A sense of balance: chef Gizzi Erskine thinks the #EatClean trend has gone too far

I went out to dinner a few weeks ago with a group of friends. Of the six of us sitting around the table, one had recently gone gluten-free (‘I feel so much better for it!’), one had given up refined sugar (‘I’ve been reading that it’s awful for you’) while another had cut out dairy (‘for my skin’). I scanned the menu and wondered what everyone was going to eat. And also felt quite relieved I hadn’t offered to cook. 

We’ve become a nation of ‘free-froms’. The variety of food available to us has never been more enormous – something my parents, who grew up at a time when spaghetti Bolognese was considered exotic, find astonishing – yet we’ve never been keener to cut things out. Bread was the first casualty; then sugar got taken down. Dairy has suffered a serious battering along the way, too. Soy or almond milk lattes are no longer a niche coffee order. We spiralize courgettes to replace pasta and Nutribullet breakfasts have seen off toast. We share recipes for gluten-free pancakes and bake flourless aubergine brownies. I reached my own free-from-everything nadir when my six-foot, rugby-loving, ‘two sandwiches for lunch’ friend Tom started evangelising about courgette spaghetti.

Instagram was once an even blend of cats, sunsets and poached eggs. Now, at times, it feels like a virtual temple for generation #EatClean, whose free-from recipes, photographed in pretty patterned bowls or distressed kitchen tables, provide inspiration for a growing population of men and women who endorse the benefits of cutting gluten, dairy and sugar from their diets.  

Do you insta before you eat? 

But the question is: has all of this gone a bit too far? By focusing so hard on what we shouldn’t eat, has food lost its sense of conviviality and fun? Shouldn't we all just calm down? Celebrity chef Gizzi Erskine is one of a growing number who thinks the #EatClean trend has grown out of proportion. ‘I’ve been writing about healthy eating and diets for seven years now,’ she tells me when we meet in Shoreditch for breakfast. ‘When the trend started, I thought it was a great way for people to try new and healthy foods, but then all of a sudden it became about removing entire food groups from people’s diets. I was looking on Instagram and seeing plates of ‘food’ that consisted of kale, a piece of avocado and some bell peppers. That’s just not dinner!”

Her new cookbook Gizzi’s Healthy Appetite is an attempt to bring both pleasure and a sense of balance back into our diets. ‘We’re all multifaceted,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I want a crisp and healthy salad; sometimes I want some delicious sticky ribs.’ This approach is perfectly summed up by what she orders when we meet – an English breakfast and a murky-looking green juice. ‘The green juice is for my hangover,’ she says. ‘It tastes horrid but it works.’ 

In Gizzi’s Healthy Appetite she encourages us to stop cutting out entire food groups and instead follow an 80/20 pattern of eating: if you’re healthy 80 per cent of the time you can relax for the other 20 per cent. The 20 per cent mantra also applies to portion size – eat 20 per cent fewer carbs, up the veg and cook real square meals to avoid cravings. She agrees we’re all eating too much sugar, but cutting it out completely, she argues, is both joyless and unhealthy. The essence of the book isn’t just what Gizzi calls ‘common sense healthy eating’, it’s also about regaining the pleasure and enjoyment of food we’ve lost by worrying so much about what’s in it. The chapters are divided into texture or mood, such as ‘crunch’, ‘slurp’ and ‘soothe’. Soul food can be healthy, and indulgence isn’t always bad, says Gizzi, though the book isn’t filled with Nigella-esque cream- and butter-packed recipes either. She and her friend Millie Mackintosh are both slim and healthy, they both appreciate a nicely flavoured bowl of cauliflower rice, but they also enjoy going on guilt-free weekend pasta binges together. ‘I’m going to have a bit of processed cheese with my burger every now and again – so sue me!’ she jokes.  

Gizzi Erskine with her pal Millie Mackintosh

She also makes the point that the trend for following strictly tailored diets is eroding the bonding process of sharing food together. Nothing is more of a dinner party mood-killer than telling the host you’ve recently ‘gone paleo’. I tell her about an interview I read with one high-profile member of the #EatClean brigade, who says she never does dinner parties or allows anyone else to cook for her. ‘One of the reasons I cook is because my mum used to have dinner parties the whole time,’ says Gizzi. ‘I have a big ego, I cook food for people to tell me it’s great!’ 

Of course, it’s important to point out that the #EatClean movement has been incredibly liberating for people with serious medical intolerances, like my mother’s friend M, who was diagnosed as coeliac 15 years ago, back when few people knew what it was and even fewer had any idea how to cater for it. For years she could only find gluten free products at niche health shops. Now they’re in every supermarket. Gizzi also agrees that these changes have opened up the rest of us to healthier ways of cooking and encouraged us to think more about what we’re eating. But hasn’t it also encouraged some pretty unhealthy bandwagon jumping too? A third of American adults now say they suffer from gluten intolerance, even though only one in 100 is coeliac. ‘Who is defining all these allergies?’ Gizzi says. ‘I’ve cooked for people with coeliac disease, who really cannot eat wheat. That is a real allergy that’s detrimental to health, not just getting a bit bloated.’ 

Victoria Beckham, Miley Cyrus and Gwyneth Paltrow are among the celebrities who have enthused about the benefits of going gluten- and dairy-free. But others are sceptical – Jennifer Lawrence, Hollywood’s no-nonsense poster girl, who once said, ‘I’d rather look a little chubby on screen and look like a person in real life,’ has called the gluten-free movement ‘the new cool eating disorder, the “basically, I just don’t eat carbs diet”,’ while Blake Lively’s website Preserve, with its roast chicken on white bread sandwiches and hot chocolate recipes, promotes a more relaxed approach to food than Gwyneth’s Goop. Meanwhile, Cara Delevingne with her late-night McDonald’s runs and Jourdan Dunn – who once told me her dinner of choice is ‘Nando’s or a curry’ – won’t be adding a healthy bowl of acorn noodles to their repertoire any time soon.

Cara Delevingne tucking into a chip

Social media is joining the backlash too: new Instagram account @girlswithgluten (40,000 followers and counting) features shots of women tucking into pizzas, bread rolls, cakes and spaghetti (Kendall Jenner, Karlie Kloss and Gizzi’s pasta buddy Millie Mackintosh have all contributed pictures under the hashtag #GirlsWithGluten). And if you like that, you’ll love spoof Instagram account @DeliciouslyStella, set up by 27-year-old Bella Younger. ‘Loving my brand new recipe for delicious homemade crispbread!’ she captions a picture of sliced white bread piled up with crinkle-cut crisps. 

A post from spoof Instagram account @DeliciouslyStella

If you’re on Instagram, you’ve probably also seen the #EatClean hashtag affixed to #TrainDirty, used mostly by enthusiastic exercise junkies with stomachs so flat you could serve champagne off them. But Melissa Weldon, personal trainer at London’s elite celebrity exercise studio 1Rebel, has a new motto: ‘Eat Dirty, Train Dirtier’. ‘Whoever coined the phrase “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” has obviously never tasted a Patty & Bun bacon cheese burger,’ she wrote in a blog for the 1Rebel website. ‘I believe in working your ass off and having fun while you do. That’s why I never say no to a cupcake.’ Melissa, with her impossibly toned six-pack, is living proof that – provided we keep a balance – we can all afford to let go a little.  

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Gizzi’s Healthy Appetite by Gizzi Erskine is published by Mitchell Beazley (£25, octopusbooks.co.uk)