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Public Health Nutrition – changing diets for life!

21 December 2017

In this context, the council takes a uniquely preventive, needs-based approach, tackling the root-cause of eating behaviours to bring about sustainable change both at individual, and environmental levels through the accessibility and availability of healthy foods. In practice, this includes the delivery of bespoke education initiatives and skill-based training.  However, a significant part of the work centres on the development, delivery and evaluation of multi-component change programmes, which target identified needs, such as knowledge, skills and motivation, as well as the social and physical context relative to dietary habits.

In the season synonymous with change, we’ve asked the council’s public health nutritionist, Dr Janice McConnell, to take time out from her busy schedule and share some quick tips on how we can eat better today, for a healthier future.

Eating Well

Eating well is a cornerstone of health and wellbeing which can add life to years, and not just years to life! The Eatwell guide, launched in 2016, is the UK’s food-based guidelines on how we can eat more healthily; providing guidance around the 4 main food groups which make up our diets.


Copies of the guide and related notes can be accessed from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide

Recent survey data shows that our current diets do not match food or nutrient-based recommendations.  Specifically, the data shows that only 18% of adults are eating their 5-a-day of fruit and vegetables, and as a population we are eating 2-3 times more sugar than the maximum recommended intake for health. We are also consuming levels of fibre and oily fish which fall below the recommendations, while consuming too much red meat. These trends demonstrate that much opportunity exists to improve our nutritional health (see table).

Opportunities for improved nutritional health

Food & nutrients


Fruit & Vegetables

At least 5 portions/day

Eat a rainbow – eating different colours of fruit and vegetables provides a range of plant nutrients important to health

Aim for more vegetables than fruit


Maximum 7 sugar cubes or 30g/day (adults)

Maximum 5-6 sugar cubes for children depending on age

1 sugar cube/teaspoon = 4g

Typical 500ml sugary soft drink contains 13 sugar cubes

Fruit smoothies and juices can contain as much sugar as fizzy soft drinks, so limit intake

Average chocolate treat contains approx. 8 sugar cubes

Check labels for hidden sugar in processed foods


Minimum 24g/day

Choose wholegrain varieties eg brown rice, oats, wholemeal bread, wholegrain pastas

Increase vegetable and fruit intake

Increase water intake

Meat – red and processed

Maximum 70g/day

Choose more vegetable protein sources such as lentils, peas, beans, nuts/seeds, and have several meat-free days every week

Oily fish

1 portion (140g)/week

Includes sardines, salmon, mackerel, fresh tuna

Making changes!

As important as it is, knowing what to eat is only part of the strategy to changing our dietary habits.  The making and sustainability of dietary changes can be rather more difficult. This is because the reasons for ‘why we eat what we eat’ can be complex, so equally, the solution needs to be comprehensive.  This means taking the impact of our environment or surroundings into consideration.  While a core function of a public health nutritionist is to shape a healthier food environment for the population, we, as individuals, can also shape our immediate environments to motivate ourselves to make healthier food choices.

We can do this by firstly ‘framing change’ using a number of familiar ‘tools’:

  • Food diary – find out what you are really eating and drinking and keep tabs on yourself! Such records can be illuminating in setting goals and highly motivating!

  • Goal setting – do we know what we want and what we specifically need to do to achieve it? Put it in writing, and tell someone what you are doing – this works!

  • Meal planning – this is the ‘blueprint’ of your intended diet.  Everything that you intend to eat and drink is detailed, informing your shopping list!

In need of some further support? These tools are all available as Apps to help you plan and monitor. Why not check them out and find something that works for you!


Text Box: Cues or primers to help you eat more healthily!
•	Plan meals and use a shopping list – what you buy at the supermarket shapes your food environment in the home
•	Buy only what you need - buying larger quantities, means you are more likely to eat more in the same time space
•	Keep less healthy foods out of view and reduce accessibility – the old adage ‘out of sight out of mind’ holds true here.  If this is unavoidable, for example in a shared workspace, identify your weakest times during the day so you have planned alternatives readily available for true hunger pangs eg whole fruit or chopped vegetables with homemade dips such as hummus or salsa, mixed nuts and seeds, oat cakes
•	Be mindful of portion size when eating out – this is one way of controlling the nutritional quality of food you have not prepared yourself while still enjoying a special occasion or treat night! Ask for a half portion, child’s portion, or share!
•	Don’t eat direct from family-sized/go-large/share packaging – we eat with our eyes and our tummy gets full before our eyes grow weary!
•	Use smaller plates and bowls – we eat with our eyes and sometimes they’re easily fooled!

We now have a plan of action, an intention!


What we need next is to translate this plan into our reality. So we need action, and sustained action. Enter cues or priming! Cues are simply reminders or primers which keep us on course.  The boxed examples of cues (see opposite/below) while appearing relatively simple, are actually evidence-based, meaning their effectiveness has previously been reliably proven. Cues can be very powerful in changing dietary habits, and can quite easily become part of everyday life.


Remember, we make most of our decisions around food automatically, without thinking, based on our perceived immediate needs. However, these needs can be reframed on our goals through cues or priming of our immediate environment, motivating us to make better food choices.  So are you up for the challenge? Why not set some goals today! Your future self will thank you for it!


For further information on public health nutrition interventions at Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, please contact Dr Janice McConnell, RNutr (public health) on 028 90 340160 or email [email protected]