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Better nutrition starts with society: a chat with Dr Rupy Aujla

We all make mistakes, right? That’s how we learn and grow as individuals - and as a society! It applies to all walks of our lives, right down to the way we consume food. That’s right, it turns out that our society could learn a thing or two about nutrition. So, we spoke to Dr Rupy Aujla, NHS medical doctor and founder of The Doctor’s Kitchen about how we can improve nutrition in society, you don’t want to miss this!

Over to you, Dr. Rupy…

The problem with the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach

From the government point of view, there’s this obsession around calorie counting which is why they are mandating calorie counts on foods in restaurants. This obsession with macros and calories only tells one side of a story when it comes to nutrition - and so you’re looking at it through quite a naive lens. And whilst I understand it can give some people guidance as to what they should be eating and giving them a general sense of parameters, I think it can whittle down food to abstract and arbitrary numbers that are not necessarily reflective of the quality of the food that you have in front of you. Remember, a 700 calorie meal bought from a takeout place, vs a 700 calorie meal that is homemade or you bought and made from scratch is vastly different when it comes to the impact on your body and the health benefits or health detriments of those two meals.

Eating is a source of pleasure

I also think there’s this idea that food is there to fuel us solely, and we can utilise fuel or food in this way for our benefit purely. And I think that’s the only way in which some people see food - as a mechanism to fuel workout, or to prove their body and their physiology. Whilst that’s super important, I think we forget that food is also an experience that should be pleasurable. It’s one of the main sources of pleasure. In fact, our brain is hardwired to do a few things: seek food, enjoy food and also procreate. Those drivers are hardwired into our physiology and biology, and if we forget that, then we lose sight of what one of the most pleasurable experiences of living is.

Don’t forget about what food can do for us

The other thing we forget about is that we think about food through the lens of what it can do for us, but actually we should be thinking about what food can do for our microbes and our gut microbiota (which is this population of microbes that live in and around our body - in our mouths and our skin, largely concentrated in our gut and large intestine). This microbial population really serves a lot of functions for us: supporting our immune system, improving metabolism, balancing sugar, and improving our mood. So really, we shouldn’t just be thinking ‘okay, food can fuel my workouts’ we actually need to be thinking about ‘what do our microbes want to consume?’. And the story is, it’s a lot of different fibres, it’s variety, diversifying your food intake and having whole foods as much as possible with all those wonderful different elements that they can provide for your microbes.

Every food deserves to be a superfood

From a marketing point of view, there’s this idea of a hierarchy of foods - calling them ‘superfoods’ or foods that are better for you. This idea detracts from just how incredible your humble garden pea or your humble apple is! Every food deserves to be on a pedestal, because if you look under a microscope, or you examine the different attributes of different foods, you’ll find that they have all these wonderful polyphenols (the plant chemicals that serve benefits to us), they have micronutrients that have all these different elements, like fibre, that feed our gut microbes.

Obesity is not a choice

Another common misconception is obesity being a choice and just an issue of calorie balance. Obesity is very much a condition - a disease that has hormonal, genetic and microbiota related mechanisms. I think just whittling it down to this energy balance is not reflective of the science that says otherwise. Within medicine, food is sort of an afterthought as something we use as fuel, and something we just need to balance and make sure that we’re eating ‘healthily’. Whereas in reality, there’s a huge scope to use it in preventative, supportive and interventional medicine. One of the areas that medicine needs to focus on a bit more when it comes to food is what I talk about a lot in the food medicine space: how we can use food as a preventative tool, to prevent conditions.

Sustainable eating on a budget

If we look at the impact of inflation, it’s hard to argue against the fact that eating in general is going to become more expensive over the next few years. Tesco recently announced that there are going to be huge price rises in the range of 4-5% across all products. That’s definitely something to consider and be mindful of. However, the cheaper ingredients are usually the most nutritious on the shelf: wholegrains, beans and legumes, dried versions of chickpeas and lentils. If you can afford the time that’s needed to cook these from scratch, they are actually very cheap. That’s what the science determines is healthier for us! Focusing your meals around those ingredients as a base and adding fresh ingredients where possible is super beneficial. Also, buying foods that are seasonal can come at a price saving. Eating tomatoes when they’re in season vs when they’re out of season is something that will save us money.

The other thing that I think is that we’re very privileged to have a great selection of frozen foods that are grown largely in this country that actually preserve a lot of the nutritional content. Frozen sweetcorn, frozen peas, frozen mixed vegetables are usually picked up from the source, grown here and sent straight to the supermarkets which minimises degradation, improves shelf life and is actually very nutritious!

What can we do as parents?

Get kids involved - The more kids get involved in the experience of cooking, choosing food, preparing food, the more affinity they will have with these ingredients. They’ll see how it transforms from something you pick up in a supermarket, or pick from the ground if you can get that sort of experience, to something they have that relationship with when it’s on their plate in front of them.

Taste buds evolve - If you didn’t like mushrooms as a five year old, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t like them in your teens. Our taste buds can actually evolve over a couple of weeks, it just takes a bit of habit forming to grow and appreciate natural sweetness, bitter compounds and that sort of stuff. Revisit foods they don’t like and try not to have back ups. Kids can be pretty conniving when they know that if they just hold out and they’ll have some chicken nuggets as a backup!

Be compassionate towards yourself - Parents are battling the food industry that has spent millions of dollars making food palatable, commercial, attractive and cheap. It’s hard for kids, (especially when our brains are hardwired to want sweet and salty foods!) to take that out of their food vocabulary. Understand that it’s not your fault, you have to just try and try and try. It’s a hard nut to crack but the benefits are certainly there.

A final note from Dr Rupy: It all comes down to access and information. The government should be making sure people have access to seasonal, high quality foods. That we incentivise and subsidise those types of foods, rather than high-sugar processed items and foods that don’t really fit in with a healthy, happy population. I think the government should also be focusing on training doctors in nutrition and having culinary medicine programmes, which is something I’m focusing on with medical schools because the focus on nutrition has really been lost over the years. We don’t really have a full appreciation of that spectrum of food in medicine. There’s loads of different things we can do to try and promote healthy eating as something that we actually want to do rather than something that is seen as a chore, expensive or not tasty. You can actually have really indulgent, healthy food that serves your body, rather than something that is seen as another thing to tick off the list.




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