Nutrition: Be careful whose advice you listen to!


It happens time and time again.

I speak to patients, family or friends, and as the conversation develops, misconceptions around nutrition invariably surface, with comments such as:

Oh, I hear those are great for you

That’s what we should all be doing / eating

She says she feels great since she started taking … 

and so on.

My favourite is

Do you know walnuts are great for your brain Ciara? And do you know why?  Because they look like brains

I kid you not, this was said in earnest. Wasn’t it perfectly logical?

I would imagine that concept was the bright idea of a health professional who wanted to draw an intuitively appealing analogy to encourage people to eat more walnuts. We know nuts are good for our health. The World Health Organisation recommends we include nuts as part of a healthy balanced diet.  There is a body of research to support this advice.

People who eat nuts are at a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes compared to those who don’t eat nuts. This may be because they have healthier diets overall – these people are unlikely to be eating vast quantities of nuts, and certainly not the salted or candied varieties.

But back to the walnuts… are they good for our brains? I’m sorry to say, although the analogy invents a lovely vivid image in our minds, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that walnuts are good for our brains (even if they look like brains).

On the bright side, however, walnuts get the seal of approval as they help to keep our blood vessels stretchy and aid good blood flow (which is of course good for the brain). That is not to say that we should all start eating bags of walnuts. Although nutritious, they’re also packed with a lot of energy and calories. The recommended amount is about 30g a day, or a very small handful. If you’re watching your weight but would like to include walnuts in your diet you may need to exclude some other high calorie food.

With just this one example, I hope you understand that it can, on occasion, be difficult to separate nutritional facts from fiction.

What makes me chuckle is how people perceive dieticians’ eating habits. There’s no winning, really…

Dietitian eats salad:

Of course the dietitian is eating salad.

Dietitian eats chips:

Oh, I didn’t think a dietitian would be eating chips.

Although you might think a dietitian is judging you, it’s more likely you’re judging a dietitian! Believe it or not, dieticians are people first. Of all the dieticians I know, the vast majority are in nutrition because they like food. Tasty and fresh food, exactly of the type that everyone else loves. So don’t be afraid to dine with a dietitian – it’s likely they’re keen for dessert too!

Studying nutrition as a science has given me what I believe is a balanced approach to nutrition. I enjoy and appreciate the food I eat. I don’t count calories.

As we undoubtedly face an onslaught of diet and lifestyle advice, I encourage you to be critical and question the ‘advice’ that comes your way.

We would all be healthier by focusing on our five (to seven) a day of fruit and vegetables before taking on board any perceived ‘super foods’. Fruits and vegetables are the wisest food choices, offering us a host of benefits without worries of weight-gain. If you make one dietary change this new year, make it a fruit (and vegetable)-ful one.

Ciara Hogan is a dietitian working at Naas General Hospital in Ireland, who has a particular interest in Paediatric Dietetics and Sports Nutrition. She is currently completing a Masters in Nutrition for Global Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Her undergraduate thesis studied infant feeding practices in a group of infants in Panama, Central America. 

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