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Rugby player James Haskell on food, fitness and ignoring diet fads

Rugby star James Haskell tells Luke Rix-Standing why we should all keep things simple when it comes to healthy-eating goals

Sea Bass in Ginger from Cooking For Fitness by James Haskell

An ENGLAND flanker and all round Rugby Union tough guy, James Haskell is not one to keep his cards close to his monstrously large chest.

"I think the media talk a load of crap about diets," he declares, "and doctors don't know a lot about nutrition."

We're discussing his new book, Cooking For Fitness, which he co-wrote with chef Omar Meziane. In a market saturated with so-called superfoods and fad diet, Haskell aims to cut through the noise with a refreshingly straightforward message: Healthy eating is simple, and yes, of course everyone can do it.

'It's not rocket science'

Listening to 33-year-old Haskell speak, it's hard not to be swayed by his conviction. "Every time you go online and ask about diet, suddenly there's 17 different ways to skin a cat. It's just not the case. You just have to understand a few rules – calories in, calories out, and to look at your plate as a pie chart," he says.

Alongside sleep and hydration, it is this 'pie chart' that sustains Haskell's punishing gym routine, and on the rugby field. So what does a pie chart contain?

First, there's the protein ("You don't f*** around with your protein"). Second is an energy source ("If you do a lot of training, you need a lot of carbohydrates"). And thirdly, "decent fats and vegetables". Three meals, three basic food groups: In the gospel of Haskell, it needn't be much more complicated than that.

With arms the size of Tube trains, Haskell has practised eating by numbers for most of his career (3,800 calories a day, to be exact), but he resists the temptation to see food purely as fuel. "To get results, there is going to be a bit of sacrifice, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy yourself sometimes," he says.

There is something agreeably grounded in Haskell's approach to, well, everything, but particularly cooking. Ask him what his food 'guilty pleasure' is, and his response is instant: "Pizza."

Flavourful fitness

Cooking For Fitness contains not a speck of the austere asceticism so common in diets, and is filled with recipes that tickle the taste buds just as much as the tendons. "I'm an absolute foodie," Haskell insists. "I love going out to nice restaurants, having nice wine and having nice food."

Of his own recipes, Haskell's favourites are his take on the full English breakfast – "people think they can't eat it and they miss it, but changing it round makes it really good" – and his spicy snack, Chilli Nut Trail Mix.

All the dishes are divided by meal and carb-count – 'high carb lunches', 'low carb breakfasts', etc – and Haskell is clear that he wants his book to work for everyone, whatever their goals.

It doesn't set portion sizes, and actively recommends tinkering with recipes to suit individual goals. For muscle gain or fat loss, the underlying message is the same: Track your food intake, select some suitable sustenance, and remember that sustainable results take time.

A winning team

Even if you question Haskell's credentials as a nutrition expert, there's no doubting the know-how of his collaborator, sporting chef-to-the-stars, Omar Meziane.

Meziane knows a thing or two because he's seen a thing or two. After working with Haskell at Wasps, he catered for the British Rowing Team, and then spent the summer in Russia cooking for Gareth Southgate's England squad. "He understood how to fuel us but in a really tasty way," says Haskell.

Haskell is married to fellow celeb Chloe Madeley, daughter of Richard and Judy, herself a published fitness guru.

Both in quite terrifying physical condition, she's the perfect partner-in-crime for Haskell's routine. "There's scientific and anecdotal evidence that if you go to training with a partner or someone who knows nutrition, you're more often than not going to be successful. Chloe's diet and training are very, very different to mine, but having someone who understands the importance of nutrition has really taught me things."

Cooking For Fitness is his second book – his first was Perfect Fit: The Winning Formula, which set out an eight-week 'body transformation' plan – and he hints there might be more to come.

So with food becoming a focus, and rugby a career with a shelf-life, could we, in the not too distant future be talking about James Haskell the restaurateur?

Haskell is coy – but doesn't rule it out. "I would love to be a food critic – I think it's almost easier to write about this stuff than it is to talk to people in person – and I've got another couple of book ideas. Possibly. Watch this space."

:: Cooking For Fitness by James Haskell & Omar Meziane is published by Haskell Publishing, priced £19.95. Below are three recipes from the book for you to try.

SEA BASS WITH GINGER AND TAMARI, BOILED RICE AND EDAMAME BEANS

(serves 2)

180g brown rice

80g edamame beans

1/2 small bunch coriander, finely chopped

2 whole sea bass

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1cm piece of ginger, finely chopped

1 red chilli, finely chopped

3tbsp tamari or soy sauce

4 spring onions, finely chopped

Method:

Preheat your grill to high. Place the rice in a saucepan and cover it with water. Bring the pan to boil and cook for 10 minutes, or according to the pack instructions. Drain away any excess water, put the rice back into the saucepan and then set it aside. Now bring a small saucepan of water to the boil and carefully add the edamame beans. Boil the beans for five minutes before draining and mixing together them with the rice. Stir in the finely chopped coriander.

Place the sea bass on a roasting tray skin-side up. Sprinkle the garlic, ginger and chilli over the fish. Spoon over the tamari and place the tray under the hot grill. Cook for 15 minutes. Baste the fish with the sauce in the roasting tray.

Divide the rice between two plates and then top with the fish. Spoon over any excess sauce, scatter the spring onions over the fish, and serve.

SWEET POTATO, CHICKPEA AND KALE SOUP

(serves 2)

1tbsp of olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely sliced

1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm dice

400g tinned chickpeas, drained

1.5L hot water

1 vegetable stock cube

1 pinch ground cinnamon

1 pinch ground cumin

4 large kale leaves, chopped

Method:

Preheat your oven to 200C. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a high heat. Place the garlic and half of the sweet potato in the pan and cook for two to three minutes without colouring. Add half of the chickpeas and continue to cook for one minute.

Boil the kettle and pour the one-and-a-half litres of hot water into a jug, then dissolve the stock cube in the water. Pour the stock into the pan of sweet potato and add the cinnamon and cumin. Bring the soup to the boil and then turn down to a gentle simmer. Cook for 25 minutes, or until the sweet potato is cooked through. Allow the soup to cool a little before placing it into a food processor and blending until smooth. Adjust the seasoning, and pour back into the saucepan.

While the soup is cooking, place the remaining potato chunks on a baking tray, and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until cooked through.

Place the saucepan of soup over a low-medium heat and add the remaining chickpeas and the kale. Now add the baked sweet potato chunks into the soup. Serve as soon as the soup is nice and hot.

BACON, JALAPENO AND BUTTER BEAN OMELETTE

(serves 1)

2 slices of streaky bacon

4 slices of pickled jalapeno chilli, or 1/2 a fresh green chilli, freshly chopped

3 large eggs

1 knob of butter

50g cooked butter beans

Salt and pepper

Method:

Preheat the grill to high. Place the bacon on a tray and cook under the grill for seven to eight minutes, or until cooked through. Allow it to cool before slicing into strips, half a centimetre thick, and set aside. Stir in the jalapeno chilli.

Crack the eggs into a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Whisk the eggs well. Heat a frying pan over a medium heat and add the butter. Pour the eggs into the pan and cook the omelette for two minutes or until it has started to set on the bottom. Now sprinkle the bacon and jalapeno over the omelette and top with the butter beans. Pop under the grill for 30 seconds. Turn out onto a plate and serve immediately.

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