Healing with Food - Nutrition and Mental Health
I first met Lauren way back when we were both working in fashion. At the time, I was in the early days of being on the other side of an eleven year eating disorder, Lauren, I could see, was well in the heights of one. We both moved on, quite separately, for several years (we live in different parts of the country) and then suddenly, out of blue, Lauren began popping up on my FaceBook feed and I realised what similar paths we were on. Both of us had gone through some incredibly tough mental health challenges, had discovered what does and doesn't work for us food wise and had begun using food to help us on our way back to good mental (and physical) health and self-love.
Lauren is now Head Chef at Aspragasm - a beautiful gluten-free restaurant offering plantbased dishes and raw desserts for everyone and anyone who walks through their doors. Not only does she create delicious food, but she is sharing her passion for food and mental health through her work. We had a long chat about how plantbased eating healed her relationship with food, supported her in overcoming her mental health challenges and taught her to appreciate self-care.
You are head chef at Asparagasm – can you tell us about the café and your role there?
Beginning as a pop-up supper club founded by Kate Lewis in July 2012, Asparagasm is about being inclusive for vegans, vegetarians, the v-curious and everyone. In fact, all food intolerances can be accommodated on request. Asparagasm presented twenty pop ups in London before fixing on a permanent spot in Nailsworth, the Costwolds. I was thrilled to be involved and have been from the start - maintaining the focus of exciting veg-centric dishes full of flavor and creativity.
Starting as General Manager, after a few months I also took on the Head Chef Role – as a food nerd I was so excited to embrace the challenge. It was the perfect opportunity to pursue my passion of creating delicious, plantbased foods that make you feel good. My role at Asparagasm involves taking charge of menus, leading the team, working with suppliers, hosting dinners, collaborating with guest chefs and developing products. Every day I feel very lucky to be doing what I do!
As well as leading the Asparagasm restaurant I do couture catering, wellness retreats, bespoke raw desserts, pop-up supper clubs, chefs table nights, as well as an ongoing recipe development and food design.
What was your journey into plantbased eating? How has your diet changed over the years?
I’ve always been very veggie – leaning towards the vegetables of a roast dinner and declaring I wanted to be vegan at a very young age. My mum used to pack me off with goat's cheese sandwiches not quite knowing how to accommodate my new found preferences. Throughout my teens I was just a healthy eater, but after very suddenly losing someone very close to me I struggled to deal with a lot of life. As a coping mechanism my love of food turned into an obsession - from then I suffered with a concoction of eating disorders, depression and PTSD.
It was a long journey, but after totally cutting everything out, I then very very slowly fell in love with flavor and creativity all over again. At this time I discovered I was also intolerant to gluten and dairy, so with these new requirements I started to try all sorts of foods I hadn’t really got into before. This really allowed me to be so much more creative and free in the kitchen and that helped me significantly change my attitude towards food.
What was your path of recovery/healing and where do you feel you are with this now?
After a lot of resistance I started to get the right kind of help and it sounds cliché, but it wasn’t until I got to rock bottom that something clicked. Slowly I started to battle with the voices and I gave myself a purpose again. Once I had made the decision for myself that something needed to change it was through good counselling, astonishing acupuncture and eventually very good nutrition that I really started to get somewhere.
I still struggle some days – it can be challenging not to go back into that zone, but now I really do know my weaknesses and can see when bad patterns creep in. I’ve worked really hard over the last few years to get on the path towards where I want to be and my work is a huge part of that – spending a lot of time creating things that can inspire and empower people to live more positive lives, through food and good nutrition.
How has discovering plantbased eating supported you in your recovery?
When I was unwell I cut out so many foods, so when I began wanting to get better I tried to just eat everything and anything to see what I actually liked. It was when I was doing this that I discovered I could no longer tolerate gluten and dairy. I delved into the world of nutrition and started to read about mind food and what foods can help support your brain and help to make you feel happy. I learned about healthy fats, raw chocolate, nuts and plant food just started to make sense to me – I felt like it was what I needed.
On this realisation I got into the versatility of vegetables and I started to go out more. I'd choose places that served plantbased foods like Wild Food Café in London and Acorn Vegetarian in Bath and I just fell in love with food all over again. I then threw myself into finding out everything I could to tackle this awful illness and did lots of research, eventually writing a book all called ‘The Recipe for Wellbeing’, which uncovers the tools for healthy living of which plant food is key.
Has your attitude towards your body changed since changing your approach to food?
For me the eating disorder was never really about body image – wasting away was just an awful side effect! Though when I started to recover the thought of getting bigger was terrifying, but the only way around it was to realise it’s a journey – I found looking at pictures of how I was before helpful. I never felt bad before it all begun and I just wanted to get back to that happy place.
I feel good about my body when I make time to take care of myself and dress up. It's either a night in covered in coconut oil and chilling out or head to toe in glitter in a field at a festival, without a care in the world.
What are the challenges you face as a young female living with mental health conditions?
The key to making life manageable is flexibility. I have found it hard when jobs are set in stone, sitting at a desk or being nailed to a spreadsheet just doesn’t suit me – they trigger negative behavior and with a very busy mind I need creative tasks and people throughout the day to keep me sane. I am extremely lucky I do what I love each day and have total control of my own time.
My friends have in time become more and more understanding but I know for lots of people it’s really hard to understand. There was a time when I really didn’t want to go out to eat, drink, dance, or walk too far and at that time the friends who were happy to just go and drink tea and chat were the ones who really helped. I am really lucky to be surrounded by people who do want to get it although I know for some people it’s just unimaginable.
The difficulty with mental illnesses is that you may look better but still be struggling – people forget that certain things can still be really tough. The most helpful thing is for people to be open to new ideas and make the effort to go out to places where everyone can have a good time. All in all I think it’s all about reasonable adjustment – in work and life.
What are the positives you have taken from your experiences with mental health and do you feel this has changed your life for the better?
Understanding, strength and passion.
My life has totally changed – I’m now a pretty confident, driven and passionate person but before this I was perhaps a bit lost with no clear aim. All the hard times have made me realise what I really want out of life and I hope I can help other people to do the same. The dream really is to help people understand the links between lifestyle, food and mood. They are obviously so interlinked and it’s a shame that mental health treatments don’t always showcase the power of these things.
Do you have any favorite foods or recipes that are good for boosting mood and supporting wellbeing?
So many! What we need changes all the time but at the moment I'm enjoying hemp mylk with vanilla – poured over everything – really nourishing (full of healthy fats, calcium and iron) and delicious.
Recipe wise I’m always into a bit of chocolate – I really find it chills me out - my absolute favorite thing is avocado chocolate mousse. I make mine with raw cacoa, carob, dates and at the moment a teaspoon of black maca for a bit of balance. Crumble some walnut, hemp and fruit on top, that makes me so happy – definite good mood food!
What are your favorite ways to take care of yourself?
It may be obvious but I love to cook and create – I'm at my happiest writing menus and experimenting in the kitchen. If I then get to share these things with friends and family, the sense of gratification is amazing. When people come to Asparagasm and leave saying how good they feel, I am so happy.
Thinking about the past and how far I’ve come gives me strength – I’ve seen friends fade away with mental health issues which makes me determined to do something positive and ensure fewer people lose themselves.
My favorite way to take care of myself is making time to have a life – get our see friends and do things I don’t do day to day. Social life is key to mental health. I try so hard to pursue interests, go to galleries, go to special events, supper clubs and festivals. A lot of the time I do combine work with play but the balance works and I always end up feeling positive and passionate to continue on the path I’m on.