How two women who have recovered from eating disorders want to help you take fear out of food
Liz Connor speaks to Laura Dennison and Eve Simmons, authors of a new anti-diet book
You know that feeling. You've just tucked into a cheeseburger and fries, washed it down with a milkshake and indulged in a sticky dessert - and you enjoyed it at the time. But afterwards, you can't help that sinking sense in the pit of your stomach that you've done something 'bad'.
The secret shame that many people experience around food is something writers Eve Simmons and Laura Dennison are attempting to tackle in their new book, Eat it Anyway - a pithy, straight-talking manual for anyone who has ever experienced anxiety around eating.
Through interviews with nutritionists, science-based evidence and solid food facts, the pair weave everything they've learned from their own personal experiences with food fear into the mix, to help others enjoy everything on their plate without worry.
"I've noticed that people increasingly feel like they have to explain themselves for everything they eat," says Dennison. "But the more we police the way we eat, the more we get anxious about it. Instead of just enjoying food for what it is, we now think about it in terms of how it will make us look to others, which is quite a dangerous way to live."
The pair met in 2016 when they were recovering from eating disorders; Dennison saw Simmons on the BBC documentary Clean Eating's Dirty Secrets, in which she spoke candidly about how social media contributed to her journey from a carefree eater to being hospitalised with anorexia.
Struggling with bulimia at the time, Dennison decided to reach out to Simmons over Twitter. They soon became friends. Having both felt duped by the so-called clean eating movement, with its restrictive rules and unqualified 'gurus', the duo launched an evidence-based blog called Not Plant Based (notplantbased.com) to help bust the food myths floating around online.
Like most obsessions, food problems can start out benignly, but develop into something that eventually controls your life. And while Simmons is keen to acknowledge that eating disorders are a complex mental health issue, she believes the various triggers on Instagram can be an insidious driver in some cases.
"There was just so much misinformation out there," she says. "We saw an influx of people who had no training whatsoever, who were setting up blogs or an Instagram page, and all of a sudden were 'experts' in health."
From the perspective of someone who was struggling with anorexia, Simmons recalls that many of the things she read at the time were extremely damaging.
"Not only were they completely incorrect and false, but a lot of these influencers were being paid by brands to say that the way they're eating is why they look a certain way," she says.
"Having all of those messages flung at you all the time is unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. I'm obviously really sensitive to it because of what I've been through, but most people aren't aware of the risk and the vulnerability that some people might have.
"You might have three pieces of sushi for lunch, and think that's fine because there's no carbs in it, but for a person who has an issue with their self worth, it can quite quickly spiral into something dangerous, like it did for me."
From brokering a healthy relationship with carbs to all of the reasons to chug a glass of cow's milk, the book aims to soothe many of the modern fears that diet culture has instilled in us.
"I think it's come out at the right time because the food myths don't seem to be going away," says Simmons.
"I actually think It's getting worse and worse. Our food fears come from messages in the media that are telling us to 'cut out this' and 'cut out that', and vilifying every other ingredient. I worry that it's not a positive environment for young people to be in."
Simmons, who is deputy health editor at The Mail on Sunday, and Dennison, a freelance writer formerly of the Press Association, say their mantra is simple: all foods can fit into a healthy diet and an 'everything in moderation' approach is key.
Understandably then, a lot of modern food fads grind their gears. "The whole sugar thing really annoys me," says Simmons. "The laxative teas that are painted as diet teas really annoy me," chips in Dennison, referencing the celebrity-endorsed trend on Instagram. "It's a weird concept for influencers to be posing next to something that makes you s*** yourself. I've friends who've seen these teas on Instagram, tried them and haven't been able to get off the toilet. I just find it bizarre. The harm you can do your body if you abuse laxatives..."
Mental wellbeing is a huge part of the book's definition of being healthy, too. Yes, you might be eating like a plant-based goddess, but being anxious around food isn't mentally healthy and probably won't leave you feeling good.
"The food I remember eating as a kid was white bread, Billy Bear ham, Turkey Twizzlers and Potato Smiles," recalls Dennison. "I'd be running around the park all day, and that for me felt really healthy, because I wasn't over-analysing it.
"I was enjoying myself, and was able to get through the day with other things being more important than food. I could go to a sleepover and not worry about what I was going to eat. Whereas after the age of 16, the only thing I thought or cared about was what I'd consumed that day and whether I'd failed or not.
"It was a depressing way to live," she admits.
"If people can relate to the book in any kind of positive way, that's brilliant," says Dennison. "Someone actually sent us a picture on Instagram of their smashed scales after they read the chapter about why not to weigh yourself and that was so brilliant and anarchist."
Simmons also hopes the book will help others to feel the fear and eat it anyway. "If people can eat a few things and not feel any anxiety or guilt - even one meal - then I'll feel my job is done," she says.
Eat It Anyway: Fight The Food Fads, Beat Anxiety And Eat In Peace by Eve Simmons and Laura Dennison is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £10.99