Being healthy is a whole life changing savoir-faire
We talked with Daphne Kleopa, a Public Health Nutritionist and a PhD candidate in Cyprus University of Technology, about Environmental and Public Health issues.
If you think about the Erasmus+ Mobility Program which three words come to your mind first?
Exchange, knowledge, and training
You are a Public Health Nutritionist. Why did you choose this profession? What was your motivation?
I was always interested inhealthy food, sports and health in general as both of my parents worked as healthcare workers in the Ministry of Health. At the beginning I wanted to become a sports trainer but then I decided to become a dietitian; when I went to the UK for my studies a new program was introduced by the NHS (National Health Service) regarding communities. They realised if they want to help people to make healthier choices they have to invest in projects that empower communities with prevention strategies rather than individual cases. According to them it is a more sustainable way of building up resilient societies. Therefore, this is what triggered me to do my masters in International Public Health Nutrition. Your mental and physical wellbeing starts from your environment which most of the times is your community.
What are the nowadays trends regarding to healthy lifestyle, dieting, nutrition?
There are many trends in diets but it doesn’t mean that they are certainly the right ones. Currently, we can see an enormous expand in sports nutrition. I’ve realized that there is a major shift from the Mediterranean diet towards a more westernized diet. In my opinion, people are a bit confused about the difference between sports nutrition and Mediterranean diet. From many epidemiological studies we know that the Mediterranean diet, which consists mainly of olive oil, pulses, vegetables and nuts on a daily basis and less frequently meat, is one of the healthiest diets in the world and acts as an elixir of life. This was the main reason the Cretans had one of the longest life expectancies in the world. In the contrary, nowadays most of the people end up eating meat every single day due to the fact that lean protein meat will help them built up their muscles. The main goal of a healthy diet should be to maintain a healthy heart and low cholesterol levels and not just focusing on muscles.
What is the situation in Cyprus? How can you describe the quality of the food in this island?
Actually, it is possible to find healthy options and quality food in the shops. The problem is that we have greater access to junk food instead of healthy snacks. In most cases you will find cereal bars or protein bars, but no fresh fruits, vegetables or unsalted nuts. I would say it is a shame, because we used to be an agricultural island, people had more access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Fruit markets or farmers’ markets where more often available in the communities. However, now with the globalisation the small producers are selling their fresh produce to big corporations and this increases the prices and the availability of fresh produce. In many cities in Cyprus there are more butcheries than fruit markets. Also, there is an easy access to unhealthy food choices 24/7. The bakeries, fast food and convenient shops are always open and you rarely find a healthy snack option in those places. On the other hand, of course, it is always the individuals decision what to consume in the first place and when.
You mentioned that the trendy diets are not the best choice. What are the most common mistakes which people usually make during their meal/diet? What would you advise them to change in the first place?
The main reason someone is gaining weight is because most of the times they do not stop to have a lunch break or have healthy snacks between meals. Most people do not even have breakfast! They work for 8-9 hours then they go home around 6-7 o’clock and they have a large meal to satisfy their hunger. Having one large meal per day will spike up your glucose and insulin levels which most likely bring youcravings for more food or sweets. The key to speed up your metabolism and not to gain weight is having frequent meals every 2.5 hours from the time you wake up until 2 hours before you go to bed. In addition when you starve yourself all day long your metabolism is in a reserve mode – as soon as you have a meal it will keep it as fat instead of burning it. Clearly, there are many other issues you need to think about such as calories, the quality of food, and the amount of exercises a person does, let’s not forget hormonal imbalances or any emotionaland mental issues as well as whether you are exposed to substances that cause hormonal imbalances that can affect your weight gain. The environment you live also can affect your weight gainin a way; in the literature we have a special term for this -“obesogenic” environment*.Lastly, good hydration is very important to help the metabolism work well. I think in Cyprus everyone should carry a bottle of water with them all the times since we have a very hot climate.
As you can see gaining weight or obesity is a multifactorial disease and is not just the result of unhealthy diet. Being aware of all these factors will help to make the daily actions that one needs to make in order to prevent gaining weight. Of course it is very difficult with our working schedules. Organising meals and snacks from the night before and incorporating walks and running 3-4 times per week is a good start. Work schedules are important as maintaining a healthy life is important. Health is not just the absence of diseases but is the physical, mental and social wellbeing at all times according to the WHO (World Health Organization).
How advertising can influence the nutrition of the population and for children?
Nowadays, there is an excessive marketing from companies not just in the media, on the internet, but also on the streets, on huge billboards along busy roads. Few years ago I worked with professional drivers in order to teach them about healthy eating and taking care of themselves while working long hour shifts. Unfortunately, this group of people appeared to have very high rates of cardiovascular disease. This is, in my belief, as well influenced from drive-through food availability and advertising of junk food on big billboards on the highway. Eating heavy oily foods especially if you know you have to drive for long hours is very dangerous since you increase your risk of falling asleep while driving, thus it is not only the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, but also the risk of being involved in a car accident. I believe these kinds of advertisements should be regulated. The voice of the government regarding any abrogation and the importance of public health should be stronger than the money/profit thatprivate companies generate. Unfortunately, as we can see nowadays the government doesn’t have enough strength; these companies create jobs in the country, boost the consumption, pay taxes, therefore it is absolutely not worth for the government to go against them and foment conflicts. Some regulations could be used by the government at least to give reliable decision options for the population such as we have done with alcohol or tobacco products; they have been abolished from the television.
So from the governmental side there are issues related to some regulations for the companies. Does it mean that the private companies have a great responsibility in this question and the necessary changes should start from their side?
They would never do that! They are interested in putting their advertisements next to schools; for example the biggest junk food restaurants are next to schools. What can they do since they are already there? They should improve their recipes and have healthier options. Furthermore, parents should be educated to develop a critical thinking regarding health claims. They have to be able to teach their children and give them good examples; and of course they need to be aware of their children’s eating habits. As one of the first known epidemiologists said “It makes little sense to expect individuals to behave differently from their peers. It is more appropriate to seek a general change in behavioural norms and in the circumstances which facilitate their adoption.” (Geoffrey Rose, 1982) On the other hand, before any regulations are applied to the society, we need to collect data and information to see the possible ways how to catalyse the change we want. In 2013, 58.8% of the adult population > 20 years old in Cyprus were overweight and 25.5% were obese. Community interventions such as promoting healthy cooking skills or having small farmers’ markets in areas that do not have easy access to healthy food would be a good pilot intervention. Measuring the effects of such interventions would help to create policies and address the needs for public health advocacy. For sure by advocating for public health using health promotion strategies we can influence many people, but it doesn’t guarantee positive results; the case of promoting healthy nutrition and public health advocacy is not just advertisement orcreating regulations; the regulations should be enforced as well. Public health advocacy has so many elements such as media campaigns, educating the communities, lobbying on politicians, developing partnerships, creating community awareness, branding your issues and causes, influencing the policy, creating debates, e-advocacy, giving lectures, writing letters, etc. It is a whole package of different procedures rather than one action that is needed toenable us to make a change. More holistic and integrative approaches are needed in order to reduce the rates of obesity in a population level. We need to intervene more regarding the public health and the environment to make more people passionate about exercising and eating a healthy sustainable Mediterranean diet, showing respect to our bodies and our environment.
Here in DOREA you have a training course entitled as Securing EU funding for 2014-2020: The key to success. Can you make a connection between public health and EU funding? How?
There is a great amount of EU funding that is allocated to the projects and researchregarding public health. Many institutions are trying to use it, but this possibility should be transferred to other health workers, private doctors, health educators as well; everyone who has a personal contact with the patients, who knows the situationabout food consumption and health within a given population; anyone who has an idea how to empower individuals to choose a healthier lifestyle.
There are lot of EU funding calls addressing health issues, rebuilding society, health education, e-health system, so many opportunities aiming to help people who are involved into public health. Each person that has an idea can get in contact with the authorities responsible for EU funding and they can help them built the right consortium and develop a project idea which of course most of the times has to becompetitive and unique in the way. Before your project is granted EU funding, you will make mistakes you will get rejected and you will learn.
Unfortunately, in many countries around the world the only sector that attracts less funding is the health sector. Money mostly goes for military, security issues, business and finance and construction sectors. Interconnecting all the potential partners that EU funding proposals’ needs, can be a good first step, since it is a good chance to see what other countries do in their public health systems, in the case of any issue of economics or human rights and so on. It is an interconnected question whether the workers of the construction sector or the military sector are healthy, whether the workplaces are encouraging employees to be healthy, whether there are any pathways in the city, parks to go out for awalk or cycle, whether there is community engagement and social support for mental and emotional well-being.
*Obesogenic environment: In simple terms, environments that encourage people to eat unhealthily and not do enough exercise. The obesogenicity of an environment has been defined as the sum of influences that the surroundings, opportunities, or conditions of life have on promoting obesity in individuals or populations.
Prepared and edited by Flóra Fierpasz