Eat like an A-lister - tips from the woman who transformed Sam Smith's physique
She's the nutritional therapist who transformed Sam Smith's physique. Now, Amelia Freer is back with easy, healthy recipes that can do the same for you
Talking to nutritional therapist Amelia Freer - the healthy eating guru of the moment - you'd never know she has a best-selling book to her name, let alone a whole host of celebrity clients. She refuses to name-drop any of the A-listers she has worked with. Luckily one of them, Boy George, isn't so discreet, and publicly sang her praises when he debuted a slim new look after years of struggling with his weight. Comedian James Corden also sought her out to help him slim down ahead of his new job as host of a late-night talk show on US television.
And last spring, the Grammy award-winning singer Sam Smith posted a picture on Instagram of himself hugging Freer's first book, Eat. Nourish. Glow., announcing that he'd met a woman who had "completely changed his life". Smith credited her for his dramatic weight loss - more than a stone in two weeks - and for "transforming" his relationship with food.
This is the cornerstone of Freer's healthy eating philosophy: her approach isn't about rejecting food, it's about learning to develop a healthy relationship with what we eat and embracing change. People tend to equate dieting with deprivation, but she insists eating well doesn't have to be a joyless experience.
"Everyone thinks healthy food is miserable - in my day it was called bird food - and that being healthy means not being able to enjoy yourself and enjoy food. My goal is to show people that it is possible to eat healthy food and enjoy it," Freer says.
The ethos of her latest book, Cook. Nourish. Glow., she says, is about restoring our relationship with food and encouraging readers to make the right choices about what they eat. Freer believes success in the kitchen starts with smarter food shopping, and her recipes, such as Butternut Squash 'Pasta' with Sage and Pine Nuts or Sweet Potato Cakes with Grilled Tiger Prawns and Ginger-Saffron Yoghurt, are filled with vibrant colours and exciting flavours to help wean us off the artificial sweeteners and additives we have been seduced by in recent years. "We don't need to buy so much convenience food," she argues. "It's perfectly easy to make your own salad dressing, you don't need to buy the sugar-laden, glucose-laden, cornstarch syrup-laden dressings from the shop. You don't need to buy sauces in jars. You don't need to buy ready meals. If you spend a bit of time on a Sunday making a batch of soup for the week or a big lasagne or shepherd's pie, you can get more savvy.
"I always say to clients, 'When you're shopping, think where that food began.' It's about buying the real ingredients, food in its most natural form, and cooking it from scratch, as opposed to buying something that's made to look or taste like food in a plastic container."
Freer believes we have been "dumbed down" by the convenience food industry. "It has very subtly taken away our confidence in our ability to prepare our own food," she says with audible distaste. "The convenience industry has said, 'You can't make a delicious tomato sauce to put on your pasta, it takes too long and you won't do it well, so don't worry, we've done it and put it in a jar for you'."
In Cook. Nourish. Glow., preparing food doesn't take hours or demand impressive skills. "I hope my book inspires the less confident cook to get a bit more comfortable. Recipes don't have to be perfect and meticulous - that's why I call it 'food assembly' rather than cooking. I think that's one of the things that holds people back from embracing cooking. They don't have the confidence in their ability to create something that will taste delicious and be filling and healthy."
For many of us, it's simply a case of being too busy and too tired to put together a nourishing meal. Freer is used to hearing this excuse from clients when they first visit her practice (which was so successful that she has had to close the waiting list), but it's not going to cut it. If we have time for Facebook, we have time to cook.
"I think it's about priorities. We've learned that we don't need to make time for food because there are options if we dial a takeaway or buy a ready-made meal. We certainly spend a lot of time on social media, so it's a choice we have to make."
This all stems from personal experience. While working as a personal assistant to Prince Charles in her 20s, Freer found herself becoming exhausted. She bounced from one doctor to the next without success, until, on the advice of a friend, she visited a nutritionist who gave her answers to her health problems - her poor diet, heavily dependent on convenience foods. "I had to learn how to cook and eat well. But now, that's what makes me feel good about myself."
Another cornerstone of Freer's philosophy is breaking free from what's conventionally considered appropriate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She urges readers to try a soup or leftovers for breakfast. "We've been led to believe that a packet of sweetened cereal with milk at breakfast is normal. That makes us think we can't eat vegetables at breakfast, but I say to people: Don't be so afraid of change, embrace change and try it. There's nothing wrong with eating fish soup for breakfast, it's just about changing our mental state around it."
Following her approach, you need only three meals a day, to be eaten five hours apart. She notes that gentle hunger pangs are good, and act as the body's way of telling us we need to eat, rather than simply want to. Snacking between meals should be avoided, as it can overstimulate insulin production and encourage fat storage. Her healthy eating plan may seem challenging, but she insists it is much more manageable than the often extreme post-Christmas diets we put ourselves through.
"It's about not being too extreme," she says. "I think the short-term plan to 'give up things for January' isn't very beneficial, because it doesn't end up creating long-term healthy habits. We make it too hard for ourselves, and that sets us up for failure. Instead of saying, 'I'm going to do everything perfectly for January', find one thing you can do consistently for the year."
She advocates, for example, gradually reducing and eventually cutting out sugar entirely, rather than trying to go cold turkey. The key to giving up sugar, she says, is to break our complicated associations with it. "We have for so long used food as a sort of reward - rather than seeing spending quality time with a friend as a reward. We need to change our thought process around what a treat or a reward is, so I try to avoid those words."
She observes that this is particularly important for those raising children.
"Children don't have any choice - they're fed what their parents feed them, they learn what their parents teach them. If you set your child up to be on that blood sugar rollercoaster, they can't get off themselves, they're strapped in, and as a parent you've put that seatbelt on and stuck them on it."
Of course, it's not all doom and gloom. Her new book contains a "naughty chapter", featuring recipes for Chocolate Cupcakes with Whipped Almond Butter and Chia Seed Jam, as well as a Peanut Butter and Jam Smoothie (which she created for Sam Smith, who has a penchant for the signature American sandwich).
Freer is keen to emphasise that it is still possible to enjoy a delicious, wholesome meal at a restaurant.
"I'm not afraid to ask for what I want," she says. "We as consumers have the right to say to a waiter, 'Please don't do this,' 'Please don't add this' or 'Please remove that.'"
Dinner parties, however, are a bit trickier to deal with. The menu is usually out of our control, and we can find ourselves presented with a meal we might otherwise try to avoid.
"I never want to be rude or to make someone uncomfortable, so I try to not make a scene and work through what I can eat," Freer says. "If you're polite about it, you can always manoeuvre your way around food. I hear it so often, 'I don't want to be that difficult person', but if you're social and you eat out a lot, actually it's going to sabotage your own health."
Having already worked her magic on some very high-profile clients, Freer has tried to make her cookbook accessible to everyone.
"I'm quite a casual cook - for me, it's about seeing what's in the fridge and assembling something. I'm not a very precise person, I get ideas for recipes but I'm not meticulous about measuring and weighing everything.
"So I'm definitely out of my comfort zone, but I love it because the book is getting out there and into more people's kitchens, which means that they're changing the way that they're eating. I can't do that on the small scale of working one-on-one with people."
What to eat more of in 2016:
If svelte singers Sam Smith and Boy George are anything to go by, following these tips from Amelia are a must…
❚ Healthy fats: "Make sure you're getting good natural sources of fat - things like avocados, nuts, seeds, oily fish, coconut oils and olive oils."
❚ Vegetables: "We know that our diets should be majority plant-based, but we just don't get enough vegetables. Eat vegetables at all three meals of the day, and have a variety of them."
❚ High-quality proteins: "I think a lot of people just forget about that really important food group. It doesn't matter where their protein comes from but they need to make sure they're getting enough of it."
Super green soup with cashew cream
This simple soup really is a celebration of all things green. Courgettes, kale and leeks also work well, along with any other greens from the fridge that need using up. The cashew cream is a lovely trick for your taste buds.
1 onion, chopped
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
3 handfuls of fresh or frozen peas
700ml vegetable or chicken stock
1 small bag of baby spinach (approx. 250g)
1 green chilli, chopped, to sprinkle on top
For the cashew cream: 150g raw cashews
300ml hot water
1 clove of garlic
Zest of 1 lemon
A small handful of fresh parsley, chopped, to serve
A few hours before making this soup, prepare the cashew cream.
Put the cashews into a bowl, pour over the hot water and leave to soak for at least 2 hours.
Once the cashews are tender, drain and put into a food processor, along with 300ml fresh water, the garlic and lemon zest, and blitz until completely smooth and creamy. Set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large saucepan, and sweat the onion until translucent. Add the broccoli and peas to the pan, cook for 5 minutes, then add the stock - the vegetables should be just covered (you may need to add a little extra water).
Bring to the boil, then simmer until the broccoli is tender, roughly 4 minutes. Don't overcook the vegetables or they will turn a dull green.
Using a stick blender, start blending the soup, adding a handful of spinach at a time - the spinach will cook as it's mixed into the soup. Blend until the soup is smooth and thick, then stir through half the cashew cream.
Serve in bowls with a swirl of cashew cream on top and fresh parsley and chilli, if using, scattered over.
Chicken and tarragon casserole
This makes me think of my mum - she really rocks a casserole. It's something I used to be afraid to make, but thank goodness for the slow cooker! It really is a win-win solution. For me, this is pure joy in a bowl, at any time of the year.
1 large, organic whole chicken, giblets removed
3 leeks, finely chopped
4 sticks of celery, finely chopped
4-6 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
3 tbsp raw almond butter
1 glass of white wine
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 bunch of fresh tarragon, stalks removed and roughly chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the chicken, leeks, celery, carrots, onion and garlic into a slow cooker and cook for 6 hours, or until the meat falls away from the bone (all slow cooker settings differ). If using an oven, cook for 4 hours at 150°C / 130°C fan / gas mark 2, but make sure to check regularly and ensure the ingredients are covered with liquid at all times. Add water if not. Once the chicken is cooked, remove it from the liquid and place in a dish to cool.
Meanwhile, add the almond butter, wine, lemon juice and tarragon leaves to the cooking liquid and vegetables. Season to taste. (You could also add some dried mushrooms here, and some other vegetables if you wish - if you do, replace the lid and cook for 10 to 20 minutes, or until cooked through).
Shred the chicken meat, add it to the mixture and stir well. Sprinkle the lemon zest on top and serve either alone, with steamed greens, or with new potatoes (if you aren't watching your weight).
Mini carrot cakes
If I were going to eat cake, it would always be carrot cake. This is a slightly healthier twist on an old-fashioned version, made in miniature sizes so you don't overindulge.
Makes approx. 20 mini cupcakes.
300g almond flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
3 tsp ground cinnamon
3 tsp ground ginger
A pinch of sea salt
A pinch of vanilla powder or ½ tsp of vanilla extract
6 medium carrots, washed (unpeeled) and finely grated
2 medium eggs, preferably free-range or organic, whisked
300ml coconut milk (from a tin, not a carton)
1 tsp coconut syrup
For the icing:
250g no-aroma coconut butter (not oil) - remove from the fridge 10 minutes before using
Juice of 1 orange
Zest of 2 oranges, with some kept aside to garnish
A pinch of vanilla powder or a teaspoon of vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas 6. Line a tray with 20 cupcake cases.
Mix the dry ingredients together in one bowl. Mix the carrots, eggs and coconut milk together in another.
Combine the wet and dry mixtures and spoon into the cases - you can fill them to the top, as these cakes don't rise very much.
Cook for 30 minutes, until they are golden and a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the middle. Then leave to cool.
To make the icing, whisk all the ingredients together until smooth, reserving a little of the zest to sprinkle over the top. Spread on top of each cooled cake with a knife. Put into the fridge for 10 minutes for the icing to firm up, then serve.