While we all have the best of intentions when it comes to meal time and snacking; work, kids and life often get in the way, leading us to eat more sugary and processed foods than we’d really like to. But how much harm is it really causing? We caught up with Brittany Darling, an accredited nutritionist and herbalist, mother of two and staunch advocate of eating wholesome and healthy food over diets and fads, to shed some light on popular diet myths and health concerns, and her professional advice has not only inspired, but also debunked unsubstantiated health trends doing the rounds on social media…
“Eating well when you’re tired, time poor and holding a baby 24/7, isn’t always easy. My advice is to keep it simple and eat before you get starving. Once that hangry feeling kicks in, you’re more likely to reach for the wrong foods. Meal prep can help but can also be another chore! Keep it simple and nourish yourself with whole fruit and veg, protein with every meal (legumes, nut, seeds, fish, chicken, eggs or meat) and always add healthy fats like olive oil and avocado. No diets, tricks or fads. Just good wholesome and healthy food.” Can we get an Amen to that? Read on for more of Brittany’s refreshingly simple pointers to eating well, family meals, how to approach sugar with kids and why a little chocolate and wine will always have its place in a balanced diet…
What lead you to become a nutritionist?
It’s funny, I didn’t grow up in a super healthy household. I’d say we had a pretty standard Australian diet eg. milo, cereal, Vegemite, meats and 3 veg, McDonald’s etc. When I was 13, my mum took me to a naturopath for gut issues (no surprises because of my terrible diet!). I remember being totally obsessed with this lady and so intrigued in her work. I started studying nutritional and herbal medicine after my “gap year”.
Have you always had a healthy approach to food and wellbeing?
Growing up, I didn’t have the best diet. My mother didn’t know any better. We spoke about it recently and she laughed saying “healthy food wasn’t fashionable back then”. During my modelling years, I had an awkward relationship with food. It wasn’t until I met my husband, that I began to appreciate what good healthy food was. His mother is Swiss Italian so healthy food was always apart of his life. I also see wellbeing differently now. Wellbeing or health once was “skinny”. Now, it’s about having energy, sleeping well and being in tune with my body, understanding what it needs.
Are there any foods you’d never eat yourself?
I pretty much eat everything. I love pizza, occasional fries, Gelato Messina, pastries etc. Moderation and choosing the best quality version of it is key. The only thing I would never have is soft drink (including diet types).
What are some of the more common food and health ailments people come to see you about?
I see a whole range of different misalignments and people, from neonates to the elderly. In general, I see a lot of gut, immune, allergies, inflammation, stress/burnout and fatigue related conditions. My biggest areas of focus are paediatric nutrition, women’s health and cancer support.
How do herbs play a part in overall health?
I encourage people to add herbs like ginger, turmeric, garlic, coriander, parsley or dandelion greens to their foods every day. They all have different actions and indications but in general they are all good for overall health. You can’t go wrong with dietary doses of herbs. Benefits range from reduced inflammation, liver and detoxification support, bitter actions to enhance digestion and of course boost the total tastiness and nutrient composition of meals. Herbal teas are also great. Green tea is my favourite as it’s packed full of antioxidants and supports the liver. Herbal medicines are tonics. They help to tone certain systems that require extra support. I use liquid herbal tinctures and standardised extract in clinic. I don’t keep people on these herbal tonics for long. Sometimes 2-4 weeks during periods of increased stress or to support thyroid or hormones, for example.
Let’s get real for a minute - how do time-poor mums get their health back on track after babies?
It’s all about prioritising self. It’s important to move and get sunshine, for mental and physical health. I don’t like the idea of “getting the pre-baby body back”. I know for myself, I still have the exact same body as I had before babies, I just have a softer tummy and stretch marks. I call them my battle scars! Eating well when you’re tired, time poor and holding a baby 24/7, isn’t always easy. My advice is to keep it simple and eat before you get starving. Once that hangry feeling kicks in, you’re more likely to reach for the wrong foods. Meal prep can help but can also be another chore! Keep it simple and nourish yourself with whole fruit and veg, protein with every meal (legumes, nut, seeds, fish, chicken, eggs or meat) and always add healthy fats like olive oil and avocado. No diets, tricks or fads. Just good wholesome and healthy food.
The notion of health and wellbeing comes attached with expensive foods, meditation, vitamins… most of which are often out of reach to so many mothers due to time and budget restraints. How can we all attain good health minus these common burdens?
Nutrition is the key. If your diet is healthy and well balanced, you don’t need additional supplements. Real foods are my super foods. Back to basics nutrition with whole fruit and vegetables, protein, healthy fats and grains will provide you with everything you need. Stress is a common reason why people get nutritionally depleted. When you are stressed your body’s demand for magnesium is very high and our digestive systems shut down, meaning we aren’t absorbing our nutrients optimally. Sure medication can help, but so can a walk outside, listening to your favourite music or simple breathing exercises can shift us back into a “rest and digest” state.
How should we all be approaching things such as snacks and treats for kids - is avoiding sugar altogether really the answer?
My philosophy is if you’re going to treat your kids, just give them the ice-cream or chocolate. Don’t trick yourself into thinking the muesli bar or apple juice is any lower in sugar. While avoiding added sugars most of the time is a good thing, I believe it’s fine to treat them occasionally. I would focus on getting the best quality version of that treat you can find eg. Proper gelato vs soft serve or plain chips vs flavoured.
What about sugar for adults - should it totally be off-limits?
Any adult can safely consume up to 25g of sugar a day (equal to 6 teaspoons). Whenever I am craving something sweet, I like to think about what else that food is giving me. For example eating a mango will fix a sweet craving and is also high vitamin C and fibre. A piece of dark(er) chocolate is a rich source of magnesium and has mood boosting properties. If you shift the focus to nourishment vs deprivation, all of a sudden eating healthy becomes effortless.
What are some quick, kid-friendly meal ideas that work well for time-poor families?
My go-to on busy week nights is pita bread pizzas, with as many of vegetable toppings are tolerated! Otherwise, I always have a portion of my vegetable bolognese sauce in the freezer that I can easily defrost. We also do quite a lot of grilled protein (chicken, fish, sausages or lamb cutlets) and with steamed broccoli with butter and sea salt. Omelettes are also a nutritious back up plan!
Breakfast - often hyped as the most important meal of the day yet sometimes so hard to manage. What are some great breakfast ideas for women who usually skip it?
There is a lot of new evidence showing the benefits intermittent fasting. I think extending overnight fasting (skipping breakfast essentially), isn’t a bad thing. So long as the first thing you are consuming isn’t a coffee! If you don’t feel like eating in the morning, don’t eat. Especially if you are stressed and eating on the run. You’re better off waiting until you have a moment to relax and chew. Smoothies generally work quite well for me when I’m skipping breakfast. I prepare it when I’m doing kids lunches and will drink it around 10am then have lunch around 1pm. Alternatively, I’ll have an early 11am lunch. In saying all this, if you are waking up hungry, you should eat.
Which milk-alternative would you recommend is the best alternative to dairy - nut mylk, coconut, soy, rice… ?
Any of these are fine. In saying that, some people don’t do well on lots of soy milk. I would just make sure that your plant milk is free of added vegetable oil, sugars and carrageenan. Carrageenan is a gut irritant and source of MSG. You want your plant milks fresh and pure. Read the labels.
Is dairy really that bad for us?
Some people are genuinely sensitive to dairy but most of us aren’t. I think it comes down to the amount we are consuming. I always choose a milk from organic, grass fed cows because it’s free from antibiotics and synthetic hormones.
Skin health and gut health are often intertwined - what are some foods we should eat and avoid for optimum skin health?
For skin and gut health, I would definitely keep sugars to the minimum and avoid refined white grain foods like breads and pastas. Food that benefit skin health are ones that are high in omega 3, zinc, vitamin C and vitamin A. Fish (especially sardines), organic eggs, grass fed butter, extra virgin olive oil, oysters, nuts and seeds and fresh fruit and vegetables are my skin super foods.
Avoiding packaged snacks for both kids and adults is often unavoidable - what are some of the best ones to select if we do have to succumb?
Seaweed (nori) Snacks Tamar Valley Yogurts Bellamy’s Apple + Pear Snacks Organic Popcorn
Ketogenic diet - is this the way of the future (and optimum health?). Can you break down how it works and why it’s having a moment?
A Ketogenic diet relies on fat as the key source of energy, while severely limiting carbohydrates, and allowing moderate amounts of protein. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. When we starve the body of carbs, ketone bodies (or ketones) are produced by the liver from fat, and used as fuel for the brain and body. On a ketogenic diet, ketones replace carbs as the body’s main energy source, meaning it runs almost entirely on stored fat. The ketogenic diet was originally designed back in the 1920s at John Hopkins University as a treatment for epilepsy. Over the past few decades then there has been growing interest and substantial evidence into the positive effects of a well managed ketogenic diet on number of other conditions including weight loss, Cancer, PCOS, Type 2 Diabetes, Hypertension, Autism, and Alzheimer’s. I don’t think the ketogenic diet is for everyone. Women generally can only tolerate 6-8 weeks on it before it effects them hormonally. Some women just need carbs! I also take a plant-based approach to the keto diet as there is so much evidence around high saturated fat consumption and adverse health effects of processed meats.
Wine - how many glasses and how often is considered healthy?
The new evidence is saying there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption. This is outright depressing. My recommendation is 2 glasses of wine 2 x per week (if you are really disciplined!) otherwise just make sure you are having 2 consecutive days off drinking to let your liver regenerate. For women, I wouldn’t recommend drinking more than 2 glasses a day. Also, you need to check the size of your glass! 100ml of wine is considered a standard drink. OK, enough bad news.
Often eating family meals together with kids means eating earlier in the evening, at 5 or 6 pm. How can parents avoid the 8 pm hunger attack after the kids have gone to bed?
Make sure you are getting enough protein in your meal. You shouldn’t be getting hungry 2-3 hours after eating a meal.
A little bit of chocolate every day, and not always the dark kind…how bad is this habit?
This is a tricky one for me to answer because I have been known to eat a whole block of milk chocolate in the parking lot at Woolworths! A piece of dark chocolate every day is good for you. Milk chocolate is higher in sugar so eat sparingly….
What are some great food options for increasing energy levels throughout the day?
Make sure you are getting enough protein. For my patients who are especially fatigued, I recommend protein for every meal and snack. For otherwise health people, a palm sized portion fo animal proteins and a hand sized portion for plant based protein is a good rule to follow.