'I don't believe in dieting ... and I think Northern Ireland people should eat a balanced healthy diet and be able to enjoy all different kinds of food'
The Big Interview
Leading nutritionist Jane McClenaghan (43) lives in Belfast with her partner Nev. She tells Claire McNeilly about her passion for good food and the dangers of deep fried Mars bars.
Q. Six out of 10 adults and a quarter of children are obese here, which suggests we have a massive problem. Are we a nation of slobs?
A. With our culture, traditionally, we've not been very good at exercise. We love our comfort foods; sweets and biscuits. We have that saying 'a drink's too wet without one' which means you have to have a bun or a biscuit with a cuppa.
Q. So, who's to blame for our bad attitude to food?
A. I think it's a combination of having grown up with it because it's difficult for parents not to pass on bad habits. Unfortunately there's not enough education in schools about cooking properly and healthy eating. A lot of our understanding about nutrition comes from fad diets, not about sensible healthy eating. And it's not a good idea to use junk food as treats for children because then we end up with a mindset throughout our life that junk food is a treat when actually it's not even that nice.
Q. What do you think of the Northern Ireland diet in general?
A. Our traditional diet was pretty good. In the good old days people had things like eggs or porridge for breakfast, soup and a sandwich for lunch and then a proper dinner and there was a lot less snacking. Things like meat, fish chicken.
Proper home-cooked dinners and stews with their spuds. Now people have lost the art of cooking and they don't realise how quick and easy it is to make healthy food. Now we rely too much on processed food, sauces, takeaways and unhealthy snacking. We've got a really sweet tooth that we've developed over the years. I think people here have a sweeter tooth than other UK regions.
Q. Is a microwave bad?
A. A microwave will destroy your antioxidants. It's okay occasionally but I wouldn't use a microwave all the time, especially if you're microwaving vegetables. One of the reasons for eating veg is because they're packed with antioxidants. But it's better to use a microwave to cook veg than not having any veg at all.
Q. Alcohol kills three times as many people as road deaths in Northern Ireland and alcohol misuse costs up to £900m each year. Do you drink alcohol? Why do you think Northern Irish people drink so much?
A. I drink alcohol in moderation, so I'll have wine with a meal or go out for a drink with friends. I think we've got a recent culture of binge drinking in Northern Ireland over the last decade. It's definitely a problem.
But I've noticed that young people under 20 in Northern Ireland are now very interested in health and well-being, which is a good thing.
I don't think that diet and nutrition should be about weight.
It should be about mental health and energy levels and a way of looking after yourself.
Q. What is the best piece of nutritional advice you could give someone?
A. Everything in moderation. Don't deny yourself any food at all and use the 80:20 rule, so eat well 80% of the time and whatever you like the rest of the time.
Q. Have YOU ever been on a diet?
A. No, I don't believe in dieting. I think people should eat a balanced healthy diet and enjoy all different types of food. I've got a bee in my bonnet about low fat diets because we need lots of fat in our diet from things like nuts and seeds and oily fish; they're essential to our health and well-being.
Q. What's your guilty pleasure in terms of food?
A. I love chocolate but I don't eat it every day - just once or twice a week.
Q. Are you a calorie counter and do you think it's important to count calories? Should calorie content be marked on food?
A. No, definitely not and I absolutely hate the idea of calorie counting. If we count calories we're not looking at the whole picture. First of all, it's difficult enough to get enough good fats in your diet.
Fats are important for reducing inflammation, protein is important for growth and renewal of cells, carbohydrate is important for energy.
I don't think calorie content should be marked on food - it's just too simplistic.
It's not a useful tool for someone watching their weight.
Q. Are there any foodstuffs you won't eat?
A. Anything with artificial sweeteners in it, such as diet yoghurts or diet fizzy drinks. I don't eat anything low fat at all.
Q. What is the profile of one of your typical clients?
A. I see more women than men, the ratio is probably 70:30, and because I specialise in adrenal stress and energy then a lot of them are professional people in their mid-30s to mid-50s.
They're generally people whose lives are really busy and they've been running on empty for a while until they're reached a stage that their energy levels are low, they're not sleeping, they're maybe noticing that their mood has been affected - things like stress and anxiety would be an issue.
An initial session is £60 and a review is £35 and normally I would see people three or four times. An all-in package is about £170 over four months. I don't want to be unaffordable. I also work with community groups because I'm aware that not everyone can afford to spend that amount.
Q. With so much conflicting advice about food out there, how can consumers know what's true and what isn't?
A. I advise people to think about where food comes from and eat as near as nature intended.
So, unprocessed food, having treats, but in moderation. Also think about getting as many plants into the diet as possible - lots of fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, oily fish, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils. Don't go on fad diets, just eat healthy food.
Q. Should we eat three meals a day or several snacks?
A. That has recently changed. If you're thinking about weight loss, then definitely three square meals.
A few years ago, I would've said eat little and often but now it is three square meals.
Make sure you eat enough at breakfast to keep you going until lunch, and at lunch to keep you going until dinner. And if you're hungry then snack - but on things like fruit and natural yoghurt or nuts.
Q. Have you ever been overweight? What would you say to someone who was so overweight they believe they're a lost cause?
A. Nobody is a lost cause. If I have someone in my clinic who is really overweight I will look at how emotions are affecting them and refer them on to someone who specialises in that.
Q. What country in the world has the best diet in your opinion?
A. Two diets are always held up as being the ultimate diets - the Japanese diet and the Mediterranean diet. They're both packed full of vegetables, they've both got lots of fish and variety. And in both those areas of the world people really value food. They sit down and eat together and it's like a celebration.
Q. What is the worst food someone could eat?
A. A deep fat fried Mars bar, which seems to be popular in Scotland. First of all, it has a really high sugar content and secondly then there's the hydrogenated fats - the ones linked to heart disease - so you've got a double whammy with that. Sugar and fat is the worst.
Q. How did you get into this line of work?
A. I have wanted to work in nutrition since I was 11. I did Home Economics at Limavady Grammar and I remember being fascinated by the idea that food could have an affect on how you felt on your health. Also, my mum brought up my brother Aaron (39) and I to cook at a really early age and my grandparents were farmers so we grew up picking vegetables and spuds in the fields.
Q. What job(s) did you do before setting up Vital Nutrition?
A. When I was studying I worked on a bookshop on the university campus and I also worked in a nutrition lab in Reading. Then I worked for a supplement company called Biocare in Birmingham, as a nutritional adviser. I was also sub-editor of a trade publication called The Nutrition Practitioner, and was a lecturer at Raworth College in Guildford on its nutritional therapy course before returning to Northern Ireland in 2001.
Q. You own and run Vital Nutrition Ltd, a company you set up in 2001. What does your job entail?
A. Two days a week I work from Framar Health (food shop) in Belfast doing one-to-one consultations.
I specialise in helping people examine how their diet affects stress and energy. The rest of the time I go into work places to take health sessions and I also do free demos for community groups.
In the last couple of months Centra has employed me as the company's ambassador in my capacity as nutritionist.
Q. You've developed workplace health programmes for some local companies. Which ones? What does that involve?
A. Lots of different companies including engineering and construction firms, banks, Northern Ireland Electricity and the Royal Victoria Hospital. Usually it's a lunchtime session and I would go in and give a session which is a combination of eating for energy, how to manage stress and there's often a cookery demonstration included in that too.
How to pack a healthy lunch, alternatives to sandwiches. I do a lot of work with shift-workers too, especially people on night shift.
Q. What's next? Any plans to expand your company? You've already written one book - The Vital Nutrition Cookbook - are you writing any more?
A. My collaboration with Centra is going to be launched next month. We'll be working together to encourage people to eat well. We've come up with simple ideas and recipes around healthy fast food. By November, Centra will have introduced another 150 new healthy lines bringing the total of healthy products across its stores to 450. Apart from that, I'm also working on my next book.