Gizzi Erskine is taking on the ‘clean eating’ fanatics

Published in The Independent on Sunday on July 26, 2015

“People don’t know how to eat any more.” It’s a bold statement – but, then, that’s typical of Gizzi Erskine. The food writer, TV presenter and trained chef doesn’t mince her words. She credits this tendency for being a bit “gobby” as having helped launch her career more than a decade ago, when she was picked up for Channel 4’s Cook Yourself Thin TV series. Several hit recipe books followed, all with the basic premise that good food, cooked well, can be healthy and delicious.

With titles such as Skinny Weeks and Weekend Feasts to her name, you might assume the 35-year-old would be at the forefront of the latest foodie trend: clean eating. Armies of food bloggers are using social media to promote super-healthy regimes; search for the hashtags #fitfood or #eatclean to witness oceans of Instagrammed snaps of avocado toast and green juices.

But all this has Erskine worried. Actually, it’s made her mad. When we meet at members’ club Shoreditch House, near her home, she launches into her “campaign” against this trend before she has even sat down. “Over the past 18 months I’ve seen this hashtag of eatclean, cleaneating, fitfood. In the beginning there were techniques coming out that were interesting: spiralising, cauliflower rice, bone broth. But how we’re using some of these techniques is not entirely… delicious.”

When creating recipes for Cook Yourself Thin and Skinny Weeks…, Erskine worked alongside a nutritionist to make sure her recipes were healthy – but also balanced. This, she fears, is where the clean-eating trend has gone awry.

A lot of new diets involve not only the exclusion of things we know are bad for us – refined sugar, alcohol – but also entire food groups: going dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free, or eating only raw food. And Erskine is worried these drastic changes to our diets are being undertaken without a proper understanding of nutrition. “I get it – we all want to be healthy,” she says. “But it seems to lack a lot of love, and a real understanding of food. Spiralised courgette with pesto made from whizzed-up avocado? That’s not my idea of dinner. It’s a salad. Nourishing your body doesn’t just mean raw ‘health’ foods; it’s about understanding balance and why we break up our plate into proteins, carbs, vegetables, fats, and the right volumes of these things.”

Her new cookbook aims to address this: called Gizzi’s Healthy Appetite, its subtitle is “Food to nourish the body and feed the soul”. While there are plenty of healthy recipes, there are also unctuous plates of melty mozzarella, warming stews and hunks of charred meat. The book is split into sections named for the kind of textures or tastes you might be craving – “ooze”, “crunch”, “spice” – and it features classics such as pad Thai and spag bol.

“Having a healthy appetite also means having a healthy lust for life,” she says. “There are a lot of recipes that are probably stratospheric in the calorie count, but so what?” And while she does think sugar is a genuine baddie, she doesn’t believe in “criminalising” anything. “What does it matter if you have a slice of cake on a Saturday? Seriously, if you think that’s a problem, you need to get a life.”

Does she think the healthy-eating plans now out there are really just dieting by another name? “I think a lot of people do use it for that, yes. I’ll rub a lot of people up the wrong way by saying so, but I really do think that.”

And this concerns her: she sees these pretty wellness gurus as unintentionally setting unobtainable standards for young, impressionable girls. “A lot of these bloggers are under 25, beautiful, very thin… I don’t believe you can’t be young and thin and beautiful and talented – I absolutely believe you can be all those things – but I do think that when someone hasn’t been trained or has learnt their trade from their own personal health problems… I find it hard to be convinced.”

Erskine doesn’t name names, but some of the biggest new online food writers include Ella Woodward, whose bestselling Deliciously Ella cookbook is based on her blog about curing her long-term health problems by cutting out gluten, dairy, sugar and meat; Instagram stars the Hemsley sisters, whose grain-free, sugar-free recipes are sold under the “wellness” banner; selfie-loving fitness obsessive Clean Eating Alice; Sarah B of the blog My New Roots, which advocates plant-based eating; Natasha Corrett of the Honestly Healthy brand, which is all about eating more alkaline foods; chef turned healthy-eating poster girl Tess Ward; and celebrity nutritionist Madeleine Shaw, whose Get the Glow blog features only wheat-free, sugar-free recipes.

Many of these writers have proved hugely successful, winning media coverage and scoring book deals – and Erksine isn’t miles away from this herself: her weight-loss-promoting TV shows and books always showcase her rock’n’roll style – the beehive, the vintage dresses – as well as her natural good looks, which must have helped her career.

“Listen, there are peers of mine who are real chefs who don’t get as much airtime as me because they don’t look good in a magazine, and I get that. Without doubt it’s the same with these younger girls.” She pauses, then laughs at herself. “God, I sound really bitter and old! This ‘new generation of food writers’, lets’ say!”

Along with her new book, Erskine is also involved in running London Union, Jonathan Downey and Henry Dimbleby’s Street Feast markets around London. “It’s so much more fun than sitting in a restaurant,” she says of their latest venture, Dinerama in Shoreditch. “It’s cheap – the average spend is around £20 a head. And you’ve got a great party vibe.”

It’s not just for east London hipsters – even her mum has been won over, she says. And her mum is the woman responsible for Erskine’s foodie nature: “When I was a kid, she used to have really fancy dinner parties. Some girls think about getting married when they grow up – I just wanted to have nice dinner parties!”

Ambition achieved: even though she works with food, Erskine still loves getting her mates around and chatting while she cooks, or spending weekends whipping up a big Sunday lunch with her boyfriend. So, is food bound up with love for her? “Yes – I always associated cooking with love. It’s so emotive.” No wonder she’s not so keen on #cleaneating: it’s hard to express a lot of love through cucumber sticks.

‘Gizzi’s Healthy Appetite’ is published by Octopus, priced £25. 

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