Eating with awareness leads to healthier, more sensible eating habits, says Andrea Hofmann.
The Lower Hutt dietitian set up her own business, Food Habits, a year ago, providing nutritional advice and strategies to help people achieve healthier lifestyles. Hofmann is quick to quash any suggestion her work is about dieting and weight loss, to her it's about teaching people to enjoy food and learning ways to manage weight by developing habits that last a lifetime.
"It's not about hard work and depriving yourself, there's no need for any guilty feelings about food and activity," says the military-trained chef who has carried rifles and driven Unimog trucks.
"Weight is a big issue in New Zealand and a lot of people come to me about weight loss, but my approach is quite different - it's not about dieting and it's not a menu plan, it's more of a holistic approach." By that she means delving into the reasons behind a client's eating habits, what's going on in their lives, helping them to understand their bodies and figuring out what their hunger and fullness signals are.
"It's about eating with awareness, so rather than rushing between meetings or working at your desk having lunch, take some time out and make yourself important enough to take time to enjoy your food.
"Busy lifestyles mean we're shovelling food in and not really thinking about what we're eating - even if were not busy we're sitting in front of TV watching a movie, and before you know it that packet of chips is empty. "That's okay sometimes but if you can make more of a habit of taking time out to eat you're more aware of what you're eating and your choices change."
The mother-of-two also firmly believes in eliminating the good and bad food labels.
"Chocolate is a good example, you'd say 'oh no I can't have that' which means you'd want it more but if I say you can have it, then it loses its power, its prestige and it just becomes another food that you can have without guilt. But the reality is, you usually don't want it as much."
What it boils down to, she says, is eating sensibly and healthily ad feeling satisfied with food choices. "That's achievable by simply asking yourself when you reach for that piece of cake: 'Am I hungry, do I really want that piece of cake, will something else satisfy me just as much or am I going to be back in 5 minutes because I'm not satisfied?'"
Initially, she'll conduct a dietary and lifestyle assessment with a new client and agree on some goals to best manage their health that fit within their lifestyle.
Sometimes a supermarket session is needed so that clients can discover healthier choices and cooking lessons can also be conducted to show them tasty healthier options.
Once her clients have allowed themselves the flexibility to eat whatever they like, Hofmann re-evaluates their goals and provides further advice, such as different ways to include more vegetables in their diets. "It's coaching people into healthy eating habits. I keep weight right out of the equation, it's not a goal - people may not necessarily lose a lot of weight but they're healthier as a result of my input."
One of her success stories was a woman in her 50s who had been dieting since the age of 11 and had the goal of losing weight. "Dieting on and off for years meant her weight had fluctuated, and she had this huge list of bad foods - she was beating herself up, predominantly about not exercising enough, but also for bingeing and eating all the wrong foods." Hofmann took her under her wing, working with her to realise that food and physical activity were not the enemy.
"At the end of it she said 'I just feel so free...I'm eating healthier, I've lost a little bit of weight but I don't care about that anymore, I feel so much better about myself'. "This is a woman who used to go out and go hard when she exercised, then she'd curse herself or lose motivation and do nothing but now she goes out for walks almost every day and she's enjoying it, she wants to do it, it's not because she has to do it"
Success stories like this is the reason why Hofmann loves what she does, the fact that she can help turn her clients' lives around simply by changing their eating habits. It's just giving people that freedom back, for a lot of dieters, especially lifelong dieters, food becomes the enemy, so my approach allows them that freedom to enjoy it. "The biggest change I see is that people are more positive about themselves, about their whole self esteem - diets just grind people down because you can never achieve them, you're always trying to live up to something where this is 'this is who I am and I am comfortable with that'."
Andrea first qualified as a dietitian in 2007, landing a job as food service dietitian and manager for the Hutt Valley District Health Board on graduating from Otago University. "My first job was to change the menu for the hospital food. It was a huge task, there are seven different menu types and it meant liaising with the likes of speech language therapists and nurses." Working in a hospital setting was a far cry from what Hofmann was accustomed to in her previous working life as a chef in the armed forces.
Originally from Whangarei, she joined the Air Force to fulfill a dream. "I started out as an office junior but I really wanted to become a chef and I liked the idea of being paid to train so I signed up. "We did our chef training in Waiouru, it was just like you see on Masterchef, you have your own bench, your own oven, they show you what they expect, they cook, you take notes and then you prepare it, serve and get judged."
After finishing her training of three months Hofmann was first posted to Auckland, then a year later she was posted to Trentham where she later switched to the army. "We'd cook for the Governor-General [then Sir Anand Satyanand] or for dinner parties for the Chief of Defence would have at his house, that was stressful. To the other extreme we cooked for 800 people at the Edinburgh Tattoo - thankfully we had kitchen hands to peel the potatoes and carrots," she laughs.
One of Andrea's highlights though was a six-month stint in East Timor. "I was a soldier first and chef second, I had to carry a rifle wherever I went. I never felt my life was in danger though." What she does remember is baking with cake mixes from the Netherlands that came with no English translation, and coming across completely foreign foods. She also recalls the container ships carrying all their food arriving weekly. The food would be trucked to the camp and
every spare soldier would form lines, passing it along into refrigerated shipping containers. "But the food took so long to get to us that sometimes the veges were rotting already," says Andrea. It was a really great experience, but seriously, the whole seeing how another culture lives, the deprivation of these people was a real eye opener."
She says her time in the military helped define who she is today. "It changed me, it gave me a lot more confidence in my abilities and that I could do lots of different things, like I got my truck license. I had to learn to drive a Unimog and when we did field exercised our kitchen would be on the back of the truck."
However, she tired of cooking for other people and instead began thinking more about nutrition, sparking her interest in upskilling at Otago and later establishing Food Habits.
"I've always been interested in food, I think mum's been instrumental in my career path - she got me involved in the kitchen quite early on. "I remember coming home from doing home economics at intermediate wanting to show her what I could cook, that led on to cooking once a week. "For some reason my stepdad would always say he wasn't hungry on the nights that I cooked!"
Like her mother, Hofmann involves her children, aged two and six, in the food preparation as well. My two-year-old is sitting at the table chopping mushrooms with a table knife right now and she'll stir the pot."
Family meals in the Hofmann house aren't out of the ordinary: "It's normal, we make homemade pizza, we'll have spaghetti bolognese, we'll have stir-fry, we make everything from scratch though, we don't use packets, we make our own tomato sauce, we make our own pizza bases.
She firmly believes the secret to healthy eating is to make cooking fun and to get children involved at an early age. "A lot of what I hear is 'mum never let me in the kitchen' because it might be too much hassle but having them help to prepare meals makes them feel like they're contributing and they'll learn healthy eating habits from that, it's priceless."