The Myth of the Faddy Diet

My girlfriend is somewhat susceptible to advertising. She also spends a lot of time reading the news. Her latest purchase was the book of the moment, Deliciously Ella. It has all of the hallmarks of a faddy diet book if you ask me. But it seems to be popular and is flying off the shelves along with all supplies of buckwheat flour (which was absent from all of the supermarkets we visited. Even Ocado had sold out).

Of course it is easy to see the appeal. Ella Woodward is a beautiful young woman who promises the elixir of life; eternal youth and beauty to those who are willing to sacrifice their pick & mix at the altar of veganism. If I worked in advertising (if there are any advertising recruiters out there reading this, please do get in touch), I would be able to tell you precisely how success can come to someone so rapidly if they follow a particular formula. If you want to learn how to build your own health food empire in a few easy steps, read on.

What’s Really Bothering You?

We are brought up to believe that this particular action causes that result. For example, we see fat people and we talk about how they are eating too much, or we surmise they are eating things which make it harder for their body to thrive. We decide that they need to exercise more. And so we tell them that they should change their eating habits and go jogging occasionally, and their bodies will thank them.

The backstory which gets missed out is the usual one. People are continually acting out their emotions. They do this in a number of different ways, but compulsive behaviour involving food, drugs, sexuality, control etc are the symptoms of their feeling bad, not the causes. The disease is caused by emotional dis-ease. Specific terminology is no mistake.

If you have a lot of inner turmoil; if you are being really hard on yourself; if you think poorly of yourself; you will treat yourself accordingly. You may subject yourself to degrading acts, you may choose to avoid things which would nourish your body, or you may deliberately self-harm by consuming things which you know are bad for you. If everyone who smokes believes that cigarettes are bad for them (and in this day and age, given the ‘education’ on the subject, can there be anybody who still believes that smoking isn’t bad for them) then what does their continuing to smoke say about how they feel about themselves?

By her own admission, Ella used to eat junk, mainly based around carbohydrates. Her website states:

I literally never ate fruit or vegetables before, my diet instead revolved around Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Chocolate, peanut butter and jelly eaten with a spoon, pick-n-mix and lots of cereal and pasta

Then she changed her diet. Overnight.

Overnight I took up a whole foods, plant-based diet and gave up all meat, dairy, sugar, gluten, anything processed and all chemicals and additives, which was a pretty drastic change

Why so Extreme?

Pretty drastic? I’d say so. She gave up meat? I thought she only ate carbohydrates. I suppose one has milk on cereal, and Ben & Jerry’s has cream in it so she did have some dairy, and there’s milk in those pick ‘n mix milk bottles isn’t there?

I wonder whether such an extreme change was necessary? She must have read a book on nutrition and decided to throw out the baby with the bathwater. On the plus side, a drastic change is necessary if you want your story to be picked up by the media.

When someone gets into a bad mental space, they are feeling terrible and manifesting some pretty bad life experiences for themselves. When they turn their thinking around, and decide to start being nicer to themselves, the actions which follow include things such as not drinking alcohol excessively, not smoking cigarettes, not taking mind numbing drugs, exercising a little, and starting to eat foods considered as good for the body.

It was kind self-treatment, self-love which made all of their issues go away, yet they proudly proclaim to the world that it was their change in diet, exercise or some other external action that solved all of their issues. They share their experience strength and hope with the world, and tell others that they too can benefit, if only they will take similar, drastic action. But life doesn’t work like that. It may have worked for you dear Ella, but there are many paths to success, and I’m sure the diet change was preceded by an intention to start looking after yourself properly. “Eat this kind of food” sells more books that saying “Just be nicer to yourself”.

Instead of never again eating sugar (yeah right! I’ve seen the book and it is crammed full of sugar) and throwing out all of the ‘evil things’ that we ‘bad people’ eat like: Meat (Boo!) Sugar (Boo!) and Dairy (Moo!), and that big evil monster, Gluten (Chew!), why not just do something sensible like wean yourself off junk food like Ice Cream, pick ‘n mix and peanut butter and jelly with a spoon?

Why not start eating a healthy balanced diet instead of heavily processed carbohydrates? Why not delighting in fresh food with lots of life in it (no preservatives)? Such wholesome food provides the body with the nutrition it is looking for. Why not learn more about food and learn to cook your meals from scratch, using fruits, vegetables, meat, grains and seeds, and eating them in normal quantities.

It sounds like a simple reasonable answer, but no. Who cares about that. We need a more dramatic story. For such a miraculous transformation to be picked up by the world, whether on a popular blog, or the cookery book which has followed, it needs to fulfil certain criteria. Those of the typical drama:

1. Struggle

To garner interest, the story must involve a struggle, ideally a struggle back from the depths of despair, if possible a near-death experience. The public loves a rags to riches story, the ugly duckling transforming into the beautiful elegant swan, the sinner who saw the light, cast off her gluttonous ways and purified her life with quinoa and rice flour, for hers is the kingdom of health.

Had this woman been a massive fan of food from the get-go, had she grown up in a family which instilled in her a sense of nutrition and nourishing the body, I doubt she would have been either so radical in her decision to change her diet, and I also doubt that her story would be any different to the hundreds of other people who have worked out that eating a balanced diet is good for the body. Who knew? Where’s the angle in that?

2. Radical Change

There is no possible way that the solution to your physical ailments could be as easy as starting to be kinder and more loving to yourself in any given moment. If it was that easy, wouldn’t we all be doing it? There must be a bigger price to pay, a price of sacrifice. We must sacrifice our money, our time, and our pleasure. We must deprive ourselves of things we want in order to receive that which we truly want. The last thing we will do is look to our emotional state. If there’s one more thing we can do, eat, not eat, drink smoke, or shoot, if there’s another magic pill, we’ll pay the price. We will do anything and everything before we attempt a radical solution like just trying to feel better.

If I am selling you health and beauty and the promise of feeling good while still getting what you want; having your cake and eating, drastic action is required. You see, almost every ingredient which exists has been lambasted by the ‘food police’, and labelled as inappropriate for human consumption.

We all know that sugar is bad for you, that gluten makes you fat and that meat is full of evil toxic compounds which knock your yin out of alignment with your yang. Except it doesn’t, but to those of you out there who believe it, the pool of foodstuffs from which you can make delicious meals is rapidly dwindling.

Two choices remain: you can eat the food and have it make you fat, or you can abstain from the ‘evil’ substance in the first place. But wait! Delicious Ella promises us a third, more righteous way. The answer lies in some new wonder food; healthy yet deliciously sweet, it looks and tastes like a fried potato, but it is actually good for you. The good news is that you don’t know anything about it, and nobody has written anything about it yet, so you can eat it with impunity. It turns out the answer was there all along, and you have been missing it. Don’t worry, Ella will show you the way.

3. Exotic New Ingredients (the costlier the better)

When everything that you know and love has been condemned as bad for you, where do you go to eat? We all love sugar, but when we know that it is bad for us, and convinced that it is the cause of all our maladies, where do we turn for our nectar? Here the fad diet takes us into new and unexplored territory.

We must reach further and further into the realms of obscurity to find new ingredients which haven’t yet been condemned; things that haven’t yet been proved, with endless unhelpful studies, that they are incompatible with the human body. It helps the cause even more when these obscure foods cost the earth. If we can sacrifice our evil ways, as well as paying a significant amount in financial penance for the new, purer way, we are surely on the road to salvation.

It’s the magic pill formula that people just cannot resist buying into. These innocuous looking Goji berries actually have magical healing properties. They may cost the earth, but we all know that things which have value cost a lot of money, so there must be something in it.

We are told that raw organic sugar is fine, whereas refined table sugar is the root of all evil. The bright and shiny new recipes which a sugar addict proposes are somehow good and wholesome because they contain medjool dates, honey and maple syrup. What is the difference between the sugar in dates, honey and maple syrup (all apparently good), and granulated sugar? I’ll tell you: The first three make you feel better about eating them. Oh, and they cost significantly more to buy, so the price is paid, and we feel vindicated.

If it works for you, fine. But sugar is sugar, and that refined sugar in the Tate & Lyle bag came from sugar cane and sugar beet which are natural plants too. Coming from the Sainsbury’s family dynasty, Ella may feel comfortable substituting medjool dates for granulated sugar, but do the rest of us want to pay £20 a kilo to sweeten up our cakes and have them taste of dates (the Key lime pie recipe asks for 400g of ground almonds and 600g of medal dates for the base. that’ll be around £10 and we haven’t even got to the topping yet).

4. Aspirational Results

Now we arrive at the best bit, the aspirational element. For any book to sell, it must promise us something that we want. In this regard Deliciously Ella is a marketing masterpiece, and the reason it has flown off the shelves faster than any other. We all want to be cured of our ailments. If we read the press, we will have absorbed a significant amount of ideas regarding foods which are bad, and foods which are good, and we are searching to have our cake and eat it without the guilty feelings of self judgement which are normally present, and their ageing and fattening effects.

This is what Deliciously Ella promises. It is different enough from the mainstream wisdom on food that most of us have accepted as fact, that it will appeal to many new subscribers. If there wasn’t something in it, why would Ella have a job as a food columnist in the Telegraph?

Eat vegan food (but don’t label yourself as a vegan, because they are weird people), and you can look as beautiful as Ella, and she is beautiful; a real stunner. There she stands in her stripy top, out on the balcony with her gorgeous puppy, looking like a model out of the Boden catalogue. She produces bright green superfood smoothies, and takes in a raw cacao drinks after a wholesome yoga session in the Deliciously Ella office. It’s great marketing and the photography and the presentation of the book is spot on, but given her background diet and her tender age of only 23 years old, does she have enough experience of food to write a book on the subject?

Her chocolate brownies are made with dates, sweet potato, raw cacao powder and ground almonds instead of the more traditional flour, cocoa, sugar and fat. Are they any better for you? If you think they are. Sure, why not? Do they taste as good? Not by a long shot. It turns out there’s a reason that the brownie recipe has evolved to be what it is, and I’m afraid spending £6 on a box of Medjool dates (Fruit of the Kings!) is not going to change that. I told my girlfriend to take the brownies to the office, but she said she was too embarrassed. I know what she means. Why try to imitate a recipe, why not create some genuinely new ones. Ella’s Classic Carrot Cake for example is nothing of the sort. It is made with buckwheat flour and rice and lots of obscure ingredients. Classic Carrot Cake? Who are you kidding?

I will admit that this essay has all of the hallmarks of a resentful rant against a beautiful rising star, but I just cannot get excited about any faddy diet going mainstream. Why? Because it aims to restrict people’s food choices, and as someone who loves and appreciates food, I will never condone such behaviour.

When we each have the ability to form our own beliefs in life, by focussing on things that we want, why would we ever choose to deliberately label ourselves as anything that would restrict our choices? I’m not bashing vegans, or even people who struggle with physical ailments after years of poor eating choices, but is reducing your diet from almost total refined carbohydrates to vegetables and expensive natural carbohydrates the answer? It doesn’t seem like such a radial change now you mention it. The only thing that’s changed is the price has gone up.

Are you trying to Convince Me, or Yourself?

Whenever I come across anyone who is trying to convince me of something (like the Mormon ‘sisters’ I bumped into the other day), I remember back to a time where I was in a similar state of mind. Unsure of my beliefs, I felt the need to push my ideas onto other people. I needed their agreement to shore up the choices I had made myself. What if I was wrong? Shouldn’t I try to get others to agree with me, so I could feel better about the choices (and the sacrifices) I had made?

As I grew in self-confidence, I realised two important things. Firstly, I couldn’t make others hear my ideas, no matter how great I thought they were and secondly, I didn’t need them to agree with anything that I believed. I knew it, and that was enough for me. They were free to think whatever they thought. I still make my points (like here on this blog, and I feel it’s important, but it is not the truth it’s just my opinion) but I acknowledge there is room for others and their opinions.

It is not about who is right and who is wrong, because we all get to choose our own truths. Do I choose a vegan diet? No thanks, it’s not for me. If you want to limit your choices, then go for it. But it may very well be a path of least resistance to get you from where you are to where you want to be, so I wouldn’t try to talk anyone out of their inspiration.

Do whatever you like, I’m not giving up a well-aged sirloin cooked on a charcoal grill, roast chicken, bacon or ham. I’m not giving up milk, pasta, or my own delicious homemade sourdough, and I’m not giving up sugar. It doesn’t mean I have to gorge myself on a whole tray of home baked brownies, But I can visit Ben’s cookies once in a while without feeling guilty about it. Is there any need to say never again? Yes, if we cannot trust ourselves to act in moderation. To the self confessed sugar addict, cold turkey is the only thing which works.

I don’t know about you, but when someone who only started eating vegetables 3 years ago goes on some kind of personal crusade to persuade the world that veggies are the best thing since they gave up sliced bread, I find it intensely annoying. It’s a bit like growing up in the 1970s only to have your adult children explain in great detail what disco music is, which are the best bands to listen to and the reasons why. Thanks love. Been there done that.

Deprivation or Appreciation? You Choose

Life has an abundance of really delicious things for us to savour, and many of them are things which taste good. Given a choice between deprivation, or appreciation, I choose appreciation. Does that mean that I avoid certain foods? I’d rather it didn’t. I am appalled when I visit my local Sainsbury’s Supermarket to see a whole aisle dedicated to chocolate biscuits, but when I look for a specialist cheese like Epoisses or some Buckwheat Flour, they don’t even stock them. We can’t blame the supermarket of course, they only stock what people buy.

I would like to bring myself to a belief where I am opening up my choices, increasing my enjoyment of life rather than condemning things as bad and whittling down my options to a few ultimately bland but extremely ‘wholesome’ foods, and then bleating on about their deliciousness in an attempt to convince others of the same. Who am I trying to kid?

Why do we hold on to the notion that we must sacrifice in order to receive the goodness that we are seeking? Moving from eating junk food (self-harm) to eating a vegan diet (deprivation) isn’t a massive leap forward in emotionality. How about trying to feel as good as you can feel, and then making your food choices based upon your inspiration rather than trying to limit your actions or behaviour?

We needn’t gorge ourselves, but starvation and deprivation aren’t the answer either. How about a sensible approach to food which nourishes the body? OMG! It might just be a radical enough idea for Penguin Random House to pick it up. Not a chance!

Deliciously Ella is available from all good bookshops and on Amazon.


The Myth of the Faddy Diet -

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