In 2020, Teagasc published a report on farmers’ health. One of the publication’s most alarming findings was that 80.5% of farmers have an “at-risk” waist circumference of 94cm (37in) or more.
Kicking off our conversation on this stat, Aoife Hearne recalls a time that the farming population were in the lowest health risk category.
“Traditionally farmers were some of the healthiest people in our population, because they were so active. We talk nowadays about people getting 10,000 steps in every day. But in the past, farmers probably got 30,000 steps per day,” she says.
The advancement of machinery and automated farm equipment has taken much of the heavy physicality out of our everyday farm work – which our ancestors once did manually.
As a result, many of those on farms have become less active. According to Aoife, the big issue with this is that most farmers have not cut down their food portions to match their decreased level of activity.
“We have to be honest with ourselves about how physically active we actually are. When you are really busy – in the spring time for instance – you are going to require more carbohydrates, which you will find in potatoes. But when you are less active, your body doesn’t have the same energy requirements for those foods; and therefore the portion size should be smaller,” she explains.
Aoife details the real and common risks associated with carrying extra weight.
“When you are carrying extra fat, you are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, increased cholesterol and other diseases. And at the end of the day, it does impact on your life quality and longevity.
“The weight people carry around their belly and midriff is the type of weight that we know to be most dangerous. It can start to cover our organs, particularly our liver. This can cause a multitude of serious issues.”
Stress has a big role to play in eating habits, which include both over and under eating. While in the midst of calving or harvest some may not eat at all; others tend to eat mindlessly.
According to Aoife, too much or too little food can be equally damaging to our bodies.
“The simple fact of the matter is that our bodies need a certain amount of energy to survive and to work well and we get that energy from food.
“Forgetting to eat is another common problem – especially when you are busy. Then by the time you do eat, you are so hungry that you consume the equivalent of two meals. Often, it is about setting reminders, or getting someone to ring you at 11am to come home for a cup of tea,” she says.
“I know at certain times of the farming year people just want to plough on through to get the work done, but on those days you should bring a flask of tea and banana with you in the tractor. This breaks the fast and will make it easier to eat proportionally, because you don’t get over hungry.”
Building a healthy relationship with food
The word “diet” has developed many negative connotations over the years. Aoife advises that eating well should be part of your lifestyle; not just a calculated component in losing weight. She encourages people to establish a healthy relationship with the food they eat.
“I think sometimes we need to pull eating well away from weight loss. If that is our only goal and reason for healthy eating, we will not stay committed to it. We need to realise that eating more fruit and vegetables actually equates to more energy, better bowel movement and an overall happier feeling. When this sinks in, we will want to do it long term.
“This is not about going on some mad diet or being skinny. It’s about people thinking about their food habits, especially when it comes to portioning. Even things like that little bit of extra butter on your potatoes can add a lot of extra calories to your meal.
“I think sometimes we are better off looking at what we want to get in, rather than taking things out. Trying to get more vegetables on the plate, fruit into your diet and more movement in the day is a good start. Those three things are a really good team.”
Emphasising the importance of routine and consistency, Aoife warns us not to skip meals, as we will only later end up devouring one really big meal. Eating little and often throughout the day is a much better habit to establish, as you are less likely to overeat at any one particular meal.
And while your mother’s insistence about no food going to waste has probably stayed with you your whole life – she explains that this mindset often leads to overeating.
“We don’t have to finish everything on our plate. Think about how hungry you feel at the start of your meal and how full you become. Sometimes we just eat what is put in front of us rather than thinking about how much of the meal we actually need.”
Traditional Irish food
Looking back to past generations, we could take a leaf from their recipe books, Aoife says.
“People have moved so far away from traditional Irish food. I think if we moved back closer to it, we would be a lot healthier as a nation. Despite the fact that sometimes porridge, potatoes and brown bread are painted in a bad light; that is very far from the truth.
“All of these foods can and do fit into a healthy life. You just have to be mindful of the balance of your plate.”
Breakfast: Porridge and fruit; or a boiled or scrambled egg, with grilled tomato or mushroom and some home-made brown bread.
A traditional Irish dinner: Potatoes, vegetables and meat is a great option. It is recommended to eat mostly leaner meats, like chicken, lean pork, turkey or fish and keep red meat to twice per week. Half of your plate should be vegetables, one quarter protein (meat, fish etc) and the other quarter carbohydrates (potatoes, rice etc).
Evening tea: Homemade brown bread with meat, tomato and a cup of tea is ideal. There is a myth that eating late at night is bad for you, but science doesn’t back that up at all. It doesn’t matter what time your last meal is, as long as you don’t eat too much.
Snacks: Get into the habit of bringing some healthy snacks outside to eat throughout the day and then you will find that you are actually satisfied with a smaller main meal.