What's Happening?

Fruit and veg

Food for Thought

Date: 
Thursday, May 4, 2017

Author: 
Siobhan Holliman, Tuam Herald (Published 26th April, 2017)

(Interview with Dr Lisa Ryan, Department of Natural Sciences, GMIT)

Celebrity diets and psuedo experts could be damaging rather than helping our health. 

Seeing foods as good and bad isn’t a healthy way to live

Food is what keeps us going and there’s a ferocious appetite for information on how it can make us smarter, stronger, leaner and healthier.

But it seems we’re not just wasting hundreds of tonnes of actual food each year, there’s an increasing tendency to throw away the basic facts of what food is and how it is used by the body.

Social media pages, online shopping and celebrity diets bombard us with endless listicles on how to shape up, slim down or solve so-called food intolerances.

Food is big business and the obsession with labels such as fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free or lactose-free is coming at a high price. It’s not just hitting shoppers’ pockets but they may find the quest for healthy eating can be anything but healthy.

Head of the Department of Natural Sciences at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology Dr Lisa Ryan is concerned at misinformation regarding nutrition that the public are consuming.

On her return from working in Australia she was “heartbroken” to see a fast-growing industry of nutritionists in Ireland, many of whom she contends aren’t suitably qualified to offer advice on what people should or shouldn’t eat.

“There has been a huge growth in online nutrition courses that give very superficial information about food,” she notes. “It’s great to see an interest in nutrition but many of the courses and those who have taken them are making huge sweeping statements about certain foods and nutrients with no real scientific knowledge.”

Looking at the results of a quick Google of nutrition courses in Ireland it’s easy to see how members of the public can be bamboozled by not only the information but as to how to ascertain what is a suitable qualification for a nutritionist.

Dr Ryan points out that while the term dietician is clearly defined and protected, the same doesn’t hold for nutritionists. She is part of a body that is campaigning to have the profession better regulated and the term nutritionist protected as a title.

She herself holds a first class honours degree in Nutritional Science and a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry, and is widely published in this area.

She advises people interested in becoming qualified as a nutritionist that there’s no quick route and in order to be properly trained and educated in the area requires at least a four-year science-based degree – not a six-week or monthly online course.

Nutrition is “pure science” according to Dr Ryan, who points out that excluding certain food types from a person’s diet must be based on proper and extensive laboratory tests.

People are increasingly selfdiagnosing themselves as being intolerant or allergic to a variety of food groups, from wheat to dairy.

“Clean eating is a phrase that drives me mad. It’s implying that other food is somehow dirty. I can understand the term’s origin but the concept of eliminating whole food groups from what a person eats (without extensive testing) is a cause for concern.”

This month the Irish Osteoporosis Society warned that young people in Ireland could be putting themselves at serious risk of osteoporosis by significantly reducing their dairy intake.

Osteoporosis is a painful and debilitating condition that results in weakened bones that are more prone to fracture. It’s estimated that 300,000 people in Ireland have osteoporosis and that one in four men and one in two women over 50 will develop a fracture due to osteoporosis in their lifetime.

However, there are increasing concerns that the celebrity endorsement of fad diets which regularly include a ban on calciumrich dairy foods like milk, cheese and yoghurts will lead to young women in particular failing to build up enough calcium and vitamin D needed for strong bones into their late adult years.

A survey carried out by the British National Osteoporosis Society found that 70 per cent of 18- to 35-year-olds are currently on diets or had been in the past, and 20 per cent had significantly reduced their dairy intake.

‘Clean eating’ was the most common diet for under-25-year olds and young people were more likely to get diet and nutrition advice from bloggers on social media.

“To help prevent osteoporosis a person requires adequate nutrition and physical activity. The right nutrition includes foods rich in calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K and the body needs to be worked against gravity, such as walking and running,” says Dr Ryan, who adds that many of the top diseases such as osteoporosis, cancer, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease can in cases be prevented and treated through adequate nutrition.

Dr Ryan has led the development of a new four-year honours degree in Public Health Nutrition at GMIT, the first of its kind in the West of Ireland.

“With the increased number of the population suffering from, or at risk of developing, lifestyle related chronic diseases, more individuals require assistance with nutritional management. As a result, there is an urgent need for suitably qualified individuals to work in the health sector.
Public health nutrition has been gaining popularity as an area of study to meet this growing demand,” Dr Ryan says.

There is considerable confusion around the qualifications of nutritionists in Ireland and the course has been designed to meet the Association for Nutrition (AfN) accreditation standards to ensure that students attain the required competencies to become a registered nutritionist.

Dr Ryan is an active member of the Association for Nutrition, the body responsible for ensuring that the name ‘nutritionist’ becomes protected and is not confused with many of the online ‘pseudonutrition’ courses that have become popular.

Categorising foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ isn’t a healthy outlook to have, according to Dr Ryan, who says no food should be off the menu. Rather, it’s the quantity and frequency of certain foods that are highly processed and high in sugar and fat that need to be looked at.

“Food bullying and shaming are not healthy. There’s no quick-fix and habits form over time.”

It appears that there is a split in the Irish population between those who are trying to eat more healthily and be more active, and those whom statistics show that as a country, we are overweight and becoming obese from a young age.

Dr Ryan believes there’s a lot of misinformation about food and how our body uses it.

“I think there’s a great awareness of healthier foods but there’s a lack of practical knowledge such as cooking skills and what different foods are and how to eat them.”

Dr Ryan has advised sports clubs and one of her initial tasks is to encourage players to get used to cooking. She has a keen interest in sport and exercise nutrition and outside of her formal academic role has worked as a sports nutritionist for a number of rugby and hockey teams. While in the UK, she worked with some of the triathletes and cyclists for the 2012 Olympics.

There has been an overwhelming response to the degree course she helped develop last year in Sports and Exercise Science and a similar interest is expected in the Public Health Nutrition degree.

Multi-vitamins and food supplements, including protein powders, are being used more and more by non-athletes without any proper advice.

Dr Ryan believes that the average person doesn’t need to take a protein powder or multi-vitamin supplements if they are eating a variety of foods every day.

Ireland’s sudden obsession with gluten-free products has taken her by surprise also. Gluten has become entangled in an entire mix of so-called celebrity diets and it has been pointed out that people are spending thousands on special gluten-free products, many of which can be high in sugar and fat, for no medical reason whatsoever.

Dr Ryan says gluten has nothing to do with losing weight and that a coeliac can’t process gluten – the protein found in wheat.

Food allergy testing has been popular for many years and can apparently tell a person that they’re allergic to anything from pork to bananas. But many of these tests, some of which are very expensive, aren’t founded on any science whatsoever, according to Dr Ryan.

“There are very particular tests including an antibody test to find out if a person is allergic to a certain food.

“Some of these food tests are reputable but many aren’t testing for allergies and only show the skin’s reaction to food – not an allergy.”

The proliferation of nutritionists is “incredibly frustrating” for Dr Ryan and her colleagues who have spent many years studying every part of nutrition. “The worry is that they are actually doing more harm than good.”

If you want to visit a nutritionist, check their qualification, is the simple advice from Dr Ryan.

She says an accredited nutritionist will have RNutr after their name while for the first two years aftergraduating the person will have ANutr, their nutritionist N plates as such. They should also have a registration number that can be checked with the Association.

Dr Lisa Ryan, GMIT