Deliciously Ella: 'The keto diet is ridiculous – no wonder people are confused by wellness' – The Telegraph

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Now the head of a £60 million business, Ella Mills' new podcast will investigate the fads and trends of an industry she helped to create
When Ella Mills sat down to record the introduction to her new podcast series, it dawned on her just how much her life had changed since launching her blog in 2012. Heading up a £60 million business (with a target of £20 million in revenue this year), while raising two girls meant that, day to day, she’d forgotten what her life was like 10 years ago.
As a 21-year-old student, she started a blog called Deliciously Ella to share some of the recipes she was experimenting with; food that was helping her come back from ill health after being diagnosed a year earlier with postural tachycardia syndrome. The illness meant that Mills couldn’t control her heart rate. She was depressed, lonely and lost. Yet within two years she had 582,000 followers on Instagram and her 2015 debut cookbook Deliciously Ella sold 32,000 copies in the first week. She became a poster girl for the nascent wellness industry.
Now, in Wellness Unpacked, the Queen of Wellness, with a little help from well-known guests such as Michael Pollan, is investigating – and in some cases debunking – the fads and trends associated with the industry she helped to create. Are you a 5:2 fasting evangelist? I’m afraid the verdict is: fad. While there’s evidence for its effect on weight loss, there’s no proof as yet that that’s due to anything more than simple calorie restriction.
Recapping the Deliciously Ella origin story for listeners of this new series, “I found myself getting really emotional,” says Mills. “I could go remember what it was like. But I rarely go back to that time now and talk about it.”
Deliciously Ella is no longer a blog, nor a pseudonym for Ella Mills, née Woodward (“I am not a granola bar,” she quips. “I made the granola, but I’m not the granola.”) It is a company employing 50 people, with 40 vegan products sold across 6,000 UK stores, and about to expand into the US.
It’s in their new, larger HQ off London’s Oxford Street that we meet.
‘Hi, I’m Ella,” she says as she shoots an outstretched hand from underneath hair being styled in preparation for our shoot, mere seconds after I walk through the door.
Before you can say “energy ball” we’re talking Blue Zones, habit-forming and willpower. I haven’t even got my dictaphone out. Mills is always prepared for talking about our health, minds and bodies. This is her life’s mission. What else was I expecting from the Queen of Wellness?
She might make and sell granola, but it is educating and communicating with her community that truly excites and motivates the 31-year-old.
She is wiser and more self-assured than the young woman who not so much burst onto the wellness scene as precipitated it, going from niche to mainstream within a year of founding her blog while at the University of St Andrews ­studying history of art.
For our shoot she favours sophisticated dresses and a wool skirt suit over the denim and Breton top that graced her first book cover. Around her neck are beads spelling MAMA, another has an “S” and an “M”, for her daughters Syke, three, and May, 23 months. There’s also a Cartier bangle and ­wedding band – Mills is married to Matthew, CEO of the company and the son of the late Tessa Jowell.
With a backstory that includes a wealthy childhood – her mother is Camilla Davan Sainsbury of the supermarket dynasty, her father, Shaun Woodward, is a former MP – her motivation has arguably never been about profit but rather the message, which now reaches three million ­people via her social media channels. It remains consistent: “More people eating more plants, more of the time,” she says.
Mills is no Gwyneth Paltrow. You won’t find her flogging expensive candles or hot stones.
She is alive to any accusations of being “woo-woo”, for good reasons.
Ten years ago she was frustrated to be lumped in with “100 different people doing 100 different things”. The wellness industry was then in its infancy. Now it’s a £1.5 trillion behemoth. Some stats put it above £2 trillion.
It’s an enormous industry, with women in the UK spending more than £100 a month on ­elements related to their wellness. Even Kate Moss, the 1990s hellraiser, has drunk the green tea and launched her own brand, Cosmoss, ­selling CBD oil and Dawn Tea infusions.
Yet three in five people are feeling confused about what wellness means. Mills understands.
“The wellness industry exploded pretty quickly and obviously a lot of that played out within the media world where most of the conversation was about, let’s call them ‘LA-inspired’ trends.”
“I think the industry became incredibly ­synonymous with things that were expensive and complicated, whether that’s superfood powders or new green supplements that you can buy for £90 a month.”
In comparison, her approach is basic, stripped back and based on empirical data. It’s also argu­ably what we need right now from an environmental and economic perspective.
“The cost of living crisis just doubles down on that message that health and wellbeing should be simple things,” says Mills.
“If you really listen to the scientists, the ­doctors and the researchers, what they will tell you will change your health is eating lentils and carrots and going for a walk on your lunch break, but all that stuff is so unsexy,” she admits.
Listening to the experts is exactly what Mills has been doing. In 2020 she started a four-year degree at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition.
She has also drawn on the knowledge of the leading doctors, nutritionists, scientists, diet­icians, psychologists and other healthcare prof­essionals she’s met over the past 10 years.
With her new podcast, which saw half a million downloads 14 days of the first episode, she’s attempting to cut through some of the conflicting health inform­ation that bombards us.
As well as featuring interviews with heavyweights such as American author Michael Pollan and Professor of circadian rhythms at the University of Oxford, Russell Foster, in each episode she and GP Dr Gemma Newman set out the arguments for and against trends such as mindful­ ­eating, matcha and collagen before determining whether they are fact or fad.
And if that ruffles a few feathers, so be it.
“I would never want anyone to feel judged. Equally if the data shows that currently there is no scientific evidence behind something, I will stand by what I say. Even if you don’t love it.”
Mills knows acutely how it feels to be judged. In 2017 there was a backlash against the approach she was advocating when a BBC Three documentary, Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets, drew attention to the issue of “orthorexia”, an eating disorder characterised by obsessive behaviour in pursuit of a healthy diet. Mills, with her sugar-free, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes, was an obvious target for media criticism.
It was a bruising experience. Especially, as she says, “clean eating” was never a term she used.
“I wrote clearly in the first book, ‘Do what works for you’, ‘Adapt it to suit your life’, But that’s nuanced. You have to read it to see it.”
She understands that a lot of people might have felt the need to push back against this sudden onslaught of health missives being hurled at them, but that vitriol she coolly distils down to: “A few pieces that were just personal attacks on a young woman in her early 20s, who’d had a bad health problem.”
Instead of standing her ground, she got hurt. If the same thing happened today, she says she would feel better equipped to reply to her critics.
“But I was so young. I was an absolute baby and it was really challenging on a personal level. And I think you can’t move past the fact that everyone in the firing line was a woman – and a young one, and equally had a message which from a public health perspective we need and that the government is completely ignoring.”
The latter point is what she finds so ironic about the whole clean-eating backlash.
“In retrospect it’s frustrating, because we know that we have a health crisis, but if I had published books about making double-chocolate cakes, I wouldn’t have had a problem. And I think that is a problem. I didn’t have the confidence to say that at the time.”
Equally, she thinks people are more receptive and less challenged by her message today.
The idea that what you eat affects your health is well and truly mainstream. Still, Mills is always quick to cite her sources and reel off the relevant numbers.
During the course of our hour-long chat she tells me that the World Health Organisation has said 71 per cent of premature deaths are from diseases linked to our lifestyle; that almost 60 per cent of our diet in the UK is from ultra processed food; that only 25 per cent of us eat our five a day; that we barely get more than the 50 per cent of fibre we need.
She is also acutely aware of the impact of food production on climate change: “If we’re going to keep our contribution to global warming in the UK to under two degrees then we need to consume 60 per cent less dairy, 66 per cent less poultry, 89 per cent less beef.”
All of which checks out with mainstream sources.
“You might not want to be plant-based, you don’t need to be plant-based – but you do need to eat more plants,” she says unequivocally.
She would never have said things like that in the past “because I would have been scared of making people think I’m telling them what to do. Now I think, ‘Here’s the information and you can do with it what suits you.’”After 2017 she admits she did retract and became “quite vanilla” for fear of saying anything.
Motherhood and steering a business successfully through the pandemic to come back stronger has made her rethink that. “I don’t want to be vanilla. I’m going to give people the information and if they don’t like it that’s OK.”
There were times when she considered giving it all up and fading into the background. But it was the messages from her community that gave her the ­confidence to keep going. In time she’s learnt not to focus on the one message out of a hundred that says “I hate you”.
Indeed it’s her research that has made her understand why as humans we’re wired to have a negativity bias – a cognitive bias that results in adverse events having a more significant impact on our psychological state than positive events.
Rigour is important to her and she has a wealth of expert reinforcements to draw upon. A photo in her new book has her standing in the middle of seven of them, among them respected figures including Dr Alan Desmond, a ­consultant gastroenterologist, and Paula Hallam BSc (Hons) RD PG Cert, a specialist paediatric ­dietician, who have all contributed to the book. It’s a clear message to her 2017 detractors.
I wonder what she thinks of Keto? The “clean-eating” of the moment, with the word splashed across cookbooks the world over.
“It’s ridiculous,” Mills lets rip. “It was created in Australia for specific medical reasons for ­children with extreme epilepsy. In those situations, clinically supervised – fine. However it is not a diet that would be good for most adults. It deprives you of all fibre, which we know we need for our gut and is key to so much of our health.”
It owes its popularity to being seen as as a tool for weight loss, rather than health, Mills says: “If that’s something you need, then under medical guidance it can be a great thing. Should we translate that to every adult in the population? No, that’s a terrible idea.”
She still follows a plant-based diet. It works for her. She certainly looks healthy: slim but not skinny. She doesn’t think everyone needs to go plant-based, indeed what she loves about the phrase is literally the word “based”.
The UK has become ingrained with diet ­culture, she feels. “We’re very used to this quite binary approach. ‘You’re on the diet or you’re off’, and that is just so unrealistic.”
The word “based” for her means more people eating more plants more of the time. “As opposed to, ‘Right, from tomorrow I’m never doing that again!’” she says.
The terms vegan and plant-based have become interchangeable, but the former she explains ­historically represents an ethical stance against animal products, the latter, a health stance.
She’s not a fan of the myriad mock meat products that have flooded the plant-based market, preferring foods to be as unprocessed as possible.
Her children are plant-based at home and vegetarian at nursery, for ease. She knows she can’t please everyone and that those who protectively enjoy animal-based products and those who are entirely plant-based will be annoyed by that.
She has no interest in convincing people to become fully plant-based. Although her proudest achievement is converting her father-in-law, a fan of French cooking (“Where the veggies are very much an afterthought”) to some of her recipes.
“You can dabble with plant-based. And if ­everyone dabbled we’d have amazing results. And I think that’s a really important message. Just because you eat lots of plant-based foods, that doesn’t mean it precludes you from eating anything else ever again. Obviously, it’s up to you how you do it.”
The recipes in her latest book, How To Go Plant-Based: A Definitive Guide For You and Your Family, are inventive with easily available ­ingredients. Informed by her own hectic schedule, there’s no complex soaking or marinating overnight. Carbs are gloriously visible and there’s not a spiraliser (what became the totem of faddy clean-eating) in sight.
Last night she cooked the one-pan veggie orzo, tonight she’s doing the butternut squash tray-bake dahl.
Mills is in the office five days a week. She hates working from home. “I think for us as a business we are a fast-growing and very collaborative business. We need those continuous interactions with ­people, otherwise you’re just chasing people on Zoom all day, which isn’t much fun.”
Her children she states are the most important thing in the world for her, so it is not without some thought that she works long days and ­frequent weekends.
“That decision to not always be there at pick-up and drop-off, that has to make sense and align with something.”
Which will always be about parsnips rather than profits.
She and Matthew walk to the office from their west London home most mornings, stopping at the Deliciously Ella restaurant, Plants in Mayfair, en route to check in with the team there.
“Then we’ll have days where we do not see or speak to each other. It’s almost awkward,” she jokes. During the two hours at the HQ I catch glimpses of Matthew deep in meetings in a glass-windowed room. His blue shirt and smart shoes subtly communicate his prowess at reading a balance sheet, in subtle but pronounced contrast to Mills’s office attire of jeans and furry Birkenstock sandals.
While aligned in principles their strengths lie in opposing areas. “He loves spreadsheets. I can’t open them,” Mills says, adding: “We both feel really grateful to each other because we both facilitated a career that we wouldn’t have ­necessarily had otherwise.”
It’s a career she might have easily walked away from, but one that she now relishes. And while she’s committed to helping her community navigate people through the confusing world of wellness (she was replying to all her own Instagram messages until three months ago), she’s grateful that there are now other voices that have joined hers.
Mills praises her fellow social media star, fitness guru Joe Wicks: “I’m such a fan of what he’s done. He showed you could work out at home in 15 minutes with your family,” she says.
“We need lots of different personalities with a variation on the same message, so they can ­resonate with lots of different people.”
If you are listening to Mills though, her main takeaway is that wellness shouldn’t be anything fancy, complicated or expensive.
“It’s nothing snazzy. It’s, could you go to bed half an hour earlier? Could you go outside once a day for a walk? Could you try and spend a bit more time with your friends? Could you eat some carrots?”
A simple, midweek dinner that loads you up on veggies and plant protein. The coconut milk makes it deliciously creamy, and the leftovers make for a brilliant speedy lunch later in the week – reheat it gently over a low heat with a drizzle of olive oil.
Cut the butter beans in half for very little ones.
Recipe extracted from How To Go Plant-Based: A Definitive Guide For You and Your Family by Ella Mills, published by Yellow Kite
‘Wellness Unpacked with Ella Mills’ is available now, with new episodes of the podcast released every Tuesday
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