Since you wrote your first book – you have become more angry not less…what’s currently getting your goat?
I do not anticipate a time that there will be nothing in the world of food to be angry about. Although a lot of the clean eating type bloggers that I initially started writing about have seen their popularity wane, they have been replaced by many equally misguided fools, often in the fitness arena. Right now I am angry about the consistent levels of pseudoscience and misinformation that underlies the claims of the diet and fitness industries, the damaging rhetoric and misunderstandings being spread about so called ‘Ultra Processed Foods’, and some of the unacceptable messages that come from a number of public health bodies. Most of all, I am angry about a society that seems to think it can improve the lives of people in poverty by forcing them make middle class food choices, rather than trying to address the poverty and inequality itself.
Do you feel that you are in the minority when it comes to voices speaking up and debunking the food myths?
It can feel like that, but I sometimes need to take a reality check. I really want to ensure people enjoy food and don’t feel guilty about what they eat, and sometimes, because of the dark corners of the internet where I operate, it feels as if everyone disagrees with me. But it is worth remembering that the most popular food show in the UK is Bake Off, which just celebrates the joy of good food. The majority of people actually have a pretty sensible attitude to food, despite the constant messages that they should feel bad about it. I think most people don’t really listen to a lot of the pseudoscience. That is not to say that combatting it is not important, because many people are vulnerable and susceptible to those messages. But far more of us enjoy a slice of cake, and don’t care in the slightest what anyone thinks about their food choices.
Since I’ve been engaging in the eating disorder community, I have found many positives, but also a heap of negatives. Lots of charlatans out there that are not professionally qualified to give advice on health and nutrition? Do you think we need to have some sort of regulation in place?
We probably have enough regulation, just not enough public knowledge of who you should trust. If you have a specific condition that you need dietary advice for, you should be seeing a dietitian, or a specialist medical doctor. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist and get a certificate, and many think that they are genuinely qualified when they do. There are good nutritionists registered with the AfN, but they would be the first people to tell you that they are not qualified to give people with a certain condition dietary advice. That is what dietitians do.
I think there is so much garbage out there. I have seen a huge number of people claiming that certain restrictive diets, often vegan or low carb ones, can cure eating disorders, which is about the worst possible advice. The GAPS diet, a brutally restrictive diet that I covered at length in my first book, is often prescribed as a cure for eating disorders, which is something that feels like it shouldn’t be allowed, such is the potential for harm.
I think perhaps that there should be recourse for people making demonstrably false health claims to be prosecuted, or at least regulations and voluntary codes for media organisations. I also think that companies that sell books and endorse diets should step up and ensure what they are doing is evidence based. Penguin Australia got into hot water over the Belle Gibson book where she made false cancer claims, which made a few people in publishing sit up and take note. Hopefully that will continue.
Despite more knowledge and ever increasing interest in health, nutrition and food, we seem to be more confused than ever about what to eat – why?
Probably because we have so much access to knowledge these days. Nutrition science is full of uncertainty and nuance, largely because of the difficulty of doing controlled experiments in the real world, where people lead messy and complex lives. All the uncertainty sometimes throws up surprising experimental results, most of which are statistical anomalies. The statistician David Speigelhalter once told me that if a result is surprising enough to be drawn to your attention, then it is probably wrong. This is particularly true when it comes to nutrition science.
The problem is, this means that if you search hard enough, you can probably find a surprising experimental result to confirm whatever bullshit theory you might have. These days, that searching takes seconds and is free to anyone with internet access. We end up drawn to bullshit theories because they offer certainty in an uncertain world. We are story telling creatures who love a clear, consistent narrative, even when it is not true. Nuance is the enemy of marketing, which means that genuine nutrition science has a problem trying to make itself heard. It is a shame we can’t learn to accept and enjoy uncertainty a little more.
The other day I walked into Planet Organic (I was meeting someone there – not to buy anything) and as I sat and waited, I looked around at this huge store selling thousands of products that we don’t really need at extortionate prices. I then looked around at the shoppers, and they were all white, affluent types. What do you think about these shops and the ‘wellness’ trend in general?
The shops serve a particular need. It is mostly about wealth and status signalling. For people who are extremely wealthy, status is no longer signalled by things that we have, but by decisions that we make. Those sort of stores signal a sort of purity, often through denial and self-control. I don’t think anyone has a green juice because it is delicious, and I think that very few people believe the magic and fairy stories about the health benefits. But drinking one in public, or sharing it on social media say something about who you are. People are buying into something, because it says something about who they are.
To be clear, we all do this. Signalling with food choices is not the preserve of affluent, middle class types. In fact, it is telling how keen you were to point out that you weren’t shopping at Planet Organic, perhaps because you didn’t want to the thought of as being that sort of person. I think it is important to understand that food choices are intimately linked to identity and signalling, because that explains why they can affect us so powerfully, why beliefs are so deeply held, and why people are so resistant to change. If you want to persuade a fourteen-year-old to stop drinking an energy drink, there is no point is telling them it is bad for them, and they should just drink water instead. That drink is being used to signal something about their identity to the world, and if you don’t take that into account, you will never change a thing.
Veganism is becoming more and more popular – what do you make of it? As someone recovered from anorexia I have decided that I don’t have the luxury of choosing to be vegan (I don’t have any desire to be anyway) but I know of a lot of people who proclaim to be recovered from an eating disorder, yet they are vegan – which excludes numerous foods. Has it become an avenue for them to shout about their ‘superiority’ and fit into a community/lifestyle?
I know lots of vegans, and some are very sensible and do it for ethical reasons. They take great effort to ensure they have a healthy, balanced diet, and take supplements to ensure they do not get sick. Many are also extremely knowledgeable about nutrition, partly because they have had to educate themselves in order to stay healthy. But I have had a lot of conflict with certain parts of the vegan community on social media, who are extremely judgemental and adopt a great deal of rank pseudoscience (such as the alkaline diet, which is utter garbage). There is also an element who claim that switching to veganism can cure eating disorders, which is one of the vilest things anyone could claim, really praying on vulnerable people. There is a judgemental edge to veganism that dips into deeply troubling areas, and lots of evidence that some people are using it as a way of disguising eating disorder. That said, some people have deeply held ethical reasons for becoming vegan, and it would not be right to say that someone is not recovered from an eating disorder just because they still vegan eat a vegan diet. It is clearly far more complex than that. If someone does not eat a particular food for religious regions, then no one would expect them to start eating it as part of their recovery.
Food, and particularly exclusion diets, can be a way of signalling identity and finding meaning in a secular world. Although this troubles me at times, I don’t have an issue with how anyone eats, or the rules they create. The only issues I have is when that tips into judging the choices of others.
Veganism, plant-based is promoted as a ‘healthier’ lifestyle, but so many vegan products are full of processed crap. Are we being fooled?
Vegan diets are often healthier, but that is usually a function of what they include, not what is left out. This is something that is very hard to get through to the more judgemental vegan activists. Generally, vegans will eat lots of different fruits and vegetables, is perhaps the one thing that everyone agrees on as being a good thing for people’s dietary health. This is probably why vegans generally have better health outcomes (although there are a number of socio-economic factors, and vegans tend to be people who look after their health more anyway). Heavy meat eaters are likely to consume fewer fruits and vegetables, and less fibre, and so often have poorer health outcomes. But that is not because they eat meat, it is because they eat too much of it and not enough vegetables. Some vegans are fooled by this, and end up believing that the things they are excluding from their diet is what makes it healthy. Of course, it is entirely possible to have a thoroughly unhealthy vegan diet. In fact, it is probably quite easy.
We recently had a report warning us about the evils of ‘ultra-processed foods.’ Unless you eat something straight from the ground, everything has gone through a process. I can’t help but feel it’s another elitism scare tactic. It’s OK to eat a ready-meal from M&S or Waitrose, but not from your local Spar?!
I am hugely troubled by much of the research into ultra-processed foods. Some of it seems to be of very poor quality, and makes the huge mistake of not confounding properly for socio-economic groups. Being poor means that you are far more likely to get sick, and so if this is not accounted for properly, you could easily end up showing that shopping at M and S is protective against cancer and heart disease. People are mistaking the markers of poverty for the causes of inequality, and it is being used as a way of blaming people for becoming ill. Those people you saw in Planet Organic are probably all pretty healthy, and will be likely to assume that is because they make better choices than someone shopping at Farmfoods. But the reality is that they are healthy because they are wealthy. Ultra-processed foods are the things brought by poor people, so it is unsurprising there are associations with poor health outcomes.
The political right berate poor people for making shitty choices. The political left claim that evil corporations are tricking people into buying unhealthy foods. But neither will admit that the actual problem is poverty and inequality, because that would mean actually having to do stuff about it, such as raising taxes, forcing companies to pay a living wage, and creating a better welfare system. Poverty is too big a problem to tackle, so people attack the markers of it. As a result, Mumsnet organise protests against the Coca Cola truck, but not against thousands of people being forced to used food banks. Food companies get attacked for making cheap chocolate bars, but not for paying shitty wages and exploiting people. We seem to be angry at the wrong things, and it is a shame no one in politics has the courage to stand up and say so. In fact, the focus seems to be on regressive taxation policies that make feeding your family even more expensive. Politicians actually listen whilst multi-millionaire chefs claim that poor people just need to make better choices. The focus should be on improving people’s lives, not shaming them, and telling them they should eat more middle class food. Who the fuck are we to tell people what they should eat, without making the slightest attempt to understand their lives? It is the ultimate arrogance and privilege to think that if poor people ate more like rich people that they wouldn’t get sick. It is poverty that causes illness. If that is not addressed, you won’t change a thing.
At the other end, we are now seeing a huge rise in the promotion of ‘fat acceptance.’ Instagram is full of posts with people embracing curves, tummy rolls, fat. What do you make of this? Does it allow those who are unhealthily overweight to justify themselves? Would it be acceptable for people to embrace their skeletal bodies?
I don’t think anyone should have to justify themselves for how they look, or how much they weigh. I think we should be trying to get to a point where it really doesn’t matter, where we are less concerned with physical appearance, and more interested in people’s character and achievements. But we have this obsession with the physical and visual, so much of which is unhealthy. Whatever body image is portrayed as being ideal will be unrealistic for somebody, and so potentially damaging for their self-esteem. People get fat for a whole variety of reasons, and so judgement is really unhelpful. The same is true when people get really thin.
So in many ways, fat acceptance is hugely positive, but there we need to be careful that it does not come with judgement, and that it does not perpetuate our obsession with physical appearance. My big concern is that for women there is still this big connection between size and intelligence. So although we often see images of larger models, when you look for images of professional women, doctors, lawyers, or businesswomen, the stock images are always of someone thin. We have this prejudice that women need to be thin and desexualised in a certain way in order to be successful, and that developing curves somehow inhibits intelligence. I feel that this is potentially very damaging for young girls self-esteem, and is likely to set up huge conflicts.
Why is it that we fear being fat, yet we don’t worry so much about being underweight – it’s still thought of as desirable?
The pervasive fear of fat in our society is a difficult thing to understand. Perhaps one of the main reasons is the impression that fat people are somehow using up extra resources, consuming more than their share. Obviously this makes no sense in our modern world, but throughout much of history, having more than other people was considered a great sin, as it meant others were going without.
In women it is probably also something to do with a fear of fertility. Culturally, curves and more feminine figures tend to be associated with lower intelligence, and increasingly with lower socio-economic status. Privileged women particularly are expected to be thin, and mothers place huge expectations upon daughters to be that way. Curves are sexualised yet also seen as a sign of stupidity. Fatness is also associated with passive, low achieving motherhood. I think it sets up a whole heap of mixed up expectations for young women, particularly as many new social media stars are curvier, sexualised, yet generally considered stupid.
There is a great irony that the low weights often considered ideal might well be associated with higher mortality, especially as people approach middle age. But so often we believe what what we find pleasing to our culturally tainted eyes is likely to indicative of good health. And very often, we are wrong.
This week, the government introduced a sugar tax, making some products more expensive (albeit by a few pence), but do you think it would discourage people from buying products? Will it discriminate against the poor?
It is certainly a regressive tax, and will affect poor people most of all. It is perhaps uncomfortable that it will place us in a situation where rich people will find it easier to ignore public health advice than poor people, although to be fair, the same is true of smoking. My main criticism is that it is an extremely blunt instrument unlikely to have much effect, and with the potential for unintended consequence. There is no evidence that similar taxes have reduced rates of obesity anywhere in the world, and in certain US states, a similar tax seemed to drive consumption of cheap alcohol as the price differential came down. Whether we like it or not, these drinks currently play a role in people’s lives. Take them away or make them unaffordable, and the need will still exist. People will move to the next thing, and we really have no way of ensuring that the next thing is better.
We really need to be channelling resources into improving people’s lives, rather than trying to force them into change with blunt tools. Some claim that the revenue raised by the drinks’ tax will be used for good, and channelled into helping create new anti-obesity strategies, but surely it would be preferable to raise that money by taxing people who can afford it, rather than forcing struggling families to make tough spending decisions. It also seems a bit strange if the funding for anti-obesity initiatives depends upon lots of people buying sugar sweetened drinks.
I feel passionately about the links between eating disorders, isolation and social exclusion. When I was engaged in my eating disorder I was actively disengaged with all areas of society. What are your thoughts on how we can bridge the gap?
Social isolation is increasingly being recognised as a huge problem, contributing to all manner of health problems, particularly when it comes to our mental health. It is thought to be as big a risk factor for mortality as smoking, and far greater than obesity. The Minnesota Starvation experiments performed by Ancel Keys in the 1940s showed how depriving the body of food leads to people shutting themselves away from the world, as well as driving anxiety, depression and distorted body image.
I think that despite all our progress, we have this huge problem in modern society. We are constantly told that we need to be dissatisfied with life, that we need to shun our communities, and that to really be successful we have to rise above our class, rather than rising with it. This has led to the breakdown of communities, and increased levels of social isolation. And as we live in this secular age, we can also find our lives lack meaning and purpose, further drawing us in to ourselves.
Finding a solution for this is probably one of the big problems facing society at the moment (although one that is rarely talked about). I am just a chef, so my small part of the solution is to encourage people to love food. Eating together, sharing experiences, cementing bonds, enhancing celebrations, bringing us closer to friends and family – food can do all of those things. The moment you start to create rules and boundaries around food, you shut yourself off from all of that.
To be clear, I am not saying that we should all be sat round the table every evening for home cooked meals, and anyone who doesn’t is completely inadequate. That would be hugely showing my middle class privilege. All I want is for people to enjoy and share food without guilt, rules, or judgement. In a small way, that will help bring us together. Right now, food is too often used to push us apart.
Is weight, food, health a culturally Western problem? What about Asian, African, Latin cultures where women are celebrated for being larger?
I think it is telling that there are cultural differences in what sort of weight is considered ideal, because it just underlines how arbitrary those perceptions are. But I think we should be aiming for a world where women are celebrated for what they can achieve, rather than what size they are. The problems arise when a particular size and shape is considered ideal, as this sets up inadequacies and drives obsession. Obviously we should also be aiming to be as healthy as possible, but weight is an incredibly poor proxy for health, despite what most public health campaigns tell you.
No doubt food is hugely important culturally, which is why the creation of rule driven frameworks for healthy eating can be so destructive. Food helps link us to our past, and in many ways can be a source of identity and meaning. Restrictive diets can easily shut people away from that, and in a world where we are so desperate for meaning and identity, that can be extremely damaging.
Where do men sit in all of this? They are also pressured to look a certain way. The fitness industry is full of ego, competition and self-punishment.
We are pushing towards a world where men’s insecurities about their bodies are exploited nearly as much as women’s. It is different, because the association between fatness and intelligence is not as strong with men. But we are made to feel inadequate in other ways. When men become fat they are seen as losing their masculinity, somehow not ready for the fight. During the cold war, there were campaigns aimed at women, encouraging them to whip their ‘chubby hubbies’ into shape, to guard against communist invasion, and I think that sort of idea persists today.
Explain more about your thoughts on people who are low in weight and the prejudice they have against obese people?
I did read a study recently that showed people who are naturally underweight tend to have lower levels of weight prejudice against fat people. I suspect that this is because they realise the extent to which body weight is not always completely within your control, and experience a good deal of prejudice themselves. I think the prejudice you are talking about is perhaps more from people who obsessively control their weight. For them, fat people are breaking the social norm, and I think this can create jealousy. Sometimes we revile the thing that we secretly desire for ourselves. When people are living in constant denial of food, or putting themselves through punishing fitness regimes just so they can maintain a socially desirable body, seeing someone who does not feel the need to do that can create mixed emotions. Often these are expressed as hate and revulsion. Perhaps this is why the world of fitness is so rife with weight prejudice and stigma. They all secretly want a Twix.