Recipes: Joe Wicks on the link between food and mental health, the power of ice baths, and working with Louis Theroux
If you're exercising, but you're putting really heavily processed or junk food in your body, then you're going to find it hard to feel that energy and happiness you get from a healthy diet
TWO years on from the first UK lockdown, when PE With Joe got thousands of kids (and grown-ups) moving, Joe Wicks looks back on those four months with fondness.
“It was like my moment to shine – I had so much purpose, I was living my dream… It was really everything I’d dreamed of doing,” he tells me on the phone, chatting while ambling around a lake near his home in Surrey (“I thought rather than sit on the sofa eating a bag of Lindt balls, do it walking”).
The 20-minute workout videos, intended to help school children who were missing PE lessons to stay active, earned Wicks an MBE in the queen’s 2020 Birthday Honours list and a Guinness World Record for most viewers for a fitness workout live stream on YouTube (over 950k).
But the fitness expert – who gained a huge following after he started posting 15-second recipe videos online back in 2013, and has written multiple cookbooks since – says he started to struggle when the high began to fade.
“I mean, everyone suffered. For me it was delayed, because when we went into lockdown, I was straight to work,” he says. “It wasn’t until it all stopped and I processed it, [that I] felt quite sad.”
The 36-year-old, who lives with wife Rosie (who is pregnant with their third child) and kids Indie, three, and Marley, two, is pleased many people – himself included – are now more open about their mental health as a result of the pandemic.
“I think it’s just become normalised now, [to recognise] that actually everyone has mental health. And some days you feel really, really happy, but on other days, for no reason at all, you don’t feel yourself. And it’s learning to have coping mechanisms to help that.”
Wicks has installed a DIY ice bath in his garden, which he hops into every other day for some pulse-quickening cold water therapy.
“For me, it’s definitely not a physical thing – it’s more of a mental thing,” he explains.
“It’s extreme meditation really, but in cold water. That helps me let a bit of stress out, but also brings [me] back to the moment.”
Exercise is, of course, Wicks’ number one coping strategy when he’s in a funk, and he’s become more vocal in the last couple of years about the mental benefits of his trademark HIIT workouts.
“People came to me originally if they wanted to lose weight, or they want to change their body,” says the man known as The Body Coach on Instagram, where he has 4.3m followers.
“But the thing that keeps them coming back is really their mood, their mental health, how exercise changes their relationships, and how they feel about themselves. [In the past] I think that I wouldn’t have had the confidence or the knowledge to share about mental health.”
That’s also why his latest book, Feel Good Food, highlights the link between diet and mood. It recommends seven building blocks for a healthy diet, including ‘eat more plants’ and ‘minimise ultra-processed foods’.
“Some people think, ‘If I exercise, I can eat what I want, it won’t make a difference’, but it does really make a difference. If you’re exercising, but you’re putting really heavily processed or junk food in your body, then you’re going to find it hard to feel that energy and happiness you get from a healthy diet.”
It’s a message he wants to pass on to Indie and Marley as they grow up (“I do believe the most powerful thing you can do as a parent is exercise with your kids and cook with your kids”), which means fun in the kitchen and meals enjoyed together – a distinct contrast to his own childhood.
“My mealtimes were sandwiches and frozen meals thrown in the oven, then you’d come back, sit at the table or quickly eat and go to your room, or take it to your bedroom,” says Wicks, who has spoken about his father Gary’s heroin addiction, and his mother Raquela’s struggles with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and eating disorders.
“So now I really appreciate that family time. I think it’s wonderful to sit down and talk for five minutes and say, ‘How was your day?’,” he adds.
Wicks remains close to his parents, and his admiration for them is obvious. “My mum, she had eating disorders as a young adult, she was basically anorexic and bulimic at times. She’s amazing now. She cooks, she loves my recipe books. She’s got all of them, bless her, on the shelf, I’m so proud of her,” he says.
“I think that my adventure into food and mental health probably helped with my mum and dad – they do the workouts, my mum’s got a Peloton.”
Their family will be the focus of a forthcoming documentary fronted by Wicks and produced by Louis Theroux, who he became friends with during lockdown – and who went viral with a topless, post-Joe Wicks workout selfie he shared at the end of last year.
“I found out he was doing my workouts, which I loved,” says Wicks. “I’m a big fan, I’ve always loved his documentaries. He came to my house and we watched it together for the first time and I was sitting there like, ‘This is Louis Theroux sitting on my sofa’ – it’s really weird!”
Revisiting the tumultuous years of his youth was, he admits, a challenge: “I was interviewing my parents and going back into my childhood a little bit, so I found it difficult. I’m glad it’s done, it was hard at the time.”
He hopes when the film is released later this year, it will strike a chord with viewers and continue his mental wellbeing message. “It’s not a sensationalist thing,” he adds. “It’s a really open and raw documentary about parental mental health, so I’m hoping it really helps people.”
Feel Good Food by Joe Wicks is published by HQ, priced £20. Photography by Dan Jones. Below are three recipes for you to try at home...
SWEET POTATO NACHOS
4 medium sweet potatoes (around 600g), peeled and sliced into 5mm thick coins
1tbsp light olive oil
60g Cheddar cheese, grated
4tbsp low-fat natural yoghurt, to serve
For the spiced mince:
1 red onion, diced
100g veggie mince (or minced beef)
½tsp ground cumin
½tsp ground coriander
½tsp smoked paprika
Pinch of chilli powder
130g frozen sliced bell pepper (or the same amount of fresh, sliced)
For the refried beans:
400g tin of black beans, drained but liquid reserved
Pinch of salt
1tsp ground cumin
For the salsa:
200g cherry tomatoes, roughly chopped
Big handful of fresh coriander, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan. Toss the sliced sweet potatoes with the oil and salt on a large baking tray, then spread them out into a single layer (you may need a second baking tray). Roast for 30–40 minutes, flipping them over halfway through, until starting to turn golden. For the spiced mince, heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook for about five minutes until translucent. Add the mince, breaking it up with your spoon, and cook for a few minutes according to the packet instructions, or until the mince is no longer pink if using beef. Stir in the cumin, coriander, paprika, chilli powder and frozen (or fresh) sliced peppers. Stir until the peppers have defrosted and warmed through (about five minutes if using fresh, until softened). Tip into a bowl and set aside. For the refried beans, return the same pan to the heat and add the drained beans along with 100 millilitres of the liquid reserved from the tin, the salt and cumin. Mash with a potato masher in the pan, loosening with more bean liquid as needed, to make a creamy, slightly chunky paste. Remove from the heat and set aside. Mix together all of the salsa ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. Once the potato nachos are roasted, top with spoonfuls of the refried beans, followed by a layer of the mince mixture and finally sprinkle over the grated cheese.
Return to the oven for 10–15 minutes until the cheese has melted and crisped up in places. Remove from the oven, top with the salsa and some dollops of yoghurt, then serve.
SAUSAGE, SWEET POTATO AND MUSTARD TRAY BAKE
4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3cm cubes
2 red onions, peeled and cut into 6 wedges
2 sprigs of rosemary
2tbsp olive oil
8 pork sausages
500g Brussels sprouts, halved
For the dressing:
1tbsp wholegrain mustard
Juice of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, finely grated
Pinch of salt
Pinch of black pepper
Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan. Spread the sweet potatoes, red onions and rosemary over a large, rimmed baking tray. Drizzle with the olive oil and toss together to coat, then lay the sausages on top. Bake for 20 minutes until the sweet potatoes are starting to soften. Remove from the oven and add the Brussels sprouts, using a metal spatula to mix them into the vegetables on the tray. Flip the sausages over and return the tray to the oven for a further 20–30 minutes until the vegetables are becoming golden and the sausages are browned. Combine the dressing ingredients in a jam jar, screw on the lid and shake. Pour over the contents of the tray and serve.
GINGERBREAD CUPCAKES WITH DATE CARAMEL
90g wholemeal plain flour
30g soft dark brown sugar or coconut sugar
25g ground almonds
½tsp baking powder
¼tsp bicarbonate of soda
½tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp ground ginger
?tsp ground clove
?tsp ground nutmeg
Pinch of salt
90g 0% fat Greek yoghurt
1½tbsp melted coconut oil
2tbsp crystallised ginger chunks, to decorate
For the date caramel:
100g pitted dates
60ml milk or non-dairy milk
1tsp vanilla extract
Good pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan and line a standard muffin tin with six muffin cases. Mix together the flour, sugar, ground almonds, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, spices and salt in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl or jug, combine the yoghurt, water, egg and coconut oil. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and stir together until just combined. Divide the mixture between the prepared muffin cases. Bake for 20–25 minutes until lightly browned on top and a toothpick inserted into the centre of a cupcake comes out clean. Set aside to cool. Meanwhile, make the caramel. Place the dates into a small jug and cover with boiling water. Set aside for 15 minutes to soak. Drain the dates and return to the jug, then add the milk, vanilla and salt. Blend until smooth with a hand blender, or in a food processor or free-standing blender. Once you’re ready to serve the cupcakes, frost them with the date caramel and sprinkle on some of the crystallised ginger chunks for decoration.