In a new series, The Truth About Food, Emily Ashworth looks at the changing food trends and diets of today, and if they are environmentally sustainable and helping to keep the nation healthy. Here Eve Simmons talks about her journey with food, and how a balanced and inclusive diet nursed her back to health.
In a world where most of the time there is always an advert, celebrity or blogger ordering you to ditch the dairy, shun the sugar and avoid that cream éclair unless you want to end up with diabetes overnight, it is frankly refreshing to hear Eve Simmons say those words we all secretly want to hear: Eat what you want.
And, by doing so, you will not instantaneously bust out of your pants.
In fact, it is quite the opposite.
Eve, 28, author of Eat It Anyway, co-founder of food and lifestyle blog Not Plant Based and deputy health editor at the Mail on Sunday is well placed to know the value of food after overcoming an eating disorder four years ago.
After studying magazine journalism at City university, London, Eve bagged herself what she thought was her dream job at a fashion magazine.
She says: “I grew up with a peaceful relationship with food and food was always the centrepiece of family celebrations and holidays.
“I never worried much about putting on weight, or about diets.
“In my twenties I became friends with people who, thinking about it now, were quite sordid in their eating.
“It occurred to me that some people watched what they ate – before that it hadn’t touched me.
“I became a lot more body conscious.
“I was at the age where I was trying to figure out who I was, and my first job was at a fashion desk. I thought this is me, this is who I am. But I very quickly noticed people in the fashion industry didn’t eat much.”
During that time, the term ‘clean eating’ was also becoming a major trend and coupled with the influence of social media and health food bloggers, Eve ‘became completely engrossed in it.’
The gist of most clean eating blogs promotes the restriction of food groups such as meat, dairy, gluten and sugar.
But within months, Eve lost 20 per cent of her body weight and was eventually admitted to hospital.
Thankfully, she was able to overcome her illness with medical intervention, the support of family and help from industry professionals, and she now writes to dispel the constant barrage of misleading dietary information and food myths.
On Instagram, the hashtag #eatclean teeters on the verge of 60 million users, but many a dietician have urged the public not to buy in to what in reality is simply a trend.
But it is not just social media stars, and as of late huge corporations such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s have been at the forefront of promoting veganism to ensure they have a look in on what appears to be a fast-growing market.
But what is all this doing to our physical and mental health?
In hospital, Eve was encouraged to eat three meals a day and three snacks which consisted of foods such as macaroni cheese and sweet and sour chicken, as well as to consume full fat milk, cream and butter. Ironically, most of these would be probably be demonised by the thousands of popular bloggers who influence people’s dietary choices across the world.
She says: “In 2016, I was doing a lot of writing and one thing that shocked me was that I quickly learnt all of these things I had been reading about what constitutes as a healthy diet was wrong.
“I learnt that during my recovery. I was nursed back to health on a diet of Weetabix, white bread and milkshake, and this was the NHS, it wasn’t a culinary MasterChef.
“All of those foods helped to make me healthy and they were what my body needed.
“Within a few days of eating these things the anxiety sort of dissipated.”
For what is a huge dietary movement, many of those who have reached social media stardom with their so-called revolutionary outlooks on food have no scientific support or nutritional training to truly back what their promoting. Yet people are still convinced more by the story than by the cold, hard facts, and Eve spoke at the 2019 National Farmers Union Conference about the detrimental effect of such health trends on society.
Take the social media starlet, Ella Woodward, the woman behind plant-based website Deliciously Ella who says that by eliminating all animal-based produce from her diet, she was able to pretty much cure herself of a long-standing illness.
With about 1.6 million followers, she is hugely influential, but how much responsibility lies at the feet of those pushing their own brands and lifestyles via such platforms?
“It’s based on anecdotal evidence – ‘I have an illness; I then ate a plant-based story and it magically disappeared.’ That’s great, what a positive inspirational story [for you] – end of,” says Eve.
“They gave me a way of normalising my eating patterns and regarding my situation, they did not help.
“If all these diets work, do you not think the dieticians on the NHS working with people who are morbidly obese would be implementing them? But they don’t because it doesn’t work.
“It’s mostly to ‘eat what you want in moderation and don’t worry about it.’ And that’s gluten, dairy, meat, sugar, salt included.”
Farmers are desperately trying to voice their concern over the misrepresentation of British farming, and the relentless debate between the farming industry and those furiously defending their choice to exclude all animal products from their diets is now much more than just a discussion, with some extremists going as far as calling farmers ‘murderers and ‘rapists’.
Eve says: “I think we live in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world, and people are desperately looking for something to control. Food is an obvious crutch and is so tied up in another ridiculous goal that rules so many lives - the way we look. It’s therefore a perfect source of control and power. In addition, the proliferation of pseudoscience about food has ramped up in recent years thanks to the immediacy of social media. It’s everywhere and inescapable.
“I understand some may opt for omitting meat from their diet for environmental reasons - there are some stringent environmentalists out there and that’s commendable. But any sort of dietary restriction concerns me, especially amongst young women, as I think it’s difficult to be really honest with yourself about whether the restriction is wrapped up in feelings you have about your body which is a desire to keep it small.
“I think the problem is when it starts to get pushed on everyone and the outcome, I guess, is that nobody really knows 100 per cent. The studies are very complex. Climate change is going to happen, but nobody knows that if we stop eating meat this won’t happen. I think that it’s completely non-sensical and when it comes to what we eat, it’s such a complex and emotional subject that can for some people be extremely damaging when it comes to dictating what you or I should eat.
“The outcome for human beings should, in the present day, come over and above this sort of theoretical situation for the environment which we don’t know what will look like yet.
“A catastrophising message doesn’t help, it’s got to be realistic.
“Genetics play a huge role in affecting lifestyle related illnesses and that’s got to be considered.”
In Eat It Anyway, Eve and co-author Laura Dennison explore attitudes to food and call on various experts to home in on what it means to eat healthily. Forgetting the social media followers and the mindset of what you think your body should look like, their approach to food and cooking is one of realism.
Eve says: “Almost everyday I get messages from young people, especially women, saying thank you for a refreshing message that alleviates some of the anxiety they feel when eating.
“Others say we’ve propelled their recovery from serious eating disorders. It’s insane and very humbling, but most of all it makes putting your head above the parapet and saying things people don’t like to hear more worth it.
Through the process Eve has also worked with professionals who all advise a healthy, balanced diet.
“No dietician worth their salt will endorse a faddy diet,” she says.
“Most of the time, try and eat according to your body’s physical cues but mental health is just as important.
“If you need a slice of cake to ease the pain of a nasty break-up, have the slice of cake already.”