and definitely no clean eaters or Paleo fanatics.
Thank you very much Angry Chef! (Who, by the way, you can follow on Twitter here).
Yeeeeeeah Instagram trend or not, this is still one of my very fave breakfasts.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not trying to have a go at anyone here. I just think it’s important to not blindly follow nutritional advice based on anecdotal experiences. Have a read around. Look to the science. Find out what works best for you.
And I really do want to reiterate that if you’re worried you have food intolerances then you should speak to your GP rather than self-diagnose. This is really really important. Similarly if you’re worried your food choices are becoming obsessional, you should seek advice too. Again your GP would be the right place to start and there are fantastic charities like Beat too who can offer support.
Thanks very much for reading, it’s important we discuss this type of thing <3
Update: I may put together a Storify of all the great tweets about this post, but for now you can find some great comments over on Instagram here.