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Fearne Cotton on why she's against clean eating and the advice she'd give her younger self

The presenter and cook speaks out against food fads, the pressure on women to balance their work and home life, and why she couldn’t care less about having a six pack  

Kashmira Gander
Thursday 27 July 2017 10:56 BST
The presenter has only one rule in her kitchen: no refined sugar
The presenter has only one rule in her kitchen: no refined sugar (Orion Books)

In the two decades that Fearne Cotton has carved out her career as a presenter, from The Disney Club in the Nineties to her final Radio 1 mid-morning show in 2015, she has quietly built herself up as a brand in her own right. Her bubbly personality and TV-friendly edginess have been linked to everything from clothing to homewares in a way that few other presenters can boast of. Now, after decades of hard work in her teens and twenties, she could rest on her laurels and let the deals tick over after slowing down with presenting to focus on “family and new adventures” aged 35. Instead, she’s adding “enviable cook” to the strings on her bow.

But despite the super healthy vegan recipes and perfectly crafted cakes in her new book Cook. Eat. Love. and her enviable Instagram feed, where she shares snaps of her gorgeous family and famous friends, she’s happy to admit she’s as fallible as the rest of us. In the past, she has spoken out about her struggles with depression and recently admitted that she too struggles to get her kids to eat their veg. Speaking to The Independent, Cotton dissects how women are made to feel guilty for juggling their careers and motherhood, how cooking helps with mental health, and the one rule she has in her kitchen.

Have you always loved cooking or was it something that you became interested in in recent years?

I always baked. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of baking with my nan who used to make jam tarts with me in her kitchen. And that sparked a love of baking at a young age. When I left home at 18 or 19 it was my first go-to hobby in my flat. It felt like a sophisticated hobby to bake on my own. But I didn’t bother cooking so much in my 20s. I was out a hell of a lot, working really long hours and getting home late and going out to gigs afterwards. So I wasn’t into cooking meals myself.

It wasn’t until I met my husband in my late 20s that I kind of decided quite naturally that it was more of an important ceremony: to have a dinner and sit down with him and his children, who are my step kids now, and have that family time.

I applied what I’d learned through baking for a long time, like how I like to experiment. And I don’t do things by halves so I got obsessed.

Was it a long process learning how to nourish yourself after not being that into cook? Do you ever get confused about what to eat?

I find it annoying that there are all of these rules and fads and things that you should and shouldn’t do. The only rule I apply is not eating refined sugar. I’m relatively strict on that one because it makes me feel terrible. For some people they cut it right down, like my mum who likes to have a little treat on the weekend. But as far as anything else goes my only ethos when it comes to cooking is just cooking as much from scratch as I can. I don’t want to eat anything processed or with ingredients that I don’t recognise. I want everything to be nice and fresh and natural. We get a veg box each week and use every ounce of that. I do feed my kids meat, although I don’t eat it, but I buy nice organic free-range meat.

(Orion Books ) (Orion Books)

It’s about bringing it back to basics and about not buying ready meals and food that comes in packets. That’s the most important thing. I just try to eat lots of vibrant fruit and veg. If I don’t I have low energy and feel a bit gross and low on immunity and vitamins. So it’s just simple stuff really.

What are your thoughts on clean eating and restricting your diet?

I don’t really understand, like a lot of people, what clean eating is. Because there’s not one definition. It just gets thrown around among people who are living their life in a certain way, and good for them. Do whatever makes you feel good and if you know it works for you then go for it. If you don’t want to eat wheat, or meat, or dairy then that’s up to you.

 I couldn't give a toss about having a six pack 

Fearne Cotton 

You have to be responsible for what’s right for you and you can’t blame anyone else. But we have to do our own research and work out what makes us feel good with trial and error. Some people will feel great being on a vegan diet some people will feel great eating loads of red meat. It’s completely up to you. There’s too much focus and blame thrown around and focus on who’s done something wrong and it’s like, “God, just take responsibility for your own life and eat what makes you feel good.” Sure, get ideas from other people and ways of cooking but you can’t go around pointing fingers at people. That’s just a ridiculous way to live.

There are a lot of vegan recipes in your book and you are a pescatarian but mainly vegetarian. Would you ever go completely vegan?

I don’t think I could do it. You have to be so organised. I think I love the idea of it and for sustainability and the planet, it’s amazing. But I try to do my bit. I eat a lot of vegan dishes because I love getting loads of veg and pulses in my diet and I really enjoy vegan cooking and eating vegan dishes. But I don’t think I could go the whole hog. I work outside the house a lot and your options are quite narrow. I do take a packed lunch to work a lot but if you are away then it’s quite tricky.

I've  definitely never had a career plan 

Fearne Cotton 

For me I like to implement a lot of vegan eating when I can but I’m not strict. I eat fish and dairy occasionally. For me it’s just about kind of mixing it up and making sure I’ve got energy. I couldn’t give a toss about having a six pack. Health is the number one thing for me and my family if we’re all healthy then I’m good to go and everything else is a cherry on a cake.

You spoke out about suffering with depression for the first time earlier this year. How does food help you with depression?

I think we forget how massively connected our bodies and minds are. We sometimes see them as two separate entities rocketing along, whereas actually if you eat well and do exercise and keep moving, then of course that will help your head. It’s all so connected. Likewise, if certain things in life make you feel good mentally then you’re life is going to be massively impacted by that. If you’ve got a good physical health and feel good mentally then wow, what an amazing luxury. A lot of people don’t have that, so I try to pay a lot of gratitude to that and work from there up.

You have a make-up line, homeware, cookbooks, and children’s books. You’ve become such a brand, before being a brand was really a thing and without the help of Instagram. Did you have a rigid life plan?

I definitely never had any sort of plan at all. I didn’t think that I’d be writing books in my life or doing any of the things I’m doing now. I saw a much more linear journey of working in TV and by hard work and luck I ended up in a position where I have a creative outlet. I guess, subconsciously, that was always kind of bubbling along because I love creating and writing and drawing and those things are hobbies. I guess as my career got more established and people knew what I was about a bit more I was about to break out and feel courageous in doing so. This has lead me to doing things that I’m very passionate about and feel worth doing.

In my twenties I did a lot of things because I felt I should or because they were going to facilitate more work or push me to do different TV work. Now I tend to work on a day-by-day basis of what makes me feel good and what feels good for me and my family and those around me. With Happy I wrote that because I had a lot of stuff in my head that I had to get out. But the wonderful ripple effect of that is that it ended up helping lots of other people. But it certainly wasn’t planned. I do work very hard but it doesn’t feel particularly tricky or stressful. I’ve decided at this point in my life to put my family before everything. My work comes second and my social life has dropped off the scale, but that’s fine for me right now because I enjoy the other two so much so that’s where I put all my time and energy.

Do you miss going out at all?

I certainly don’t miss going out. When I do, or me and my husband go out, we really enjoy it but when you go out every other night you’re not that bothered about it. You’re going through the motions. I really appreciate the time we have with our friends and chatting with interesting people, and going out is something we really cherish.

Even going for dinner just on our own without the kids is amazing, just to get that time as a couple. We’re really creatures of habit. We like cooking meals and eating together and maybe if we do go on a date we go locally for dinner, it’s nowhere that fancy. It’s just about chatting and being together. That’s my perfect way to unwind.

Looking back on your career, what advice would you give your younger self?

Definitely just to follow my gut and my instinct. You can be so easily swayed and people can tell you that you’re making either great decisions or bad ones, but you have to go with what you believe is right or wrong. There are no written rules in how you should do things or run your career or home life. You have to make those decisions and know that you can look back and say it wasn’t necessarily wrong, it just took me to a different place. My advice would be to follow my gut more and not be swayed by other people’s opinions at work and worry about fitting in or not.

Do you find being a woman made it harder? Is there an added pressure now you’re a mother?

Growing up I had no clue about what that even meant. I saw my mum, who is a very strong woman, working extremely hard. She had four or five jobs at any one time to keep the family going alongside my dad who was working full time. It didn’t cross my mind that women couldn’t do things. I just saw my mum go out there and do what she had to do. So I just followed suit.

I didn’t find that I was attached to any sexism at work at all, I just did what I had to do. All I wanted to do was to do a good job and be polite. I think that served me well for a long time. I think as a female now at the point I’m at in life it becomes a lot more complicated with being a mum and trying to divvy up my time with work.

I want to be a present mum but I also want to show my kids that you can go out and fulfil your dreams 

Fearne Cotton 

I want to be a present mum but I also want to show my kids, especially my daughter and stepdaughter, that you can – like my mum did – go out and fulfil your dreams and do what you want to do. That’s really important to me.

So I’m left with what every other working mum is left with, which is a sense of “mum guilt” and not doing your best at home and therefore subsequently not putting as much energy into the work with your career. So it’s a constant juggling act, and that’s where being a female becomes tricky at work because it’s so important to be able to do both. This generation and the one before us, we’re the first couple of generations with that opportunity in hand. And we have to figure that one out. And all my friends who work feel exactly the same, and so we all just talk to each other and try to make that a good opportunity for some solace and reassurance that everything is OK.

Do you feel pressured to teach your kids the right things? Do you have some advice packed away to give them as soon as they become teenagers, for instance?

It’s overwhelming to think about it too long term. What’s important for me as they’re so small is leading by example and showing that as a female you can do what you want, but also simple life lessons like being kind to those around you and being empathetic and considerate. That’s more important than anything. They can do what they want as a career. They can date whoever they want, they can marry whoever they want and end up living wherever they want. I think if you set kids up in that way you give them the most important life lessons out there. My parents were very liberal in that way and let me discover it all for myself, and let me learn the lessons and I’m really grateful for that.

Would you be happy if your children followed in your footsteps into the spotlight?

If they wanted to yeah! They can do what they want and I’m certainly educated in that subject enough to be able to let them do it and be there for them, because I’ve been there and done it for 20 years. So if they wanted to do it then, my God, I’d be there for them 100 per cent. But equally if they want to go and be landscape gardeners or marine biologists they can do whatever the hell they want. One thing I would say is pick a job that makes you feel happy, not because you want to reach a certain level of career or have power or money or whatever, but because you like it and follow that. And hopefully they will do.

What did you want people to take from the book?

It’s all about encouraging people to cook from scratch rather than buy sloppy sandwiches on the way to work. It’s cheaper and more delicious and nutritious if you cook your own food. That’s not me preaching to people but that’s the general idea of the book. I’m not a trained chef, I’m just someone who likes cooking, so these recipes are very simple and fun. My kids like getting involved with the process and baking with me. It becomes a nice family activity then. It’s a feel-good book with lots of yummy stuff in really. It’s not very complicated.

Cook. Eat. Love. is out now

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