Innovation In Nutrition
The brainchild of nutritionist, Dr. Sarah Mitchell Weston, belle époque is a health & wellness clinic which offers personalised and scientifically endorsed, specialist nutrition advice for individuals or couples, who are interested in transformation and enhancement of a healthy lifestyle. We talk to Sarah about starting a new business in the year of Covid, health fades and the future of nutrition.
Can you give us an overview of what you’ve started?
We’ve just launched belle époque, a private nutrition consulting practice, which is headed by me. At this stage, it’s just me as the nutritionist. I take on clients, either individuals, couples, or families even, and we just go over whatever their concerns are.
What I particularly focus on is weight loss, gut health, which is what I did my PhD on, nutrition for fertility and pregnancy, nutrition for aging, and sports nutrition, where I also have a bit of a background.
After a bit of a rollercoaster year with a couple of lockdowns, have you noticed that people have a whole lot of sourdough and carb-induced weight that they need to get rid of?
I think everyone got a bit carried away with the home cooking and there were a lot of enquiries about weight loss from this year.
Obviously food is the fuel for you and your body, but does it work the other way as well, where in times of crisis and stress, we look to things that bring us comfort, food being one of those things?
Absolutely. That’s the thing about food is it’s meant to be enjoyed, it’s meant to be enjoyed with other people and family. It’s just about choosing the right things and having the knowledge to eat fresh, local, in-season food and turn it into something that can be comfort food. It doesn’t necessarily have to be bad for you.
Are there any key tips that you would give to people to keep in mind as the foundation for their nutritional decisions?
Keep it simple. Learning to cook is really, really important. It seems to me to be something that a lot of people have used that as an excuse to eat out or eat badly. Learn some of the basics and have a really prepared kitchen.
Sometimes I come across people’s kitchens where they don’t have sharp knives, they’ve got stuff everywhere, or things are expired. Getting organised in the kitchen and doing things together really helps.
Is there anything that’s really bothering you about some of the trends out there at the moment?
Every trend bothers me because they’re trends. They all are very similar in that they are restrictive, they’re always cutting something out. And what that actually does is you end up eating almost exactly the same in each situation. You’re cutting out pastries, you’re cutting out pies, all this stuff that you shouldn’t be eating in the first place.
But I think the thing that really bugs me to be honest is there’s a lot of talk, particularly from nutritionists and influencers, about what they believe to be right. Whereas I think nutrition isn’t a belief system, it’s a science and it’s either this or it’s that. You shouldn’t just have to believe it for it to be true.
What sort of person becomes a nutritionist?
There’s a lot of reasons why I think people come into this field. I did because I’m a bit of a scientist, a bit of a geek, I want to find out why things are the way they are. And being healthy is really important to me.
I think a lot of people go into it because they’ve often got issues with something. It could be eating disorders, it could be chronic pain, it could be some other thing that makes them interested in food and turns them into somebody who can help other people on a similar journey.
What was it about gut health that inspired you?
The gut is a fascinating thing because it’s something that’s relatively unknown. It’s quite difficult to see your gut, it’s difficult to get to and despite what we read in magazines and various things, we know very little about it and how diet affects your gut.
I decided to pick that as my PhD project. I looked at how different types of protein, both animal and plant, and different quantities of protein affected the gut microbiome and how they affected other areas of health, such as cardiovascular health. That was quite interesting. We essentially found that protein doesn’t really affect the gut as much as you would expect it to or what we’ve read about in the media.
How do you go about testing that?
There’s only really one non-invasive way to study the gut and that was to collect stool samples. From those, they get sent to the lab and they get analysed for the gut microbiomes or the bugs, and also the metabolites that they produce.
It’s the metabolites that they produce that have an effect on different bodies, either positive or negative effects. It’s really an emerging science, there’s a lot of stuff going on.
In terms of the difference between animal protein and plant-based protein, was there no real difference there? Does that open the door for some really interesting things in terms of this move to plant-based protein?
Possibly. I can talk about this for hours because there’s so much that hasn’t been done. You would have noticed all of the fake meat products that are lining the supermarket shelves? None of that has actually been studied, so we don’t really know what that’s even doing to the gut, if it’s actually good for you.
The result that we got from our study, where we looked at beef and soy protein and didn’t see a difference in the gut microbiome, could be driven by the small sample size that we used, but it does also lend some weight to the idea that meat protein is not that bad for your gut, provided it’s eaten in recommended quantities.
In our study, we had the participants eat red meat only three times a week, so I can’t vouch for somebody that’s eating red meat everyday. It’s probably not good for your gut, but compared to soy protein, you’re not worse off.
How do you feel about the rise in plant-based meat substitutes? Do you sense that we don’t know enough yet?
We don’t know enough, but I do understand the drive behind them about sustainability, that’s a good thing.
In terms of the argument about whether or not you’re better off without meat in your diet, as much as I’m fascinated by the vegan diet and trying to be as healthy as we can without eating animal products, I think the human body does need animal products to an extent. We just have to work around a way of having these included in the diet without exploiting animals and using more sustainable practices.
Has being a nutritionist ruined eating for you? Do you sit down for a meal and instead of enjoying the magic of it, are you breaking down its nutritional value?
No, I think maybe you do that when you first start learning about it and learning all the details. But I’ve been studying now for such a long time and working with people, that it’s not that way.
I like my food and that’s part of what I had to really teach some of my clients, that food is to be enjoyed. You get a lot of people that come in to see nutritionists that have a lot of fear and that then clouds their eating habits and nutrition.
Why are we afraid of understanding food?
I think there’s two schools of people. There’s people that are afraid of finding out too much and then having their favorite foods ruined for them. And then there are some that get too obsessed with it. And then there’s just some people who don’t care.
How different are we in terms of our nutritional requirements and how we react to certain foods?
There’s a bit of a difference. The general principles are usually the same, but there’s a lot of other setbacks that need to be taken into account when you provide somebody with a custom nutritional plan. Their medical history, their likes, their dislikes, their family situation, their job, whether they’re active or not.
Some people really do respond better to higher fat diets, some respond better to really high carbohydrate diets. Working with different athletes, their endurance. For powerlifters, for example, they need to eat differently and have different requirements. The list goes on and on.
The thing that does get me is when you’ve got influencers that talk about what they’ve done and so people are following this person and copying them, but their lives are completely different and so it’s not going to be the same.
Have you been able to make a few adjustments with people who need a lot of help and managed to see profound change?
Absolutely. By the time people come in to see me, they’re already ready for change. There are some people that need small changes, so you might just swap out some of their really bad food for some slightly less bad food.
Or you get some people that really want a big change, so you change their whole diet major and have a major overhaul. It depends on the person and how they’re going to respond and stick to it.
Do you see changes in other things as well for people, whether it’s mood or sleep patterns, etc?
Yeah, absolutely. Some people come in to lose some weight and they’re unaware that they may have other issues that they just ignore, like not sleeping well or anxiety. Once you get people eating really well, then they start to maybe really enjoy cooking, or they lose a bit of weight and get more inspired to start an exercise program.
Generally, I get a lot of comments about their mood changes, or they’ve got a little bit of depression and that lifts. Changing diets with whole foods and supplements when they need it, is a game changer.
If you look at us as a country, how buggered are we when it comes to our food and nutrition?
It’s a bit of a mixed bag, it depends who you’re looking at. We’ve got such a diverse population and we’ve also got a widening gap between the rich and poor. When you’re looking at people who are more deprived, the diets are shocking, and we need to do something about that, but that needs to be at the population level. It can’t be fixed by someone like me, but it’s definitely something that needs to be addressed.
I think that though New Zealand, compared to other countries, including Australia and the States and the UK, we’re a really curious bunch. We’re really innovative, we’ve got really good healthy foods and companies.
I’ve done a bit of travelling, so I’m quite interested to see what’s out there around the world. Going to the supermarkets in the States and the UK, I really think New Zealand’s ahead, in terms of health food and availability and choice compared to other countries.
We are very highly represented in terms of obesity rates and type two diabetes. Do you sense that it is loaded into the poorer side of that wealth gap?
Yeah, it is. It’s generally in uneducated and lower income groups where it’s most overly represented. But it is everywhere.
Some of the argument around the connection between poor nutrition and poverty is that processed foods seem a lot cheaper than fresh vegetables and fruit. When you look at a supermarket, can you see potential to still get some good food for your family, even on a limited budget?
Yeah, totally. It’s just about ease and lack of imagination I think for some people. There are a lot of healthy foods that you can get; tinned food, frozen food. They’re not necessarily unhealthy and they can be very cheap, all they need is a little bit of prep.
It’s just about educating people and there’s quite a few great initiatives around that, with community gardens and teaching kids the importance of healthy food and cooking it. It’s just these little steps around education. It doesn’t really help that there’s a lot of fast food places, dairies and alcohol shops in these areas where they need the help most.
It’s not an easy question, otherwise it will be fixed by now. But I think there are a few groups that are working on some really good initiatives in that area.
We’re looking at the last year that has been a roller coaster in a lot of ways. Why on earth would you start a business right now?
I keep asking myself that, but I was starting this at the beginning of last year, I was all ready to get started January, February. We went on holiday at the start of March and came back to this, so that kind of put a spanner in the works.
I was pretty much already committed to keep the ball rolling and frankly, people have become even more interested in health and self-improvement than they ever have been before.
It’s already a billion dollar industry, but it’s just grown at a phenomenal pace. A few friends who’ve got similar businesses have said that it hasn’t really stopped. People are beginning to really take control and have more interest in their health because of this. It’s actually been quite good.
Have you been surprised by anything so far since you started?
It’s my first business, so everyday I’m surprised or happy or pissed off. It’s been a learning process. All the clients have been pretty much the same.
I’ve worked in this industry for a while, so I haven’t noticed a huge difference. People are just becoming more interested in knowing how and why. People are a little bit more engaged.
Have you got a vision in mind? Have you got a 10 year plan?
Yeah, I do. I’m hoping to grow this business. In the next few months, I’m hoping to bring on board a couple more nutritionists who have same values as I do and the same vision, under the Belle Epoque umbrella. Maybe they can help bring in different types of expertise and build it up nicely.
I’m not entirely sure whether I’ll just stay in Auckland or expand throughout the country. I’m also looking at starting up a line of supplements. I won’t go into details about that just yet, but that’s in the pipeline too.
With the resurgence of fermented products and kombucha, has that raised awareness for people becoming more conscious about what’s happening in the gut?
I think it has, but at the same time, like I said, there is very little that we know about the gut. Everyone’s getting crazy about fermented food, but there is a point of having too much fermented food because you’ll be sick.
I’m seeing people having kombucha and kimchi every day and they’re actually putting a lot of bacteria into their gut that they probably don’t need. People get a bit carried away.
If there was a spectrum, where are we in terms of our understanding?
There’s a few simple principles that pretty much have remained unchanged. Eating as much fruit and vegetables as you can and not having too much meat and essentially not overeating. They’re all very simple principles, they work and we should stick to that. All the other stuff is just a bit of noise, really.
In terms of the gut, again, understanding it is one thing, but if you just boil it down to the fact that if you just eat lots of fruits and vegetables, good fats and a little bit of meat, then you’ll be fine.
But people get lost along the way when you’ve got fast foods and eating out, fake meats and things like that. It just clouds the whole picture and can confuse people.
Would there be any advice that you’d give for anyone out there wanting to follow their passion and take the leap into owning their own business?
Most importantly is to get a mentor. Find somebody who you can talk to, find somebody who listens. That’s been really helpful for me.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t sweat the small stuff.