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What’s Ireland Eating?

Over the past few years I have become increasingly alarmed by the number of people I see in my clinic who are suffering from various forms of food intolerance. Problems such as gluten and dairy intolerance, which were once relatively rare, now seem to be affecting more people than ever. Alongside this is the alarming increase in risk factors and incidences of various chronic diseases, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes, and we only need to look around to see that well over half of Irish people are now either overweight or obese. So what is happening to cause such a health crisis in our country?
A documentary on RTE last week posed the question: “What’s Ireland Eating?” and offered some insight into the link between the food we are choosing to eat, and the impact on our health and on our local economy. The documentary, which is still available to watch on the RTE player, is based on the results of a survey of the grocery-buying habits of thousands of Irish households, and also presents the results of the National Nutrition Survey, which was carried out by Irish University Nutrition Alliance.

The survey found that over 40% of the money we spend on food is spent on highly processed food, which is generally much higher in sugar, salt and fat. We buy huge quantities of processed meat, fizzy drinks, and sugary breakfast cereals. Most of the meat we consume is processed, and half of the fish we buy is frozen, breaded and pre-packed. One third of the potatoes we choose are in the form of high-fat, processed products such as chips. And even the “fresh” products we buy, such as salads and other vegetables, are more likely to be washed with chlorine, pre-chopped, and sold in gas-filled packaging to prolong the shelf life. Our consumption of fruit and vegetables is only half of the recommended daily amount, and for every euro we spend on fruit, we spend €1.50 on junk foods such as crisps and sweets.

In Ireland we are consuming on average two and a half times the recommended intake of salt, which is a major contributing factor to higher rates of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Processed pork (such as bacon, sausages and ham), is the highest selling meat in this country, and is a big contributing factor to our high salt intake. Processed meats are pumped with large quantities of water to increase the bulk (and therefore the price) of the product. They also contain numerous additives such as phosphates to help keep the added water in the meat, nitrites to make it pink, dextrose for flavouring, and preservatives such as ascorbate to prolong the shelf life.

Of greatest concern is the result of a study conducted by the World Cancer Research Fund, which found that consuming processed meat significantly increases the risk of bowel cancer, which is the second most common cancer in Ireland. The increased risk is thought to be mainly due to the various additives such as nitrites which make the meat look more pink, and as little as 50g per day of processed meat (which is equivalent to just 2 slices of ham per day), is enough to increase the risk of bowel cancer by 30%.

Addressing the way we shop and eat is not only important for our health, it is also important for our economy, since the annual cost to the health service for the treatment of obesity and obesity-related disease is currently €4billion.

So what can we due to turn this crisis around? Well, it’s really very simple: We need to get back to buying locally-produced, fresh, unprocessed, preferably organic products. Buying cheap processed meat is really a false economy since it can contain up to 50% water. Fresh, unprocessed, meat, chicken and fish bought from local suppliers benefits your health and well-being, as well as supporting local businesses. Likewise, eating plenty of vegetables which are locally-produced, fresh, unprocessed and preferably organic is one of the best things you can do for your health and for the local economy.

There is a huge variety of interesting and delicious types of food available, yet many people choose to eat processed ready meals, or bland chicken fillets or breaded white fish, with boiled carrots and peas every night of the week. Why not choose a delicious moist organic chicken from your local butcher or poultry supplier instead, or some delicious grilled fresh Mackerel or lemon sole from the Farmers Market? How about some tasty parsnips and butternut squash from your local greengrocer or organic farmer, roasted in the oven with some herbs and a little local honey, or some steamed fresh greens such as sprouting brocolli, leeks and kale?

It may sound daunting and time consuming to those who are not used to preparing a variety of intersting meals from scratch and usually just grab lots of processed foods from the supermarket shelves, but local suppliers are generally very willing to offer advice on how to prepare different types of food, and there are lots of ideas and recipes available from books, TV and on the internet. Ultimately, the experience of buying your food in friendly local shops, eating meals made from delicious, fresh unprocessed ingredients, and feeling the benefits to your health, makes it well worth the effort.

The “What’s Ireland Eating” Documentary is available to watch on the RTE player (www.rte.ie/player) until Tuesday 22nd November.