The brainchild of nutritionist, Dr. Sarah Mitchell Weston, belle époque nutrition is a health & wellness clinic offering personalised and evidence-based 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 fads and the future of nutrition.
Can you give us an overview of what you’ve started?
We’ve just launched belle époque nutrition, a private consulting practice based in Grey Lynn, Auckland. I offer nutritional solutions and bespoke diet plans to clients either on a one-off basis or over a series of appointments. Because of COVID we have adapted to seeing many clients online, which is great as it means I’m accessible to clients all over the country rather than just Auckland. I take on clients who have quite diverse concerns – I am particularly interested in helping people with their gut health and food intolerances. I also specialise in weight management, sport nutrition, and plant-based nutrition.
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?
Yes! I think a lot of people got a bit carried away with the home cooking and comfort eating, so there have been more than a few enquiries about weight loss after each lockdown!
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. Emotional eating – people often turn to food when they are stressed out or in crisis mode, unhappy, bored, or anxious. Often these foods tend to be high-carb, high sugar, or high fat – the tasty stuff! But seriously, over time, eating this way can slowly form habits which can be tough to break, and in the long-term can lead you down a path of weight gain and health issues. That doesn’t mean that food shouldn’t bring you comfort, but it’s important to recognise when it is becoming a crutch for bigger problems.
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. Eat as many whole foods as possible – those are foods that have little to no processing – foods that do not need labels with huge ingredient lists! That should be the basis for your diet, and let the rest fit around that. Eat plenty of plants, make sure you get plenty of protein, and drink water all day, every day. Variety is key, and eating seasonally will help with that. Learning to cook is super important too, as it gives you a much more profound sense of understanding and appreciation of food.
Is there anything that’s really bothering you about some of the trends out there at the moment?
Most trends bother me because they are just that – trends! Many tend to be very similar in that they are restrictive, they’re often cutting something out. This usually results in cutting out a whole food group which – in moderation – didn’t do any harm in the first place. Following such restrictions can leave a person vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies, and potentially no better off than before they started.
What sort of person becomes a nutritionist?
There must be a thousand reasons why people get into this field. It really is an endlessly fascinating topic. Generally I guess we are the sort of people who are interested in the relationship between diet and health or disease, and want to help and inspire people to live a healthy life through better diet choices. I think many nutritionists may have come from a place of experience, whether that is from an illness or a sport, and found how optimal nutrition has helped them personally.
I think it’s important to note here that “Nutritionist” isn’t a protected term and can be used freely by anyone. So for those seeking out a nutritionist it’s important to check their credentials, and make sure you see someone who is registered through the Nutrition Society of NZ, like me.
What was it about gut health that inspired you?
The gut fascinates me because it is still a relative unknown. What you read in the media may have you believe that we know how it works, and how to “fix” it, but actually scientists are still learning new things about it every day. In fact, there is still no real definition of what a “healthy gut” actually is, and this is mostly down to the complexity and diversity of the gut microbiome. My PhD thesis explored the effect of diets on the gut microbiome, particularly high protein diets and differences in plant and animal-based proteins. Although I hopefully contributed something of value from my research, the science behind diets and the gut microbiome – or “gut health” – continues to develop and evolve. I also find it fascinating that the gut microbiome is often the mediator between many diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and components of your diet, such as plant or animal proteins.
How do you go about testing that?
There’s only really one non-invasive way to study the gut microbiome and that is to collect stool samples! These are sent to the lab for gut bacteria and various metabolites to be extracted and analysed, to establish what is there, and what they are doing. Metabolites in particular are important to study because they can exert positive or negative effects on the rest of the body. It really is still an emerging science.
How do you feel about the rise in plant-based meat substitutes? Do you sense that we don’t know enough yet?
There is an increasing market for plant based proteins, and we are seeing it grow particularly in the faux meat category. This is because of the increased interest in plant-based diets, for ethical, sustainable, or personal reasons. I fully support anyone who is trying to reduce their meat consumption, and watch with interest the rise in meat-substitutes especially if it helps the cause. Though what we don’t know enough about is how they may affect gut health, or if they are any better for you. Some of these products have alarmingly long ingredient lists and depend on extra additives and sodium to improve taste and texture. My advice would be to read the nutrient info before you buy, or stick with natural plant protein sources such as legume and bean based products.
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, thank god! Knowing more about the nutritional value of food doesn’t – and shouldn’t – ruin eating. In fact, being better informed helps me to choose and enjoy foods every day that are better for my personal health and wellbeing. I actually think lack of knowledge can ruin eating for some people, as they often get confused about what they should or shouldn’t be eating, leading to anxiety or fear around certain foods.
Why are we afraid of understanding food?
Maybe it is lack of interest rather than fear. It can be a complex topic, especially as everyone is a little bit different, so what might be a great diet for one person may not be so good for another. This can create confusion, which may lead to either apathy or fear!
How different are we in terms of our nutritional requirements and how we react to certain foods?
There can be huge differences. Our nutritional requirements vary depending on many things such as age, metabolism, health, activity levels, hormones, genetics, and goals. All of that needs to be taken into account when putting together an ideal diet or food plan. Our reactions to different foods vary enormously too, both emotionally and biochemically. Depending on your metabolism or activity level, some people respond more favourably to certain diets compared to others. For example, some people really do respond better to higher fat diets, while some respond better to high carbohydrate diets.
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 to see me, they’re ready for a big change. Sometimes though, it may only take a few tweaks to get their diet and health back on track. For example, just by adding more fresh fruits and vegetables every day has helped some of my clients with hormonal imbalances and weight loss. Occasionally a major overhaul is required, but this approach takes a bit more time and commitment!
Do you see changes in other things as well for people, whether it’s mood or sleep patterns, etc?
For sure. Those bad diet habits that may be leading to undesirable weight gain or health issues are usually also linked to poor sleep quality, poor mental health, and lack of energy. Once we identify and remove – or at least reduce – these offending foods and replace them with healthier alternatives, these side effects usually improve too. I also find there is a renewed sense of positivity and enthusiasm around food that they may have lost prior to coming in for a consult.
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. We’ve got such a diverse population and a rapidly growing rate of income inequality. Food insecurity is a major problem here, and so for those without reliable access to affordable, healthy food, optimal nutrition can often be out of reach. When coupled with easy access to cheap nutrient-poor fast foods, it can lead to major chronic health issues.
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?
Unfortunately yes. It is certainly not uniquely a socioeconomic problem but it tends to be over-represented in lower income groups, for the reasons I’ve mentioned above.
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 was already committed to starting a business, back when we were blissfully unaware of the horrors to come! To be honest, the first lockdown gave me some clear and free time to work on the business plan, which wasn’t a bad thing. What I’ve noticed throughout the pandemic is that people are becoming increasingly health-conscious and pursuing professional advice more than ever.
Have you been surprised by anything so far since you started?
It’s my first business, so everyday I’m learning something new, even a year in!
Have you got a vision in mind? Have you got a 10 year plan?
We are looking to grow this business, and take on some nutritionists with additional expertise to bring to the mix. belle époque nutrition has clients throughout the country, so I’m looking to expand my client base internationally next. And there are a few other projects in the pipeline too – watch this space!
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; there is certainly a lot more dialogue about it in the media and in general conversation. Certainly a lot of clients I see are more aware and more interested in foods and diets that nurture the gut. Some fermented foods are probiotics, which means that they may confer some benefit to your gut health – these include kimchi, yoghurt, and sauerkraut. The Jury is still out on kombucha though.
If there was a spectrum, where are we in terms of our understanding?
If you were to ask any nutrition scientist or health professional, they would say there is still a lot to learn about health and nutrition, particularly around gut health. But if you were to take it from the media, we have it all worked out already! It’s a work in progress, but if you know to eat plenty of diverse, fresh, whole foods, most of the time, then you are probably sorted.
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?
Do your homework, be prepared for some hard work, and go for it. And importantly, seek out a mentor. 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 and just go for it!