I’ve been thinking about writing a post along these lines since I started this blog, and I’m really excited to finally share my thoughts. You guys know I work as a junior doctor in Dublin, Ireland, and that I love my job. Like any job, some days you’re psyched and other days you’re tired, but overall when you’re doing what you love, you know it’ll be okay. My line of work involves meeting a LOT of new people everyday, and hearing their stories. Putting this puzzle together to come to a diagnosis, or an impression of one, is a part of my work that I love, and which I find most challenging.
It struck me as soon as I started working that I was seeing the same chronic diseases (also known broadly as NCDs, or ‘non-communicable diseases’) a LOT. These NCDs are the leading causes of death and disease burden worldwide right now. Specifically, I mean illnesses such as hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and ischaemic heart disease, to name but a few. The recent Irish Cancer Society campaign in the media reminded us that 1 in every 2 people will get cancer at some point in their lives. My point is that these chronic diseases are common, and only becoming more and more so. You don’t have to be a doctor to see that. In addition, its no secret that we have extremely high obesity rates in this country – a rise of 5.7% in 1975 to 25.55% in 2014, according to WHO figures. And increasingly in recent decades research has shown us that obesity and its sky-rocketing prevalence is a key contributor to these diseases.
So the obvious question is…why us? Why is Ireland, a pretty small nation by the standards of other countries in Europe (let alone the rest of the world), now partly famous for its shockingly high obesity rates? I’m not exaggerating that statement by the way – the headlines in April last year were dominated by a Lancet Study published which predicts that obesity rates in 2030 will sky rocket from 26% to 48% for males, and 23% to 57% for females. According to an article analysing this data by The Journal published at that time, the Lancet data puts our obesity rate at 3rd highest in the EU.
The answer to why this is happening isn’t straight-forward, and yet the solution should be. It all boils down to our relationship with food in this country. Let me stress at this point I’m in no way an expert on nutrition, fitness, health, balance, metabolism, or anything in this regard. Yet. I plan to be in the future, you can bet on it. I am however, absolutely passionate about these issues, and I want to be part of creating and implementing sustainable ways to change our relationship with food for the better. So since I’ve been on a bit of a rant already, I’ll cut to the chase and dish out my four reasons why we fail at eating well – and how we can fix it!
If you’re reading this blog, its likely that you are a person who has an interest in nutrition, fitness, health, or something along those lines. Because of this interest, you’re likely to know a little bit about food and what’s considered ‘good for you’ and what isn’t. But in the general population, I believe there is a BIG gap between the foods we buy, and what we know about these foods. And if you think about it, that is CRUCIAL to improving our health as a country. I believe that if people understand on a very basic level which foods are better for our health (and more importantly, why) they are more likely to incorporate them into their diet. In addition to this, teaching people nutritional basics (such as what macro- and micro-nutrients are) equips them with knowledge as to what should or shouldn’t be on their plate.
How do we educate, I hear you say? I think its gotta be a two-pronged approach. First, we have to get education on basic nutritional science incorporated into the school curriculum from an early age. For example, kick off with primary school programs on what food is, the food pyramid, and organise cooking classes to show kids that food is FUN. More importantly, its fun even when it’s not ‘junk food’, and it tastes just as good (if not better) when its made up of wholesome, unprocessed ingredients. Second, we need to be a LOT stronger about the public health messages we send about food. We need to stop putting chocolate, crisps and soft drinks beside the check out stall. We need to increase the tax on sugar. We need to reduce advertising of junk foods. Bottom line, we have to stop enabling unhealthy choices, and encourage the choice of sustainable, nourishing alternatives.
Note: I am planning posts in the coming weeks on nutritional basics such as major food groups, myth busting, how to structure your plate for healthier choices, and other little educational pieces along these lines, and I’ll link these here and let you guys know on Instagram when I have them up!
2. Diets are unsustainable by nature – so we need to shift to a LIFESTYLE focus.
One (of many!) things that always gets my back up is when I read anything in newspapers or magazines about so-called ‘fad diets.’ That is, anything promoting restriction or exclusion of certain food groups, or any hacks claiming to be a quick fix for weight loss – usually termed ‘fat loss’ to attract attention. We have GOT to move away from engaging with these sorts of ‘diets’, because the only true thing to say about them is that they are NOT sustainable. ‘Healthy eating’ is a term that should never be associated with restriction or exclusion, and yet because it is, it seems like an unattainable goal for many. Being able to create wholesome, balanced meals is something we have got to see as being a lifestyle change, one we should be getting enjoyment out of. Eating well isn’t about cutting out ‘carbs’, or living on salads, or eating three times your body weight in protein. It’s about eating meals which are a balance of carbohydrates, fats, protein and micro-nutrients, and damn well enjoying a treat or two now and again. I believe education about food is key to this.
For example, learning a little bank of recipes for your breakfasts, lunch, dinners and snacks, leaving you so well equipped to fill your day with a variety of foods. Another super simple hack is to make healthy swaps a permanent fixture in your cupboards – for example, a long time ago I simply changed from white bread to wholegrain varieties (rye, brown sourdough, wholemeal, pumpernickel), my white rice to brown or wholegrain varieties, and swapped sugary cereals for oats. Make that a habit, and you’ll just have to use what’s in your cupboard – and honestly, there really isn’t a huge taste difference in my opinion!
Note: I’m planning a blog post on my personal favourite ‘Healthy Food Swaps’ so stay tuned for that!
3. Cost – its really not expensive to make healthy changes.
The perceived cost of ‘healthy eating’ is a key barrier to it becoming sustainable in Ireland, and yet I think this can be partly overcome with proper education. Its fair to say that it is often cheaper to buy so-called ‘ready-made’ foods (e.g. oven pizzas, stir-in sauces) than to cook from scratch, particularly when cooking for a family or large groups. At least, it seems that way superficially. And in the real world, on an average Tuesday night (because let’s face it, there’s always something grim about Tuesdays, probably the distance to Friday…) when you’re running late in work, starved, and not bothered to cook, its a LOT easier to stop in your local supermarket and pick up something microwave-able. We’re only human! But I think the solution to this is strongly linked to my first two points. If you know the basic 5 steps to making a Spaghetti Bolognaise from scratch, and you’ve done it 5 times, suddenly its a whole lot easier to whip up in half an hour when you get home. It’s a molehill instead of a mountain. And if you have 5 or 6 of those kinda recipes, like a ‘go-to’ chicken curry, or a vegetable stir fry, then you’re a LOT less likely to make that stop off on the way home, simply because it all just seems like less effort.
Saying that, I do think there are parts of the cost issue that work against us, and remain out of our immediate control right now – for example, fish being ridiculously expensive in Ireland (especially when buying for families), or newer, wholegrain varieties of foods (e.g. brown bread instead of white) being more expensive. As these foods become more mainstream, I hope that prices will become less of a barrier for us.
Bottom line guys – our health is our wealth.
4. Meal Prep.
My final point in this little rant. Ever heard the saying ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail?’ It’s applicable to many life situations, and making healthier changes to our diets is no exception. Meal-planning is an effort worth making people! Taking 20 minutes out of a weekend, or whatever day you have free in the week, to create a mini-plan (however vague) of your weekday meals means you’re a LOT less likely to be stuck for inspiration on that rainy Tuesday evening. Not only that, but it guides you in your weekly food shop! Choose the recipes you feel like having this week, get those spices you need, buy the veggies and meats in bulk, and get yourself a decent set of tupperware boxes – because if you’ve got your plan written down and the food is in the fridge, you’re more than half-way to sticking to those sustainable healthy changes.
Plus, once you’ve made that first plan, it can be a brilliant base for each new one you make! My Dad knows his path around our local supermarket purely by what basic ingredients we get into our house week to week. The list he brings serves only to remind him of anything new we’re trying. Personally, I sit down each weekend/day off I have and choose a recipe to make for my work lunches, and plan my breakfasts, because these are the two meals I usually have to take with me on the go. It means I save a BOMB by not buying at random in work, and it fuels me up better too!
So guys, I’ll stop there. I would love your feedback on this post, either by commenting below or on my Instagram. Like I said, I am not an expert on this. But I am passionate about it, and about helping people to make changes to their lifestyle for the better of their health. Knowledge is power, and prevention has become more important than treatment in the case of the chronic disease burden we face at the moment. It starts with how we live our lives, and if we tackle this head on, small steps at a time, I know it will make a difference. As I educate myself more on these issues I’ll get more posts going! I’m really excited to move in this direction, and to spread a positive message for change.
Enjoy guys 🙂