Crew Welfare: We are what we eat

Why do we eat what we eat? What does sugar do to our brains? How does the powerful food industry persuade us to buy unhealthy products?

These are questions that many people have never considered – and, if they are not informed, how can they make healthy choices in terms of what they eat and drink?

Christian Ioannou, Managing Director of Cyprus-based Marine Catering Training Consultancy (MCTC), gets passionate when he talks about the need to encourage healthy, nutritional menus onboard ships – and, indeed, MCTC goes further, running ‘365 Healthy Days Workshops’ at its Manila training centre, to teacher the partners and children of seafarers about cooking healthy and nutritious meals.

“Nutrition is important not only onboard ships – but anywhere in our private lives,” he said. “The slogan is true: We are what we eat. If we eat unhealthily, we will be unhealthy. And yet I am always shocked by the number of people who seem to be surprised when they get sick. Why are they surprised if they don’t take care of their bodies and their health for their entire lives and then they end up obese and with diabetes?”

Whenever MCTC runs its seminars, training and workshops for clients, it draws the classic comparison between ‘body’ and ‘engine’. “If you feed a ship’s engine with contaminated water and low quality fuels, it is to be expected that the engine will break down,” said Mr Ioannou. “If we don’t take care of our bodies, it is just a matter of time before we are going to get sick. It is as simple as that.”

He recently spent five days onboard National Geographic’s Explorer, during which time he talked to nearly 100 crew.

“It was amazing how little people actually know about nutrition,” he said. “We did a lot of exercises and found that even the basics of calculating calories are not there. Many were not even close to knowing the number of calories they need (standard recommendation: 2,500 for men, 2,000 for women).”

Some of the crew thought 300 for the day, some thought 6,000. When the workshop moved on to calculating calorie consumption in daily meals, some crew – and particularly Asian/Filipino crew – were consuming 1,000 calories in their breakfast at 7am. 

“If you have a total allowance of 2,000 to 2,500 for the whole day, that doesn’t look good,” said Mr Ioannou. “This was an eye-opener for all concerned.”

The next step was to look at sugar intake –the recommended maximum is 25 grams per person per day.

“By consuming one cola drink, you exceed that daily limit by taking in 35 grams of sugar. We did an exercise putting teaspoons of sugar in a glass based on daily sugar consumption and in many cases we were able to fill up two glasses. That included added sugar used in bread, soda drinks, soft drinks, Nutella, tomato ketchup – it is everywhere.” 

Mr Ioannou is also determined to eliminate the use of ready meals and convenience foods onboard ships. “This leads to health benefits and also a reduction of costs – because cooking something from scratch is cheaper than purchasing ready meals,” he said.

He turns his attention to the food industry itself and the marketing being used to these ‘convenient’ foods as well as some that are perceived to be healthy when they are not.

“Many people think they are buying healthy items because they are marketed as ‘green’,” he said. “It’s all about ‘neuro marketing’ – manipulating the brain. Millions of dollars are spent by the food industry to make sure people are choosing their products against someone else’s. It is all about colouring, branding, image and the message being transmitted to our brains to take the decision to buy and eat/drink.”

Example? A happy cow on a milk can. What exactly does that mean?

“We are not really reading labels. Many products appear to be healthy but they are not. Our drive is to give people the knowledge as to how the food industry actually works; the manipulative way in which products are presented to consumers; how to calculate calories and sugar intake; and how we can balance out our daily meals.”

MCTC helps clients to create balanced weekly menus which ensure that daily recommended nutritional values are met. “We have developed our GMS software – Galley Management System – which gives clients access to weekly menus which are also cost-competitive to help them budget,” said Mr Ioannou.

But this all goes further than physical health – MCTC also focuses on why we get the urge to eat certain things, and the impact of what we eat on our mental health.  

“It’s the same as with smoking. You are wasting time telling people they are going to die from smoking – we all know that. The question is: why do you smoke? Instead of saying what will happen to you if you eat unhealthily, the question in regards to nutrition is: why do you eat what you eat? In our workshops, we go through addiction to sugars, the dopamine chemical which creates pleasure in the brain, and how the food industry makes sure this ‘happiness’ is activated.”

The ‘feel happy’ dopamine kick – you can get it through smoking, alcohol, sex and adding sugar, he said. There is a huge, powerful industry out there hoping you will choose sugar.

“This is the only way people start thinking about their behaviours and why we look for chocolate at a specific time of the day,” he said. 

Mental illness is now way up the agenda in terms of discussion. In general, people relate mental illness to situations happening in their lives but do not relate mental illness with food.

However, Mr Ioannou said: “It has been proved that our brains only have a limited space for micronutrients to occupy. So, if we give that space to one category, e.g. glucose, it means there isn’t enough space for essential micronutrients – and that leads to sadness, depression and unhappiness. This is why a lot of people get depressed and they don’t even know why. People think their mental state is dependent on situation but it is not. We underestimate the power of nutrition on our wellbeing and on our mood.”

Thought-provoking stuff and clearly it’s having an impact. The feedback from the Explorer? “We have already observed a move towards healthy eating habits, and soft drink consumption onboard has reduced to very little,” he said. “It isn’t that people don’t want to change – in many cases, it’s just that they don’t know enough about it. Awareness is extremely important.”