Meet the food doctor

01/12/2011 - 00:00
Lucy Jones, star of the new Channel 4 series The Food Hospital, talks about diet, obesity, malnutrition and why she’s currently eating for two. David Foad reports

Q. What sort of career did you want when you were at school?
A.
I was always fairly undecided – it was always going to be in healthcare but I looked into being a doctor, psychologist, neurologist and optometrist before deciding on being a dietitian. There were so many things I was interested in, but I love helping people and making a difference.

Q. How did you get interested in dietetics?
A.
I came across the dietetics course by chance while researching university courses. I had been interested in nutrition for some time and the prospect of doing a vocational course which really led to a career was a real draw. After being a fussy eater as a child, I grew to love food as a teenager (sometimes a little too much) so learning about the links between nutrition and health fascinated me.

Q. Why is diet so important?
A.
Nutrition affects every process in the body and has the ability to prolong or shorten life – it is therefore of the utmost importance to every person on the planet. It has far-reaching consequences both for your looks, your mind and your body, and changes to diet are something that we can all do to improve our health. It’s a very empowering area which allows us to take some control over our bodies.

Q. A lot of people confuse nutritionists and dietitians. What’s the difference?
A.
There is a whole factsheet dedicated to this on the BDA website. Basically, a dietitian is a protected title by law. We are the only nutrition professional that is statutorily regulated and governed by an ethical code, ensuring we work to the highest standards and offer advice based on the most up-to-date evidence. Other professional titles are not regulated and therefore can be open to abuse by cowboys, even if most are well evidenced.

Q. Where did the idea for The Food Hospital come from?
A.
Originally it was from the production company Betty, the show producers. It was still in its infancy in terms of design when I got involved, which was great as it meant I could contribute ideas about what topics to include and how to develop the programme.

Q. How did you get involved?
A.
I already worked as a media spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association and was invited to screentest for the role, along with many others. It snowballed from there. Even though I got involved in planning meetings from very early on, the show was not commissioned by Channel 4 (and therefore I was not officially given the job) until the month before we started filming.

Q. What do you hope to achieve through it?
A.
In a wider context, motivating people towards positive lifestyle changes and empowering people to get involved with their treatments for different conditions. There are usually things we can do to help our situations, be it prevention in the first place or helping recovery by changing what you eat. For me personally I hope it will open doors for future similar projects in my career – plus it was great fun.

Q. Have you done any TV work before?
A.
I have done small pieces – usually newsy stuff like BBC Breakfast, and News 24. and appeared on the One Show and Watchdog. I have also been on a DVD about infant weaning called The Baby Chef. The Food Hospital, however, is by far the biggest and most ambitious TV project to date.

Q. How did you find becoming a presenter?
A.
I really enjoyed it when filming. There was one painful day before we began shooting where I went for camera training with the director and had to watch a lot of me overacting and over gesticulating. It can be hard to stay natural when you are learning. Once my face had returned to a normal colour, I recovered and learnt loads from that process. I’m glad we did it.

Q. Any out-takes we can look forward to?
A.
I’m hoping they won’t be shown!!!!! However, if you were to see them, they could fill a whole series of Harry Hill’s TV Burp. I had a Marilyn Monroe moment when filming a handover from Shaw on the balcony when my dress flew up around my ears – beautiful. Oh, the shame. And there were plenty of moments where either we, or the contributors, would get fits of giggles.

Q. How powerful is diet in helping to cure or alleviate illnesses and disease?
A.
Dietary changes usually are not a cure, although can have powerful effects in terms of symptom resolution and improvement of outcomes. Sometimes dietary changes which lead to weight loss can resolve medical problems like high blood pressure, cholesterol, or sleep apnoea. I think we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding the full impact of nutrition and dietary therapy on health – there is a lot we still don’t know. The contributors on the Food Hospital have been great examples of the power of changing your diet; some of the positive outcomes were beyond even my high expectations.

Q. Hospital caterers have long argued that food is medicine, but is too often seen as just  a service like cleaning and portering. Do you agree?
A.
Completely. There have been high profile people get behind this cause like Lloyd Grossman and more recently Heston Blumenthal. Unfortunately, on a day to day basis, I feel that not enough emphasis is put on the quality of food given to hospital patients and the budget is not enough. It should be seen as a complementary therapy in addition to a basic human right. We need to acknowledge that giving people healthy, nutritious food is one of the best ways to support immune function, wound healing, prevention of malnutrition and positive mood and thus early discharge home!

Q. Do we as a nation eat worse than we   used to?
A.
Dietary habits and popular dishes certainly change with each generation. We have made some positive changes like cooking with less lard but, unfortunately, our reliance on convenience and excess availability of foods is hampering our efforts to combat the obesity epidemic. We are a nation completely reliant on convenience due to hectic lifestyles, long working patterns and loss of cooking skills and often don’t have the knowledge and skills to recognise poorer choices in terms of pre-prepared foods.

Q. Is there a danger, when looking at diet, that we forget food is also to be enjoyed?
A.
I think some people believe this, but in truth it doesn’t have to be that way. It is all about the proportions of foods within the diet and let us not forget, that healthy food can be truly delicious – it doesn’t have to be all celery sticks and watery soups. I feel that, for most of us, nothing should be banned and foods are there for enjoyment. I get even greater enjoyment from my diet knowing that it is supporting my health as well as tasting really good. We really need to work on the myth that healthy food is boring and tasteless.

Q. How big an issue for us is obesity?
A.
Huge! There is a reason we call it an epidemic. And despite massive efforts, we don’t appear to be winning at all. From 70-80% of the nation aged between 55-64 years are overweight or obese. One of the biggest issues is the rise in childhood obesity as they have a high risk of becoming obese adults. We really need to be targeting the next generation and focusing on prevention as our interventions for treatment are still not great and have major health risks. Our approach has got to hit it from every angle from governmental policy, further industry changes to packaged foods, fat taxes with subsidies for healthy foods and supporting individual behaviour change with incentives. It’s not an easy task.

Q. What’s your reaction to the Government’s recent announcement of a target to cut 5 billion calories from the nation’s diet?
A.
It’s a herculean task – and I hope it’s not all hot air and good words. We need to see real policy decisions and explanations for how they will achieve these targets – because I don’t believe it can  come from industry changes alone.

Q. What else would you like to see the Government do to address the obesity problem?
A.
Lots and lots. Unfortunately, the country’s economic situation means limited budgets for healthcare and limited resources for managing obesity. However I feel we need to focus on prevention of obesity in the next generation with the knowledge that the investment will save billions in the long run. This means investing in families both by encouraging and incentivising healthy behaviours and using policy to make healthy decisions easier for people to make. One of the issues is that healthcare budgets are set annually and these sorts of changes fail to show dramatic changes in the short term – we therefore need to change our attitude to managing budgets and resources.

Q. What role do you think the catering industry should play in improving the nation’s diet?
A.
The catering industry can have a powerful impact in overcoming the ‘healthy food is boring or tasteless’ myth. They  also have a responsibility to ensure that ingredients are clear and that less desirable ingredients like salt and MSG are kept to a minimum.

Q. What advice do you have for caterers who want to encourage healthier eating but can’t afford to lose business?
A.
Promote your ethics – you may find that it actually boosts business. Try to offer competitive options so that there are ways for people to choose healthier dishes if that is important to them. Be moderate about the fat, salt and unnecessary additives put into dishes and boast about your achievements.

Q. Obesity grabs a lot of the dietary headlines, but isn’t malnutrition also a major problem?
A.
Absolutely, particularly in hospitals. We live in an age of extremes, unfortunately, with huge health inequalities and both ends of the scale need addressing. Malnutrition can mean lots of things and isn’t always about being underweight.
Many people are overweight but still malnourished due to the poor quality of the foods they eat – diets can be energy-rich but nutrient-poor, which can lead to malnutrition and deficiencies.

Q. How important is the role of school meals in tackling poor diet?
A.
School meals can make up a third of children’s intake so play a vital role in shaping their food intake. They can have a huge impact on introducing pupils to a variety of healthy foods and making sure that at least some of their day is fuelled correctly. Obviously they are not totally responsible and families need support to improve diets within the home environment as well.

Q. Are you optimistic about the future? If so, why?
A.
Very. I have been lucky and privileged to have had so many opportunities so far in my career which can leave you nothing but optimistic. I still haven’t decided what I want to be when I grow up, and I hope to keep that attitude well into my nineties.

Q. If you hadn’t had your career, what would you have liked to do?
A.
I’m one of those people who wants to try to do everything, but I always loved dancing, music and singing so a performer would have been great – particularly jazz or a classical pianist.

Q. Tell us what’s a typical day’s diet for you?
A.
I’m a breakfast believer, which is often muesli with lots of yummy fruits and nuts in it. Lunch is often the main meal in the canteen at the hospital served with lots of veg and I like to cook in the evening whenever I can. Typical meals include spaghetti bolognaise, soya and pulses, cottage pie or fish and vegetables. I snack regularly through the day on fruits, almonds, yoghurts and the odd bit of chocolate or cake – well, everybody needs a little sweetness in their life.

Q. What’s your dream three-course meal?
A.
Scallops to start and a really good seafood paella for main. I find dessert hard because I like so many, but hot sticky toffee pudding with ice-cream usually wins. Oh my god, that made me so hungry to think about I’m going to have to raid the kitchen!

Q. Anything to wash it down with?
A.
Due to the answer below, I am currently limited in my ability to indulge in my favourite red wines like Chateauneuf du Pape. So I guess a good ol’ cup of tea.

Q. What’s next for you? Is there any more TV work in the pipeline?
A.
I’m having my first baby in January, so a completely new and different challenge for a while. When I return however, I very much hope to do some more TV work. Hopefully, series two of the Food Hospital.

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