Meet the Rowans Hospice nutritionist who says what you eat helps to provide the best quality of life
To mark Nutrition and Hydration Week, which ends on Sunday, Nicola Ellis spoke to nutritionist DEBBIE SUTTON, who encourages Rowans patients to eat cake!
Debbie Sutton, who lives in Southsea, has combined her role as an NHS nutritionist with providing nutritional and hydration support to patients, carers and their families, alongside running educational sessions for staff, at the Rowans Hospice for the past 15 years.
Debbie says: ‘I just love talking about food. Encouraging people to enjoy food as long as they are able to do so matters to me. Although what you eat can’t cure anything, it can help towards offering you the best quality of life that you are able to enjoy at the moment.’
Debbie’s passion and enthusiasm for eating well is contagious as she explains her key messages.
‘My whole emphasis is on making sure people know how to have a well-balanced, nutritionally complete diet. With media and society’s fixation on eating to keep thin or reduce weight, people have set ideas of what they think of as ‘‘good’’ food.
‘So often it is necessary to challenge these concepts and get people to think about their priorities, especially if living with a life-limiting illnesses.’
Describing her free workshops, funded by Kenwood, as a cross between Saturday Kitchen and Blue Peter, Debbie emphasises the fact that there are no such things as bad foods.
‘There are some foods that don’t offer you much nutrient content; sugar, for example, just contains calories, whereas cake has protein, energy and vitamins. I think one of the reasons my sessions go down so well is because one of my big sayings is “eat cake!”’
The three-week course, held at the Living Well Centre, covers everything around general good eating.
‘Anyone is welcome to come on it. Patients and carers can come together or separately. No question is too trivial and individual queries are always answered. What is very rewarding is that everyone seems to leave finding it helpful, interesting and feeling more positive about food and eating.
‘This is so important; the earlier we can speak to someone and make sure they check their priorities about food, the better.’
She then adds: ‘If I had a strapline it would be ‘'healthy eating is for healthy people’’. An awful lot of what is seen as healthy food is about preventing disease, avoiding obesity etc.
‘However, if you are not very well or you have a really small appetite, and that is causing you to lose weight, then cakes, biscuits and pudding are actually what you need, as just a small quantity contains lots of energy and nutrition.
‘Usually people who are unwell find they are lethargic, so eating energy-filled food will help them.’
As well as advocating cake, Debbie also has strong views on soup. She says: ‘If you have someone who is eating reasonably well, please don’t offer them soup! If you have got someone who can’t face anything then soup is an option, until they start to feel better and can face eating.
‘Basically, there is nothing very nutritionally beneficial about it. It is a great option when dieting since it is very satisfying, and makes you feel full, just like drinking lots of water before a meal so you don’t eat as much. But we need patients to ask themselves: ‘‘Is this really my priority now?’”’
During her time working at the hospice, interest in food and hydration has grown. Debbie believes this is because the Rowans is now involved with patients as soon as they are diagnosed with life-limiting illnesses.
‘Nutrition is definitely worth addressing, as they can have months or years ahead of them. And evidence clearly links good nutrition and hydration with a role in the prevention of falls, infections, pressure sores and help with wound-healing.”
For carers, Debbie recognises that the sessions are about giving them peace of mind, knowing what they are providing is okay.
‘We recognise that there is a really strong link with providing food as an expression of nurturing, care and love. So it is important to help the carer realise that if their loved one can’t face eating, it doesn’t mean they no longer love them.’
Supported by a volunteer, Debbie’s new course starts today. She says: ‘Encouraging people to see food as something enjoyable and helping people for whom food and eating is no longer enjoyable is really important.
‘If you’re poorly but you know you ought to eat to get the nutrients you need, there is not much fun in that. So I love to reassure people that there are a lot of things that they can eat, which will be good for them, especially some of the food they have come to think of as bad.’