Jane McClenaghan gives the low-down on bad sugar and good fat in new book

Interest in good nutrition has never been greater but, as Belfast nutritionist Jane McClenaghan, tells Gail Bell, there is still much to learn and digest – such as why urine can glow in the dark and how stress can make you fat

Nutritionist Jane McClenaghan: I love the idea of the 80:20 rule – eat as well as you can 80 per cent of the time and treat your 'treats' as treats
Gail Bell

What prompted your second book and how does it differ from your first, The Vital Nutrition Cook Book? Was it important to go more into the science of food, for instance?

I wanted to write a book that would be a go-to guide, packed with simple and practical advice.

This book is based on up-to-date nutritional science but has its roots in real life, thanks to the input from my clients about what has helped them.

I had a group of 76 people who contributed to the book and told their stories, as well as advising me on ideas that they want to read about, so it is very much a hands-on, practical book with advice that works. There's no crazy, fad diets, or get-slim-quick plan.

The new book is very detailed – was it important to engage the reader from the outset with topics including the intriguing, ‘Does your pee glow in the dark'?

I wanted to answer some of the weird and wonderful questions I get asked by people at my workshops and in clinic, and this is one of them.

By the way, the reason for ‘fluorescent’ pee can be simply because you have taken a B complex or multivitamin, but it is a bit of shock if you don’t know that.

Are we at risk of becoming too obsessed by what we eat – or are we not obsessed enough?

I think there is a split. When I run my workplace health sessions, I find that people have an amazing knowledge of nutrition – so much more so than when I started 16 years ago. We are a lot better informed but that does not necessarily translate into the food on our plate.

I think becoming obsessed is never a good thing – we now live in a society where orthorexia (a condition that can be characterised by obsessive behavior towards food) is common but this is not a healthy attitude to nutrition.

Instead, I advise a bit of balance and love the idea of the 80:20 rule – eat as well as you can 80 per cent of the time and treat your 'treats' as treats.

That doesn’t mean a chocolate bar (or two) every day.

I think that far too many us are eating our way to a lifetime of ill-health; sugar consumption, for instance, is higher than ever and fruit and vegetable intake is significantly lower here than anywhere else in the UK – 82 per cent of adults and 96 per cent of children aged 11-18 are not meeting the minimum five-a day target.

Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular health and cancer are all on the increase and we know that diet and lifestyle changes have a major input on this.

Can stress really make you fat and how do ‘calming foods’ like oats and almonds increase the brain’s levels of serotonin?

Believe it or not, long-term stress can be a factor in weight gain. The stress hormone cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism to give us a quick energy hit, so we can fight-or-flight.

This then triggers an insulin response to help manage blood sugar balance, but if this goes on for a long time, the stress-sugar cycle triggers more sugar cravings, sugar and insulin fluctuations and ultimately fat storage, especially around our belly.

Reducing sugar is the first step in helping to nourish our adrenal glands.

Certain foods containing the amino acid tryptophan are thought to have a balancing effect on serotonin, and it just so happens that many of these foods also have a low glycemic index, which helps with blood sugar balance too.

You have had a life-long passion for good food, but was there a time, as a teenager or student, when you ate burgers and lived on baked beans like everyone else?

Of course – I am human. One of my favourite student meals was mashed spuds with sweetcorn and soy sauce.

I went to Reading Uni and would often stop off at the garage on the way home with friends and housemates after a night out to get a chocolate milk and a cheese and onion pastie.

If you were to pick one super-food, what would it be and why?

Anything from the brassica family: broccoli, cabbage, kale, brussel sprouts, watercress, rocket. These super-foods have been part of the Irish diet for generations and are some of the most potent sources of antioxidants known.

Is there anything that would never pass your lips – and why?

Cheese and onion pasties and chocolate milk (see above).

What is the biggest food or diet myth?

Fat makes us fat – the diet industry has driven us to pack our trolleys with low-fat foods laden with chemicals, artificial sweeteners and sugar that would be unrecognisable to our grandparents.

Fat is an essential part of a healthy diet and if we are deficient in it, it can impact our thyroid and metabolism, appetite and cravings and ultimately lead to weight gain.

Of course, it is the type of fat that is important, but unfortunately people are still being advised to avoid healthy foods like nuts, seeds, oily fish, olive oil and avocado because they are high calories and are perceived as making us fat. This is nonsense.

When you eat out in a restaurant, can you ever switch off? Or can you not stop yourself from inwardly digesting the 'good’ and the ‘bad’ on your plate?

I love eating out and although I love healthy food, sometimes I do go for an Indian or eat pizza. My niece and nephews joke that I am not really a nutritional therapist because when I am with them we bake cookies, eat junk food and always have dessert – but we balance it all out with healthy food too, so it's not an issue.

Apart from food, what is most important to you in this life?

People are what make my world go round. I have been with partner Nev for nine years and my family are very important to me. My mum and dad, my brother Aaron, his wife and three amazing kids are it – my very important people are the most essential ‘things' in my life.

:: Vital Nutrition, How To Eat For Optimum Health, Happiness And Energy, by Jane McClenaghan, is published by Blackstaff Press, priced £12.99.


1 ripe avocado

1 banana, peeled and sliced

1 tsp ground cinnamon

3 dsp raw cacao powder (or cocoa powder)

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 dsp coconut milk

handful of hazelnuts, to serve

Put the avocado flesh and the banana into a blender with remaining ingredients. Whiz and serve with a topping of the reserved sliced banana and some hazelnuts.


100g jumbo oats

100g sunflower seeds

100g hazelnuts, crushed or roughly chopped

100g pumpkin seeds

1 tsp mixed spice

1 tsp ground cinnamon

2 egg whites

juice of half a lemon

pinch of sea salt

1 tbsp coconut nectar or maple syrup (optional)

Pre-heat the oven to 160C/Gas mark 3 and line a large baking tray with greaseproof paper.

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk the egg whites until they are fluffy.

Fold the egg white into the dry ingredients and stir in the lemon juice and syrup.

Spread granola mixture over the baking tray. Bake for 40-45 minutes until lightly golden. Check every now and then so it doesn't burn. Store in an airtight container and enjoy with natural yoghurt and berries.

:: Recipes are from Vital Nutrition, How To Eat For Optimum Health, Happiness And Energy, by Jane McClenaghan

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