Plant-based chef Gemma Ogston reveals how her experience of an eating disorder changed her relationship with food, and what self-care means to her
Gemma and I have something in common. In our teenage years, we both struggled with anorexia – an eating disorder that typically makes you avoid food at all costs. So, when I heard about her cookbook exploring eating as the ultimate form of self-care, I was instantly intrigued.
Reading more about Gemma, I learned that she turned to a plant-based diet after a number of miscarriages. “I had to have all sorts of tests. I tried acupuncture, and then I started looking into diet and how food can help,” Gemma says. “I didn't go totally vegan, but I started eating much better – way more plants and whole foods, and now I have my two babies. I was having treatment at the time as well, but it just helped with my mood and made me feel better.”
This gut-brain connection is a growing conversation in the wellness industry, and fascinating for anyone, but especially those recovering from an eating disorder. For Gemma, she struggled with anorexia between the ages of 12 and 17 in particular, but with time she slowly recovered. However, as we both agree, it can be tough to ever feel fully recovered from an eating disorder.
“It’s just, always there isn’t it?” Gemma says. “And I know for me, when I eat rubbish, it just makes me feel bad. It makes my mood low. And then those negative feelings start coming back.”
This is exactly why she wanted the recipes in her book to be both physically and mentally nourishing. She avoids using phrases like ‘guilt-free’ and tells me it’s more about taking care over the food you’re eating, and making it a pleasurable experience.
“All of the recipes in the book look good and are inviting. You’ve taken a bit of care over them – maybe you’ve made it look really bright and colourful, and that in itself is an act of self-care. Choosing foods that are healthy, that make you feel good, they set off your serotonin levels and, rather than making you crash and feel down, they do the opposite.”
But the ultimate act of self-care is, of course, listening to your body and what it needs. “It’s alright to have a bit of chocolate cake if that’s what you want!” Gemma notes. “It’s about giving yourself permission to do that, rather than getting sad about it, and beating yourself up.”
Having worked as an addiction counsellor in women’s projects for more than a decade, Gemma has an in-depth understanding of treating yourself with compassion, especially while in recovery.
You’re not selfish by taking some time out on your own. It’s something we should all do every day
“I was in the mental health sector for 15 years, working in the NHS with women with serious drug and alcohol issues,” says Gemma.
This is where her passion for mood foods really began, but cooking has always been a big part of Gemma’s life. Growing up in a big family, as the youngest of five, everyone had chores to do around the house, so Gemma’s mum taught her to cook.
Things progressed when Gemma’s kids were little though, when the family decided to up sticks and start a new adventure living in Barcelona, Spain, for a few years. “I set up a little vegan take-away, and I used to do these bento boxes for well-known DJs who were travelling in and out of Barcelona.”
From there, her business only grew. The family moved back to Brighton, UK, and she launched Gem’s Wholesome Kitchen, offering ‘nourish’ packages (plant-based food that gets delivered), cooking workshops, and supper clubs – and works with clients such as Zoe Ball and Poppy Deyes.
But with a young family and running a business, unsurprisingly Gemma leads a hectic lifestyle. With her focus on nourishing yourself, she knows the importance of practising what she preaches, and utilising her self-care activities. Aside from food, making time to get to the gym is important to her, along with connecting with other people. However, she is also clear on her boundaries, and explains that saying no to people is also key.
“That’s something I’ve been doing the past few years, saying no to things that I don’t really want to do – or if I do them, then it’s going to mean that I’m tired. It’s about choosing to do things that serve you and your family, rather than doing stuff to please other people.”
As many of us know though, as much as we can have good intentions with self-care, so often busy schedules take over and we just seem to not have enough time. Gemma’s response to that? Prioritise it.
“I think making it a priority is something everyone can do. It could just be going for a walk at lunchtime – getting out of the office to have a breath of fresh air and sit on your own – or making a conscious effort to do something for you every day, whatever that may be.”
And to help with those struggling for time, Gemma has ensured the recipes in her book are quick to make, affordable, and that the ingredients can be found in most supermarkets. Her aim is to take the stress out of cooking, and to make cooking an enjoyable act of self-care for all.
“Self-care isn’t selfish – it’s essential for life,” Gemma says. “You’re not selfish by taking some time out on your own. It’s something we should all do every day. But people don’t, and it’s a shame because we all deserve it – we all deserve to have five minutes of peace to ourselves, or whatever that may be. And to eat well, of course.”
And with that in mind, you are invited to take some time for yourself to make a batch of brownies from the recipe here, get a cup of tea, sit back and relax. You deserve it.
‘The Self-Care Cookbook’ by Gemma Ogston is out now (Vermilion, £14.99)