The annual glut of diet books are pretty formulaic. Take an established star, preferably one who has recently lost weight, and get them to create a diet plan based on their “journey”. Dishes are cut from a standard list of “stuff considered healthy these days”, so be prepared for endless incarnations of avocado, a recipe for Mexican scrambled eggs, and a dizzying array of spiralised vegetables. Most present a complex set of rules and restrictions, with recipes so aspirational and unrealistic for everyday living that most people will fail. It moves from something that happens to you, to something you can buy with enough effort. Modern diet books are the wet dream of neoliberalism, with a side serving of courgetti.
Many people struggle with their weight, so perhaps I should not knock these books. For some they may provide a lifeline. But consider this: although many dieters will manage to lose weight in the short term, for the vast majority it will end in failure. Studies have shown that most people will regain any weight they have lost within four years.
To make matters worse, in long-term behaviour and attitude studies, dieting, food avoidance and restricted eating in normal weight children are some of the strongest predictors of weight gain in adulthood. A large twin study in Finland found that normal-weight individuals who engage in restrictive dieting behaviours are more likely to gain weight than those who don’t. And just think about the US, a country with one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, yet one where 80% of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet. Restrictive dieting is often seen as a solution to the problem of obesity, but it is tempting to surmise it may actually be one of the causes.
Still, it does shift a few books every January. Here’s a few of this year’s …
Lisa Riley’s Honesty Diet: Change Your Life in Eight Days
I never thought there would be much common ground between Lisa Riley and Kate Moss, but during the long-winded cod-psychology introduction to Lisa’s “honesty diet”, she actually says “feeling this good every day makes me a million times happier than any cake ever could”. This seems frighteningly close to Kate Moss’s “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. Of course, when a supermodel says it, it is the subject of much derision. But apparently, because Riley has been overweight in the past, things are different.
Riley seems to think that all you need is self-belief, determination and a recipe for Mexican scrambled eggs. She is also at pains to point out that you need to be honest with yourself. You must realise that being fat is your fault, and start feeling guilty. Feel guilty about sharing food with friends, eating at a party, eating after 6.30pm or eating on holiday. What you really need to make your life better is a complex set of eating rules. Why not start with eight days of brutal calorie restriction, followed by a lifetime of denial and control.
The food is predictable. I can only assume there is a factory somewhere, churning out recipes for smashed avocado, quinoa salads and vegetable frittatas. All are seemingly dumped into this book, with no clue as to their inspiration.
Riley believes that she is now “the best version of herself” and happy that she no longer “takes up excess space”. It saddens me that a much-loved actor and presenter only feels validated now she has reached an aesthetically driven weight-loss goal. The newspapers who spent years bullying her about her weight should really hang their heads in shame.
It is also troubling that Riley cannot imagine that weight might be a different battle for others than it was for her. What she sells as “tough love” comes across as compassionless bullying, all from someone who should know better. She does little more than tell fat people to eat less and move more, which is akin to telling someone falling from a building to move slower and try to bounce.
Charlotte Crosby’s 30-Day Blitz
Charlotte Crosby really wants you to blitz things. With this in mind, the former reality TV star has created a 30-day blitz, although the desired outcome of this is not made clear. Given that it involves eating only 1,500 calories a day, I assume she wants you to lose weight. Thirty days at 1,500 calories will cause significant weight loss, and if Crosby has fans that don’t have weight to lose, it might be wise to explain how dangerous this could be. Another clue about the nature of the plan comes from a clever hashtag Crosby created when she detailed parts of her “blitz” on social media. #FOF stands for Fuck Off Fat. If there is anyone left on Instagram who doesn’t hate their body enough, now there is actually a hashtag to help you swear at it.
The 30-day aspect of the Blitz is not just an arbitrary figure to help sell books. Crosby explains: “I read on the internet that breaking a habit takes 21 days, so that’s why I made this book 30 days.”
No cheating or drinking is allowed when you are blitzing, which is a shame, because I think I might need a large scotch if I had to spend 30 days with Crosby. I would also have to pluck and dye my eyebrows on day five as part of a “face blitz”, which I might need to be drunk to contemplate.
When it comes to the recipes, they are standard fare, regurgitated almost verbatim from last year’s clean-eating craze. Mexican scrambled eggs are there, of course. Coconut oil, gluten-free flour, green smoothies and spiralised vegetables abound, with no explanation as to why.
When talking about her ambitions for the future, Crosby gives the game away some more, perhaps revealing something of her true self. “I’d quite like to learn Chinese,” she comments “because it’s my favourite takeaway.” That Crosby seems a lot more fun to be around.
Joe Wicks The Fat-Loss Plan
Joe Wicks’s puppy-like enthusiasm makes me nauseous. For those not aware of his work, he is the ripped love child of Jamie Oliver and Russell Brand, famous for short, web-based videos where he bounds, spaniel-like, up to the camera and yells the name of various ingredients. Apparently he has sold 2m books, yet I cannot imagine a single human person to which he would have any appeal. Still, at least in book form I can contemplate his message minus the nightmarish videos and constant repetition of words like “bosh”.
There are actually parts of his content to be admired. He is against weighing scales and calorie counting. He doesn’t encourage sudden weight loss. He allows people to consume carbohydrates occasionally. He lists a hundred different recipes, some of which are creative and genuinely interesting. That said, “new healthy” standards abound. Avocados with everything. Daily smoothies. Spiralised veg, just in case you might accidentally enjoy some pasta. And his version of Mexican scrambled eggs. Coconut oil is ubiquitous, yet with no explanation as to why you should use something overpriced, full of saturated fat and with a tendency to make everything taste of suncream.
Even in book form, Wicks is uniquely irritating. Insisting broccoli is called “midget trees” in every recipe, is not the behaviour of a grown man. And although weighing yourself is seen as old fashioned, dietary success is assessed by how good people look in underwear selfies, which hardly seems like progress. Despite claims that he rejects the one-size-fits-all diet approach, this book offers just that. There are rules, restrictions and forbidden items. It prescribes when and how you should eat. It sells itself as something new, yet it is a diet plan as old as the hills. Just packaged up with abs and a winning smile.
Wicks is now very much a culinary superstar. The exercise plans on which his initial fame was founded are now a footnote at the end of the book. Without the energy and animation of his videos, they provide some brief amusement. In many, he has the look of a man doing a particularly ostentatious poo, quite appropriate in a book with so many recipes for cauliflower rice. Bosh.
Tom Kerridge Lose Weight for Good – Full-Flavour Cooking for a Low-Calorie Diet
I write about diets, and regularly attack diet culture, but have had a level of cognitive dissonance when it comes to Tom Kerridge. Kerridge is a full on chef-crush of mine, and the Hand and Flowers in Marlow serves food of rare beauty and honesty. So in the past, I have cheerfully attempted to ignore his forays into weight-loss literature, which were inspired by his own considerable reduction in girth.
It is quite clear that Kerridge’s weight loss was due to a number of lifestyle changes (his drinking was legendary within the industry, and is one of the things he gave up). It is also clear that diet played a part. But when anyone writes about diet from the perspective of their own weight-loss journey, I get nervous. We are all different, in lifestyle, genetics and psychology. What is effective, healthy and realistic for one, might be the opposite for someone else. Often this is hard for people writing diet books to grasp.
That said, there is much to admire in this book. Kerridge is a chef of rare talent, and it is clear that he has approached cooking low-calorie food with everything in his culinary arsenal. He aims for maximum flavour, and attempts to make portions as large as possible. I admire the approach, which even embraces low-calorie sweeteners, and the recipes are genuinely inspiring in places. Dishes such as his pot roast topside or rainbow trout with braised fennel would grace any cookbook, healthy or otherwise. But I am more troubled by what the book does not say than what it does.
Kerridge cut carbs from his diet to lose weight, an approach that clearly worked for him, but will be unlikely to suit everyone. Throughout the book, pasta and rice are replaced with cauliflower and random spiralisations, producing poor facsimiles of the dishes they should be. Potatoes, an ingredient that the Hand and Flowers is famous for doing sublime things to, are conspicuous by their absence. Carbohydrates are being silently demonised, even though for many people they can form part of a healthy diet. This is a great shame, in an otherwise thoughtful set of recipes. I even forgive him for including a spiced scrambled eggs recipe (Cajun this time).
Gordon Ramsay’s Ultimate Fit Food
Whatever you might think of his public persona, for anyone who has ever worn a set of whites, Ramsay’s reputation as a chef is beyond reproach. No one has done more to put the UK on the culinary map, both in the creation of many wonderful eating places, and the mentoring of our finest culinary talents. That said, he somehow managed to miss the memo on Mexican scrambled eggs, and instead includes something called a Mexican fruit salad, which seems remarkably like a regular fruit salad with a bit of chilli powder.
The refreshing thing about this book is that there is at least some acceptance that not everyone who wants to eat healthily does so because they need to lose weight. There are three categories of recipe: healthy, lean and fit. All have different nutritional breakdowns, and frustratingly for me, it is hard to argue with. Ramsay has a money machine driving his every move, and clearly they have worked hard to produce a book that it is hard to pick nutritional holes in. It is very much Ramsay’s take on standard healthy eating messages, with very little nutritional nonsense. It even avoids excessive demonisation of carbohydrates.
That said, the inclusion of chia seed pudding and quinoa porridge is baffling. If he finds these so delicious, I would challenge him to include them on one of his restaurant menus. Or publically eat some without gagging. I have tried a number of chia seed puddings, and they do not deserve to be described as food.
It is hard to find much in this book that feels personal to Ramsay himself. The food is vibrant, bright and heavily influenced by California, yet the text is bland and formulaic. For a chef with such personality, it is remarkable how this can occur. It feels as if it has been written by committee, rather than being a work of a passionate individual.
And underlying it all is the idea that if we eat like millionaires living in LA, we shall become them. Our lives will be carefree, thin and bursting with activity, if only we have a crispy tofu wrap for lunch. This is the great myth of all branded diet books. They confuse the food with the lifestyle itself, and so ultimately disappoint. There is more separating you from Gordon Ramsay than a brown rice and sushi roll. Just Stop with the Diets
It might be because I am genetically lean and have never had to worry about my weight, but I really hate diets. The true joy of food is in the way it helps us form social bonds, yet dieting seems to individualise what we eat and draw us into ourselves. This cuts us off from food’s great power, which seems to me the opposite of healthy.
All I want to see is a book about eating well, getting some variety, and making food that warms the soul. Where nothing is demonised, there are no strict rules, and there is no need for guilt and shame. I would love to see simple accessible recipes that appreciate how not everyone can afford three avocados a day, or grass-fed organic beef each evening. Something that considers how damaging the demonisation of foods can be for people’s mental health, and understands that telling people they can lose weight if they just try harder, actually does more harm than good.
Most of all, next January, I would like to see a book on the shelves that cares only about how healthy we are, instead of how much we weigh.