'My mum encouraged us to grow vegetables and be aware of where our food comes from... and that's being passed down through the generations'
Belfast nutritionist Jane McClenaghan is passionate about healthy eating. She tells Stephanie Bell how childhood days on her grandparents' farm were a huge influence on her career
Growing up in a home where dinner meant going out into the garden to harvest fresh vegetables, it is hardly surprising that Jane McClenaghan developed an early passion for healthy eating.
Just like her parents and grandparents, who grew their own food long before it became trendy, she broke the mould when she announced at school that she wanted to be a nutritional therapist.
Careers advisors had never heard of it and persuaded Jane to take a food technology degree, convinced it would open more doors for her.
When the 45-year-old eventually set up her own business, Vital Nutrition, in Belfast in 2001, she was the first person in Northern Ireland offering a clinic on healthy eating.
Nowadays she is one of many practising nutritionists, but she still stands out thanks to the passion she brings to her work, which has seen her become a regular on local TV and radio (she has a monthly slot with Carolyn Stewart's U105 lunchtime show and is often on BBC Radio Ulster with Kerry McLean).
Jane also recently became the first person in Northern Ireland to receive a UK CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) Award for outstanding practice.
As well as advising clients on a one-to-one basis in her Belfast clinic, she has brought healthy eating into our homes via the internet, hosting what have become very popular 'webinars'.
Jane also runs cookery classes and wellbeing workshops and specialises in developing workplace health programmes for companies across Ireland.
On top of all this, she finds time to write and has just launched her second book, Vital Nutrition: How to Eat for Optimum Health, Happiness and Energy.
Her philosophy of health and wellbeing is one of balance - simple, effective and practical changes that can fit into anyone's lifestyle and are designed to rejuvenate your motivation for eating well.
A go-to guru on nutrition, Jane enjoys a healthy lifestyle with her long-term partner Neville Walker (52), a conservation volunteer whom she describes as "an outdoorsy person".
Together they like to spend their leisure time walking in the Mournes, kayaking, cooking and, of course, growing their own vegetables in the garden of their Belfast home.
Jane grew up in Campsie in the north west and spent a lot of time as a child on her grandparents' dairy farm. Her childhood very much influenced not just her choice of career, but also her lifestyle."Farming goes back in our family for generations and as a child I would have spent every weekend and evenings at my grandparents' farm," she says.
"As well as growing crops for a living, my grandfather had his own vegetable patch and my mum grew her own vegetables.
"From an early age my mum taught me and my brother, Aaron, to cook and bake and she would have encouraged us to grow our own vegetables and be aware of where our food comes from.
"Aaron now also grows his own and encourages my nieces and nephews, so it is still being passed down through the generations.
"In our house for dinner you would have dug up your own spuds and got your peas and cabbage from the garden.
"Living in Belfast, we have a medium-sized garden and an edible hedge, which I love. During the summer we got raspberries, blackberries, wild strawberries, gooseberries and blueberries from it.
"We also have a raised vegetable patch where we grow peas, beans, carrots and beetroot. We are now trying to grow kale over the winter months."
Although growing your own food has been popular for some time, with even courtyard gardens in cities boasting potted vegetables and herbs, some people still find it daunting.
But Jane insists you don't have to be green-fingered to grow fresh produce, and the rewards make it worthwhile.
"One of the easiest things to grow is peas," she explains. "You put this tiny little dried pea seed into the ground and get this massive plant full of peas, which are so sweet when eaten straight from the pod.
"Celery and carrots can be a bit harder to grow. I would advise people to start with something very easy like salad leaves. They can be expensive to buy in the shop and yet if you put them in a terracotta pot they will just keep growing."
Turning her passion for cooking and healthy eating into a career was a bit of a challenge at first. Jane, a former pupil of Limavady Grammar School, says while her peers were aspiring to be lawyers, engineers and doctors, her favourite subject - unsurprisingly - was home economics.
She recalls her meeting with career advisors and their surprise when she announced she wanted to be a nutritionist: "It wasn't a thing back then and the careers advisors thought it was ridiculous and advised me to study food science, which I did at Reading University.
"I'm really glad I did because it had a nutritional component to it. I then went on to study nutritional therapy at college in London and never looked back.
"I found it mind-blowing how what we eat can have such a big effect on our health and wellbeing. I loved every day of that course."
Jane stayed in England working with a number of companies and also got a teaching qualification so that she could lecture on nutrition.
After 10 years living in England, she missed her mother and was feeling very homesick, so she decided to return to Northern Ireland in 2001.
Jane opened her own clinic in a room above the Framar Health store on the Lisburn Road, where she still practises one day a week. Apart from the well-known late naturopath Jan de Vries, there was no one else offering the service locally.
But that didn't stop the nutritionist from very quickly establishing herself and, as people found her advice on making simple changes to their diet was transforming their health, her clinic very soon took off.
"I loved living in England, but I could never see myself living there for ever" Jane says. "I got a lot of experience and wanted to set up my own businesses - and I wanted to come home and do it.
"It was still very new in Northern Ireland. The only other person doing anything like it was Jan de Vries.
"No one was practising nutritional therapy and yet it is so different now as there are so many people doing it.
"I've met so many wonderful people along the way since I set up my business. As well as my clinic, where I have one-to-ones with clients, I have enjoyed going into the workplace doing preventative healthcare.
"We are definitely a lot more aware now than we were in 2001 about the importance of good nutrition. Back then it was seen as a bit off the wall.
"Now, most people would know to eat their oily fish three times a week and their five-a-day, and I think people are a lot more sceptical and better informed about reading food labels and taking responsibility for their health, which is brilliant."
While Jane does see people with weight problems, she doesn't believe in fad diets.
A lot of her work is about treating people for a range of health issues that can often be tackled through simple changes to their diets. After an initial consultation, Jane devises a tailor-made nutritional programme, followed up with another appointment after four weeks. It is the transformation in the quality of her clients' lives during these four weeks of following their individual plan that gives Jane most satisfaction.
"Usually when people come back they feel very different and much better," she says. "They are usually sleeping better and have more energy.
"Usually it is just a few small changes to their diet that are very easy to follow, and when people tell me it has made a difference to them there is no better reward for me than that."
Making it easy for people to adopt healthier food choices is what it is all about for Jane and the reason for her new book.
Set out in easy-to-follow chapters dealing with various common issues such as sleep, stress, exercise and sugar, as well as eating for your age and immune boosters, she devised it as an essential handbook that people could dip in and out of for advice.
"I wanted something that would be accessible for everyone and something that they could pull down from their bookshelf as a handy reference," Jane says.
"It is basically a handbook on how to eat for optimum health and energy.
"I ask people what is on their plate and encourage them to always go for the best-quality food.
"Although organic isn't for everybody, there is advice in there on how to make good local meat and other produce stretch to a few meals, getting the best value as well as quality.
"It also deals with how to reduce sugar intake and also eating for exercise - what to have before and after training - as well as sleep issues and stress."
Eating for your age is another important topic in her book, and Jane advises on how to nourish teenagers, what to eat during your party years in your 20s and also in your 30s when you are starting to settle down, right up to nutritional advice for people in their 80s.
While healthy eating has always come naturally to Jane, she advocates the 80/20 rule where, if you are eating well 80% of the time, you can indulge yourself in some sweet treats.
"I love chocolate and a little bit of what you fancy does you good. There is too much finger-wagging and telling people off if they are not eating healthy 100% of the time," she says.
Chronic fatigue and burnout is one of the most common complaints Jane deals with, and her book features a section on eating to improve your energy.
She has also embraced modern technology to bring her message to more people through regular online sessions.
Her webinars are designed for people who have little free time and find it difficult to get into a clinic.
It allows them to benefit from sessions with Jane via the internet in their own homes.
This new service has proved so successful, with between 15 and 40 people taking part in what are usually four weekly sessions, that she has plans to expand it next year.
Jane has also set up the Vital Nutritional online VIP club where, for £89 a year, you can enjoy a Vital Nutrition health check with your own targeted diet action plan, a free copy of her cookbook and access to a monthly video from Jane with cookery demos, health advice and nutrition coaching.
There is also an exclusive members only forum when you can ask questions directly and meet other members.
"The online courses cover everything from eating for the menopause to eating for energy to Fat Blast weight management," Jane explains. "It really is aimed at people who don't have enough time to attend a one-hour session in a clinic and it allows me to get my message across and help a lot more people in one hour.
"I developed the online club to try and keep people engaged and excited about their health and wellbeing while not having to make too big a commitment."
Jane does practise what she preaches: as well as enjoying a healthy diet with produce from her own garden, she is a member of the Tribal Fitness boot camp, which she attends twice a week, and also enjoys running.
She has been with Neville for seven years and, while she doesn't have a family of her own, she loves nothing better than spending time with her niece Bethan (15) and nephews Owen (12) and Sam (8).
"I love hanging out with them as they keep me grounded," Jane says. "Bethan is at a great age to go shopping with and Owen keeps me up to date with technology.
"I also love to eat out and try new foods that I wouldn't cook at home.
"Neville and I also enjoy cooking together and having people over for food - they aren't dinner parties but what I refer to as 'gatherings', where we put a big pot in the middle of the table and people help themselves."
Ultimately, Jane says that simple, easy, everyday changes to your diet and lifestyle can have a major impact - and she hopes that her new book will prove a vital guide to helping people make the optimum dietary choices for the best possible nourishment.
Vital Nutrition by Jane McClenaghan, published by Colourpoint Books, £12.99, available from Waterstones, Easons, Amazon and all good bookstores
Jane’s top 10 easy everyday eating challenges for optimum health
1. Eat real food. Eat food that is as close to nature as possible. Vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, fish (not battered or breaded), nuts, seeds, pulses, natural and full fat dairy products, etc. If the food label resembles a chemical equation then leave it on the shelf.
2. Cook more. Research shows that people who eat food they cook themselves are healthier and leaner, not to mention the money you will save on pre-packed sandwiches and processed food at lunchtime.
3. Sit at a table (not your desk!) to eat all your meals and take time to savour and enjoy your food rather than eating on the run.
4. Don’t diet. Avoid crazy fad diets and quick weight loss plans. Instead think of the food you eat as the building blocks to your health. If you make more healthy choices, the chances are you will feel better. Health is a state of wellbeing, rather than a number on the scales.
5. Make the healthiest choice you can. Sometimes the best choice will be a wholemeal packaged sandwich from a garage forecourt rather than a sausage roll, or a banana instead of a chocolate bar. That is OK and a better choice than a bad choice.
6. Eat a brassica vegetable every day. These sulphur-rich foods like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, rocket and watercress are nutritional powerhouses that pack a punch in terms of nutrition.
7. Eat like you are on holiday — not ice-cream and chips, but look towards the Mediterranean diet for one of the healthiest diets in the world and adopt a few of their healthy habits like eating oily fish a couple of times a week, packing your diet full of colourful vegetables and adding olive oil to your diet.
8. Know your sugars. Keep an eye on food labels — 5g per 100g or less is a low sugar content. I find it helps to visualise how much sugar is in food, so take a look at the amount of sugar in one portion and divide by four to tell you how many teaspoonfuls you are eating.
9. Drink more water. Even if that just means drinking a glass or two a day, it is better than none. The first telltale sign of dehydration can be fatigue rather than thirst, but a good way to tell if you are dehydrated is the colour of your pee — anything darker than a light straw colour is a sign to drink up.
10. Get outside every day. Most of us are cooped up over the autumn and winter, leaving us feeling fatigued and fed up. Go for a walk, join an outdoors bootcamp class or put the washing on the line if there is a blink of sunlight.