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How healthy are pies? A conversation with a dietician gives some surprising answers!

With healthier eating increasingly on people's minds, we wanted to find out a little more about what makes a healthy diet and specifically how pies stack up nutritionally. Below is an interview we did with Vanessa Quarmby, a registered and practising dietician. We found it very interesting and informative and we hope you do too!

Please introduce yourself.

 My name is Vanessa Quarmby and I am a Freelance Consultant Dietitian.

 What is a dietitian’s job and how do you become a dietitian? 

Dietitians are qualified and regulated health professionals that assess, diagnose and treat dietary and nutritional problems at an individual and wider public-health level.

They use the most up-to-date public health and scientific research on food, health and disease which they translate into practical guidance to enable people to make appropriate lifestyle and food choices.

They work in the NHS and in private clinics. They work with healthy and sick people in a variety of settings. They also work in the food industry, workplace, catering, education, sport and the media.

To qualify as a dietitian you are required to undertake an approved programme at a university. All dietetic programmes are approved by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and may also apply for accreditation by The British Dietetic Association (BDA).

 Accreditation is a robust process providing assurance to the profession, students and the public that universities meet the standards of the professional body - the BDA.                    

Successful completion of these courses provides eligibility to apply for registration with the HCPC. It is a legal requirement that anyone who wishes to practise using the title dietitian is on the HCPC register.

 What would say are the biggest problems with our diet as a nation at the moment?

There are many issues with our diet on a population level. Imbalanced diets and an increasing consumption of highly processed foods really concern me.

 We do live in an environment that makes it harder to eat a healthy balanced diet these days. It is so easy to eat fast food and buy ready meals as they are everywhere and they are highly palatable. I see clients regularly and what they report is an increasing dependence on processed foods as life is so busy and time spent planning, buying, preparing and cooking food at home has diminished. Eating more processed food can have an impact on our weight. As a nation, rates of obesity are high (2/3 of the UK population are either overweight or obese) Being overweight or obese leads to an increased risk of diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease and cancer.

What gives me hope is that we only need to make small changes to our diets to have a big impact on our nutritional intake, it is possible to change. If people thought of their plate in quarters; ideally one quarter would be starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice or pasta- this provides us with much needed fibre (if the skins are left on the potatoes, or you choose brown rice or wholemeal pasta). Another quarter would be protein such as beans, eggs, meat, fish or poultry and the remaining half would be salad or vegetables. This is a balanced meal. When I deliver training sessions it is this that I regularly come back to, focus on filling half your plate with salad or vegetables. Better still, start a meal with a vegetable soup or large salad. Include foods such as stir fries and stews – again because these contain vegetables which provide essential phytonutrients (beneficial plant compounds) that are good for our health. 

 What can people do to enjoy their food whilst also maintaining a healthy overall diet?

Healthy food can be enjoyable! I am a foodie, I am all about what we can eat more of, I don’t do deprivation, nor should we. If we focus on eating a more plant based diet then other foods tend to be cut down on. It is important to note that there is no need to cut meat out of the diet, but, by adding in more plant based foods such as vegetables, salads, soups, nuts, seeds, fruit, herbs and spices we can naturally cut down on animal based foods.

I am thinking avocado, eggs and tomatoes on toast for breakfast, a chicken and salad sandwich for lunch or a bowl of vegetable soup and bread followed by a couple of pieces of fruit, for dinner a piece of salmon topped with pesto and breadcrumbs with roasted veg – make it easy for yourself, throw it all in the oven together.

Also, think about a week’s food intake. As dietitians we don’t focus on individual meals, we look at the bigger picture. So, it’s okay to have a meal out with friends and indulge, but, if you were to then have a take away that week and not have much fruit and vegetables daily, there would be things that you might want to consider changing.

 There’s quite a polarising debate at the moment regarding eating meat and whether we should be eating less of it or even eating it at all. Where do you stand on the debate about eating meat from a dietary perspective and are some meats better than others?

 Meat forms part of a balanced diet. Red meat, poultry, game, processed meat etc – in the UK we are meat lovers, who doesn’t love a steak and chips? But, there are health concerns with how much and how often people eat it.

 Red meat is important as it provides iron, an easily absorbable form that can be used by the body. Many women are iron deficient as they have higher requirements than men (due to menstrual losses) red meat can be a particularly valuable source of iron for women. It also provides protein which is essential for health.

 ‘Red’ meat is meat that’s a dark red colour before it’s cooked – this means meats like beef and lamb, but also includes pork.

 ‘Processed’ meat is meat that’s not sold fresh, but instead has been cured, salted, smoked, or otherwise preserved in some way (so things like bacon, sausages, hot dogs, chorizo, ham, salami, and pepperoni). But this doesn’t include fresh, homemade burgers or mince.

 Red and processed meats increase the risk of bowel (colorectal) cancer. Both of these types of meat are distinct from ‘white’ meats, like fresh chicken or turkey, and fish (none of which appear to increase your risk of cancer).

 This is the important point - everyone eats and everyone is at risk of colorectal cancer, any increase in risk makes a difference when we look at the whole population. That's why it's recommended that people who eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day cut down to 70g or less. This could help reduce your risk of bowel cancer.

 Top tips for cutting down-

  • Pay attention to your portions – cut down the number of sausages you eat or switch half of the meat in your usual dishes for beans or veggies (for example when making a Bolognese sauce, add red lentils and cut down on the mince, when making a chilli – add red lentils and lots of kidney beans and cut down on the mince, when making a cottage/shepherd’s pie add lots of vegetables such as onions, celery, grated carrot etc)
  • Have meat free days – pick a day (or days) to have no meat at all (have baked beans and a jacket potato or beans and eggs on toast, perhaps make a pasta sauce with tomatoes, red lentils, garlic and onions)
  • Get out of a recipe rut – look for new recipes that use fresh chicken or fish instead of processed and red meat, chat with your pals for their favourite tea time recipes

As a pie business, we make products that hopefully give people a great eating experience, but from a dietary perspective how do our pies look and what are the positives and negatives of them as a food?

They look delicious. Meat filled and filling. From a nutritional perspective, pies are quite high in fat – this adds to palatability though. You offer vegetarian and vegan options which is good. Pies that contain red meat offer all important haem iron (more easily absorbed by the body than iron from plant sources – non haem iron found in spinach, kale etc).

Salt – as pies are a processed food, salt is added during that process. Salt is known to increase blood pressure. Potassium containing foods balance/counteract sodium (found in salt). Potassium containing foods are all fruit and vegetables. We know that we should cut down on the foods that contain salt, but it is important to eat more potassium containing foods too.

Portion size and frequency are the two really important points to mention here. No food is off limits/banned in a balanced, healthy diet. Most people, when told they can never have a particular food ever again, crave it more – this is not good. Pies can be included in a healthy, balanced diet. If I saw a client who ate pies regularly, I might ask them if they could consider changing that. 

You use grass fed beef in your pies, this has been subject to a lot of debate and scientific research recently. Grass-fed beef has a better nutritional profile than grain-fed beef. Some research suggests that it may have more omega-3 fatty acids (which are hugely beneficial to health), a lower total fat and saturated fat profile, more favourable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats and more B vitamins. If you don’t eat fish regularly, you can have weeks without any omega-3 fats in your diet. That's why omega-3s are depleted, and that's why Western diets are pro-inflammatory diets (inflammation causes lots of diseases such as heart disease and cancer). I recommend that people eat a diet where they get their omega-3 fatty acids as often as they can.

What accompaniments could people have with their pies to increase their nutritional value as a meal whilst still being delicious to eat?

This is actually a very important point. If your plate is divided into quarters, one quarter should be protein (the pie in this case would be here as it will likely contain meat) one quarter should be starchy carbohydrates such as mashed/boiled or jacket potato and the further half of the plate should be made of vegetables. I am thinking a variety of colours here – broccoli, kale, carrots, sweetcorn, peas, cabbage – whatever takes your fancy and make sure it is a large portion.

 Pie pastry is normally made with wheat flour which contains gluten, without which it is difficult to achieve the texture and mouthfeel that makes it pleasurable to eat. Obviously there are people who are unable to eat gluten because they are coeliac, but is gluten a bad ingredient in general for most people?

Most people do not need to avoid gluten. There is emerging scientific evidence about gluten in the diet and the way it can impact our health, but, we need more research before we can make recommendations. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition which requires strict adherence to a gluten free diet. I do also see clients who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and sometimes cutting gluten out of the diet can help reduce their symptoms.

What is your favourite meal to eat and why?

You might not hear many Dietitians saying this….. I love fish & chips! Oh my goodness, I just love them. I think it’s the white flaky fish and peas in particular that I am so keen on, with lots and lots of vinegar. Apart from fish and chips, any meal that is made by someone else, I do 99% of the cooking in our house and sometimes I do enjoy a rest.

What is your best food memory and where was it?

I have very fond memories of being taken to Rothwell’s in Doncaster market place as a child and devouring fish, chips and mushy peas. Always with vinegar and some salt too. I still love fish and chips (but you won’t be surprised to hear this) I now take off most of the batter, sometimes leave some chips and order a large portion of peas – I have to practice what I preach!

Thank you Vanessa, that was very interesting and certainly 'food for thought'

You're welcome, remember food is about enjoyment and balance. Above all food should be something we take pleasure in and as long as our diet is well balanced we can certainly do this.