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Dublin: 9 °C Sunday 21 December, 2014

Column: What are the real dangers in our eating habits?

There’s a key problem with most of our diets – and we probably don’t even realise it, writes Sarah Keogh.

Sarah Keogh

THE PHRASE ‘YOU are what you eat’ has been used so much that we often overlook just how true it is.

We really are made out of what we eat – the food we take in becomes our skin, muscles, bones and brains – and so what we eat is an essential part of our health both now and into the future. Food is also one of the places where people can really take control of their health. We can choose to eat high fibre cereals and brown bread, to get our five-a-day from fruit and vegetables and decide whether or not to take supplements. But what are the real areas of our diets that we need to look at for health and where should we go to get good, reliable information about nutrition?

Basic healthy eating hasn’t changed in many years – we still need lots of fibre, we still need plenty of fruit and vegetables and too much fat is still bad for us. But there have been some changes in focus and one of the most important areas we need to look at is fibre. Currently in Ireland, almost 80 per cent of adults don’t eat enough fibre – but unfortunately most people think they are eating enough fibre so they regularly overlook this key part of their diet.

Detox

Why is fibre so important? At its most basic fibre helps to keep our digestive systems working well, which helps us to naturally detox and avoid some common bowel problems. Fibre reduces the risk of heart disease and dramatically reduces the risk of several types of cancer. It also helps us to stay at a healthy weight – and in light of our current obesity problem this is a key benefit. People who eat lots of fibre find it much easier to lose weight or to stay at a healthy weight as fibre helps to reduce snacking and lowers the GI of the diet. Also, if you eat lots of fibre you will lose about 150 calories per day as the fibre (which is undigested) leaves your body.

The reason so many people don’t eat enough fibre is that they think there is a lot more fibre in foods than is actually the case. We need to eat 24-35g of fibre per day – but most people rarely eat more than 14g. Fibre is found in high fibre cereals but a bowl of high fibre cereal rarely contains more than 6g of fibre and many cereals have no fibre at all. We really need to read the nutrition labels of foods to check the fibre content. A piece of fruit only has about 2g of fibre – and this is why we talk about eating lots of fruit and vegetables. Lots of people think that by having cereal for breakfast and a piece of fruit at lunch they are getting all of the fibre they need but they are probably only getting 8g!

One of the best places to pick up fibre is beans and lentils. A half can of beans will have about 12g of fibre and seeds are another good place to pick some extra fibre. The rule for fibre is to think about it at every meal. If you only eat fibre at breakfast, chances are you won’t be getting enough.

Danger

The other big danger to our diets is all the conflicting information that is out there about diet. Every website, newspaper and radio show has some sort of nutritional expert talking about nutrition but giving different (often incorrect) advice. We hear that we shouldn’t eat dairy foods, should cut out wheat, should actually eat saturated fat and lots of other messages that go against the healthy eating guidelines.

Why is there so much confusion? The real problem is that in Ireland there is nothing to stop anyone from calling themselves a nutritional expert (eg nutritionist or nutritional therapist) even if they have little or no recognised qualifications. We don’t tolerate this when it comes to doctors and pharmacists dispensing medication, but when it comes to nutrition, we have no way of knowing if the advice we are getting is accurate or even safe. This means that there are plenty of unqualified people giving advice that is incorrect or even dangerous.

Luckily this is about to change. The Irish government is brining in statutory registration for dietitians in Ireland. From 2012, CORU, the government body that oversees the registration of health professionals in Ireland, will be extending their remit to statutory registration for dietitians. This means that only dietitians or nutritionists with recognised qualifications in nutrition will be able to call themselves dietitians. This means that they will have university level degrees in nutrition as well as training overseen in recognized teaching hospitals.

In the future, anyone looking for advice on diet will be able to tell straight away if the person they are speaking to is properly qualified and giving safe advice by checking if they have state registration.

Sarah Keogh is a dietitian with the Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute. Information on food, health, nutrition and how to locate a qualified dietitian can be found at indi.ie.

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