the gentlewoman

Reader of the Month

The nutritionist Ylva Johannesson is on a quest to get the kids healthy and excited about food. No easy task when alluring sweets and fast food are so omnipresent. But the statuesque Swede is resolute that with a guiding hand fruit and vegetables will win them over. Over a bowl of homemade soup, made from sustainable ingredients, she tells The Gentlewoman’s Richard O’Mahony how.

Ylva Johannesson

Richard: This soup’s delicious, what’s in it?

Ylva: Pumpkin, butternut squash, sweet potato – beautiful yellow vegetables that provide beta-carotene, which is really good for the immune system. There are a few spices in there too: cumin, turmeric, ginger – mighty anti-inflammatory – topped with pumpkin seeds. It’s a vitamin feast in a bowl, something hearty.

R: That it is! What’s a typical Swedish winter dish?

Y: When it’s -20 degrees outside you need something hot inside, so roasts or stews are popular. Traditionally, Swedes use a lot of beetroot, roasted with some wild game, elk or deer perhaps? We eat lots of potatoes too, potatoes with everything.

R: I thought that was just us Irish. What part of Sweden are you from?

Y: Växjö, which is in Småland, southern Sweden. It has lots of forests and beautiful lakes. It’s very outdoorsy. I used to coach football and teach horse-riding there in my teens.

R: Is that what led you to working with kids, do you think?

Y: Yeah, I really enjoyed the team experience. Teaching younger kids was fun and I was good at it too. I’ve enjoyed cooking from a young age – my grandmother and mother are phenomenal cooks – but it wasn’t until I travelled to south-east Asia and lived in Australia, where there’s such a strong food and health culture, that I became passionate about it.

R: Tell me about the initiative that you run.

Y: It’s a healthy lifestyle programme for overweight children and their families called MEND – Mind, Exercise, Nutrition…Do it. It’s been running for quite a few years in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

R: And what sort of things do you do with the kids?

Y: We educate them about food, healthy eating habits and exercise. It’s not a diet programme. The kids are still allowed treats, just reduced to limited amounts. We do sessions with the children and their parents, together and separately, for two hours a week over ten weeks. We’ve two groups: 5-7 year olds and 7-13. With the 7-13 year olds, they’re becoming more conscious of their body, weight and appearance, so it’s about helping them to deal with that. With 5-7 year olds it’s more about getting them excited about food.

R: How do you make that fun?

Y: Things like bringing in a different fruit each week. They smell it, touch it, talk about the colour. We also take them to supermarkets and play a detective game looking for secret ingredients or undercover names for sugar. They have a magnifying glass and everything.

R: That sounds quite fun!

Y: Yeah, it is and it gets them reading labels and using information they’ve been taught to help decide if the food is good or bad. We do a food test with the older ones, where they have to identify different plates of raw fruits and vegetables – foods such as raw radishes, basil leaves, pickled beetroot, blueberries, cherry tomatoes…

R: …But those foods don’t sound so unusual?

Y: You’d be surprised! The kids from one session didn't know what a blueberry was. There’s now so much processed food that you can’t take for granted that children will know what whole food is or where it comes from.

R: How do you handle the parents? That must be quite sensitive?

Y: It can be difficult for them to accept their child is overweight, yes, and also for them to accept that they need to change their own diet. You can’t force these changes, but you can try to explain that it’s about leading by example. Something as simple as leaving a bowl of fruit on the kitchen table can make a significant difference. We discuss sensitive and difficult issues such as bullying at school or peer pressure, but also how they talk to their children about being overweight. Some of them can be bullying their own children without realising it.

R: What’s the one food everyone should include in their diets, Ylva?

Y: Seeds! Seeds are amazing. You can add them to everything and they are loaded with nutrients, essential oils, fibre – everything your body needs!

Since meeting Ylva, Richard has incorporated various seeds into his diet. He attests that it has greatly improved his complexion which usually suffers during the winter months. The photograph is Ylva's own. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!