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Winter Wellness And Nutrition

There’s masses of well-meaning advice available about how and what we should eat to stay healthy, some of it confusing and much of it not suited to many of us. As we head into winter, and face the increasing cost of living, making the right choices for our health and wellbeing is more important than ever.

To find out what is useful to most people, and as part of its winter wellness campaign, Waikato DHB spoke to two nutrition experts, a hospital dietician and a registered nutritionist. Neither disagreed with each other’s advice but they had different approaches reflecting what they’d learnt from working with clients.

As a registered nutritionist, Micheala Johnstone often has people asking for a customised nutrition plan, however she thinks this is definitely not needed by everyone to stay well.

“Many of my clients will have specific goals such as athletes or those dealing with allergies or disordered eating and so may need to invest in seeing a registered nutritionist or dietitian, but for the majority of the population a basic diet is sufficient for adequate nutrition,” says Johnstone.

She recommends having the three primary macronutrients in our main meals. This means protein like meat, fish, legumes or tofu, carbohydrates such as kumara, rice, bread or oats, and a small amount of healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado or peanut butter

“Then loading up your plate with plenty of non-starchy veggies such as spinach, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, and tomatoes to name a few. Throw in a few pieces of fruit for your snacks and you have a well-balanced, nutritious and colourful looking day.”

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Sarah Agar, a Senior Dietician at Waikato DHB, agrees this makes for a well-balanced diet but stresses that even that standard approach is not suitable to everyone.

“Our relationship with kai is about more than nutrients, it’s also about our connections to community and whānau, our values and cultural celebrations, our whakapapa through recipes passed down through generations and when seen in this way it’s nurturing our mind, body and spirit,” says Agar.

She says we need to build confidence and skills around our kai and cooking, and so is more focused on building skills and motivation than on insisting on eating the standard balanced diet, which recommends five different-coloured fruits and vegetables a day, as very few people achieve this consistently.

“It’s often about taking small steps so if a person increases the different vegetables they eat from one to two a day this alone is hugely beneficial. It’s very important to validate success as opposed to setting people up for an ideal they may not be able to achieve.”

She works with people to explore the key elements that have helped them make change in their lives, such as having group support, sharing their journey with whānau or a friend, or how they may have changed their mindset, then applying this into their nutritional goals.

“This can create a snowball effect with their success becoming embedded into the new habit they’re creating, making it much easier to take on the next challenge.”

This is an approach Johnstone also uses with her clients, having learnt that people will only change their habits if they actually want to, not if others are telling them they need to.

“My advice to anyone out there wanting to make a positive lifestyle change is to start by reflecting on your ‘why’. Why do you want this? Try to go deeper than simply losing weight if that is your goal.”

This could be losing a little weight so you can run around with your children. Or lowering your cholesterol and blood pressure to ensure you are around to see your grandchildren grow. “Once you find your why, you will have all the motivation in the world to fall back on if times get tough aka meal prepping on a Sunday when all you really want to do is watch Netflix on the couch.”

Agar thinks we also need to give people more access to solid nutritional advice, and that with our health system changing this is an ideal opportunity to get wellbeing coaches into GP practices, who can form relationships with patients and help to dispel many of the myths around diet. “I’ve never met anyone who stayed on a paleo diet for any length of time, and definitely not anyone who was happy on it!”

An approach she supports is the Māori health concept of ‘te whare tapa whā’ with its four cornerstones (or sides) of Māori health – physical, spiritual, family and mental, seeing it as a good way to support people while giving them non-judgemental knowledge around kai.

Both agree that learning about how to eat cheaply and well is very important for those on a budget. Their advice is plan your weeks’ worth of meals in advance, as it reduces the likelihood of buying takeaways, saves time and reduces food wastage. This means checking what you have at home, and what is on sale that week at the shops either by internet-searching or checking your local newspaper’s supermarket ads. So you can then plan your meals around what you already have and what’s most cost effective that week.

If you can’t always buy fresh seasonal produce then buy frozen as, contrary to popular belief, frozen vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals along with the fibre our digestive system needs. Tinned fruit can also be a less expensive alternative to buying fresh, but look for varieties with natural fruit juice and no added sugar on the label. Another way to save money is to choose value range brands, such as Countdown and Pams, as these are often very similar to the more premium brands with pasta, rice, tinned tomatoes, nuts and seeds good examples of this.

They are both great fans of plant-based foods, particularly legumes such as lentils and beans, as these are high in fibre and protein, and are good for both digestion and controlling blood sugar levels. They can be added to meat dishes reducing by half the amount of meat, and are great in slow-cooked dishes. Heading into winter means we get to enjoy heartier, slow-cooked meals such as casseroles and stews, and if you are slow-cooking then cheaper cuts of meat will come out just as tender as more expensive cuts.

In terms of getting enough nutrients without needing to take supplements, Agar says that so long as you are eating an average NZ diet of mostly unprocessed foods you won’t need to take supplements. People who don’t eat dairy, eggs, fish and red meat, such as vegans, can be low in Vitamin B12 and need an oral supplement, or even a B12 injection if they’re very low. But a careful vegan diet which includes having Vitamin C, such as a drink of orange juice, alongside spinach or silverbeet releases the B12 in these green vegetables.

Meal prepping may be difficult to find time for during the work week, but Johnstone says fitted into weekends can be a great time saver later in the week, providing both lunches and dinners.

“Most of my clients really enjoy the structure of making their lunches to take to work, not to mention the money they save by not buying lunch! I find the technique that works best for most people is to simply make extra dinner and take those leftovers for lunch the next day.”

“The weekends tend to be where most people struggle to put their health first, and sometimes that is okay! We all need a little ‘soul food’ now and then, but really it is about finding a balance that is right for you and supports you in getting closer to your nutritional goals.”

Agar agrees saying it’s very important to foster a positive nourishing approach to our kai along with a mindful awareness of when, what and how we eat as it’s about so much more than the nutrients in each meal.

“I think it’s helpful to stop labelling the kai we eat as good or bad, but instead to explore different foods and listen to what our body is telling us to eat. So we might feel we want something crunchy and sweet like an apple or crunchy and salty like a few potato chips, and not to beat yourself up if you eat the latter. Instead really enjoy the taste sensations you’ve chosen and realise when you’ve eaten enough, as over time you will gravitate towards choices that work for you.”

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