Nick Knowles’ Life Style SOS
Some might consider TV presenter Nick Knowles an unlikely convert to the plant-based lifestyle, but he's written a book hoping to encourage others to give it a try too.
Nick Knowles is a self-confessed 'big unit'. He's six foot two, pushing 17 stone and spends a lot of his working life outdoors on building sites filming his hugely popular TV show, DIY SOS. With all the early starts, the long hours of physical labour and the macho banter among the trades on site, it's hard to imagine Nick or any of his colleagues nibbling on a quinoa salad. It's definitely a bacon-butty type of workplace.
'On DIY SOS, when you've got a 7am start on a freezing cold morning, and you're stood around outside until around 10pm at night, when you come home hungry what you don't want to eat is a bowl of salad. You want something wholesome and warming that will put back some of the energy you've expended all day,' Nick laughs in his trademark gravelly tones. 'As a bloke, you want a bowl full of something that feels like real food.'
But one thing Nick has always loved to do is cook, and says he often comes home from a long day and loses himself in the kitchen prep to help him unwind. His ex-wife Jessica – they've recently announced their amicable separation – is vegetarian and he's always risen to the challenge of making her meat-free meals interesting. However, although he was happy to eat a veggie meal with Jessica on occasion, he sometimes found the food 'a bit weedy for a lump like me' and would have to top up with something meaty later in the evening. 'I was always very much in the carnivore camp,' he admits. 'I was the sort of person who'd stop off at the café a few doors up from my house and get a sausage and egg sandwich to start the day, then at lunchtime I'd order the steak at the pub, and in the evening I'd have more meat or fish for dinner.'
The unlikely yogis
Yet this is the same Nick Knowles who has just launched a plant-based cookbook and now enthuses passionately about tabbouleh, lentil Bolognese and making his own almond milk. So why the change? 'After being the same shape for my entire life, when I turned 50 I suddenly started putting some pounds on,' he says. 'I was aware that I wasn't healthy. I felt stressed, I was on the road a lot for work and not eating properly, and my head was too full to think straight. I needed to get on top of it.'
Nick decided to head off to a yoga retreat in Thailand for a month. But, being a TV presenter, he also decided it would be a great opportunity to make a programme about the experience, so he took Julian and Billy from DIY SOS and seven other unlikely yogis with him, including people with health issues such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and excess weight. The Retreat series aired on BBC2 in September last year, attracting a million viewers every night, and after a 28-day regime that included vegan food, regular exercise, reiki and colonic irrigation, the impact on the participants' health and wellbeing was staggering.
'To be honest, I didn't have any expectation of it working at all,' he says. 'But because of the kind of person I am, instead of just going and doing it, I thought it would be interesting to take a whole load of people who are the least likely to be vegan you could find on the planet, and go at it with a really sceptical point of view. The people at the retreat were worried that we weren't allowing the regime to be successful, but my view is that if you can make people who are sceptical about it really believe in it, it's a lot more powerful than just taking people who already think it's a good idea.'
Not just for hemp-wearing skinny people
The point was, of course, to show that if a big lad with a hearty appetite could not only survive on a vegan diet, but actually thrive, then anyone can do it. 'I think it's important that more people realise that the veggie and vegan world is not just for women or hemp-wearing skinny people with tiny appetites!' he laughs. 'I've now got my own vegan bistro in Shrewsbury and I often find myself sitting in there watching people come to the window to look at the menu. A few times, if they've not come in, I've gone after them to find out why because I like to get feedback. For some people, eating vegan food does feel radical. If you're a six-foot plus, 18-stone builder and you walk into a place like that, you don't look like everyone else in the room and maybe you feel like you don't fit in. But the funny thing is, even the building site is changing – when I offer to do a tea and coffee round on DIY SOS, they're asking me for fruit teas and rooibos!'
Inspired by his life-changing experience at the retreat, and keen to encourage others like him to make a similar change, Nick headed into his kitchen and started cooking. His appealing, accessible recipes now feature in his first cookbook, Proper Healthy Food. The book offers hearty fare such as meat-free versions of shepherd's pie and moussaka, as well as tofu pad thai and his vegan twist on nachos, but he really recommends trying his stew and herb dumplings (see recipe on page 34 of Vegetarian Living issue 80) and his low sugar sweet and sour fruit crumble. 'A dollop of that with some vegan ice cream, that's about as good as it gets!' Nick laughs. 'I love experimenting with food and I enjoy cooking with spices and ingredients from all over the world, such as curries and Moroccan tagines, but my book only has stuff you can buy easily in the supermarket. I've also included recipes that are simple and fun to do – like my Marmite roast potatoes. The problem is that vegan bloggers can go on about chia seeds and coconut yogurt, but that's never going to catch on with the majority of people.
'The thing is, I wanted to create a book of tasty, wholesome, hearty food that just happens to be vegan or veggie, in the hope that when people have got the book they might decide to do meat-free Mondays at first. But then they like it and decide to do meat-free Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And then they decide to just eat meat at weekends. That's fantastic – it's great for their health.'
After being married to a vegetarian for eight years, Nick understands the challenges and often disappointment of eating out as a veggie or vegan. 'I've always been an epicure; I love to go to nice restaurants. Let's face it though, most chefs are incredibly lazy when it comes to veggie food,' he says. 'You just know when you ask what the vegetarian option is they're going to say "we've got a lovely risotto" or it's some combination of goat's cheese and butternut squash. You do get fed up with it. I get frustrated for my wife, and then when I became veggie myself I found it even more frustrating.'
More carrot, less steak
He says he has been criticised for championing a vegan and veggie lifestyle when he's not strictly one himself. But he's totally upfront about the fact he's not calling himself vegan or vegetarian, instead adopting a flexitarian, mostly plant-based approach. He believes being too 'all or nothing' about it can stop people from enjoying all the benefits that go with even a part-time veggie diet.
'The thing is, I know that a plant-based lifestyle is proven to be more healthy for you, and I'm eating about 80 per cent vegan, 15 per cent veggie. But I can't promise that if I have a few drinks on a night out and smell fried onions I won't have a cheeseburger on my way home,' he says. 'I've eaten meat only six or seven times in the last year, and I've had an egg sandwich or a cheese toastie on occasion, but I was eating these foods several times every day before. I'm not claiming to be a "proper" vegan, and I'm sorry if it upsets people who want everyone to be only one thing or another, but I think being too militant frightens people off from choosing to eat this way.'
Nick's enthusiasm for helping others take a similar step towards a healthier lifestyle is infectious, and his book is a refreshing alternative to the guilt-inducing clean-eating fad. 'It's really important to me that people feel encouraged but not bullied to make a change, even if they just start with one meal a week. I hope that someone of my size and shape doing a book like this will encourage more people to try it. Let's lead with more carrot and less stick – it might end up being more carrot and less steak that way.'
• Proper Healthy Food by Nick Knowles (BBC Books, £14.99) is available now.