By Charlotte Okonji.
Orla Walsh, resident dietician on RTE’s What Are You Eating? sat down with MenuPages to discuss healthy lifestyle changes, fad diets, and how Ireland can avoid becoming the fat man of Europe.
What first stirred your interest in health and nutrition?
In school I loved studying the sciences. My favourite subjects were Biology and Maths so I went on to study Science at third level and to specialise in Physiology. It was only in my 3rd year of University that I found out that there was a job that incorporated all of my favourite topics with health and food. Within about 5 seconds I had decided that it was all I wanted to do. I had to spend another 3 years becoming a Nutritionist & Dietitian. With a love of sports, I specialised in Sports Nutrition which took another 2 years. So I spent 9 years at third level in total!! However, I reached my goal of running a successful private practice as well as working with Athletics Ireland and the Irish Institute of Sport, so it was all worth it!
Qualified dietitians are in rather short supply in this country. Do you think that’s reflective of just how difficult it is to undertake the training or is it because many Irish people undervalue the importance of a balanced diet?
We are in short supply. When you go to college and study law, you need to do extra time afterwards, exams and internships etc. in order to become a solicitor or barrister. Dietetics is a bit like that. You need a full background in Science, a good knowledge of nutrition and time spent in placement to learn how to apply all that you have learnt. It takes time, so perhaps that’s a limiting factor. To do it as an undergrad requires a lot of points, way beyond what many could achieve no matter how hard they worked for it. So that’s certainly a limiting factor also.
The title ‘Dietician’ is a protected term, while Nutritionist isn’t. Anyone can call themselves a Nutritionist, but by law you have to fulfil specific requirements to be called a Dietitian. That’s not to say that there aren’t fantastic Nutritionists out there… but there is no monitoring of the title so there’s a fair few duds knocking about! Nutritional Science is a fast growing area so there will be more and more of us with time.
Are you in favour of restaurants being legally required to provide calorie counts on menus? Do you think it will actually make a difference?
I am in favour and I do think that it makes a difference! I think we need as much help as we can get to spur us onto a healthy path! We’re an overweight nation, and we’re getting fatter, we need to try everything that we can think of to turn the tide on this epidemic. 95% of people who are obese stay obese, and obesity negatively impacts every inch of someone’s life. Both mental and physical health, as well as quality and quantity of life suffer with obesity – there is no room for complacency!
Do most of your clients come with preconceived notions that healthy eating equals boring, bland food? How do you turn them away from this line of thinking?
Yes! They certainly do. Hopefully I change their opinion. I think every client of mine knows that I’m a foodie who loves, respects and enjoys food. We just need to stop abusing it.
Many of us turn to comfort eating-junk food or alcohol- when stressed or tired. What advice would you give to someone who wants to avoid that trap?
I’d advise people to find comforts that aren’t food. There are many rewards or mood lifters other than food. They tend to be quite individual so I’d always encourage people to explore what their own healthy mood lifter may be.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Chocolate! I wouldn’t die if I never ate chocolate again, but I would be miserable. An A1 in healthy eating is eating well 90% of the time, which I do. It works out as about 19 out of 21 meals per week and 12 out of 14 snacks. An A1 in healthy eating is doable! But there’s no need to try and achieve 100%. You need to have a sustainable approach.
“In 1 study about 33% of children didn’t even recognise a red pepper while most, about 85%, couldn’t identify a leek!!”
Childhood obesity is becoming an ever more significant health issue. Some commentators blame the parents, while others blame lack of school P.E classes, junk food manufacturers, T.V advertising etc. Where would you lay the blame?
There are so many issues here… but let me pick my 3!
The first problem is inactivity. Children are becoming more sedentary and latest research indicates that only 12% of schoolchildren are meeting weekly physical health guidelines. But it’s not just the older kids. 1 in 3 pre-schoolers have a telly in their room. On average pre-schoolers spend 2.2 hours watching telly each day. This would certainly get in the way of exercising, don’t you agree?
But forget official activity, what about activity that’s integrated into their daily lives such as walking to school? Although 40% of kids walked to school in the early 80’s, 30 years later only 25% did. So integrated activity is a less done thing.
The second issue is veg. The more veg. that is in a diet, the less room there is for the less healthy stuff. However, kids are only getting about 55-65g of veg into their diets each day (a few bites). Why? Well they don’t even know what they are!! In 1 study about 33% of children didn’t even recognise a red pepper while most, about 85%, couldn’t identify a leek!!
The third issue is environment. Research shows that children eat like their parents. A 2016 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that children’s diet quality and energy intake were closely related to their parents. This is because of a shared food environment, shared meals, and the influence of parent modelling. Exposure to healthful foods during childhood leads to developing a preference for those foods and healthful eating habits are picked up at an early age and can be maintained throughout adulthood. There is a need for parents to tackle the healthy dietary patterns within the household.
The WHO recently stated that Ireland is heading towards being the most obese nation in Europe. From your own experience is this a realistic assessment, or just scaremongering?
As long as we keep consuming food-like products instead of real food, sugar-laden drinks, copious amounts of alcohol and too much junk food, we’re very much on the path to an incredibly unhealthy place.
Do you find much difference in your male and female clients when it comes to motivation and perseverance?
Oh no… Certainly not! I guess that if there was a difference it’s that women may have something big to work towards such as a wedding, IVF treatment, etc.…
Do “fad” diets work? Or are we just fooling ourselves with the “Paleo”, the “GI” diet etc.?
No they don’t. Unless you tackle every aspect of your life that leads to putting weight on, it will continue to happen. A sustainable approach is the only way. Nonetheless sometimes people need a ‘fad diet’ to get things going, but to keep it off they need to tackle their less healthy behaviours head on.
Nutritional guidelines are not always consistent. For years fat was the enemy, now sugar is seen as the root of all evil. Do you think both of these should be avoided to be on the safe side?
More knowledge, in any area of life, affects the conclusions that are drawn up. I’m sure the Gardaí, barristers, solicitors, journalists etc.… would say the same thing! The more knowledge we gain, the more right we become. Nutritional science is new and it is evolving, so people need to be patient (I include Scientists and practitioners in this too!).
What would you eat in a typical day?
Breakfast is typically eggs in some shape or form. I suffer from “hangry” from time to time, which eggs tend to reduce! I might have 4 small meals or 3 medium sized meals and 2 small snacks, depending on my work and training. For lunch I usually have salad in summer and leftovers in winter. I have a slow cooker which I find great. With dinner I usually have white fish, oily fish, shellfish and beef on one day of the week and the rest of the time I have pork, chicken, turkey or a vegetarian meal. Variety is important!
How significant is sport and physical exercise in your life?
It’s central to who I am. I was brought up kayaking on a Saturday and hill-walking on a Sunday with a multitude of different sporting activities during the week. We were brought up thinking that it was normal to walk to school, cycle if somewhere was too far to walk and generally get outside and be active. It was instilled in me. I believe that food is the most widely abused anti-anxiety drug and exercise if the most potent yet underutilised antidepressant. I practice what I preach, most of the time.
Finally, can you offer just 1 piece of advice to any readers out there who would like to make lifestyle changes, but have no idea where to start?
Don’t look at removing foods from your diet… focus on putting healthy foods in.
To arrange a consultation with Orla or to try out one of her fantastic guilt-free recipes, see www.orlawalshnutrition.ie