Eat Up – the wellness industry, body politics and eating for your life

elderflower drink, pink flowers and book laid on white duvet, shot from aboveLast month I bought Ruby Tandoh’s ‘Eat Up’ and I’ve loved it so much that I wanted to share a few of her gems with you here, and the thoughts they’ve sparked for me. It’s hard to say what type of book it is, as I’m not sure it can be pigeon-holed into any particular genre; it’s not a recipe book, although it does contain some recipes, and it’s not a memoir, although it does contain Tandoh’s own memories and experiences. I would describe it in the simplest terms as a beautifully written ode to the joy of food and eating, in a world of fad diets and fear. I thought I’d focus in on a few specific topics of the book that particularly resonated with me…

On the wellness industry…

“What wellness culture asserts, in essence, is that there is some higher state we can achieve, but only if we’re willing to put in the work. Our natural impulses, the ones that draw us to the buzz of sugar, the sting of salt, bright sweets and festive feasts, are all wrong according to the wellness mantra.”

Some might argue that the buzz of sugar isn’t a natural impulse after all but rather a taste childhood taught us to love. Whatever your views on this, I thought Tandoh’s scrutiny of the wellness industry was fascinating, comparing it to religion with its rituals, promises of cures and healing, and the ‘higher state’ that can be achieved from following its commandments. Whilst she concedes that there are obviously some good things about it, I thought the dangers she highlights were interesting, not least its promise of making you into a healthier, happier person; “you can’t live for ever, and there’s not a diet under the sun that will safeguard you from disease.” Another point of note that I hadn’t thought much about until recently was how inaccessible this culture can be for people with lower financial means. Blogger Kat Nicholls also wrote about this recently and how elitest the movement can be: “The wellness industry is rife with expensive retreats, clothing, exercise props, pre-made smoothie blends and fitness classes. It leads us to believe that to be healthy and well, you must spend money.”

As an anti-diet gal of some years, aspects of the wellness industry have long made me a little wary – give me a sniff of any chat that demonises sugar and I tend to get suspicious (maybe this says more about my own sweet tooth than anything more scientific than that!), but I too have been seduced by its charms at points. Yes I am that middle class chick who’s tried activating her quinoa and making pizza from cauliflower. I too have read about the virtues of nut butter and pored over the shelves for wholemeal flour. Avocado on toast has been a 21st century revelation. I guess the point that Tandoh’s making though isn’t about any of the individual fads or components of modern-day wellness culture. It’s about this kind of diet at the expense of a delicious, jam-filled, sugary doughnut or the nourishment of a buttery jacket potato. It’s also about the food snobbery it can entail, when we start to divide our food into “clean” versus “dirty”(?) and the scarier, darker tilt into obsession and orthorexia.

On ‘thin privilege’…

“However frustrating I find the way that women are treated, I know I also have a huge advantage in being slim, in a society that is so brazenly unfair to fat people.”

This is a really important topic broached by Tandoh that I hadn’t given much thought to until this year. I wrote in a recent post on body image that I’m becoming increasingly aware of which bodies society accepts and which it represses. In my younger, naive mind I never stopped to consider all the privilege I have from inhabiting a white, cis-gendered, physically able body that fits inconspicuously into society. I’m waking up to the fact that so many people have it really hard and that perhaps everyday things I take for granted aren’t the case for everyone. As Megan Jayne Crabbe (@bodyposipanda) wrote recently on Instagram, “Body POSITIVITY…is about ALL people and how the world treats their bodies. It isn’t just challenging our own self perception, it’s challenging all the systems in place that teach us certain bodies are worth less than others: diet culture, fatphobia, racism, ableism, queerphobia, ageism. It’s about respect for all bodies, including bodies that are very different from our own, and essentially reinforcing that respect for bodies that our culture works to marginalise every day.” I’ll confess, despite being passionate about self-love and body positivity for some years, my outlook has been very much focused on women similar to me, and whilst it’s natural that I would talk about what I know (I can’t of course write personally about issues I’ve never experienced), I really want to work at having a wider view on this and not one just centred in my own bubble. As Crabbe says, this is about ALL people.

On the joy of food and cooking…

“When you’re raising a piece of garlic bread to your mouth after a long, taxing day, and you’re hit with the heady scent of garlic and herbs, and a slick of butter coats your lips – that is comfort food.”

Although Tandoh discusses a myriad of topics around food (aside from the two I’ve already mentioned, she broaches subjects as diverse as history, science, sexuality, feminism, art and big business), one of my favourite things about the book was the sheer joy she conveys as she talks about cooking and eating, how we need to nourish our bodies and “eat for our lives”. The language she uses is as rich as the flavours she describes, and I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone sum up the everyday delight of food so articulately: “when you eat a chip butty, glistening with salt and cut with vinegar; the whole world folds softly around you like a velvet blanket”. In a society where we usually reserve our richest language to describe the finest of steaks or the fanciest of brunches, it feels refreshing to focus on the magic of all food, whether it be a custard cream with your coffee break, picking an apple at the supermarket that turns out to be perfectly ripe, or the deliciously greasy, cheesy chips you eat after a night out. We talk so much about calories, ‘good’ carbs and ‘bad’ carbs, syns, points and all the rest of it that we sometimes lose these simple pleasures. But – whether it’s just me waking up to it or the sands are actually shifting a little – I’m noticing a rising tide of rebellion against diet culture, with more and more nutritionists, activists, cooks and writers like Tandoh, taking a different stance on food and promoting a far less prescriptive mindset than the one we’ve become accustomed to. Long may it continue.

There’s so much more I could say and further points to pick out but I thought I’d focus on those three main themes for this post. It’s definitely got me thinking! I’d love to know your views on these topics and if you read the book – what did you think?

And if you haven’t – and fancy buying yourself a copy – you can find it here – Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want *

Other Information & Resources

  • The Trussell Trust – network of foodbanks, giving emergency food and support to people in crisis
  • Not Plant Based – website offering advice, reviews and stories to aid people with a history of troubled eating
  • Laura Thomas PHD – Registered nutritionist specialising in intuitive eating, health at every size and non-diet nutrition
  • Beat – The UK’s eating disorder charity

*This is an affiliate link, which means if you make a purchase off the back of it, I get a few extra pennies by way of commission, but it won’t cost you any more.


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