WHEN NOT PLANT BASED MET DELICIOUSLY ELLA…

Deliciously Ella

By Eve and Laura. Images: Sophia Spring.
Our latest choice of interviewee may have come as somewhat of a surprise to you lovely lot. She’s been branded the “Queen Of Clean” by several national newspapers; her diet is almost exclusively plant-based and she doesn’t sell cow’s milk in her delis – we found this out as we agreed to meet Ella at the newest branch of her Mae Deli and could only get nut milk to compliment our English Breakfast teas.

Deliciously Ella, aka Ella Mills (neé Woodward) last hit the headlines back in January, following her appearance on BBC1’s Horizon documentary entitled, “Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth”. The so-called “Queen of Clean” (although she herself claims not to advocate the phrase) told Cambridge University scientist, Dr Giles Yeo, of her endeavor to distance herself from the term “clean”, claiming she never intended for her message about natural, unprocessed food to become entwined with food faddism.

It was undoubtedly brave of Ella to show her face on such a show, especially given that she was the only food blogger who had the guts to do so. Yet, despite her pleasantries and condemning of the “clean eating” movement (which was obviously appreciated), most of our questions remained unanswered. During both of our illnesses, we sought guidance in DeliciouslyElla.com – (Laura still has a copy of her book lying around somewhere, highlighted and everything). I’m sure Ella had every intention of simply encouraging Joe public to eat more vegetables, but in doing so, she heightened our food fears and disguised our disordered eating as “trendy” and as being “healthy”. Given that the BBC failed to put this to her, we thought we’d do it instead.

“IT’S SO LOVELY TO MEET YOU GUYS!!”

We were nervous. Really nervous. Perched on the end of her cushioned bench and growing accustomed to the scent of pine wood and coconut yoghurt, we anticipated her arrival to be accompanied with a tight-lipped PR person…but our expectations deceived us. Skipping in through the door, with her cocker spaniel Austin leading the way, Ella arrived smiley, chirpy and – most surprisingly – alone.

“So lovely to meet you guys,” she chimed. Hang on a minute, has she even read our website? Does she…does she know who we are? Turns out, yes, she had and was extremely interested in our stories, inviting us to engage in an “open and honest” conversation with the 25-year-old. We began by applauding her on the positive reaction to her appearance on the Horizon documentary, noting how unfortunate it was that not a single other Wellness warrior followed her lead.

“I respect anybody for anything they do and their own decisions,” Ella announced, “and I’m not going to start saying something bad about anybody else.” Annoying.

Something she doesn’t keep quite as schtum about is her defense of the food and health blog she spent five years crafting, eventually resulting in three cookbooks, two Delis (soon to be three) and various product lines. “On everything I write, it says, please do what works for you,” she says, “please do what you want to do. I think from my perspective that’s the best you can do before it gets a little bit policing of people.”  Whilst it may appear to Ella as “policing”, for those who have suffered/are vulnerable to eating disorders, we tried to argue that it’s pretty essential. But according to Ella, readers, “taking things to extremes” isn’t something she can exactly control.

“I don’t think anything should be taken to extremes,” she says, “if someone said to me, should I never do this again? I’d say no! If you come to any talk I do, I’ve always said you’ve got to do what works for you and adapt everything to suit. “Take a baking book, with cake recipes. There’s nothing saying, ‘please don’t eat chocolate cake every single day’. It’s not written in the gym; “ please don’t come for 7 hours a day”. You leave it up to people’s discretion to use it anyway that they want.”

“I’VE GONE BACK OVER AND CHECKED EVERYTHING ON THE BLOG”

You have to admire Ella’s positivity and blind faith in our mental health capacity, but seeing as more than a million of the Instagram community look to her for food – and health – “inspiration”, is she perhaps being a little naive about her responsibility?  Ella’s ever-popular blog champions a diet free from “refined sugar, wheat and meat”, purely based on the premise that this restriction makes her “feel better” and aided the alleviation of her POTS symptoms. The, ‘this worked for me’ concept that currently plagues the Internet is – if you ask us – an obvious recipe for disordered eating and misinterpretation of ‘information’. Although Ella may not be so transparent about her personal contribution to the problem, she does note the pressure that comes with her overwhelming influence.

“Of course I am aware of it,” she says. When we get into the nitty-gritty of the recent clean eating backlash, it becomes apparent that she’s more than just ‘aware’ and has indeed taken considerable steps to limit any potential damage.  “I’ve gone back and looked at everything and checked that there’s nothing else that I think can been misinterpreted,” she says, “I’m sure there’s something that I missed but yeah, I try really hard to make sure it’s as watertight as it can be because I don’t want anyone to take it out of context or take it to an extreme, but there’s only so much that you can really do.”

As much as it may be painful to agree, she’s right. In a world in which we have constant access to any information imaginable, with very little monitoring and zero checks for factual accuracy, it’s no wonder that the likes of Ella are considered expert sources. With 100 million of us checking in with our Instagram feeds every single day, with average GP waiting times currently around two weeks, of course you’re more likely to heed Ella’s nutritional advice than give your doctor a call. Plus, let’s be honest, Ella’s aesthetic is a darn sight easier on the eyes than the surroundings of your average NHS waiting room.

This is where the heart of the problem lies, according to Ella. The distrust of experts, faith in social media moguls and pretty Instagram stars, she believes, goes far beyond the realm of her little, old blog and is “a much wider issue”.
“One of the biggest issues is that we don’t talk about social media because its so new,” she says, “it’s only been five years or so that we’ve really been living life through a lens and I don’t think that anyone talks about that really properly.

Ella Mills

“It is thought-out, it’s curated, it’s like a magazine. It’s always things to inspire but if you’re not in the right place then that can make you feel worse. It’s really important that we see it as a set of ideas, as if we open a magazine, not a place where you see a 24/7 insight into real life, because it’s not.”  You’ve got to hand it to her, Ella is making a conscious effort to highlight this discrepancy across all of her social media platforms, with regular posts discussing the “ideas and inspiration” that Instagram can offer, whilst ensuring her audience are aware of the disparity between what they might see on the Internet and what happens in real life. But we couldn’t help feeling that when it comes to health and diet, the stakes are considerably higher and surely call for something a little more credible than a single Instagram post. Has she ever considered enlisting the help of a dietitian, perhaps?

“IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE IDEAS – NOT THIS IS GOOD AND THIS IS BAD”

“I do have a dietitian that I work with, but that’s never been what I’ve intended to do. I just wanted to get people excited about fruit and vegetables,” she argues.  “If you go through my Instagram, there will be bowls of pasta and I’ll be like; having bowls of pesto pasta for lunch – yum! Having potato and cauliflower curry with rice – yum. It doesn’t say anything more than that. It’s just an idea of what you could do – it doesn’t say, this is good or this is bad.”

From steaming bowls of tomato pasta, to towering peanut butter cake (yes, cake), there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot more to it than; ‘here’s a picture of this food that I ate’. No nutritional advice, no health claims and definitely no use of the word “superfood”. “I think that the whole wellness thing has become too synonymous with superfoods,” she notes. Whether or not her Instagram feed was always this harmless isn’t clear, but these days it’s solely an inspirational tool.

The topic of social media influence sparks a particular flicker of passion in Ella’s perfectly positioned eyes. With millions watching her every move and morphing from unknown graduate to household name in only a couple of years, it seems that the pressure of presenting the best version of herself to the world, 24 hours a day, has certainly taken its toll.  “We’ve all been there when you go on and think, oh my god, look at that person – I haven’t been to the gym in a while and this person has the best abs, I’m hopeless.” Any by “we”, does she mean, ‘she’? “Yes!” She exclaims, “Who doesn’t?

“I’ll be finishing a cookbook and not be able to do up my jeans and you go online and you’re like; oh my god – look at her abs!”  For the first time during our hour with Ella, she seems less the jammy, annoyingly-beautiful, enemy hidden behind an Instagram filter, and more a young twenty-something, tentatively navigating her way through adult life.  “[The biggest challenge] is learning that I’m out there in the public space,” she tells us, “it’s scary.” Not that she expects peeping toms to spy through her kitchen window – “I don’t think anyone is really that interested”, she chuckles.

“IT’S HARD. THE FOOD INDUSTRY IS VERY MALE DOMINATED

The St Andrews graduate doesn’t so much fear for her own safety, but rather the unfavorable opinions held by complete strangers.  “People make judgements on you or have opinions on you,” she says, sternly, “that is why we [herself and husband, Matthew] try to stay out of the public eye, we don’t go to lots of parties or events.” But surely someone who garnered 900,000 hits on her food blog in just nine months should expect that a certain amount of eyes on her every move come part and parcel?

“I really didn’t think anyone was reading it!” she argues. “I started it and like, my mum read it. Then I landed the book deal and that was the first time I was even aware of the audience. It happened really, really quickly.”  On the subject of her mum, Laura made the apparent hiccup of asking of her links to the supermarket giant Sainsbury’s, with a view to discuss the class issue in the industry. For the first time during our encounter, Ella becomes icy and calls my question, “unfriendly”. As I don’t yet have the tenacity of Jeremy Paxman, I wobble, worrying that I’ve upset her beyond repair and she might call off the interview altogether. She suggests I google the link myself. So, I do, and for those interested, Ella is the eldest daughter of Camilla Sainsbury, the supermarket heiress, and Labour MP and former Cabinet minister Shaun Woodward – according to The Mail.

We move on and she sips her peppermint tea (no dairy, remember?), commenting on the challenges she’s faced as a woman in business. We wonder whether this 25-year-old who spent most of her young adulthood struggling to get out of bed (due to POTS syndrome), may, at times, be a little out of her depth. Eve asks her whether, despite the stereotypes, it’s tough to be female in the food industry. She nods profusely.
“It’s very male dominated, It’s hard.  I’ve never said anything about weight loss or diet, then suddenly it’s like; oh she looks like this and she looks like that – judging me on how I look. Is that appropriate?”  And that’s when we reached a sort of sisterhood epiphany. Berating Deliciously Ella, or Madeline Shaw or any other “wellness guru” isn’t going to quell their influence upon masses of young minds, desperately searching for unanswerable answers. Ella’s intentions were never more than, “to get people to enjoy fruits and vegetables” and regardless of whether she did in the beginning, these days she’s certainly taking steps to ensure that is her only message.

WE REACHED A SISTERHOOD EPIPHANY

For every one woman who insights pseudo-scientific rubbish , there are 10 men at the head of powerful tables, re-in forcing the age-old premise that women are the subtotal of what they look like. A message which, arguably, is the reason why we’re so obsessed with diet “rules” in the first place.  “I go to so many meetings where it’s all 50 year old men in suits,” she says, and that, we don’t doubt for a second. “Women in business is a subject I’m really passionate about, actually,” Ella tells us, “It’s quite intimidating to be the only young woman – I went to a talk where this brilliant woman said; you can’t be what you can’t see and I found that really inspiring.”

Ella Mills

This particular businesswoman is pretty fortunate, given that her husband co-runs the business and presumably comes in handy when dealing with said “men in suits”. Ella is all too aware of this, however, admitting that she’s often approached differently to her husband.  “I’m realistic,” she says, “the only way I can change it is by actually doing it [being in business] myself.” As we start to wrap up the interview, Ella’s guard softens slightly – even more so when we stop recording. It’s clear that the clean eating backlash has hit the young entrepreneur hard, even if it doesn’t show in her every-growing trajectory of on-the-go snacks.  It’s fair to say that during our time with Ella, she fed us a couple of obligatory, rehearsed responses – “I don’t like the term clean, it’s loaded and complicated”, for example – and didn’t always give us the answers we had hoped for, but she did reveal a side that is often disguised by the bright lights and sepia filters.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK I SHOULD DO?”

“What do you think I should do?” she asks us. We both look at each other a little shocked that the woman who seemed to have it all was turning to us for advice. We suggest including links to the websites of Registered Dietitians or perhaps the addition of a disclaimer at the top of every blog post, encouraging readers to seek professional, medical help for their issues. All of which, Ella is extremely receptive, almost verging on enthusiastic. Such options have been considered by her team in the past, she assures us. Looking us dead straight in the eyes, she reiterates, “of course I am aware of it”. “I am very wary that people need one-on-one advice, so I’m nervous about putting things like that in a public space and talking to thousands of people – is that helpful?  The difficulty is that people don’t have access to dietitians, and they want answers quickly.”

She’s hit the nail on the head there. The real question is, what exactly is it that these people are looking for answers to? And why has Deliciously Ella’s food blog become their rule book? Sure, it’s easy to blame bloggers, “influencers” and Instagram sweethearts for the delivery of such messages, but if we had no questions to ask, they’d have no audience.  It’s a time of tragedy when we seek out a random stranger to tell us what to eat, rather than relying on our own minds and bodies. Call us presumptuous, but that’s got much more to do with how we feel about ourselves than it does the food on our plate – and that’s a problem far more dangerous than Deliciously Ella.

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