The power of keeping it simple - recipes from Dale Pinnock
Forget trendy diets, there are just three principles of nutrition you need to know for a healthier life, chef Dale Pinnock tells our reporter
For Dale Pinnock, the UK's 'Medicinal Chef', the quest for "the right diet" is more than just a fad.
"One of the requests that I get all the time is: 'There's all this conflicting information, what should I do? Should I be vegan, should I be paleo, should I be a raw foodie?'" he says with an exasperated sigh. "All of that is just noise and nonsense. Forget about all of that, because to be honest, none of us know the answer. No one can tell you the ultimate diet."
While he may not be able to answer that burning question, his latest book, The Power of Three, promises the nutritional secrets to a longer, healthier life. Rather than setting out a one-size-fits-all diet, Dale presents three guiding principles to give readers an idea on how to "eat for life". In place of day-by-day instructions, he offers advice on the best ways to assemble your meals, along with the scientific evidence to back it up.
If you're the kind of person who loves to play the armchair doctor, this is the book for you. The workings of key nutrients are explained in detail, as Dale describes how blood sugar balance, fatty acid balance and nutrient density are vital for long-term health.
"It's not about following something to the letter," he says. "There are no plans here, it's not about 'Monday: breakfast, lunch, dinner', because what a way to live! I'm saying that if you focus on these three elements, you'll be doing as much as anyone can with the combined knowledge that we have about food and health."
Dale (39) has a master's degree in Nutritional Medicine, and is known for his appearances on TV3's Ireland AM, as well as his successful series of books targeting ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and anxiety.
In person, it's immediately evident how passionate Dale is about his subject. Over a green tea, he confidently lists off current studies on flavonoid-rich foods, the importance of omega in our diet, and the dangers associated with the sinister-sounding "series two prostaglandin" (which come from fatty acids), without missing a beat. While our conversation sometimes threatens to become a biology lecture, Dale can tell when he's losing his audience. He's so eager to share what he knows that he will patiently explain something two or three times until it clicks. He's also refreshingly down-to-earth and delightfully self-aware about the egregious hype surrounding select "superfoods" - king of them all being the ubiquitous kale.
"I've been eating kale for years, and it's great, but when people take one thing and turn it into the ultimate panacea, that's when you need to put the bulls***detectors on," he says with a knowing look. "All of these foods are great. My position is to educate people about why all of these foods are as important as each other, because they've all got something to offer."
What about the war on sugar? Dale shrugs: "Sugar is the bogeyman of the week. It is one of the enemies, but my thinking is that if you decide to have a piece of cake, that's a conscious decision, that's a personal choice. The problem is when it's hidden in foods."
These hidden sugar bombs form the basis for the first of Dale's three principles: maintaining blood sugar balance. To do this, he advises reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates, and always combining proteins and carbohydrates at each meal. "Starchy foods are great. I eat them, and there's nothing wrong with them, it's just the amount of those foods that we're consuming," he says.
He outlines a pattern some of us may recognise: "How normal would it be for someone to have a bowl of cereal and a slice of toast for breakfast, a sandwich and a packet of crisps at lunchtime, and in the evening some pasta or rice with some root vegetables? That's a normal reflection of what a lot of us do, but when you're consuming that much, you're pushing your blood sugar beyond a level that's safe."
If your diet is over-reliant on carbohydrate-rich foods, you could be putting yourself at risk of developing cardiovascular disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as the body can no longer handle the level of insulin secreted in response to high blood sugar.
His second principle relates to fatty acid balance. Dale recommends reducing our intake of omega-6, which we consume too much of through vegetable oils and margarine. When we go beyond the small amount of omega-6 we need for hormonal and neurological health, the excess can lead to inflammation in the cells. In the long-term, this kind of regular inflammation is linked to things like heart disease and cancer.
To avoid this, Dale urges readers to gather their cooking oils (sunflower oil, vegetable oil, margarine), throw them in the bin, and never look back. In future, he says, use only olive oil and coconut oil. Once you've done that, you can help get that inflammation under control by increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Oily fish is the best source, so if you're vegetarian, he suggests taking a supplement.
The third principle is focused on nutrient density, as Dale encourages readers to get enough micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, along with the macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrate. He cites our reliance on convenience foods as a major obstacle.
"In this part of the world, we tend to be overfed and undernourished," he says. "We've become the ping-and-ding generation, grabbing ready-meals off the supermarket shelf for a quick-fix lunch. While you're getting enough carbohydrate, protein and fat, those micro-nutrients aren't there."
To remedy this, he advises looking at every meal as an opportunity to get fresh produce in. It can be as simple as snacking on raw vegetables or fruit between meals, or having a fresh salad with your ready-meal. "The ideal is to cook from scratch using fresh produce, but I'm a realist," he says. "I know that people have time constraints, so just find as many ways as possible to bring fresh produce in."A lot of it comes down to our choices at the supermarket. Dale's motto for smarter food shopping is: "If it ran, swam or grew, then eat it. Anything else, get rid of."
Once you become familiar with these principles, you can begin to make your way through the 80 recipes Dale has included in the book. He is keen to point out that these recipes are not only accessible to cooks of all skill levels, but also incredibly tasty.
"Knowing what food does and how it responds in the body, you can get creative and give your favourites a facelift. If you like spaghetti Bolognese, fantastic, just use whole-wheat spaghetti. Throw in a few lentils and some more diced vegetables to bulk it out."
As well as upgraded treats like broccoli, fig and anchovy pizza and Thai-style duck curry, Dale has plenty of options for people on-the-go, including sticky bars and a breakfast muffin made with bacon, eggs and spinach.
"You don't have to give up the foods you love," he says. "That's a miserable existence. If I thought I'd be eating bland food, I'd be straight down to the take-away faster than you can blink. It doesn't have to be like that. I make curries, I make pizzas, I make burgers. You can eat all those things, just think about how you make them."
I do love a good pizza, and this is a beautiful flavour combination - sweet, salty, peppery, earthy. So many things going on at once. It's just a total bargain that the nutrient density is top notch too!
Broccoli, fig and anchovy pizza with fresh rocket
250g wholemeal flour
1 tsp dried yeast
2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to drizzle
125ml warm water
FOR THE TOPPING: 1 tbsp tomato passata
4-5 mozzarella slices
6-7 steamed broccoli florets, halved
2 ripe figs, sliced
4-6 anchovy fillets in oil, chopped
1 handful rocket leaves
Sea salt and black pepper
Combine the flour, yeast, olive oil and water in a bowl and mix well to form a dough. Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and knead - the technique doesn't really matter, just get the dough moving for a couple of minutes. Return to the bowl, cover and leave for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.
Roll the dough out to a round about 30cm in diameter and place on a pizza tray or large baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake in the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until firming and there is the slightest trace of it turning golden.
Remove from the oven and spread the passata over the base. Arrange a couple of slices of the mozzarella. Dot the broccoli around, arrange the fig slices and anchovies, then add the remaining mozzarella, along with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Return to the oven for about 8 minutes, until the mozzarella is bubbling in the middle and developing brown bubbles around the edges. Remove from the oven and top with the rocket.
Speedy beef stir-fry
This is a great warm lunch that doesn't take long to cook at all, and is rich and hearty. Chinese chilli bean sauce is available in almost every supermarket these days. Serve as it is or with a very small amount of cooked brown rice.
Olive oil, for stir-frying
3 spring onions, cut on the diagonal into 1cm pieces
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 small steak, cut into thin strips
1 handful curly kale
1 handful baby spinach
1 tsp runny honey
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp toasted sesame oil
2 tsp chilli bean sauce sea salt
Heat a little olive oil in a pan, add the spring onions and garlic with a pinch of salt, and sauté until the spring onions begin to soften. Add the beef strips and stir-fry for 6 minutes.
Add the greens and stir-fry for 3 minutes. Add the honey, soy sauce, sesame oil and chilli bean sauce, mix well, and cook for another minute before serving.
What to eat…
For winter-proof skin: Dale recommends fat-soluble antioxidants such as beta-carotene, found in sweet potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, mangos and cantaloupe melon. Those antioxidants can reduce inflammation during an acne flare-up, or reduce redness if you have psoriasis. Omega-3 also has an anti-inflammatory effect, so increase your intake of oily fish like mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines.
For lower blood pressure: "With high blood pressure, flavonoids are probably your best friend," he says, referring to a group of compounds found in green tea, red onions and red peppers. Flavonoids promote the relaxation of arterial muscles, which can improve blood flow and decrease blood pressure. Luckily for us, that same nutrient can be found in a glass of red wine or a piece of dark chocolate.
For better sleep: "Get away from stimulants," Dale warns. "Don't have any tea after 5pm, unless it's herbal." Instead, look to foods rich in magnesium, which can work as a muscle relaxant and is found in leafy green vegetables. He also suggests increasing sources of the amino acid tryptophan like turkey and tuna. A little bit of carbohydrate can help you sleep well too, so for an evening snack, try a small piece of toasted multigrain bread with baby spinach and turkey or tuna.