Hannah Baker Q&A

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Can you please tell us a little bit about your career so far?

I started out in marketing in Perth—that was my original career—but I’ve always been interested in health and food. So, I decided to “bite the bullet” and moved to the Gold Coast to study dietetics as a mature-aged student. Six months after graduation, my fiancé got a job in Shanghai so we moved to China. As extremely challenging as the move was for my career, it was also amazing because (as far as I know) I am the only qualified sports dietitian in Shanghai so it has meant I have been offered some fantastic work opportunities. I have worked with the Shanghai soccer team, Olympic and provincial athletes, movie stars and brand ambassadors. I also lived in Turkmenistan for three months and was Head Dietitian for the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. I feel I just wouldn’t have been offered these opportunities had I been in Australia. For every incredible opportunity I’ve been offered, I’ve probably had at least ten knockbacks; but I wouldn’t change it, I have no regrets and I’m very excited about what the future holds because we’ll be in China for another two years. I look forward to what other incredible experiences are hopefully coming my way.

What have been the biggest challenges since moving to China?

The number one challenge is language. In Shanghai, most people speak Mandarin—some also speak Shanghainese. There are four tones in Mandarin and it’s a very, very difficult language to learn. I did lessons the first year I was there, but unfortunately life became a little too busy to continue. I’ve just started them up again though. Second, I would say networking and just getting to know people. It’s not so much a challenge in that it’s difficult, it’s very easy to do in Shanghai because the thing to do is to go out and eat and drink. However, networking takes time. Now that I’ve been in China for two years, I feel like I’ve started to know people and people are starting to know who I am and what I do.

Are there any nutritional issues unique to Chinese athletes that aren’t common in Australia due to different cultures and food preferences?

I’m answering this question in regards to the professional athletes I’ve worked with at an Olympic and provincial (state) level. These athletes are training and living in government institutions so there’s little choice as to what they can eat. Most of the foods I saw in the facility canteens were very traditional – cooked with a lot of salt, sugar and oil. Stir-frying and deep-frying are very common. Basically, most of their foods and snacks are very calorie dense. I can’t tell the athletes to eat more salads or lean meats because they don’t exist.

So, it did get quite challenging for my athletes who needed to lose weight, and we had to focus a lot on portion sizes and their snack choices. These athletes are training an incredible amount every day: sometimes eight hours in skills training alone. Then they might also have a cardio session or a strength and conditioning session. The athletes only get three meals a day on campus (as a general rule), so they’re hungry! If the athletes are fortunate enough to be based in the city, they’ll visit the local convenience store and purchase snacks such as quick noodles, processed meats, crisps and sweet pastries. I would work with the athlete to make better choices around these snack opportunities. Other athletes are based in the country and they don’t have access to convenience stores or, say, the equivalent of UberEats, so they eat ginormous meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner because they know that that’s the only food they’re going to eat for the next few hours and they have to fuel a huge training session. I can’t help but wonder if and how these big meals play havoc with their hormones and their body’s response to food, therefore making body composition changes all that more difficult.

You have worked with teams such as SIPG Football Club, Aboro Boxing Academy, XpertHealth and JuzPlay. What are some of the key areas or things that you have implemented to help with their overall performance?

With SIPG, it was predominantly education around food choices and portion sizes. The boys are paid very well by the club, so I was fortunate in that they could afford more expensive, heathy foods to be delivered to their home. It was also common that their girlfriend or wife didn’t work and was open to cooking healthy food for them. On the whole, they had travelled quite a bit and had been overseas so they were more open to Western-style foods. Once I was able to educate them about the benefits of particular foods, even those that were more Western-style foods, they were quite happy to include them in their diet.

Aboro was a boxing academy that many locals frequented. The academy would run two challenges each year and I would work with the participants during these challenges. The main message I focussed on was fuelling training. Most of the participants were busy professionals who felt they had no time to prepare or even eat food. Some of the participants didn’t eat for several hours before training and some of them didn’t eat after late-night training. The main message during these boxing challenges was proper fuelling around training so they didn’t burn out – especially because these people were working very long hours, too.

With XpertHealth, I predominantly worked with triathletes and, as with Aboro, they were busy professionals. These clients worked very long hours and had families at home. Many of them had several meetings a day so I needed to educate them as to how they could fit food into their work day as well as in and around their training sessions. Again, they needed to fuel for performance so they didn’t burn out. The last thing they needed was injury, illness or fatigue when preparing for an event, working hard and supporting a family. I just wanted them to be able to sustain it all, so those were the main things I worked on in that regard.

Are there any nutritional strategies that you feel sporting teams often ignore or underutilise?

I think on the whole the teams aren’t ignoring nutritional strategies, they just don’t know that the knowledge is there and that the strategy exists. With the sports teams I was exposed to in China, there was no pre-, mid- or post-game nutrition. It is starting to appear, absolutely! Sports drinks and protein shakes are becoming more common. However, sports nutrition just isn’t known, so that’s why it’s not utilised. With the soccer team I worked with, they had nuts and chocolate muffins at half-time. I couldn’t just say, “Hey, you should probably switch that up. How about we look at some fruit or sports drinks?” First and foremost is establishing and strengthening relationships with the coaching team, support staff and players. Only then could I mention possible changes around nutrition.

If an individual chooses to see you and is looking to gain muscle, while still having a focus on staying relatively lean, what are some of the things you prioritise in your approach?

From a non-nutritional standpoint, I make sure they are training properly because all the protein in the world isn’t going to build those muscles without a good S&C plan. Nutritionally, I make sure protein intake is adequate, especially for females (who tend to under-eat protein) and that protein is evenly spread over the day. I will predominantly pack their carbohydrates in and around training, and make sure their fat intake is sensible. I’ve found there are two possible views on fat at the moment –

1. Some athletes don’t fear fat like they did in the past. This is fantastic, but their energy balance still needs to be on point if they want to lean out. Sometimes these athletes are “clean-eating” but not realising the amount of fat in some popular foods like avocado, salmon and nuts, so it’s important they’re educated around this.

2. Other athletes do fear fat, so again it’s important to educate them and ensure they’re getting enough fat to stay healthy and keep their body functioning well.

Finally, but no less important, I definitely make sure their vegetable intake is adequate. I really push the point of improved immunity with ample nutrient intake from veggies. The athlete won’t be training or gaining muscle if they are constantly sick or injured, hence I really emphasise the need for vegetables and fruits.

To summarise:
– Adequate protein intake spread evenly throughout the day.
– Carbohydrates in and around training.
– Sensible fat intake.
– Plenty of vegetables and fruit.

Do you have any thoughts on “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) vs clean eating?

I have personally tried IIFYM in the past and I found it a fantastic way to maintain weight. When my fiancé and I first arrived in China we weren’t able to find foods that we were used to so we used IIFYM via the Easy Diet Diary app on our phones. We made sure we stayed around our macro quotas no matter what we could find to eat. Fortunately, we enjoy healthy nutrient-dense foods, so I felt we didn’t abuse the diet with junk foods (although it was nice to factor in chocolate and wine from time to time). I’ve never officially used IIFYM with a client, however I do feel there is space to use it with clients – depending on the client of course.

Clean eating: I’ve read some pretty passionate articles about this, but I feel that if it’s encouraging people to eat a more nutrient-dense diet, then it’s a positive movement. I’ve also found that more and more cafes and restaurants are noticing food fads and movements such as clean eating, and I think this is great because for myself, my partner and clients, it means it’s now so much easier to go out and eat healthy meals. I feel the clean eating movement has really pushed a lot of cafes and restaurants into providing healthier options and I think that’s brilliant.

One of the issues I’ve found with clean eating is that some of my clients seem to forget about calories. If it’s “clean” then calories don’t matter, and I guess that’s what I mentioned in my previous answer—if they want to lose weight then the calories do matter. We can keep those “clean” foods in the diet because they’re usually nutrient dense, but we need to be mindful of portion sizes. The big culprits I’ve found, as mentioned, are avocados, salmon, nuts, coconut products and fruit dishes such as smoothie bowls and acai bowls—which themselves are usually loaded with granola and nuts. Again, these are all “clean” healthy foods but they pack a calorie punch for anyone wanting to lose weight.

With there being some pretty grim statistics for the percentage of people who end up regaining weight after weight-loss, are there any variables that you see as being the key to maintaining weight loss after somebody has reached their goal?

I think one of the most important aspects of the weight loss journey is to deal with the matters that caused the weight gain in the first place. It might mean working with a social worker, counsellor, psychologist, or hypnotherapist. If the issues aren’t worked on and somewhat rectified, the weight will always return because the underlying concern hasn’t been addressed.

Once I have formed a relationship with my client, I will suggest that I want them to consider talking to another professional if I feel there are underlying issues that will halt their weight loss – or make it difficult to maintain their weight loss. I really feel this is one of the most important keys in achieving and maintaining weight loss.

Is there anything else you would like to add to wrap the interview up?

To other new dietitians out there starting their nutrition journey: persevere and keep pushing! I’ve lost count of the knockbacks I’ve had. There have been so many, especially since arriving in China where the science of nutrition isn’t really acknowledged as yet (and I don’t speak Mandarin yet either). There will always be rejections, but just keep trying. I look back over the last two years in China and I’ve had the most incredible experiences, but there was much frustration and tears along the way. Each day you’ve just got to get up and do it again, and that’s when the magic happens.

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Aidan Muir

Aidan has been exposed to the most recent and up-to-date evidence based approaches to dietetic intervention. Dating back to well before starting uni he has been fascinated by all things nutrition, particularly the effects of different dietary approaches on body composition and sports performance. Due to this passion, he has built up an extensive knowledge base in multiple areas of nutrition and is able to help clients with a variety of conditions. One of Aidan’s main strengths is his ability to adapt plans based on the clients desires. By having such a thorough understanding of optimal nutrition for different situations he is able to develop detailed meal plans for clients, or he can provide flexible guidance that can contribute to improving the clients overall quality of life.