Amanda Hamilton: Food for thought
As she launches her new show to help Northern Ireland families to lose weight and eat healthily, nutritionist and TV presenter Amanda Hamilton talks to Audrey Watson about her own hectic life and her love of good food.
As a busy mum of four Amanda Hamilton appreciates how hard it can be to encourage healthy eating in teenagers and time-strapped parents. The 36-year-old Scot is returning to the province for a new BBC NI programme, Slim Chance: Fix my Family, in which, along with other experts, she tries to change the eating habits of a lifetime for three local families who are all struggling with their weight.
The six-part series follows the families as they take part in an intensive weight loss programme and attempt to change their relationships with food.
“The format aims to help the whole family, but especially the children,” says Amanda. “Childhood obesity is on the increase all over the UK and we know that the family unit working together is one of the most successful weight-loss strategies that there is. Finger wagging and scaremongering doesn’t work.
“The focus of Slim Chance is on fun, food and the psychology of what’s making us overweight. By following the progress of our families, viewers may also feel able to make simple but positive changes in their life.”
Born in North Berwick, Amanda originally studied marketing and communications at Napier University, Edinburgh, but a year spent in America as part of her degree changed the course of her life.
“I had always been very sporty [she played badminton for Scotland] and although when I was younger, sometimes I didn’t eat as well as I should, I was pretty healthy.
“During my time in the States, I saw so much real obesity it shocked me and it triggered a kind of, ‘is this what’s happening to the world?’ reaction.
“Plus the food on campus was horrible,” she laughs. “At that time, nutrition on its own as a science was in its infancy, so it took me a while after that to find the appropriate course and professor.
“I didn’t like the overly restrictive methods that you got in traditional dietetics. I think with nutrition, you have to be quite creative and think about a person’s lifestyle and the emotional reasons behind the food and the way that they eat.
“If there is an underlying problem, you need to figure out a way to solve it.”
Ten years on and Amanda is a qualified nutritionist registered with the British Association of Nutritional Therapy. She also has a clinic just off Sloane Square in London, runs spa-based courses in upmarket hotels around the UK as well as in Portugal and South Africa, plus a number of personal clients.
She’s also a regular on television, having presented Something for the Weekend and appearing regularly on This Morning, Richard and Judy, How to Live Longer, and GMTV. She was also the resident nutritionist on BBC NI’s The Last Resort series.
Based in Edinburgh, she lives with husband Crawfurd Hill (46), daughter Jana (6) from a previous relationship, and their son Ruaridh (2) and two stepchildren, Callum (14) and Hannah (16).
Former financier Crawfurd now helps Amanda run her business and, she says, the family kitchen.
“Crawfurd and I pretty much share cooking duties,” she says. “Luckily all the kids really like the food that we cook at home — simple, freshly prepared meals — but if my daughter wanted to go to McDonald’s with her friends every now and then, that’s absolutely fine.
Amanda also credits Crawfurd with helping her balance home and working life.
“Family life is so hectic. If we didn’t work together, we would never see each other,” she laughs. “Crawfurd is very hands-on and we really do co-parent. Besides that, we have huge family support and sometimes a visiting au-pair for the ‘mad’ hours between 5.30pm and 7.30pm to help with the hurricane that hits the house when feeding four children. Most of all, though, I’ve learnt not to sweat about the small stuff.
“When I had my daughter Jana, I had
that working-mother guilt and my mum told me, ‘Deal with it. You’re going to feel guilty no matter what you do, and you can never be there all the time for every single little thing, so try to let that go’.”
Surprisingly, it was as a result of a newspaper that Amanda met her husband.
She explains: “In Scotland there’s a paper called The Scotsman and they do an annual ‘Eligible Award’ where they vote for the 50 most eligible people in the country. Crawfurd and I made the list in 2007 and we met at the awards ceremony and that was it.”
Keen hikers, they had been dating for less than a year when the businessman proposed at the 3,553ft summit of Schiehallion in Perthshire in June 2008 and the couple tied the knot at a lavish ceremony in Traquair, near Peebles, two years ago.
Although she and Crawfurd are both passionate about nutrition and fitness, Amanda does allow herself some treats.
“I love a good coffee,” she says. “And if I’m out for a meal, I prefer a pudding rather than a starter. I don’t deny myself anything, but I don’t drink a lot.
“That’s one of the things about growing older — if you have a glass of wine every night, you’ll definitely notice it on your waistband. But I do enjoy the occasional glass of good wine.”
Her sensible and measured approach to food is in stark contrast to Scotland’s other famous female nutritionist, Gillian McKeith, who shot to fame in the Channel 4 series You Are What You Eat, where she berated the obese and pored over their bodily waste in a bid to shame them into changing their lifestyle.
“We do have a very different approach,” admits Amanda. “And I would never ever have done what she did in I’m a Celebrity ... I was shocked at the way she came across.
“I don’t believe the way to make families engage in healthy eating is to make them eat mung beans and only mung beans. I’ve got a less extreme and more realistic approach.
“Harassing people to lose weight makes interesting TV, but I think it is far more effective to actually help people get to the bottom of their problems.
“Many also perceive time restraints as a barrier to healthy eating, which in Slim Chance we soon change, and also worries about the increased expense of eating healthier, which we prove isn’t actually the case.
“Of course, there are individual reasons why people overeat and you have to peel back the layers of people’s relationships with food and the habits they have slipped into.
“There’s a bit of re-education needed as well about what actually is healthy food and what is not. I find there’s a general lack of understanding about what food is healthy and it’s not always what is advertised as being low-calorie or low-fat.
“I really believe that education is key to solving the obesity problem and if you start with the young and introduce good food and eating habits, it can have a lifelong effect.
“When I was a child, food and diet wasn’t a big issue, but my mum was very health-conscious and grew her own vegetables and the whole family was very sporty, so it was a naturally healthy environment.”
Amanda has little time for quick fixes and surgery to combat obesity, but understands the pressure on women to look nothing less than perfect.
“I’m not a fan of liposuction or gastric bands. I’ve seen people at my clinic who have had lipo and the results haven’t been great. It’s not treating the root cause of the problem.
“Being on TV, I do sometimes feel pressure to look a certain way, but I don’t know if it would be any different if I wasn’t on telly, I like to look the best I can anyway.
“However, the reality is that keeping in shape does get a bit harder for women as they get older.
“And we’re all the same. If we all sit about and eat too much, then we all gain weight.”
Slim Chance: Fix My Family, starts on BBC One Northern Ireland this Monday at 7.30pm.