Wednesday 27th January 2021

Food and money are sticky, sensitive subjects – especially in combination – for so many good reasons.

What we buy to feed ourselves says so much about us – not only how much money we have but the relative value we place on food and what we want that food to do for us.

That last bit has become more complicated, especially over the last few years. There has never been so much pressure to make “good” choices – good for our health, good for the environment, good for our appearance.

The ways in which we can be “good” with food all bleed into each other – the food comes with a lifestyle, a body type, a creed. The things that signal virtue all share associations, usually with a slim figure and a woke head.

One thing almost every way of eating has in common these days is an online champion, in the form of a blogger, Instagram star, or otherwise-guru. And something almost all of them has in common is that they are selling something.

The degrees to which this can be damaging or confusing to the consumer are often in proportion to the amount of money the seller stands to make.

Ella Mills, popularly known as Deliciously Ella, has been at the crest of the “wellness wave” of the last several years. She has made her name with recipes such as sweet potato brownies, cashew pesto pasta, and kale salads, all artistically displayed across her Instagram feed, which has 1.5 million followers.

Ella and her husband Matt, who is her business partner and now CEO of the Deliciously Ella brand, have opened three delis (and closed two) and released ranges of energy balls, granolas, and frozen ready meals to outlets including Waitrose, Wholefoods, Planet Organic, Tesco and Starbucks. Ella’s debut cookbook was the fastest selling of all time.

Some “wellness warriors” are mercenary. Joe Wicks, who calls himself “The Body Coach” is reportedly worth nearly £15 million

Ella’s products are not budget friendly (one energy ball costs £1.79 at Tesco), but the brand is a relatively soft sell. Despite being associated with the rise of “clean eating” and bearing the brunt of the subsequent backlash, Ella never used the term herself.

Her M.O. has been to encourage people to include vegetables and whole foods, rather than actively dissuade them from eating other things. Choice – though a luxury – is emphasised.

If you can’t afford the medjool dates, nuts, and cacao to create raw chocolate brownies, you might be able to stretch to sweet potato stir fries and bean dips. If you can’t afford the book, there are plenty of free recipes on her site.

Other wellness warriors are far more prescriptive, and far more mercenary. Joe Wicks, who calls himself “The Body Coach” is reportedly worth nearly £15 million and as of 2017 made £15k a day. Signing up to his 90 day plan upfront costs £97. You can also choose to spread the cost across three months, in which case it will set you back £126.

The idea is that if you follow precise guidelines for what to eat and follow Joe’s 10-30 minute “high intensity” (HIIT) workout plans, you will “naturally” become lean. Joe claims there is no need to calorie count when you eat à la Body Coach because you’re training your body to run using “healthy fats” (or something).

But the amount of ingredients stated in each recipe on his plan is determined by the weight/height you enter at the start, so it is a de facto calorie-controlled diet.

The deeper you steep yourself in the diet culture, and the more money you spend on it, the further you remove yourself from the basic nature of food.

There are many more examples across the “wellness” spectrum, but none as commercially successful as Joe Wicks. Joe has become a multi-millionaire on the promise that plugging yourself into his system will get you shredded, and that his recipes are somehow calibrated to help you “burn fat”, even though it is basically normal food, but weighed and timed according to Joe’s system.

Money continues pours into his pocket, because his comforting framework for how to live looks doable at the offset.

The irony of buying in to Joe Wicks, is that it is effectively a way of paying more to consume with less autonomy. Everything must be planned, bought, weighed and cooked, according to his instructions.

And the deeper you steep yourself in the diet culture he represents, and the more money you spend on it, the further you remove yourself from the basic nature of food.

Keeping your lunch low carb is not necessary, and neither is doing however many burpees on your break before you eat it. The more attention you pay plans like Joe’s, the less you are paying to what your body tells you it needs. The less you are able to trust yourself with the question “am I hungry?” and the less you trust yourself to respond appropriately to the answer.

In 2012 – at around the same time as Ella Mills (then Woodward) wrote her firsts posts, food and politics writer, author and activist Jack Monroe wrote a blog post titled “Hunger Hurts”. Here is an extract (I recommend you read the whole thing asap):

“This morning, small boy had one of the last Weetabix, mashed with water, with a glass of tap water to wash it down with. ‘Where’s Mummys breakfast?’ he asks, big blue eyes and two year old concern. I tell him I’m not hungry, but the rumblings of my stomach call me a liar.”

At the time, Jack was on benefits and applying for jobs every day. She sold belongings, turned off heating, and took bulbs out of lights, cut every corner possible to prevent herself and her young son becoming homeless.

She often depended on food banks, and over months of making every ounce stretch as far as possible, developed ingenious ways to adapt recipes to fit an extremely limited budget and resources.

The premise of Jack’s recipes is simple: to feed, as deliciously as possible, with what is there.

Her creations include firecracker sausages with tragedy mash, feisty soup, and peanut butter and jam thumbprint cookies. Jack’s blog, then called “A Girl Called Jack” has now been renamed Cooking On A Bootstrap, and is hub of recipes, advice, and political commentary. Her fourth book, Tin Can Cook, is out in May.

The premise of Jack’s recipes is simple: to feed, as deliciously as possible, with what is there. It makes nothing but sense and yet is so different from almost everything else in the online environment. Jack is yet to become a millionaire because she isn’t selling a wish.

There is no failing, or falling off the wagon. Just an actually quite old-fashioned idea about food, which might ultimately prove far more comforting and sustainable than any attempt to get “lean” in 90 days with the help of a lot of expensive salmon.

Perhaps a useful litmus test for whether we should listen to someone who is selling an idea about food, might be to ask: is this food promising to feed me, or change me?

Too many people make too much money on the basis of persuading people that they are somehow not good enough as they are.

If you are being instructed to buy a certain food because it will make you shredded, by someone who has already released many books on the subject of being shredded, are you going to sit down to eat that food with a feeling of happy anticipation…or nervous anxiety because you have invested so much in the food doing a job for you?

It’s a difficult principle to maintain in a world calibrated to make us self-examine and find fault with ourselves, but it might cost a lot less money, and a lot less heartache to remember the more simple message: you just need to eat.

Holly MC Thomas
Holly MC Thomas

Holly is a freelance writer and editor based in London. She writes regularly for CNN and The New Statesman, among others.

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