Celebrity MasterChef – Jenny Eclair: I can’t trust food not to make me fat

She may be whipping up tasty treats in the kitchen, but the candid comedian has a love/hate relationship with food

Food and I have an odd relationship. Let’s just say it’s not entirely comfortable and, although it’s a lot better than it was 30 years ago, we still have issues. Basically, I can’t trust food not to make me fat.

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When I was a child I ate most things. Faddishness wasn’t really tolerated in the 1960s, but I do remember my mother sieving my soup as I couldn’t abide “bits” in it.

My parents are both northern, but because my father was in the Army we occasionally lived abroad. By the time we moved permanently back to the UK, my mother was regarded as an exotic cook. She used garlic and bay leaves and, back in the 70s, when everyone else was experimenting with Vesta packet curries, she made her own from scratch.

My mother is a good cook, but a great pan burner and slightly slapdash. Her home-made cakes tilted dramatically; my dad and my brother used to give her marks out of ten for presentation and she never scored higher than a six.

Whereas my older sister is naturally thin and my brother tall enough to carry a bit of extra bulk, I was born greedy, with a tendency to plumpness. I also liked seconds and eating between meals. Picking was my downfall. I was forever raiding the fridge and the pantry, sticking my fingers into the jar of peanut butter, cramming jam tarts into my face. Permanently peckish, I’d only offer to wash up after Sunday lunch so that I could snaffle any leftover roast potatoes.

By the time I was old enough to be left home alone, I would regularly fry myself two breakfasts, one immediately after the other!

Consequently, I started dieting when I was about 14, but not very seriously. I was chubby, but rather pretty and very willing. By 15 I had a perm and a succession of boyfriends, none of whom ever commented on the size of my arse. Even so, I was self-conscious about eating in front of them.

At my all-girls grammar school I had no such qualms. I loved the gravy-soaked school dinners and custard-drowned “afters”, and pigged out every lunchtime. But when boys were around, I just smoked. This was back in the 70s, when you could smoke anywhere, apart from at home, where I’d arrive back after dates absolutely ravenous and shove bread down my throat.

At the age of 18 I went to drama school in Manchester and promptly put on more weight. Blame it on the cider, blame it on the sausage rolls – I was too lazy to cook, and lunch in the canteen was always “something and chips”.

A year later, I was a rather chunky bridesmaid at my thin sister’s wedding and then, halfway through my second year at drama school, a tutor called me “fat”. “Right,” I thought, “I’ll show him.”

So, at 19 I went on a diet and I didn’t stop dieting for five years. All of a sudden I didn’t know how not to be on a diet.

At first it was great. I swapped pasta for chopped-up raw cabbage, I stewed apples and sweetened them artificially and bulked out low calorie tinned soups with extra veg. I took my time eating, smoked more, and my jeans fell off me.

I was now very pretty, with cheekbones, but unfortunately I was also mad.

Anorexia is very sly. It locks you in a box and, although you know where the key is, you refuse to pick up that key, unlock the box and let yourself out. It quickly got boring – for everyone else, not me. I was fascinated by my disappearing flesh. I’d invented a new snack: raw carrots dipped in Marmite. Everyone began to despair. My flatmate tried to cook for me. We fought over her attempt to use butter – a proper physical fight. I threw the butter out the window and then I moved out. It was so much easier to starve alone.

Eventually, college called my mother. I was eating 300 calories a day, I didn’t finish my third year and was sent home with instructions to eat or be hospitalised. My first boiled egg took an entire morning to consume. I was just under 7 stone and terrified of ever getting fat again.

Which is funny really, because I did.

Just after I had my daughter in 1989 (my periods had restarted a year or so earlier), I put on a huge amount of weight, more than I had when I was actually pregnant. There was a craziness to my eating. Blame it on the hormones, on the shock of motherhood, on stuffing my face, but within a year I was a fat 30-year-old woman and furious with myself.

That summer I did a play at the Edinburgh Festival with two other women. I hated the publicity shots. My co-stars looked great; I, on the other hand, looked middle-aged and frumpy.

So I took up Ashtanga yoga, cut down on the carbs and slowly, slowly lost the blubber. Oh yes, and I started smoking again.

Twenty years on, food and I are wary of each other. I know I have a tendency to pile on the pounds, I know I need to exercise if I want to be a size 12, but I also know that I am incredibly lazy and, at 52, I find myself reaching more and more for a size 14.

I eat well. I like multicoloured salads with roasted vegetables and seeds; I eat meat and fish but leave out the puddings and the pastries. The sweetest thing I ever consume is muesli, and I can say with hand on heart that I haven’t eaten cake or chocolate for more than 20 years (and yes, that includes my daughter’s birthday cakes).

Some people find this surprising. I don’t. I’m a strange mixture of iron will and incredible sloth; as long as I get the balance right, I’ll be OK.

I haven’t smoked for seven years, but I do drink more than I probably should. I don’t do yoga any more (I got too competitive), but I swim, practise Pilates and very occasionally go to the gym.

These days, the only thing that really complicates my diet is that I can no longer eat tomatoes in any shape or form, as they give me mouth ulcers. This rules out most mince dishes, which is a bore, and sometimes I crave baked beans, which are a complete no-no. But the biggest sacrifice has been swapping tomato ketchup for mango chutney on my bacon sandwiches. As you can imagine, it’s not the same.

But really, compared with the years I spent living in a bedsit, eating nothing and thinking about nothing except not eating, a tomato-free life is one I can easily stomach.

Oh, and I still don’t like soup with bits in.


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Celebrity Masterchef is on weekdays at 6:30pm on BBC2.