4 December 2017
Karen Shields, a CNHC registered nutritional therapist, writes about how she teaches healthy eating life skills to a class of learning disabled individuals in Hertfordshire...
Me on the left and with Liz McElroy, horticultural therapist
I qualified as a nutritional therapist in 2012 and joined CNHC that year and began practising at my own clinic. In June 2016 I started volunteering (in my capacity as a nutritional therapist) at the Triangle Community Garden in Hitchin.
Their Growing Health group is a guided-support group set up to help its learning disabled members to lead healthier, more active lives. Activities include walking, sport, cooking and learning about healthy eating. The group meets every Tuesday morning for three hours at the pavilion at Ransom's recreation ground.
Many of the members suffer with obesity or conditions such as type 2 diabetes, so every week we try to help them understand what sort of foods they should include in their diets that will help them balance their blood sugar levels. We also discuss nutrition related news such as the sugar tax or low fat versus high fat diets, and we look at food labelling and educate them about products that are not as healthy as they seem.
Initially, our kitchen equipment was sparse and so when demonstrating how to cook we were limited in our range of menus as we only had a kettle and a microwave. Luckily we were awarded some funding - £450 - and have been able to buy a variety of kitchen equipment, namely two induction hobs, chopping boards, knives, pots and pans.
We also bring in education in health and safety in the kitchen, as well as food hygiene. This has helped our participants learn how to read food labels and the relevance of best before and sell by dates on packaging, including how to store foods correctly.
Our three hour group consists of about 10 gardeners - we split the group into two with half going off to the allotment to tend to the crops with our gardener and support worker, and the other half in the kitchen with myself and the horticultural therapist to prepare lunch according to the seasonal recipe that we have planned the week before.
Ingredients: spring onions, cucumber, feta, cherry tomatoes, carrots, basil and lemon and cauliflower
We have taught the group how to use tools safely for preparing and cooking - something that we may take for granted but is actually quite a challenge for them. The group has made a range of meals from chickpea and chilli cakes, cottage pie with lentils and sweet potato, stir fry vegetables with noodles, tomato and basil bruschetta with homemade pesto, salad Niçoise, parsnip and carrot rösti served with poached eggs, and falafels made three ways with spinach and feta, chick peas and sweet potato.
Tricolore cauliflower rice salad
The outcome of this programme has been to show the members how to cook and prepare ingredients in order to take control of their own diets. We also discuss a concept known as "from farm to fork" - a direct link between cooking, eating and growing vegetables which helps the group reconnect with where food comes from and helping them to develop a healthier diet. Recognising what and where the ingredients in our food comes from can make us appreciate and enjoy food and will hopefully lead to better, healthier choices when choosing what to eat in the future.
Courgettes growing in the Triangle Community Garden
Every week we ask the members to offer feedback on what they have prepared, cooked and eaten - and each week we have seen positive feedback about foods that they thought they did not like or perhaps have never even tried. A case in point was with our salad Nicoise - everyone enjoyed the flavours - including the anchovies - and they all agreed that when they next visited Pizza Express they would order this as it is a healthier option. This is definitely progress.
Each week the members continue to lose weight and work towards their goals by adopting healthier lifestyles based on what they have learned in the group. We have also experienced a change in mood and behaviour in the individuals themselves - in some cases from a state of anxiety to a state of calm and happiness.
As a nutritional therapist it has been eye opening to see the local community come together to support one another to improve their health. The Triangle Garden is really a superb local community facility and is making a huge difference to people's lives in North Hertfordshire. It has also allowed me to learn new skills, by working with a different demographic and giving me the experience and confidence of working in a group. It has also exposed me to extra training in safeguarding adults, food safety and hygiene.
My only wish would be that the NHS saw our progress with these individuals and made use of it by referring further individuals to the group, which would increase our funding and enable us to provide more facilities to a wider community.