Fixated on food


Natalie Reilly

A lot of <i>Sunday Life</i> readers dislike the fact that so many entertainers eat low calorie meals. Surely they stray ...

A lot of Sunday Life readers dislike the fact that so many entertainers eat low calorie meals. Surely they stray from the apples and vegetables they claim to devour?

Joanna McMillan is the nutrition agony aunt in Sunday Life’s much-discussed column, 'My Day on a Plate'.

She critiques the diets of models, actors, publicists, authors, chefs and sports people.

More often than not the magazine receives fiery emails from readers demanding that the high-flying-types who get profiled, "get more honest about what they eat!"

Why are we so interested in other people’s diets?  And does Joanna really believe they’re all starting their day with a cup of hot water and a squeeze of lemon?


1. How long ago did you become a nutritionist?

I first studied psychology around 1990, then trained as a fitness instructor in 1991, before adding a nutrition degree to the mix in 1996 – finally a PhD in nutritional science here in Sydney in 2005. So in total 20 years now in the health and wellbeing industry. Yikes!

2. How would you define ‘healthy eating’?

A combination of eating foods closest to the way they occur in nature (ie minimally processed), with enough variety to provide the nutrients we need, combined with a healthy relationship with food. The latter is just as important. I see so many people, women in particular, with such disordered eating from years of dieting it’s soul destroying. Food is more than the nutrients it contains. It’s part of our culture, our social networking and should bring us enormous pleasure.

3. Do you believe the average person eats healthily?

No … two out of three of Australians are overweight, which shows us that we have our lifestyles and diet out of whack. There are also so many myths and misunderstandings about diet. I never believe anyone who tells me they know what to eat… I always ask what they think that means.

4. Do you believe everything people say they eat in the column?

Most people will give a good day when they are asked what they eat. I don’t think they are lying, and many probably do eat this healthily, but given a typical day they will conveniently forget about the things that they think don’t happen too often!

5. If some of them are lying, why do you think they lie?

I don’t think it’s lying, just showing their best side. Food is so often associated with guilt and anxiety, people feel they are judged by how they eat. Gluttony is after all one of the deadly sins… no one wants to be thought of as glutinous! Neither do we really know how much and what others eat and so its hard for people to know what is ‘normal’. 

6. What is the most irksome thing people consume in the column?

Probably when people add green powder supplements and protein shakes to their diet and think this makes it healthy. Powder is not the same as eating leafy greens and loads of vegies and a protein shake is at the end of the day a processed food. Real food will always win hands down for me.

7. Why do you think so many people think that lemon and hot water is good for them? Or will cleanse them?

This is one of the myths that drives me crazy. Why would a splash of lemon in hot water do anything for digestion? It just makes the water acidic which erodes the enamel on your teeth. Your stomach is already an acidic milieu and so adding more acid is not helpful. Have a cup of tea and get some antioxidants instead.

8. What food fad do you find most annoying?

I find who I call the healthy high-horse brigade the most annoying. They have such a narrow view of food and fail to see the big picture. Food should be pleasurable, social and healthy yes, but not obsessional. I spend a lot of time teaching people to relax about food and stop thinking about it so much, these extreme approaches only feed their anxiety. You can have an occasional slice of cake or glass of wine, whatever you truly enjoy, without it affecting your health. It’s about the balance of foods and drinks in your overall diet.

9. What’s one of the most common myths you see people subscribing to in the column?

At the moment cutting carb-rich foods. We have moved from being fat phobic to being carb phobic. We are making all the same mistakes .. we bought manufactured low fat foods, and now we’re buying manufactured low carb foods. When will we learn that it is processed food that is the problem, not individual macronutrients. Carb-rich foods are not all the same and refined starch is just as bad for us as refined sugar.

10. The Sunday Life office receives a fair amount of mail about it, some good, some bad - why do you think the column is so divisive?

Everyone eats so everyone has an opinion about food. I love that passion from people, but I do get annoyed at the fact that people make a lot of comment without understanding the full picture. A little knowledge is a bad thing … on the other hand I love that so many are truly interested in food and nutrition. They recognise that it affects their energy levels, how they look and how they feel.

11. A lot of readers dislike the fact that so many entertainers eat low calorie meals. Many of them want to see more cake-eaters. What do you think this is about?

I think part of this is just wanting an excuse for us all to be the same.. no one likes a smartie pants! It then excuses our own behaviour if everyone else is doing it. The truth is that people in the public eye have more pressure on them to be lean – rightly or wrongly – and so they tend to at least try to look after themselves. I know from the celebrities I know however that many of them have just as many problems with food and many have disordered body images and relationships with food. There isn’t room for that sort of discussion in the column.

12. There seems to be a link in readers minds between fad foods like quinoa and the sense that the 'Day on a Plate' person is superficial for eating it. Do you have any idea why this might be?

I hope quinoa is not a fad food – it has been a staple for thousands of years in South America and only new to us. However yes that’s interesting that people would think this is superficial. This is kind of reverse snobbery in a way. The idea that real Aussies just eat everyday food we have always eaten…. The flaw in the argument is that quinoa has been eaten for far longer than white bread, meat pies and sausages! But there is also a serious side to this and that is cost. It is frustrating to me that many healthy options are more expensive and that poorer socioeconomic areas of Australia have more expensive fresh produce. How can we win the healthy eating battle if getting fast food on the way home is a cheaper way of feeding the family than buying fresh.

13. Have you ever been chided, (even gently) for following a healthy diet?

All the time! People say but surely you want to eat this instead… but I truly don’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes overeat – I do – and I also have a treat when I really feel like it. I take my kids for gelato or cake on a regular basis. But for the most part I eat the way I know makes me feel good.

14. Where do you think this comes from?

It’s similar to above – wanting us all to be the same. But we all have to take responsibility for our food choices and how much we eat. I have a big appetite but I know if I eat the right foods and exercise regularly I can stay healthy and have energy … what I call your inner mojo. Everyone likes to believe it is easier for someone else, and that is sometimes true. But if we’re honest I think most people know they could do better. It’s just putting it into practice, making it habit and doing it for the long term that is hard to start with. But once you’re there it becomes a way of life.

Joanna's 'Day on a Plate' column appears every week in Sunday Life.