WHEN Gaye Godkin refers to the "pasta-cisation" of Ireland, you somehow know she's not praising our grasp of Italian cuisine.
A consultant nutritionist with a Master's Degree in Public Health, Godkin is passionate about food – and deeply concerned about the mistakes we are making with our diet.
Her beef is this: the hearty but labour-intensive Irish foods – stews, casseroles, plain root vegetables like potatoes, turnips, cabbage and humble fish such as mackerel – have fallen out of favour, shouldered aside by an avalanche of easy-to-prepare alternatives.
And it's affecting our health.
There's nothing wrong with pasta, per se – but Godkin believes that we're eating too much of it and too much of the many other quick and easy alternatives to peeling spuds and chopping turnips.
"Many Irish people don't peel and chop vegetables any more. They won't chop turnips and cabbage, they don't know how to do it, and they won't eat mackerel. We need to get back to turnips, cabbage, soups, stews and casseroles," she warns.
On top of that, she says, the traditional Irish family menu has also fallen victim to a kind of "food snobbery" or "sexualisation of food", which has thrown our attitude to nutrition completely out of kilter.
"People are mindlessly making food choices based on popularity and the trend towards ethnic foods, which are not as nutritionally dense as traditional Irish fare."
All of this has fundamentally changed our diet – and not, she says, in a good way:
"Eight out of 10 Irish people who are in hospital are there due to diet and lifestyle issues," says Godkin, well-known from her appearances on TV and radio.
Chronic illness is an epidemic she believes – and much of it is preventable.
Take arthritis, the different forms of which affect more than 900,000 people in this country.
The right kind of foods can help with osteoarthritis, for example, which Godkin believes, fits into the category of preventable chronic conditions.
"Historically, we believed osteoarthritis was an old person's illness, that it was age-related.
"Now science tells us that it is an inflammatory condition which has been linked to a poor diet that is low in omega-3 oils and oily fish."
The actual process of inflammation, explains Godkin, can begin some 20 years before you develop osteoarthritis:
"It's a slow burner in the body. The inflammation eats away at the cartilage between your bones – cartilage acts as protection for the bones and when it's eroded you're left with the bones rubbing off each other. That's where you get the pain."
And the pain can be significant – in some cases it's been described as worse than walking barefoot on burning coals.
But omega-3 oil can help to 'switch off' proteins in the immune system that drive inflammation – yet Irish people are chronically low in it:
"Only about 25pc of Irish people eat oily fish like mackerel, sardines and wild salmon regularly.
"Omega-3 oils in the fish constitute an essential fat for the body, because the body cannot make it – unless you are getting it through your diet it will not happen for you."
Food can also help with rheumatoid arthritis, says Godkin, pointing to research from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, where studies highlight that women who eat oily fish two or three times a week could halve their risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
But we're doing it backwards – as well as eating too little of the 'good' things like omega-3 oil, we're eating too much of well-known food 'baddies' such as trans-fats.
"Trans-fats are basically fats that have been chemically altered, for example in spreads or in re-used cooking oil and are found in spreads, breads, cakes, biscuits, chips and doughnuts. We're also consuming too much sugar and refined carbohydrate.
"All of these contribute to inflammation," explains Godkin.
"Every cell in our body has a layer of fat around it to protect the cell and if you have a diet that is high in trans-fats and low in omega-3 oil, you're more at risk of inflammation."
Simply put, we can help ourselves by eating foods that protect us, says Godkin: "In Ireland, the average consumption of fruit and vegetables is about two portions a day – yet five portions is the minimum and this should be more vegetables than fruit."
Body weight also plays a role – so lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise play an important role, declares John Church Chief Executive of Arthritis Ireland.
"We encourage people to eat healthily and reduce weight," he says, pointing out that for every pound of weight you lose you take four pounds of pressure off your joints. Lightening the load on joints such as knees and ankles is very important, he says, so the organisation strongly encourages people to keep moving. See www.arthritis.ie for their countrywide network of exercise groups.
"The more you exercise the better it is for you – and this goes for all forms of arthritis," he says, adding that exercise such as swimming, walking and cycling are all very beneficial.
Hence a lifestyle that features a healthy diet, plenty of exercise and no smoking (smoking is a contributory factor to rheumatoid arthritis according to the latest research) is what people should be aiming for, he explains.
To this end the organisation delivers a self-management programme, 'Living Well with Arthritis', which addresses the issues of lifestyle and helps people communicate with family doctors, friends and workplace.
"You can do a lot for yourself and this course shows you how to help manage the condition."
World Arthritis Day takes Place on October 12. On October 10 Arthritis Ireland will host a lecture on finding a cure by Professor Gerry Wilson, the first Arthritis Ireland Chair of Rheumatology at UCD.