Ireland, like most Western countries, has an epidemic of chronic illnesses. According to the World Health Organisation, eight out of 10 people who attend their GP here do so due to a diet or lifestyle-related condition. By adopting positive lifestyle behaviours all of us can improve our health outcomes and reduce our risk of developing a chronic illness.


At the heart of all illness is a process called inflammation. Inflammation is a vital process which keeps the body healthy and is a primary function of the immune system. When it gets out of control, it causes illness and disease. Science now tells us that it is this inflammatory cascade that is causing many conditions. Arthritis and heart disease are examples of diseases of excess inflammation which has been linked to diet and lifestyle. The actual process of inflammation can be a slow burner in the body. It is never too late to implement healthy changes. We can help ourselves by eating foods that protect us.

1 Reduce meat consumption

Irish people eat too much meat. Whether it is white meat or red meat, we are consuming excess meat. Meat is difficult to digest and in excess is associated with inflammatory illnesses. There appears to be much confusion regarding poultry consumption and red meat. I encounter people daily who eat turkey burgers for breakfast and lunch and meat for dinner. It is not good to eat meat twice daily regardless of which animal it comes from. Most people eat too quickly and don't chew sufficiently, this places even further strain on gut health which is compromised by excess consumption. Processed meats are particularly harmful to health and there is a direct association between processed meats and colon cancer.

2 Increase fish

We all need to eat more fish. Fish has many proteins in it that are not present in meat. It is easier to digest and contains healthy oils. If you consume oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, anchovies, tuna or sardines you will gain the added benefit of taking in omega 3 fats. Omega 3 fats are nature's most potent anti-inflammatory food source. To maximise their effects on the body, we need to consume them twice or three times weekly. Omega 3 can be obtained from flaxseeds, chia seeds and some nuts, however it is in a vegetable form which is not readily available for use by the body so these are not considered a good source of omega 3. Nonetheless, nuts and seeds are very nutritious and form part of a healthy diet.

3 Sunshine vitamin D

Vitamin D is an essential vitamin which supports and strengthens immunity and has a potent anti-inflammatory effect on the body. Due to our northerly latitude, we do not get sufficient sunshine in Ireland. Particularly during the winter months, we are deprived of this essential Vitamin. The best source of vitamin D is from sunshine. Food sources do contain small amounts of Vitamin D. Foods such as oily fish, butter, eggs, liver and milk contain D but not sufficient for the body's needs during the winter months. Vegetarians and vegans are most at risk of vitamin D deficiency as it is only bio-available to the body in the animal format D3. During winter months it is advisable to supplement with vitamin D.

4 Focus on vegetables

Increase daily fruit and vegetables, focus on the vegetable content of the diet. Vegetable consumption in Ireland remains very low. There is an increase in the consumption of fruit in Ireland. This is good, however, fruit needs to be consumed in its natural state, washed with the skin on. There is a difference between eating a piece of fruit and drinking fruit juice. Nature designed fruit to contain a sugar called fructose, which is very sweet. We require very little fructose. When fruit is juiced it contains only the water and the fruit sugar and no fibre, so avoid fruit juices. Instead eat the whole fruit which contains all the nutrients and essential fibres.

5 Eat healthy fats

You do not need to concern yourself with eating low-fat foods, in fact this is not a good idea as most low-fat foods are processed and full of sugars. We need to eat good fats. Fatty foods contain vital vitamin A and vitamin D which are essential nutrients. Healthy choices are olive oil, coconut oil, rapeseed oil and rice bran oil. Saturated fats are primarily animal in origin, although nut, seed and olive oil also contain saturated fats. They are not the demon they were once upon a time purported to be, and are safe and healthy to eat. Fats from vegetable sources are considered healthy, however, bottles of vegetable oils, such as, sunflower oil and corn oil, are highly processed and should be used sparingly.

6 Spice up your life

Cooking with spices enhances the flavour of food. Spices are also potent antioxidants. Free radicals are hazardous particles that the body produces as a result of functioning. Bodily processes such as breathing, digesting, metabolism and all life functions produce waste. When we consume a diet high in processed foods and excess meat we generate more of these waste products. To reduce the harm that they cause, we need to consume foods that neutralise these particles. Spices such as black pepper, cloves, cardamons, cumin, ginger and turmeric contain plant chemicals that neutralise the effect and protect the cells from damage and ageing. Aim to incorporate into your food or make warming teas with them.

7 Sleep in the new black

We are now on the decline into the dark winter months. The body has to adjust to less daylight. This means we will have less energy and the body is not so robust during the wintertime. Humans need to get more rest at this time of year. The body is under pressure from bugs, coughs, colds and flus. The immune system needs rest to carry out its vital functions during the night. Lack of daylight during these months has a very negative affect on the body, it can accelerate ageing. We know the importance of sleep during these months for recuperation and recovery from the long year.

8 Get outdoors

We tend to spend less time outdoors during the winter months. Most people are cooped up all day and going out in the dark evenings can be an effort. Bone health is heavily reliant on exercise. One in two Irish women over the age of 60 have osteoporosis. This bone thinning illness is silent and begins many years before it becomes apparent. Exercising is one of the best ways to prevent it and if osteopenia is present, it can be reversed with diet and exercise. Sunshine is so important for bone health. When and if the sun shines aim to get out in it. It will give you a lift and is conducive to energy production. Exercising in a gym is entirely different to exercising outdoors, there are more benefits to being outdoors including natural light and better air quality which support the body and re-oxygenate it.

9 Digestion

Nutrients are only available to the body when they are well digested. A sluggish digestion is associated with many of the common illnesses. Timing our eating and drinking is very important. Eating late at night is not a good idea. It takes four hours for digestion to complete. Digestion can be exhausting to the body, particularly for the elderly. Regardless of the food you are eating, if you are not absorbing it, you may be nutritionally compromised. During the winter, traditional fare tends to be heavy on the system, many people forget to eat salads or opt for hot food to keep warm. If you can get salads and raw vegetables in at some stage of the day, they are super to aid digestion. Raw foods such as lettuce, rocket, cucumber, pineapple and apples are packed full of digestive enzymes. Vegetables are also alkalising. Many of our chronic illnesses are due to excess rich foods. Keeping it simple will support gut health.

10 Avoid excess liquid sugar

Alcohol is liquid sugar. In one bottle of wine, there is between 600 and 900 kcals. The higher the alcohol content the more sugar and calories are available to the body. Alcohol has a strange effect on the body, even though it is converted to sugar, it lowers blood glucose levels. If you are going to consume alcohol, it is preferable to consume it on a full stomach as this slows down its absorption and the affect on glucose levels. Choose a wine that is 12-12.5pc to reduce the calorie content. Excess alcohol wreaks havoc on all organs, in particular the liver, brain and heart. It is a primary cause of gout, which is a form of arthritis.

Health & Living

Irish Independent

9th March 2017