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Nutritionist Jane McClenaghan: My mum's recipe book has fallen to bits now but it's where I learned to cook from

The Big Ask

Jane McClenaghan at home with her dog Cassie
Jane McClenaghan at home with her dog Cassie
Billy Connolly
Sue Perkins
Food lover: Jane in her kitchen at home
Jane with her new book
Rachel Dean

By Rachel Dean

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to nutritionist Jane McClenaghan (47), who lives in Belfast with her husband Nev and their rescue dog Cassie.

Q: Tell us about your childhood

A: I am the eldest of two - my brother Aaron is four and a half years younger than me.

We grew up just outside Eglington in the north west. Our grandparents were farmers, so most of our childhood was spent outside.

We grew things with my granddad on the farm and my mum encouraged us to cook. We grew peas and beans, and one memory that has stuck in my mind is of me being really little and going down to the garden with my granddad to pick peas and eating them in the vegetable patch. Also, digging fresh potatoes from the ground is just fantastic.

When we were kids, we had this very informal little gang which we called The Roadhog Gang. And it was just a group of neighbours, cousins, brothers and sisters. We all had bikes, skateboards or roller boots and we'd build ramps.

I was also a Brownie, then I was a Guide and moved my way up quite quickly. Again, I did a lot of outdoorsy stuff. We just got loads of opportunities doing things through the Guides. When I was about 16, I went on this walking trip in Germany with Adventure Scouts and the award was called the Explorer Belt.

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I loved to knit things, too. I did a lot of sewing and made a lot of my own clothes, especially when I was a student. My mum taught us all how to knit and sew, and also to cook and bake as well. I think that's where the creative side of things started.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: My business, Vital Nutrition, which I built up from scratch. I moved back here from England in 2001 and at that time nobody was doing nutritional therapy in Northern Ireland, so it was a really new and fresh mode of healthcare and a new way of looking at nutrition. I'm so proud of that.

Outdoor fun: Jane McClenaghan
Outdoor fun: Jane McClenaghan

I'm also really proud that what I do helps people to feel better, to function better and to get the most out of their life.

When I started off, I was seeing a lot of clients one-to-one, but I don't do that so much these days.

Mainly what I do - as I'm trying to reach more people - is workplace health, so, for example, I go into workspaces and talk about how nutrition can help with mood, stress or energy.

I also do a lot of work with shift workers regarding what to eat and when to eat, depending on the shift they're working. I do a little bit of radio work, which I love as well - I'm on with Carolyn Stewart on U105 once a month and it's great fun.

I've also written a couple of books, which is something I never, ever thought I'd do.

My first book was called The Vital Nutrition Cookbook and the second was Vital Nutrition - How to eat your way to optimum health, happiness and energy.

Q: The one regret you wish you could amend?

A: I don't have any regrets. I feel like life is too short to look back and regret anything.

I think that you make the right decision for the circumstance and the time you're in.

Q: And what about phobias? Do you have any?

A: This might sound a little weird, but I'm afraid of pigeons. They're so much worse than any other bird, aren't they?

The other thing I'm scared of - and I do have friends who work in the Belfast Circus School - is clowns.

I can't remember what triggered these fears, all I know is that I hate clowns and pigeons.

Q: The temptation you cannot resist?

A: I think that food should be enjoyed and if there's something that you're tempted by, your wee treat, then I think you should eat it without any guilt and eat it with pleasure.

So, for me, I would say it's a really nice glass of red wine and a big juicy steak.

Q: Your number one prized possession?

A: It's got to be my mountain bike. I try to out on it as much as I can.

I try to get up to Garvagh Forest with my two nephews, who are 10 and 14, because they're really into it too.

I love hiking and mountain biking - being in the great outdoors is my thing.

Q: The book that's most impacted your life?

A: My mum's recipe book. It's all handwritten and contains recipes that have been passed on to her by friends, her mum and her sisters.

Now, it has fallen to bits, but that recipe book is basically where my brother and I learned to cook from.

Q: If you had the power or the authority, what would you do?

A: If I had the chance, I would build health back into society and get people to really look at food from the point of view of the amazing power it has to nourish us and make us feel really good.

I think the way to start with that would be to teach all kids how to cook, but also to get them to really taste food, to enjoy it, and appreciate good quality, locally-produced food and the amazing pleasure you can get from food - instead of just junk food!

I think we've really lost the ability to cook. People's perception of cooking now, I think, is, 'Oh, it's going to take me ages, I haven't got time to do that'. But it can be so quick and so easy and also really economical. People always say to me that eating healthy is expensive, but it's really not.

Q: What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A: There's lots of absolute nonsense out there about nutrition. There are people on social media who are putting out these crazy diets that have no scientific foundation.

Another thing that does my head in is this whole thing about 'low-fat diets'. Fat is an essential nutrient.

I think what has happened is that we've ended up wanting more and more sugar, so our body shape has totally changed in the last few decades.

People are getting bigger, despite all the low-fat diet stuff. They are trusting what is on labels - if it says 'low fat', consumers trust that it's good for them, but it's so far from it. These foods are generally high in sugar.

I think that the majority of the diet industry is there for profit and not people. It means that people feel guilty and negative about food, when I really think that food should be a pleasure and something to be enjoyed.

Q: Who has most influenced you in life?

A My family, my mum and dad in particular. They brought us up to respect everyone we meet, to treat people well and also, I guess from my point of view, to value our health and value the food that we eat.

Q: Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive and why?

A: First would be Billy Connolly because, yes, he's known for his comedy, but I think his mind is amazing. Also, I think his recent journey with Parkinson's makes him such a role model for people who are also affected by the disease. And of course, he is hilarious and would really make you chuckle.

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Billy Connolly

Then, Noel Fielding, who presents the Great British Bake Off, because he is just so funny.

And Sue Perkins because I love her. Again, I love her humour, but I love her human spirit, too. She does all those travel shows and you can just see that she really loves being with people.

Q: The best piece of advice you ever received?

A: To trust your gut and go with your instinct. And generally speaking, if you go with what your gut tells you, it's the right answer.

Q: The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A: Mountain biking. For me, one of the best pleasures in life is being outside and being amongst nature. I'm not a very good mountain biker, but I love the freedom of it. I always come out of the forest feeling like it changes your mood and your energy - it just makes me feel so good. We also take our dog Cassie up the Mournes and up mountains quite a lot. She's a wee rescue Collie.

Q: The poem that touches your heart?

A: It's got to be a Seamus Heaney one and I think it's probably Blackberry-Picking. For me, it's really reminiscent of my childhood.

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Food lover: Jane in her kitchen at home

Q: The happiest moments of your life?

A: I got married to Nev last year on November 17 and we had a really, really brilliant day. It was just the two of us and our immediately families. We planned it all in six weeks - it was a no-nonsense, down-to-earth wedding and it was just lovely. We'd been together 10 years before we got married, so we didn't really rush into it!

Q: And the saddest moment of your life?

A: I've lost a couple of friends too soon in life. The loss of my grandparents, yes, but most sad was when I lost friends who just died too young.

Q The one event that made a difference in your life?

A: When I went to London to study Nutritional Therapy.

I did Food Science at the University of Reading first, then I studied Nutritional Therapy at a place called the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and I had never heard of nutritional therapy before. It was my lecturer at Reading who told me about it and it's the best thing I ever did, because it's what I do now and it's what I'm really passionate about.

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Jane with her new book

Q: What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?

A: To try to get more people out of the 'diet trap' and to make them much more conscious about and connected to the food they're eating.

I want people to be more conscious about how food actually makes them feel, instead of whether or not it'll make them lose weight.

There's so much more to food than just calories.

Q: What's the philosophy you live by?

A: Do stuff that makes you happy. And eat real food.

Q: How do you want to be remembered?

A: I would like to be remembered as someone who changed what you put in your shopping trolley. But on a more personal note, I want my family to remember me as someone who loved them as much as they loved me.

  • Jane delivers nutrition workshops and cookery demonstrations for workplaces, community groups and schools, as well as online nutrition courses and one-to-one consultations. Find out more at www.vital-nutrition.co.uk

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