Chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on faddy eating, ditching the
diet – and going after that ‘bit on the side'.
It’s coming up to that time of year when many of us promise to eat more healthily. What’s your approach?
I’m trying to buck the trend of a single fix. There’s a lot of faddism out there – I’ve cut out foods such as dairy in the past – but I think we need a new way of looking at things. My latest book is about ways to transform your diet that you can keep up in the long term, such as eating good carbs and factoring in fat. That’s what I try to do.
So it’s not just cabbage at home?
I still eat meat and fish, but they can be tyrannical – they can take over your plate. I limit them to two or three times a week. We tend to think of everything else as that ‘bit on the side’, but I put plants, pulses and whole grains front and centre. I want to make the foods that are best for you the most delicious.
You’ve given us much food for thought over the years. Which one tip would you most recommend?
Cook seasonally. Parsnips, carrots, swedes and brassicas are great at the moment. I put wedges of cabbage, kale and sprouts onto the grill to get those seared caramelised edges that release all the natural sugars. I also love salads of finely shredded sprouts, parsnip, celery and apple sprinkled with toasted nuts or pumpkin seeds roasted in tamari soy sauce for a rich umami flavour.
It sounds like we could keep that up, but statistics show 90% of all diets fail. How do you sustain healthy habits?
I don’t pin it all on one idea. Healthy eating involves multiple strands. I don’t count calories or beat myself up about enjoying an indulgent treat – I’ve got a very sweet tooth – because my diet has healthy foundations.
You write a lot about eating mindfully. Do you practise what you preach?
It’s not a formal thing for me, but more of a shift from unconscious to conscious eating. When you’re shopping and cooking, it’s easy to be on autopilot rather than asking yourself: how nutritious is this food? Where is it from? How long has it been on the shelf? What am I going to do with it? If you think about those things, it changes your perception. That being
said, I do enjoy a Toffee Crisp occasionally, knowing full well it won’t do me a lot of good.
Everyone likes a Toffee Crisp… As a father of four, how do you encourage your children to eat healthily?
They’ve all been through fussy phases and still won’t go near certain tastes and textures. But I have found one way to get them to eat their greens: sizzle them in garlic butter. I don’t usually tell them about the garlic because they might refuse it on principle, but the savoury edge seems to go down well. I was quite picky growing up, too: I had ketchup with everything. Things only changed when my mum and dad moved from London to Gloucestershire and started growing their own vegetables. Nothing beats freshly podded peas.
The pandemic has left many people more money-conscious than ever. If you don’t grow your own, can you follow your food philosophy on a budget?
I think so, provided you have a few basic skills and spend a bit of time in the kitchen. Many of the recipes in my book just involve assembling great ingredients in a roasting tin and shoving them in the oven. If you only eat ready meals and takeaways, it can be much harder to eat cheaply.
After 30 years in food, is there anything left for you to discover?
I certainly don’t know it all – and I wouldn’t want to. Food is a never-ending voyage of discovery, even for me. My tastes have become more sophisticated over the years. I’m more out there now with experimental combinations. I’ll sneak fruit in among the vegetables: slices of apple in a traybake, slivers of plum in a tomato salad or barbecued hispi cabbage with charred mandarins that have this amazing burnt bitter marmaladey taste.
And you’re a big fan of kombucha, too…
I’m increasingly interested in live fermented foods and brought out my own kombucha range last year. Incorporating kombucha (fermented tea), kefir (a fermented milk drink) and Korean kimchi (fermented vegetables) into your diet can help increase the diversity of friendly bacteria in your gut, aiding digestion. A diet that’s good for your gut can enhance your mood.
Tell us more about good-mood food
The connections between gut health and mental wellbeing are extraordinary. It’s cutting-edge science, but the idea is that having a diverse microbiome – the tiny organisms like bacteria – in your gut correlates with your mood. Dopamine (colloquially known
as the ‘happy hormone’) and serotonin (the chemical in the body that carries the message to your brain that you feel relaxed) are made in the gut. It’s all really new – and it’s fascinating. Scientists admit there is still a lot they don’t know.
You’ve covered the national obesity crisis, waste and sustainable fishing on TV. Could this be next on your campaign trail?
I’m not necessarily looking for anything new. My current mission is to help people eat better. If you’re healthy, you will have an extraordinary resilience to face whatever life throws at you, which is what we all need right now…
You’ve inspired many. Who inspires you?
I loved the way Keith Floyd took TV cooking out of the studio and into the wild when I was younger. He met producers and found out where food came from – an approach I adopted for River Cottage. The River Café co-founder Rose Gray was also hugely influential.
We worked together in 1989. She taught me the importance of provenance – something that’s stayed with me ever since.
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