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What I have learned as a freelance nutritionist

What I have learned as a freelance nutritionist

What have I learned as a freelance nutritionist?

These are my learnings as a freelance nutritionist. I started studying nutrition in 2003 at the ripe old age of 25 after years of trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. So, my first bit of advice is that it takes some people a little longer to figure out what to do. Once you find your passion, you will find your drive to succeed in whatever you put your mind to.

After completing my degree, I fancied learning more about public health, which interested me most in my course. Despite the financial challenges, I decided to do a master’s degree on the topic as I knew I would never do it if I didn’t strike while the iron was hot. I worked my socks off and took out a bank loan to cover the substantial fees, then worked five nights a week in a restaurant to support myself. Hilariously, I remember the tutors on the induction week saying it wasn’t possible to work and study this course at the same time – a few hours after that lecture I put on my apron ready for work! I have always been a believer in doing whatever you have to do to achieve your goals – some of us just ain’t that privileged! After this, I continued to work in hospitality and volunteered at various charities and NGOs focused on nutrition.

I got a lucky break and found a job with a small tech company that developed software that helped schools, care homes and hospitals analyse their menu plans. Being part of a small company, I had to develop software and pitch the software to local authorities throughout the UK as well as talking at events and delivering training sessions. After several years doing this, I was given voluntary redundancy, which allowed me to set up on my own as a freelance nutritionist.

After paying for a website to be built and buying myself a new laptop and various bits of software, I got myself up and running. I contacted everyone I had worked with in my previous company and got work. At the same time, I also set up a small consultancy on the side called HOPE which was Helping Older People to Eat Well. I worked with many care home groups delivering training focused on older people and dementia through this consultancy. I also started to contact personal trainers and nutrition and wellness companies to offer my services while also building my social media profile on Twitter and Instagram. I also bagged a part-time position as head of nutrition with a leading supplement brand called Healthspan.

My position at Healthspan is very media-focused, working with the press office, which has helped me build my profile further in the media. At this time, I was also introduced to Lily Simpson by a contact and worked with her to help develop her business called The Detox Kitchen working on the food and menu planning side of things. Together we wrote a book called The Detox Kitchen Bible, published by Bloomsbury which has since been a very successful book sold in many languages around the world.

This gave me the platform I needed to get more work in this industry. I have since worked around the globe with many wellness brands, retreats, celebrities, and other high-end clients. Further to this, I also followed another interest of mine which is sleep. I wrote another book called The Art of Sleeping which has also been successful and sold worldwide in many different languages. What I love most about being a freelance nutritionist is that I am always learning as I have to cover so many different areas of nutrition in my work.

It all sounds very glamorous on paper, but I still have to work incredibly hard to make ends meet as a freelancer. I still worry all the time about where the next bit of work is going to come from and to be honest even the best of us are always trying to figure things out.

So, what have I learned, and what are my top tips for being a successful freelance nutritionist?

Here goes (in no particular order) and apologies as this blog appears to have become quite epic so you might want to make yourself a nice cup of tea at this point as you could be here for a while!

Set up

This is where the initial costs are involved. You need a website and it doesn’t need to be fancy to begin with. I did my first website myself then got someone else to do one for me when I had a little more money coming in. Think carefully about what you want to include on your site from the start.

The bare necessities will include a home page and then various pages explaining your services and obviously a contact page with a link to your email. I have a blog which to be honest is more for my own benefit than anything else as I can make them downloadable and use them as factsheets or direct people to them on social media. A place to store recipes is nice if that’s your thing and you may want to include a page to showcase any writing or other media work you have done. Make sure there are links on your site to all your social media.

Make sure you have control of the back end so that you can add stuff to your site easily – my website is built in Word Press. I have someone that hosts the server and also helps with the housekeeping which includes updates to the various bits and bobs (as you can see I have no clue what actually goes on in this department!).

Also, get some business cards made up and remember to keep them on you at all times as you never know who you are going to bump into. I have found the most cost effective place is Moo.com.

Join the AFN

As nutritionists you should join the Association for Nutrition. It’s a faff getting your portfolio together but you need to support this charity as they have your back. You have worked so hard to train in your qualification and this charity helps raise awareness of properly trained nutritionists. Without this type of backing and support anyone can call themselves a nutritionist even those that have done a weekend course on the topic so get with the program and be sure to mention them when you can so people understand who they can use as a trusted source in our industry.

Find your vibe 

This is a really tricky one especially as you start out and look for work in many different areas. I have ended up working in many different areas labelling myself as a consultant and a lot of my work is media based (I also cover the topic of sleep) and my work has always included a huge food/recipe element.

However, I know many very successful nutritionists who have focused in on one particular area which could be weight management or gut health for example. While this may make it more difficult at first as you try to get experience it can make it easier in the long run as you build your profile as an expert in your chosen field. Becoming a trusted voice in one area can also make it easier to focus on things like your social media or give you a platform to pitch book ideas to publishers or collaborate with health and wellness brands as well as getting involved in expert working groups centred around your chosen specialism.

Get to grips with some of the basics 

There are a few good skills you should try and get a grip on when starting out and many of these I still use on a day to day basis. Invest in a recipe analysis program as I always get asked to analyse recipes or menu plans and while this work is a little dull the information is useful to include when writing about nutrition and dealing with private clients. I use Nutritics mostly because its web-based.

Keep a note of foods that are high in one or other nutrients. I know this sounds a little rudimentary but I can’t tell you how many times I have to write about something and refer to foods rich in one or other nutrient. On this point it’s also useful to understand the health benefits of foods, nutrients and key conditions where food has been shown to play a role (e.g. fibre reducing cholesterol). I actually have spreadsheets now with all this stuff on as a quick reference and I organise them in my computer files by topic – it saves me loads of time.

It is also useful to develop your writing skills and learn how to translate the science into something everyone will understand. You should also try to include practical advice where possible as this is most useful thing to most people such as what to cook and how to cook it or include more of it in your diet. I have written tons of stuff in the media as well as copy for websites or PR campaigns. You need to understand your audience but at whatever level try to include references to anything science-related you refer to as this is the easiest way to cover your back should anyone question your opinions. Writing on your blog is a good way to get practice.

Develop a good understanding of public health nutrition. I know it’s not particularly glamorous but it is the grass roots of what is going on in the world to help keep the nation healthy and it provides perspective that can keep you grounded. Honestly, this to me is the most fascinating aspect of nutrition!

I know I work with companies that provide supplements and other such products but I try to get them to stick to the science and always give them the perspective of the population as a whole rather than just the worried well. It does leave me little patience with some clients but at the same time you can’t bite the hand that feeds you so you have to find a balance which is why you have to turn some work down from time to time.

Keep up to date with key nutrition papers and nutrition guidelines so you always have your finger on the pulse. The NDNS survey is a good one to keep track of as this has tons of information as to what the nations diet looks like. The EFSA nutrition and health claims are also good to familiarise yourself with if you are working with food companies. I also keep reports to hand from charities like the British Heart Foundation and I also find factsheets from resources such as the British Dietetic Foundation useful to keep as a reference. Also good to keep abreast of what is trending in the world of health and wellness. On this point…. Don’t get sucked into what the media says… You are scientifically trained in nutrition so use this skill to try and see the wood for the trees!

I also have loads of templates to hand that I have created in powerpoint and other programs to give me a quick way to create new presentations, lectures and reports. I also think it’s a really useful skill to learn how to put together an interesting presentation that isn’t “death by powerpoint”. I know you learn this stuff at uni but it took me ages to understand that I could use a picture or other interesting visual in place of endless bullet points. Honestly, there is nothing worse than presenting something to a sea of bored faces! Don’t be shy to let your personality shine through – I use all sorts of funny gifs and video links as I don’t like to take myself too seriously but of course you still need to remain professional and what you choose to use must be sensitive to the topic in hand.

Get familiar with programs like Canva as it is a really easy way to create things like infographics which you can use in your writing or with clients – you can also create some really nice content for your social media with this program.

Last one….I am really annoying in that I love to pick up the phone and talk to people. This gets things done in half the time and talking to someone is a better way to build working relationships than always corresponding via email.

Social media

Mmmmm, I hate it, but it is something you just have to do. Social media has evolved so much since I started out, and to be honest, I tend to focus mainly on Instagram. I dip in and out of instagram posting pictures and writing content in the feed and do some videos. These days the video content gets much more attention than just pictures and text. Posting on stories is also an easier option and always seems to get more views.

You will ask yourself questions such as “what do I post”, “how do I get more followers”, bla bla bla. Don’t stress yourself out and don’t make this the main focus of how you think you will get work. It’s a nice platform but I have come to realise that I can’t compete with those in the wellness industry with 10’s if not 100’s of thousands of followers. I have a moderately OK number of followers, enough to allow me to do what I want to do.

I hate that the number of followers you have somehow defines your worth to some people as a nutritionist especially for me given my qualification and years of experience, but this is the way of the world! Remember that this is just one way to promote yourself for work but it’s not the only one and to be brutally honest you can spend hours every day on Instagram but it is unlikely to significantly improve your chances of getting work.

Put plenty of more valuable time into using your imagination and follow your passion. Get out there and meet people face to face even if this means doing stuff for free to start with and contact people you have a genuine interest in working with

As a 43-year old, I refuse to film gimmicky videos of myself trying to be funny – there is a limit to what I am prepared to do to get work! I would rather use these platforms to highlight stuff about nutrition I am genuinely interested in.

Structure your day

It’s lovely working at home but it’s easy for things to go awry if you have no structure to your day. I don’t work 9-5 as I am an early riser to prefer to start when I get up at around 6am. I hit the gym or go to yoga early to get out of the house then I work through to about 3pm on a usual day at home. I start by answering emails then spend some time going through the news and various websites to see whats going on and if there is anything new and interesting in the world if nutrition (good stuff to post on social media especially Linkedin). After that its about dividing my time between various bits of work I need to get done for clients and prioritising to (try) and meet deadlines.

I always set time aside to think about how I can get more work. This bit is always a bit painful so I tend to set about half a day week to focus on it. I also set a little time aside every day to do some social stuff although I have to admit my interest in this goes in waves!

If its quiet and you have done everything you need to get done then don’t feel guilty about enjoying your free time. I waste a lot of time when its quiet freaking out about work instead of using these periods to do other interesting stuff –  something I regret when it gets busy again. You can also use this time to focus on any reading or watching podcasts/instagram lives/webinars on things that interest you in your field. Also spend some time looking for events you can attend as these are good places to meet people. Try a mix of events – some are nutrition focused and some of these offer CPD points but look at wellness and fitness events as these are good places to meet people. Eventbrite has lots of things going on (and don’t forget your business cards!)

Linkedin

This is my most valuable source of work. I hate talking about myself or blowing my own trumpet, but you just have to do it here and post everything you are doing or have done. This is where people look for professionals, and they need to see what you’re up to, so don’t be shy. Voice your opinions on anything you have come across as potential employers love to see this and it shows you are passionate about what you do. Also, share anything you have done in the media or achievements at work.

Know when to refuse work

I have really struggled with this over the years, but if you feel you are jeopardising your professional profile and if it just doesn’t feel quite right, then just say no. It’s so tempting some times when a company is offering you lots of money but honestly in the long run it’s just not worth it.

Take control

Again, I have struggled with this. Be mindful of where your work is placed, and always get a copy of anything you have written sent to you to be approved. You can charge for quotes and copy but make sure there is a timescale on this. The information you provide for a campaign should not really be rehashed and used by companies in perpetuity. It just dilutes your worth to future clients. It is often quite helpful to have a freelance contract you can give to the client to agree to your terms and conditions.

Rates

This is the biggest challenge as a freelancer. The problem is that there is no recognised fee structure for a nutritionist. I have a set day rate and costs for other things such as quotes or radio days, but these all end up being negotiable. I weigh up the cost of future work with a brand or company, and I reduce my costs if they offer a retainer. I am happy to do lots of stuff for free if it provides a reasonable quid pro quo which may mean a feature in a leading magazine or quote to help maintain my profile and build relationships with health journalists and PR agencies.

Socialising

There is no point in going freelance if you’re unwilling to get yourself out there and meet people, as this is how you get yourself known. As your career progresses, you may have to do less of this as people start to contact you based on referrals, but you have to put the hard work in at the start.

Create a media pack

Suppose you want to work in the media. In that case, you need a media pack that includes a biography and examples of what you have done alongside a structure of fees. A showreel is also helpful to show what you have done on screen.

Control the narrative

This is one of the most important things to help maintain your integrity as a nutritionist. You’re the expert, and you are employed to provide your expert opinion, so if you disagree with what a client wants you to do, then walk away. On the whole, you can generally find a compromise to help companies deliver the messages they need to promote their products or services. Always stick to your guns when it comes to science and things such as health claims – I have learned the hard way with some clients and been pulled up on some bits of work or something I have said in the media.

Deadlines 

I have to admit that I am totally hopeless when it comes to deadlines, but you need to keep clients in the loop if you cannot deliver on time. This is quite important if you want them to come back to you with more work.

Housekeeping

It’s important to keep on top of invoicing and bookkeeping and things such as tax and VAT. If you can’t do it yourself, then employ someone to do it for you.

Public speaking

It took me ages to build up the confidence to do this, but years of training, delivering talks, and cooking demos at events have made me much more confident. This stuff also gives you the confidence to record videos on social media showcasing what you do. If you are going to work as a freelance nutritionist, you need to get to grips with this  skill. I don’t have many tips to offer here but one thing that has always helped me is to socialise with people during the coffees beforehand as you get to meet people in the audience and this can offer a little familiarity and make you more comfortable. My default when I feel nervous or uncomfortable is humour so I always try to add a little humility to my presentations and always relate them where I can to real life experiences or something the audience can relate to.

Diversity

You need to diversify all the time as a freelance nutritionist in order to increase your worth and open up new opportunities. I am just finishing off a post-grad diploma in sports nutrition as this is an area I fancy doing more work in.

Imposter syndrome

All freelance nutritionists succumbs to this at some point when you feel you are crap at your job and that everyone is doing better than you. Stay confident in everything you are doing and continually refer to the scientific literature to support your opinions and work.

Focus on your own thing and try not to compare yourself to what other people are doing. Instagram is a real bugger for this but always remember that people tend to only post the good stuff. My feed is full of lovely experiences showing fancy press trips or videos with clients, but this is just a snapshot of what is going on at that point in time. I’m not going to post a video of me fretting about where the next bit of work will come from or that I am worried about how my age may prevent me from getting a job in the future!

Explore all avenues of work

I always try to think outside the box as a freelance nutritionist and get involved with new start-up companies I believe may have a chance of doing well. Sometimes they feel like they have little to do with nutrition, but I will always give things a go and offer ways I think I can help.

Private clients

I dip in and out of this as a freelance nutritionist, and one of the reasons I have been doing my course in sports nutrition is because this is an area I feel I would be happy to help people with. I’ll be frank in saying I have very little interest in weight loss and don’t feel qualified to help people with specific health conditions. I like sports nutrition because it’s about performance. Those you deal with are fully committed to acting on your advice. My other bit of advice here is that you have to work out of a practice or somewhere you can rent a room for this to work financially. Traveling here, there, and everywhere to see clients in their homes is not economically viable in most cases.

Offer your services for the greater good.

I go through periods of getting a little bored with what I am doing, so I offer help to charities or other groups. I have delivered talks and cooking sessions to charity organisations and care homes, which I find exciting and inspiring. I have also been working with a para-athlete through my course, which has also been helping me to build my confidence in working with athletes on a one-to-one basis. It’s an excellent way to fill the time when you are quiet and learn new skills and, of course, forging new working relationships.

Create a network

As a freelance nutritionist it’s important to make contact with other people in your field. Freelancing can be lonely, and it’s great to have people to talk to in your field for advice on all work areas. I always have time for anyone who wants to get in touch to talk about anything they are working on. There is plenty of work to go around and ditch the idea that we are in some way all in competition with one another. I hate to say that sometimes I get emails from new nutritionists looking for advice but it can slip my mind to get back and respond. Don’t ever be shy to get in touch with people for help or advice.

Training and competing during Ramadan

Training and competing during Ramadan

Ramadan

I have recently been working with an Para athlete with a spinal cord injury to help with training and competition.

There are lots of consideration to be made in such athletes but one I never fully considered was training and competing during ramadan.

This fact sheet should provide a little insight into how athletes can maintain their training and competition performance while fasting.

 

The basics of plant-based eating to get you through Veganuary

The basics of plant-based eating to get you through Veganuary

Veganuary is a charity campaign encouraging people to try being vegan for January and, if possible, throughout the rest of the year.  Last year (2019) saw the greatest number of people involved in the Veganuary campaign as over 250K from 190 countries embarked on the month-long pledge.

What were the key findings from last year’s Veganuary campaign?

  • For the first time since the campaign began, health became the main driver (46%).
  • 34% of participants stated animal welfare and 12% environmental concerns as drivers for involvement in the campaign.
  • Most participants were women (87%).
  • The majority of participants were aged between 25 and 34 years old (28%).
  • 47% said they plan to remain vegan after Veganuary.
  • 77% said that while not planning to remain vegan after the campaign, they will try vegan again in the future.

How can you make a smooth transition to veganism?

Findings from last years Veganuary campaign showed that 60% found the challenge easier than anticipated.  The rise of vegan food on the high street (including both take-out and restaurant options) as well as the wide range of meat-free alternatives and snacks now available is likely to have helped many people switch to eating plant-based.

Cooking from scratch is always going to be a healthier option and while this may seem daunting it’s not difficult to ‘veganise’ many of your favourite home-cooked meals using these alternatives.

Seek out your preferred dairy alternative

Oat and soya milk have a richness which is similar to cow’s milk while those made from nuts, seeds and rice tend to be waterier.  Each alternative has its own unique flavour and out of all of them, soya has the highest amount of protein which may be an important factor for some people.

What you choose is a matter of personal preference so try all of them to see which one you prefer but always look for fortified varieties to help maintain good intakes of calcium and vitamin B12.

Soya is a good alternative to dairy yoghurt.  Other options include coconut milk and nut varieties including cashew, but they do come with a higher price tag.

Meat alternatives

There are a number of meat alternatives to choose from which include tofu and tempeh (made from soya), seitan (made from wheat gluten) and Quorn.  These foods are all high in protein and also contain a variety of other nutrients including magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium.

These options are available in many forms including mince, pieces and shredded which can be used to replace minced beef, chicken, pork and duck in many common home-cooked dishes.

You can find marinated varieties of tofu which are easier to use for beginners.  Tofu can also be scrambled as a good alternative to egg for breakfast.

Other interesting alternatives include jackfruit, palm hearts and banana blossom which have been used to emulate the look and texture of dishes such as pulled pork, scallops and breaded or battered fish.  While these options make a convincing alternative, they do lack the same protein content.

Fruits and vegetables

It sounds counter-intuitive to talk about fruit and vegetable consumption given the nature of a vegan diet but given only 30% of the population eat five-a-day (1), it’s worth flagging up for those going vegan for January.

This groups of foods are a key source of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that help to protect the body from disease.  Including above and beyond five daily servings is important on a vegan diet to glean as many of these nutrients as possible.

Given the availability of vegan processed and ready-made meal options as well as the rise in vegan ‘junk’ food it is easy to exist on this type of diet without eating enough vegetables.

Keep it in mind to always add more vegetables to the dishes you cook.  You can boost your intake with smoothies and dishes such as soups, casseroles, stews and stir-fry’s which can be bulked out with plenty of vegetables.   Varieties such as spinach and peas are really easy to throw into many dishes.

Explore different flavours

The absolute key to great tasting vegan dishes lies in the spices and marinades used to make them. Meat alternatives, beans, pulses and grains can be a little bland so make use of dried spices and spice blends, sauces (e.g. cook-in sauces, soy sauce, sriracha, harissa), fresh herbs, flavoured oils and dried fruit to add flavour.

You can create a strong savoury flavour (umami) by incorporating ingredients such as nutritional yeast, mushrooms (especially dried made into a stock), seaweed, miso paste, tomato puree, sundried tomatoes, soy sauce and nuts into dishes.   Vegetables such as onions, garlic, beetroot, asparagus and tomatoes also help to create umami which is often enhanced when they’re cooked.

Shop-bought dressings are great, but you should explore recipes from cookbooks and on the web for homemade options which are bursting with flavour and include additional ingredients such as tahini, miso, citrus juices, pomegranate molasses and umeboshi paste.

Don’t be put-off by unusual ingredients that seem a bit ‘fancy’ as they are all now widely available  in supermarkets and not too expensive.  Many of these ingredients keep for a while and dressings can be made in bulk and kept in the fridge.

Beans, pulses and lentils

No vegan diet is complete without these highly nutritious ingredients which supply protein, fibre, magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium.

This group of foods are available canned or in ambient packs which is more convenient than soaking overnight and then boiling to cook. They’re really versatile and can be used to make vegan dishes such chilli, curries, soups, stews and salads to bulk them out and increase their nutrient content.  Chickpeas and soya beans make a good snack when roasted with spices.

Grains

All grains are vegan and can be used as a base for many dishes.  These foods are a useful source of protein as well as zinc, magnesium and B vits.  Grains such as rice, barley and spelt as well as pseudo-grains such as quinoa can be used to make salads to which you can add anything to and make in bulk to use across the week. You can also add cooked grains to soups or sprinkle over vegetable salads.

Snacks

Some people may find they need to supplement their diet with snacks across the day if they need to eat more food to meet the demands of their lifestyle.

Easy vegan snacks include dips with pitta or chopped veggies,  dried fruit and nut bars, dairy-free yoghurt (topped with nuts, seeds or dried fruits), rice cakes (topped with nut butter, guacamole or mashed banana), edamame beans, nuts, seeds or roasted chickpeas.  Smoothies and shakes are also good and can be made to be high in protein.

Fortified foods and supplements

There’s no reason why you can’t get everything you need on a vegan diet, but it can be tricky to start with for some people.  Seek out fortified varieties of foods, especially those containing vitamin B12 which is difficult to obtain on a vegan diet.Food should always come first but if you’re worried that your diet may not very well balanced then a basic vegan multivitamin and mineral supplement is a cost-effective way to bridge any gaps.  Young children, particularly fussy eaters and also teenage girls are groups that will probably benefit from a supplement especially when going vegan.

It’s not that difficult to switch to a vegan diet once you know what’s available and how to modify your favourite everyday meals.  Don’t rely solely on ready-prepared vegan dishes and stick to the basic principles of healthy eating (it’s just as easy to eat an unhealthy diet when going vegan).

Try and use Veganuary as an opportunity to explore recipes that use ingredients which may be new to you.  This campaign is also a great opportunity for you to commit to new eating habits that can extend beyond January and help you to improve your overall long-term health.

 

Try this simple one week vegan menu plan to kick start your Veganuary.

 

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined

How to cater for vegan guests at Christmas

How to cater for vegan guests at Christmas

Planning Christmas lunch can be a huge operation and even more so if it’s your first time at the helm.  So, what do you do when one of your guests tells you they’re vegan?

If you break down the Christmas lunch table then most dishes are actually plant-based and those that are not can easily be adapted without too much effort.

What do you serve in place of roast turkey?

There are many options that can be cooked alongside the turkey for your vegan guests.  

Vegan roasts made from ingredients such as nuts, seeds, beans, pulses and lentils are a good option and you can find many recipes online.  Look for recipes full of flavour which make the most of dried spices and dried fruits. Stuffed butternut squash is also a really nice option and you can make festive fillings using grains and dried cranberries.

Cooking a vegan roast is always going to be full of the key elements of taste including both flavour and texture.  Another option is a meat-free alternative which are normally made using tofu.  

What about the roast potatoes?

The only consideration here is the type of fat that you choose to cook them in.  Animal fats are often used to roast potatoes at Christmas so be sure to switch to olive or rapeseed oil.  Coconut oil can be used and offers an interesting flavour.  You can also roast with garlic and rosemary for something delicious. 

The key to nice and crispy roast spuds is picking a floury variety and giving them a good shake before you put them in the oven.

What about the vegetables?

All veggies are plant-based so there’s no issue here.  Some vegetable options do contain dairy such as parmesan roasted parsnips or cauliflower cheese.  You can adapt these dishes by using nutritional yeast and fortified plant-based drinks made from soy, nuts and seeds.

What about the gravy, savoury and sweet sauces?

No Christmas lunch is complete without a good gravy.  You can make a good vegan alternative using dried porcini mushrooms which give it a strong ‘umami’ flavour.  

Savoury and sweet sauces that use butter, milk or cream can be made using alternatives made from plant oils, fortified plant drinks, soy, nuts and coconut.

What about the Christmas pudding?

Christmas pudding is not vegan as it contains ingredients such as suet, eggs and honey.  You could make your own vegan alternative but buying one in is much easier.

What about the booze?

This is one thing that non-vegans may not even have ever thought about but not all booze is vegan friendly.  

Some drinks may use isinglass (substance obtained from fish bladders), gelatine, eggs white, seashells and other animal products during the filtering process prior to bottling.  Honey may also be used to sweeten certain drinks so worth keeping an eye out for.

You can check out which brand of alcoholic drink is vegan by using the website Barnivore.

Adapting your Christmas lunch to accommodate vegan guests is really not that difficult once you know where to make the changes.  Many of these changes can be used to feed everyone and will likely go unnoticed by your other guests.  

Of course the other option is start veganuary early and go completely plant-based this Christmas!

 

How can your diet help you to sleep well during the winter months?

How can your diet help you to sleep well during the winter months?

Sleep patterns may easily be thrown off course during the winter as the increased darkness impacts on our circadian rhythms.  The result is that it may make it more difficult to wake up and leave us feeling sluggish or lacking in energy.  These effects may also impact on the food choices we make and vice versa our diet may impact on sleep.

How can the winter months impact on sleep?

Darker evenings and mornings can impact on sleep in several ways.  Some of these may be associated with the fact that our basic diet and lifestyle behaviours could become challenged during the winter.

How can mood impact on sleep?

How we feel can affect our food choices and pattern of eating.  In some cases, skipping meals may affect overall nutrient intake, some of which are linked to poor sleep such as magnesium.  Erratic eating patterns can also encourage snacking on foods high in sugar that may also affect sleep.

Low mood can also lead to overeating and weight gain, which may impact on mental health. Any form of anxiety linked to our lifestyle can play on the mind and affect our ability to sleep well.

How does diet play a role?

Comfort eating and alcohol consumption may increase during the winter as we get cosy indoors.  This is even more so during the festive season which can also play havoc with our sleep patterns.  The tendency to choose richer foods may also trigger indigestion in some people which will negatively impact on sleep quality.

So, what can you do to help achieve a good night’s sleep in the Winter months?

Stick to your regular sleep/wake pattern

Establishing a set routine is bedrock to sleeping well. Going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning is key to keep your circadian rhythms in sync.

It’s often tempting to hit the hay earlier than normal and stay in bed longer, but this is not going to help with how energised you feel during the day.

Avoid the stodge

It’s tempting to seek out stodgy foods during the winter months but this may impact on your sleep quality.  Overly rich foods can cause indigestion, especially if you’re not used to eating them.

Heartburn is a symptom of indigestion and something many people experience during the festive season, especially when partnered with more alcohol than usual.

If you’re going to eat more stodgy food then try to eat smaller portions and team them with plenty of veggies on the plate to try and balance out your meal.

Invest in a vitamin D3 supplement

We all rely on sunlight to provide us with adequate amounts of vitamin D but during the winter months it has been shown that many of us are lacking in this nutrient (1).  This essential vitamin helps to maintain healthy bones and supports immunity but inadequate levels are associated with fatigue, muscle weakness and low mood.

Research published in the journal Nutrients has suggested that vitamin D deficiency is associated with a higher risk of sleep disorders (2).

Food sources of vitamin D are limited to fortified foods, oily fish, liver, mushrooms and eggs but will not provide you with everything your body needs.

During the Winter months you should take a supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D3.

Try and stick to making healthy food choices

The colder months can have an impact on our eating habits and food choices.

The longer evenings can also lead to snacking late at night which will do little for your ability to sleep as eating and digestion can prevent the body from shifting into sleep mode.

Foods rich in carbohydrates are craved more in the winter which may be linked to their connection with serotonin (the feel good hormone) and could be the body’s way of attempting to improve mood.  Always choose wholegrain varieties of carbohydrates as these have less impact on blood sugar levels.

Simple carbohydrates such as sugar are digested much more quickly and may impact on sleep quality (3) as well as doing little for your waistline if eaten in excess.  Obesity has been linked to poor sleep by way of its impact on hormones associated with satiety (4).

Eat a nourishing diet that will provide your body with the essential nutrients required for good health, some of which may be connected to sleep such as magnesium.  It is widely understood that magnesium deficiency can cause insomnia.  Research published in the journal Public Health Nutrition has also shown how adequate levels of magnesium are positively associated with sleep duration (5).

Don’t eat too close to bedtime and keep evening meals light including lean proteins (poultry, fish, tofu) and wholegrain carbohydrates (brown rice, wholemeal pasta, quinoa) as this combination can help with the uptake of tryptophan into the brain which assists with the production of melatonin (the hormone that regulates the sleep cycle).

Try and avoid the classic ‘pick-me-ups’

If you’re feeling sluggish during the day then it can be tempting to reach for a food or drink containing caffeine or sugar to help boost your energy levels. Both caffeine and sugar have been shown to disrupt sleep.  The effect is usually short-lived and often followed by a craving for more of the same creating a vicious cycle of highs and lows.

The first morning coffee is like nectar and a perfect way to get you ready for the day ahead.  After this it may be worth avoiding, especially if you have trouble sleeping. Try alternatives such as herbal teas including ingredients such as ginger and lemon which have an invigorating and refreshing effect without the caffeine hit.

It’s worth remembering that tea, chocolate, energy drinks and even decaf coffee all contain a source of caffeine.

Pay attention to the health of your gut

Early research has suggested that the microbes in our gut (microbiome) may be linked to sleep.  It is thought that while a lack of sleep may negatively impact on our microbiome the diversity of microbes in our gut may also lead to disrupted sleep (6).

The connection is not fully understood but it may be worth taking a probiotic supplement to promote a good diversity of bacteria in your gut.

Try to also include plenty of prebiotic foods in your diet which help gut bacteria to flourish.  Prebiotic foods include onions, garlic, beans, pulses and lentils as well as cooked and cooled potatoes, pasta and rice.

The winter months can pose challenges to many areas of your health.  If you are struggling with your sleep then consider the approaches above while also paying attention to the basic sleep hygiene practices addressed in my new book which focus on behaviour, environment and diet (BED).

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6213953/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26156950
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535424/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5675071/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31589627
Nathan Khider Sleep Podcast 2019

Nathan Khider Sleep Podcast 2019

This is a new podcast hosted by my lovey mate Nathan Khider.

Nathan’s YouTube channel is fantastic and involves him interviewing guests that have many interesting stories to tell to hope to inspire and educate his listeners.

My new book, ‘The Art of Sleeping’ is due out today (14th Nov 2019). I talk with Nathan about the reasons why I chose to write this book which revolve around my own persona interest in sleep and my experiences of sleep deprivation and insomnia.

While some of you may sleep well, the reality is that we are a nation of non-sleepers.  Some people believe they can survive on hardly any sleep, but I disagree.  From personal experience of insomnia, I know first-hand how the effects can negatively impact on every aspect of your life.  I’m also guilty of telling people how tired I am rather than taking the action required to tackle the issue head on.

We all need to take sleep seriously as the long-term consequences of not sleeping well are scarier than you think.  For these reasons I decided to write my new book ‘The Art of Sleeping’.  I share my experiences with Nathan and discuss the positive steps we can all take to improve our sleep which in turn will help us to achieve optimal health and wellbeing.

 

Join Cancer Research UK in giving up sugar for February

Join Cancer Research UK in giving up sugar for February

Addicted to sugar? Learn more about how you can ditch the sweet stuff!

Sugar is the villain in the world of nutrition and most significantly those added to foods, which are referred to as being ‘free’.  We all eat too much of it and it’s supposedly more addictive than class A drugs.  So, what’s the deal with sugar and how can we start to cut it out of our diet?

This month we’ve been challenged by Cancer Research UK to ditch the white stuff in the name of charity but why is it so bad for our health, how much are we eating and how can we reduce it?

What are free sugars?

Free sugars are considered to be the ‘bad guys’ and have been defined by Public Health England as all added sugars in any form which include (1):

  • All sugars naturally present in fruit and vegetable juices, purées and pastes
  • All sugars in drinks
  • All sweeteners including table sugar, honey, barley malt, maple syrup, coconut nectar, palm sugar, agave nectar, date sugar and brown rice syrup

Other sugars found naturally in foods such as whole fruits, cereals and dairy foods (not flavoured milks) are not as damaging to health.  Blood glucose levels are less affected by the sugars in these foods as their fibre, fat and protein content slows down its release into the bloodstream.  Foods containing these sugars are also much more nutritious and contain many other nutrients which are beneficial to health.

How much free sugar should we be eating?

Sugar is high on the health agenda with both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) urging us to reduce free sugars to just 5% of our daily calorie intake.  Guidance from Public Health England is to limit free sugar intake to no more than 30g (6 tsp) per day.

How much free sugar are we eating in the UK?

Findings from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2018) have shown that most of us consume too much free sugar (2).  The greatest contributors come from the sweeteners we add to food and drinks, soft drinks and then the usual suspects of confectionary and other sweet treats.

Sugar and heart disease

The relationship between sugar and heart disease has been widely researched and a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that a high-sugar diet was associated with a greater risk of dying from the condition.  Researchers not only found a strong association between sugar intake and heart disease but that the higher your intake of sugar the greater your risk of disease (3).

It’s not fully clear how sugar and heart disease are related but several indirect pathways have been implicated. The liver converts excess sugar into fat and when overloaded this may increase the likelihood of fatty liver disease, which contributes to diabetes risk (a key factor in the aetiology of heart disease).  Other risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure and inflammation have also been associated with diets high in sugar (3)

Sugar and cancer?

Sugar is often talked about with respect to cancer but according to Cancer Research UK, there’s no direct link between the two.  Saying that, the two may be indirectly associated with one another, which has more to do with the impact of obesity.  An unhealthy diet, which may include an excess of sugar in the diet has the potential to cause weight gain and evidence from research has shown that being overweight or obese can increase the risk of many different types of cancer including breast, bowel, oesophageal and pancreatic (4).

Beyond smoking, obesity is one of the greatest preventable risk factors in the development of cancer.  It’s been predicted that by 2035 almost three quarters of the UK population will be overweight or obese, which may cause a further 670,000 new cases of cancer over the next 20 years.

Exactly how being overweight or obese causes cells to become cancerous is not yet fully understood but is thought to be triggered by chemical signals released from excess body fat. We need some fat for the body to function properly, but excess may be harmful as it releases hormones and growth-promoting signals in the body, which encourage inflammation and influence how often our cells divide. These changes in cell division are thought to be one of the most likely reasons why carrying excess fat increases the risk of cancer (5).

How to start cutting free sugars out of your diet

Food surveys have shown we all eat too much of the white stuff and yet most of us find it impossible to cut it out of our diet.  Ditching free sugars for good is probably an unrealistic goal for the majority of people, but this current campaign led by Cancer Research UK offers an opportunity to kick-start new eating habits and explore ways to reduce them from your diet.

Top tips to tackling sugar in your diet

Try and make simple changes to your diet that involve cutting down on the amount of free sugars you consume.  The tips below can help you to reduce the amount of free sugars in your diet and beat the cravings that act as a key barrier to change.

Understand sugar on the label

Many of the foods typically high in free sugars are obvious to spot, but a significant amount of those we consume are hidden in salad dressings, condiments, breakfast cereals, soups, cook-in-sauces and ready meals.

The front of pack labelling highlights the amount of sugar in a food product so opt for green or amber traffic lights. This labelling can be misleading as it represents all the sugars so also refer to the ingredient list.  To identify free sugars, look for anything that ends in ‘ose’ (sucrose, glucose, fructose) as well as any healthier sounding alternatives, such as raw sugar, barley malt, maple syrup, coconut nectar, palm sugar, agave nectar, date sugar and brown rice syrup.  These are all classed as free sugars.

Switch to sweet snacks lower in free-sugars

To reduce the amount of free sugar you add to food you can opt for dried fruits or homemade compotes.  If you’re looking for something sweet to snack on, then try fresh or dried fruits alone or topped onto plain yoghurt.  You can also control the amount of sugar you add to homemade fruit breads, which can be topped with nut butters.

Include plenty of protein in your diet

Protein helps to keep you feeling full and can lessen the desire to snack between meals.  Structure your meals by teaming proteins with healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds), fibre (wholegrains) and plenty of vegetables.  If you need to snack between meals then something protein-based such as boiled eggs, pulse-based dips (hummus) or lean meat proteins are a great option.

Get a little spicy!

Sweet spices such as ground ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon can make a great substitute for sugar.  These spices can be added to hot beverages and smoothies or sprinkled over porridge and yoghurt in place of sweeteners such as sugar or honey.

Ditch sugary drinks

Soft drinks are one of the biggest contributors to sugar in the diet and even so-called health drinks can be loaded with sugar in one of its many forms.  Try flavouring sparkling water with fruits, vegetables and herbs such as lemons, limes, strawberries, mint, cucumber, rosemary, fresh ginger and basil. Herbal teas are also lovely when brewed, chilled and sweetened with a little honey.

Keep occupied

Research shows that the desire for something sweet after you have eaten is more likely to stem from habits formed during childhood as opposed to anything more biological (6). Evenings are the downfall of most people when it comes to snacking, so the first step is to keep sweet treats out of the house.  The next step is to find ways to occupy your time such as going out for a walk, doing something around the house or having a nice bath with a good book rather than flopping in front of the TV with a family pack of minstrels.  There’s some truth in the saying, “Idle hands make for the devil’s work”.

Gum

Research findings are mixed but have shown that chewing gum may help overcome sweet cravings in some people (7). Make sure you opt for sugar-free varieties!

Learn to chill

We’re more likely to seek out sweet treats and comfort foods when under stress.  Try to adopt other ways to manage your stress rather than relying on food. Magnesium helps to relax the body and can be found in foods such as nuts, seeds and even a little high-cocoa dark chocolate, which is also rich in the compounds phenylethylamine that acts as mild mood booster.

Try chromium

This mineral has been shown to help manage blood glucose (sugar) as part of something called the glucose tolerance factor (GTF).  This factor increases the effectiveness of insulin, which is a hormone that helps to control blood sugar levels by transporting glucose into cells.  Chromium also helps the body to process the carbohydrates, fats and proteins in the foods we eat.  Whilst not conclusive, research has suggested that chromium supplements may help with cravings (8) and anecdotally, some people find these a useful way to reduce sugar cravings by taking with meals.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29587886
  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24493081
  4. https://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2017/05/15/sugar-and-cancer-what-you-need-to-know/
  5. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/obesity/obesity-fact-sheet
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2531152/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17118491
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16184071
Can you cure a hangover?

Can you cure a hangover?

Can you cure a hangover?

So, it’s that time of year again when all good intentions go to pot as we succumb to the excitement of the festive season and even the most ardent ambassadors of sobriety get swept up in the moment.  This time of year is synonymous with overindulgence and to be honest, why not enjoy yourself.  However, the fun times can come at a cost as we are left nursing the effects of a hangover the following day. For those with a more engaging social diary the whirlwind of events can start to take their toll as the festive season unfolds and heavy drinking over a long period can cause problems further down the line.

Research shows that we tend to drink more during the festive season and according to a survey commissioned by Cancer Research UK, young adults consume an average of 63 units in the run up to Christmas, which is the equivalent of 30 glasses of wine or 22 pints of beer.  As well as causing hangovers, this excess of booze can also affect our waistlines as these units contribute an extra 4000 calories (1).

What is a hangover?

The effects of drinking too much include headaches, dehydration, nausea and stomach ache as well as that non-descript feeling of anxiety experienced by some people and the lack of good quality sleep.  Alcohol is broken down in the liver and produces a compound called acetaldehyde, which is responsible for the unwanted side-effects of alcohol consumption. These effects become worse as you drink more, which leads to greater the build-up of acetaldehyde.

Whats the cure?

Everyone has their own take on the ultimate hangover cure but according to a large systematic review published by the British Medical Journal, researchers concluded that there was no convincing evidence for any conventional or complimentary interventions to prevent or treat them (2).  However, getting the basics right such as keeping hydrated, eating before drinking and choosing or avoiding certain foods and drinks may go some way to ease your pain.

Never drink on an empty stomach

Drinking on an empty stomach can be a recipe for disaster as this allows alcohol to be absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly.  According to the survey carried out by Cancer Research UK, a third of Brits aged 25-34-year olds said they skipped a meal to account for the extra calories (1).   The approach of avoiding food is seriously misguided as it not only increases the effect of alcohol but makes you more likely to nibble on bar snacks, buffets or visit the kebab house on the way home by stimulating the appetite.

Try to eat something before you go out even if it’s a sandwich on the way to the pub and choose something substantial with a good source of protein and healthy fats such as tuna sandwich, which will have more impact than a light salad.

Avoid dark coloured drinks

Dark coloured drinks such as brown spirits and red wine are rich in compounds called congeners.  These are impurities produced during the fermentation process, which add to the taste, aroma and appearance of dark coloured drinks.  The higher the concentration of congeners the more intense the hangover is likely to be the following day.

Hydrate!!!!

Few of us appreciate the impact of dehydration on the body, which can leave you feeling lightheaded, tired, confused and irritable. The body can survive for some time without food but not without water, which is why the effects of dehydration are felt more quickly.  Dehydration is a key driver for hangovers, especially as alcohol inhibits the production of anti-diuretic hormone, which is used by the body to re-absorb water.  Falling ill from drinking and vomiting only adds to the impact of dehydration.

To keep hydrated throughout the evening, alternate your alcoholic drinks with water and increase the length of your drinks with soda water or low-calorie mixers.  Drink plenty of fluids before bed and the following day and adding in electrolyte sachets can help to rebalance your system and replace nutrients commonly depleted by alcohol such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and B vitamins.

Avoid the greasy fry-up

The greasy fry-up is ubiquitous with hangovers but can actually leave you feeling much worse.   Fatty foods such as fried eggs, fried bread, sausages and bacon can put a strain on your digestive system as they take longer to break down and may encourage indigestion as well as leaving you feeling sluggish during the day.

Try something lighter such as boiled, poached or scrambled eggs on toast.  Eggs are nutritional powerhouses and contain a good source of the amino acid cysteine, which helps the liver to breakdown acetaldehyde.  Low blood sugar also contributes to the hungover feeling so team your breakfast with a glass of fresh fruit juice as a natural source of sugar as well as vitamin  C.

Think twice before reaching for the coffee

Coffee is a great pick-me-up but caffeine can leave you feeling jittery and upset sensitive tummies. Not everyone is as sensitive to the effects of caffeine so it’s a matter of personal choice.  Herbal teas are a good way to hydrate and ingredients such as ginger can help with nausea as well as providing an invigorating zingy flavour.  Ginger can be enjoyed as a tea by adding 1-2 tsp of ginger powder, ½ a lemon and 2 tsp of honey to a teapot, topping with hot water and leaving to brew for five minutes before serving.  The addition of a little honey can provide a gentle way to rebalance blood sugar levels.

Avoid energy drinks

Don’t be tempted by energy drinks as they are often high in sugar.  Some brands contain as much as 45g or 9 tsp of sugar per 500ml can, which will cause a serious sugar rush followed by a major crash, especially if drunk on an empty stomach.  These drinks, even if sugar- free are also loaded with high amounts of caffeine and other stimulants that can leave you feeling jittery and increase bowel spasms, especially in sensitive hungover guts.

Artichoke supplements may help

This supplement stimulates bile production and can help to relieve bloating and other symptoms of indigestion associated with alcohol consumption.  If you know you have a hectic month of over-indulgence ahead of you then try taking this supplement daily.

Foods that may help to promote good liver function

Certain foods may encourage greater bile flow through the liver, which helps to remove toxins more efficiently.   These include bitter and dark green vegetables (rocket, cabbage, kale and cabbage) and  globe artichokes.  Beetroot has also been traditionally associated with liver health by way of a plant compound called betaine.  All vegetables are hugely beneficial to health so the message here is just to eat more of them in general!!

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the reality is that there is no miracle cure when it comes to hangovers and how rough you feel is largely dependent on how much you have drunk.  Whilst there are plenty of useful tips such as those above to help you feel a little less shabby the following day, it’s important to always drink sensibly.

 

References 

  1. Cancer Research UK Dryathlon 
  2. https://www.bmj.com/content/331/7531/1515

 

Time saving mealtime tips for carers

Time saving mealtime tips for carers

Time saving mealtime tips for carers 

I’m hugely passionate about the health and welfare of older people and continue to provide training to care homes and carers about the importance of nutrition.  This passion extends to the heath of carers and whilst I know there’s always so much going on when it comes to caring for older people, you should never overlook the importance of diet and nutrition.  This applies to yourself as well as those you care for.

Food has the power to do so much more than just nourish the body

Aside from the physical benefits of eating well, mealtimes are often the only opportunity many older people get to interact with someone and is a way for those with dementia to navigate their day. Food has a unique way of stimulating thoughts of the past and certain dishes/foods have the wonderful ability of conjuring up an association with occasions during the year such as strawberries for Wimbledon, pumpkins for Halloween, mithai for Diwali and sprouts for Christmas.  Amidst the current wellness landscape, I hope we never lose these associations between culture and food as they’re so much more important than the latest protein powder or green juice!

Carers in the UK

My hat goes off to carers in the UK and so should yours.  Aside from the huge commitment and impact it has on their health and wellbeing the economic contribution is estimated at £132 billion each year according to research carried out by the charity organisation Carers UK.

There’s no carer stereotype, but it can be defined as anyone (child or adult) who looks after a family member, partner or friend because they need help as a result of illness, frailty, disability, mental health problem or an addiction, and is not paid for their work.  There are around 7 million carers in the UK equating to one in ten people and this figure is predicted to rise by 3.4 million people over the next 15 years (1).

I’m focusing on those that care for older people and the majority of these carers in the UK are women, many of whom are considered to be part of the ‘sandwich generation’ caring for children and older parents at the same time (2).

I will write another blog on the impact of caring on health and the little attention they pay to their own self-care, which puts them at risk of both physical and mental health issues.

Financing the cost of care

The impact of caring can take its toll on those that still have to work at the same time, which is estimated to be one in eight carers.  Many carers have to sacrifice employment to fulfil their caring responsibilities, which can add to stress and financial commitments with surveys showing that 53% of carers have had to borrow money as a result of their caring role with 61% borrowing from friends or relatives and 41% having to use overdrafts.  It’s also been shown that 60% of carers have had to use all of their savings, whilst 23% have had to re-mortgage their homes or downsize to smaller properties to cover the costs (3).

The older carer

Another group of carers often not considered by those with little knowledge of this environment are those who are older themselves.  Research shows that 65% of carers aged 60-94 years themselves have long-term health problems and that 68% of such carers say that their caring role has had an adverse effect on their health with a third saying they have cancelled treatment or an operation because of their responsibilities (4).

Why is diet so important for older people being cared for?

The food we eat provides the energy and nutrients that the body needs to maintain good health.  Good nutrition is particularly important as we get older as it helps to support the immune system (which protects against infection) and offers nutrients that help with many other areas of health.

Nutrient deficiencies are not common in the general population but can occur in this age group and can lead to fatigue and low mood, and many other symptoms that can impact on day-to-day wellness.  Malnutrition is common in older people, especially those with dementia and this can not only make life more difficult for those that you care for but also for carers that have the added burden of dealing with the symptoms as a result.

We absorb nutrients less efficiently as we age and medication as well as lifestyle can also impact on this. There are also many other things that carers may have to consider when helping older people to eat well such as dentition or the changes brought about by dementia that affect all of the senses and the desire to eat.

Mealtimes are just one of the responsibilities of carers and aside from cooking food can be a lengthy process if they have to put time into helping someone to eat.  For those also supporting a family, it doesn’t take a maths genius to see how much time needs to be committed to mealtimes, especially if the person your caring for needs a lot of support.

Time management is essential and even more so to insure carers are taking time out for themselves, which many fails to do.  Mealtimes don’t have to feel like a burden and there are shortcuts that you can take to reduce the time spent in the kitchen without having to sacrifice good nutrition.

Get the basics right first

To insure every meal counts nutritionally you just need to get the basics right.  Meals should include a good source of protein (meat, fish, Quorn, tofu, beans, pulses, cheese), source of carbohydrates (pasta, bread, potatoes, rice or other grain) and plenty of vegetables, whilst bursting with flavour to encourage appetite.  This doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated as you can create some very simple meals using this principle, whilst making the most of time-saving preparation techniques and quick-fix foods.

Useful tips

I have put together this list of tips but there are probably many more that you already use and I would love to hear from you to share these ideas.

Breakfast smoothies 

Smoothies are a great way to provide a very quick breakfast or snack if you’re feeling rushed for time.  Use any milk as a base and throw in fruits (frozen or fresh), spinach and oats then sweeten with a little honey.  You can also prepare single smoothie packs in individual sandwich bags and keep them in the freezer to save a little more time. This is a great option if you’re trying to deal with malnutrition as you can easily whack up the calories by adding other ingredients such as oils, tofu or protein powders.

Batch cooking 

Cooking in batches once or twice a week is a great time saver.  Dishes such as stews, curries, casseroles, hearty soups and other one-pot dishes are perfectly suited to this and can be packaged individually and stored in the freezer.  Try adding in plenty of veggies to your dishes (frozen is fine) or pulses (canned) to maximise the nutritional content.  You can also add foods such as chicken livers to batch cooked meals to boost their nutritional content.  You can buy ready cooked grains in ambient pouches that can be microwaved to save time boiling grains.

Lunch platters

Mealtimes can be made up of lots of small food items, which can be taken straight from the fridge to create a lunch or supper platter.  Dips, vegetable sticks, chopped fruits, pitta breads, cooked meats, samosas, dim sum, sushi, scotch eggs, hard boiled eggs, cheese and biscuits are just a few examples and if stocked up can offer a meal in minutes.

Healthy ready meals 

You don’t have to be a slave to the stove when preparing meals and there are plenty of healthy ready-meals available that can be microwaved in minutes to provide a quick meal option. Foods such as fish pie, cottage pie or beef stew always go down well and can be teamed with a serving or two of frozen veggies such as carrots or peas to help boost the nutritional content of the meal.

Learn a repertoire of simple five-minute-meals 

Creating a quick repertoire of nutritious quick meals can be a great standby when you’re struggling with what to cook.  Eggs are perfect (omelettes or scrambled) as is wholemeal toast topped with canned fish or baked beans, pasta with canned tuna tomato sauce, soup with wholemeal toast and grilled salmon fillet with ready-made mashed potato.  Try teaming each dish with vegetables by either serving them as a side or adding them into the dish.

Nourishing soups 

Soups are a great way to cook up a meal in a flash and when served with wholemeal bread provide a good balanced meal.  Try and boost their nutrition potential by adding in canned pulses, lentils or other frozen vegetables before cooking.  Soups can be low in calories so try drizzling with a little olive oil after cooking or topping with parmesan shavings.

Make use of canned and jarred foods 

There’s nothing wrong with canned and jarred foods as they can be hugely nutritious and essential time-savers.  Canned tuna is a great protein booster and jarred sauces can be a life saver and reduce the time required to batch cook.  You can add fresh or frozen vegetables to these foods to boost their nutritional content.  A simple Bolognese sauce takes little more than mince, tomato sauce and some chopped vegetables to create a nutritionally balanced meal.

Create a list of weekly essentials

Take some time to get a grip on the foods that you use on a weekly basis to create healthy meals. If you have the essentials in stock, then you will never get caught short.

Keep snacks in stock

There will be times when you need snacks, which may be needed to help someone in your care to gain weight or for those moments when someone’s appetite is not strong enough to face a whole meal.  Foods such as cold meats, yoghurts and cheese are useful to keep in the fridge as are sweeter foods such as custard and fruits like bananas.

Don’t waste the left-overs

It’s amazing what you can create from leftovers and these can save a lot of time the following day when preparing meals.  Sunday roast leftovers can easily be whipped up into a nutritious hash the following day and spaghetti bolognese tastes great when re-fried.

Find ways to make sweet foods more healthy

In some instances the person your caring for may develop a sweet tooth, which is common in those with dementia.  If something sweet is the only way to get someone to eat then think of ways to add a little extra nutrition to the food your preparing.  Chopped fruit is good on custard and ice-cream, whilst fruit-based puddings made using fresh fruit such as pies and crumbles contain the benefits of the fruit and switching traditional crumble for something oat-based is good.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to helping an older person in your care to eat well.  Providing those in your care with a healthy nutritious diet is important but you also have to do the best you can within the moment in time.  Don’t make mealtimes stressful and try to use the tips above to take the strain off this area of your responsibilities. It goes without saying to figure out the foods that the person your caring for likes to eat as this can be a game-changer when their appetite is compromised.

My only final note is that carers don’t forget the importance of self-care and this means taking time out for yourself to eat and live well.  It can be difficult to see the woods for the trees with such responsibility but I for one think you are all amazing.

x

References

  1. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160109213406/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171766_300039.pdf
  2. https://www.carersuk.org/for-professionals/policy/expert-comment/4604-sandwich-generation-concern-is-growing
  3. https://www.carersuk.org/for-professionals/policy/policy-library/caring-family-finances-inquiry
  4. https://www.carersuk.org/for-professionals/policy/policy-library/in-sickness-and-in-health

 

A dietary approach to prostate health

A dietary approach to prostate health

A dietary approach to prostate health

The awareness of men’s health has become more visible in recent years with the help and awareness driven by organisations such as the Movember Foundation, which have made the topic more accessible with their brilliant approach that resonates perfectly with men of all ages.

Prostate health

There are numerous health issues related to men, which encompass both mental and physical health and include conditions such as infertility, impotence, depression, overweight and those related to the prostate. Despite the raised awareness, many men still find it difficult or embarrassing to seek help and this is heavily influenced by social stigma, which is a key consideration in the promotion of men’s heath as it creates a barrier to men seeking help and advice.

Prostate health is unique to men and is typically correlated with age given that conditions associated with it mostly affect male baby boomers (aged 54-74 years) and Gen X (aged 39-53 years).  Diet and lifestyle have a key role to play in prostate and many other areas of health and establishing good habits from an earlier age will pave the way to better health in the long-term.

What is the prostate?

The prostate is a small gland about the size of a walnut, which surrounds the tube (urethra) responsible for carrying urine out of the body and also secretes fluid that nourishes and protects sperm.

Common prostate health complaints include benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or enlarged prostate.  The prostate gland naturally continues to grow with age but can cause troublesome symptoms in men with BPH, which make it difficult to urinate and empty the bladder.  Other prostate heath conditions include prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate, which can occur from the age of 30) and prostate cancer, which incurs more than 40,000 newly diagnosed cases every year in the UK making it the most common form of cancer amongst men.

Symptoms of both BPH and prostate cancer are similar given they are both related to an enlarged prostate and include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Weak or interrupted urine flow or the need to strain to empty the bladder
  • The urge to urinate frequently at night
  • Blood in the urine
  • Blood in the seminal fluid

Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is a big health issue amongst men but is slow to develop meaning symptoms may not occur for many years until the prostate is large enough to affect urination.  An enlarged prostate does not mean you have cancer, but the symptoms shouldn’t be ignored.  The causes of prostate cancer are largely unknown, but the risk is increased beyond the age of fifty and for reasons as yet unclear the disease appears to be more common in men of African-Caribbean or African descent.  There also seems to be a slight increased risk in men with a family history of prostate cancer.

A reliable method of screening for prostate cancer is yet unavailable and early detection relies on vigilance about symptoms and regular check-ups with your GP.  A blood test called prostatic-specific antigen (PSA) test is available but is not specific to prostate cancer and PSA levels can be raised as a result of other non-cancerous conditions.  If you have raised PSA levels, then you may be offered an MRI scan to help further diagnose the risk of cancer.

Men’s attitudes to health

Research has shown how men are less likely to engage and react to healthcare information or recall the warning signs of cancer when compared to women (1,2). The cultural script of men has imprinted a definition of masculinity characterised by a need to be tough, brave, strong and self-reliant, which can influence their attitudes towards seeking help and overall self-care. Phrases such as ‘man up’ are now common place in our lingo used by men and women alike and are a good example of how this characterisation of men continues to be enforced.

Boys from an early age are often led to believe that if they don’t exhibit these characteristics of the ‘traditional’ male then they will in some way lose their status and respect as men, which contributes to many of the issues surrounding men’s health.  Kids story books and animated movies are riddled with such characterisations of princes and superheroes relied upon to save the day, which is often (rightly) fiercely protested against by women seeking equality but is less considered as to the impact on young men and the contribution to social stigma putting pressure on men to behave in a certain way.

The importance of diet on health

Research convincingly shows that people who eat a healthy diet are more likely to live longer and have a reduced risk of disease, but the link between diet, food and specific health conditions is often less clear.  It’s the overall diet that has the greatest impact on health but in the case of prostate health there are some studies to suggest that certain foods and nutrients may be particularly beneficial.  Most of these benefits can be achieved by eating a healthy balanced diet but introducing certain foods may be worth paying some consideration to.

How can diet help with prostate health?

I don’t want to sound boring, but you have to get the basics right first.  The modern dialogue around nutrition is overly focused on individual nutrients and foods, whilst the nature of the current wellness landscape gives more credence to the latest fads and diet trends over the basic principles of healthy eating.  Focusing on eating a balanced diet can help insure micronutrient intake and also help you to maintaining a healthy body weight, which is one of the best things you can do to reduce your risk of ill health.  This is particularly relevant to prostate cancer as findings from the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) have shown a strong association between being overweight or obese and the risk of developing the disease (3).

Start with the basics

Start by eating three meals daily and cutting out snacks unless you really need to include them.  Pile the veggies high, limit your intake of red meat, switch to ‘brown’ carbs and wholegrains, choose healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds), cut back on sugar, watch your salt intake and serve small portions of food to help manage your weight.

Eat more salmon

Oily fish such as salmon are the richest source of omega 3 fatty acids, which we need to obtain from the diet.  Intake of oily fish in the UK is low with very few people including this food in their diet.  Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce inflammation in the body, which may help to relieve the symptoms of BPH.  Salmon fillets can be marinated to make them more interesting or added to dishes such as fish pie, curry and salads.

Get more fibre in your diet

High-fibre foods include fruits (fresh and dried), vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, beans, pulses and lentils. According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey only 13% of men meet the recommended dietary guidance of 30g per day and this is most likely due to choosing refined carbohydrates, not eating enough vegetables and ignoring foods such as beans and pulses (4).  Dietary fibre can help to reduce the risk of constipation, which can put pressure on the bladder and worsen symptoms of BPH.  Eating more fruits and vegetables is probably the easiest and most effective change you can make to your diet to significantly improve your health.  Many foods in this group contain a good source of vitamin C, which is also thought to help relieve the symptoms associated with BPH (5). Most of us get more than enough vitamin C in our diet but foods such as berries, peppers, citrus fruits, broccoli and cauliflower are good sources.

Cut down on fizzy drinks, alcohol, caffeine and artificial sweeteners

You should try and avoid drinking anything up to two hours before bedtime to lessen the need to use the bathroom during the night. Fizzy drinks, alcohol, caffeine and artificial sweeteners can all irritate the bladder and worsen the symptoms of BPH so you should try limiting your intake of these types of drinks.

Eat foods rich in beta-sitosterol

Foods rich in a plant substance called beta-sitosterol have been shown to reduce the symptoms of BPH including urinary flow and volume and may help to lessen the effects of inflammation and prostate growth. Foods rich in beta-sitosterol include seeds, extra virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts, raw cacao and fresh coriander.

Include soy foods as part of your diet

There’s a little research to suggest that phytoestrogens (plant compounds that mimic the effect of the hormone oestrogen) found in soy called isoflavones may help to relive the symptoms of BPH.  Soy isoflavones can be found in foods such as tofu, soya milk, soya yoghurt, miso, tamari, edamame beans and tempeh.  These foods have also been shown to help reduce cholesterol, making them a healthy addition to the diet and are a great alternative to animal protein for those looking to go meat-free. Swapping dairy products for soy is the simplest way to start including it in your diet.

Soy is one of the most controversial foods and you may have heard of the research linking it to the growth of ‘man boobs’.  Firstly, the effect of plant oestrogens on hormonal balance is weak and secondly, the research involved the consumption of unrealistically huge amounts of soy milk every day.

Eat plenty of foods rich in zinc

This mineral is very important for men, who have a higher daily requirement than women.  Zinc is essential for male reproductive health, which includes proper prostate function.  Research has suggested that men suffering with BPH and prostate cancer may have lower levels of zinc, but this is not considered a risk factor for either condition.  You can get plenty of zinc in your diet by eating foods such as shellfish, meat, pulses, beans, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and eggs.

Red fruits and vegetables

Red fruits and vegetables are rich in the antioxidant phytonutrient lycopene.  Tomatoes are the richest source, especially when cooked or processed but other foods include red peppers, pink grapefruit and watermelon.  Lycopene has long been associated with reducing the risk of prostate cancer but updated findings from the WCRF have downgraded the evidence to support this link from ‘strong’ to ‘no conclusion possible’ in light of the current available research (3).  Lycopene may still be beneficial for prostate health and these new findings don’t mean that it’s suddenly redundant, but only that the new research has made it more difficult to establish a link to prostate cancer.

A healthy balanced diet is important for all areas of health, which includes that of the prostate.  Focusing on food and managing your weight are significant ways to help promote good prostate health and the sooner you adopt healthy eating habits the better.  All men over fifty should be vigilant about recognising the signs of prostate cancer and seek regular check-ups with their GP as a habitual part of their lifestyle.

For more advice on prostate cancer visit the NHS website here.

For more information on mens health and diet try reading these blogs

An in-depth look at the current state of men’s health in the UK 

The blokes guide to going vegan 

Cooking for prostate health

How easy is it to get your 10-a-day?

Quorn, cauliflower and sultana curry recipe 

Super green stir-fry with smoked tofu recipe 

 

References 

  1. https://jech.bmj.com/content/61/12/1086
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2790705/
  3. https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/prostate-cancer
  4. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19716283