What dietitians really eat

NUTRITION EXPERT: Vice-president of Dietitians New Zealand, Hannah Cullinane.
NUTRITION EXPERT: Vice-president of Dietitians New Zealand, Hannah Cullinane.

Amid the latest fad diets and celebrity weight-loss secrets, experts' opinions are often overlooked.

Vice-president of Dietitians New Zealand, dietitian Hannah Cullinane, says International Dietitians Day is an opportunity for the professionals to get a word in.

While anyone can call themselves a nutritionist (to become registered requires training), dietitians must complete around five years of university study to get qualified.

"People often think [dietitians] are the food police," she says, "but we're not!".

To prove it, she shares with us what dietitians really eat, including her top tips for easy healthy eating, and what she thinks of the latest fad diets.  


You'll struggle to find a dietitian who doesn't have breakfast, Cullinane says."It's easy to get bored with breakfast, so I'd have different breakfasts most days. During the week it mainly consists of muesli, yogurt, canned fruit. At the weekend it would be something more exciting, like poached eggs, or a hot cross bun. Mmm, I love hot cross buns!"


"My number one tip for healthy eating is 'plan-over'," Cullinane says.

"This is basically when you cook enough dinner so that it becomes your lunch the next day. Doing this stops me buying less healthy choices during the day, and saves me money."

For example, if you're having wraps for dinner, use the leftover filling for a salad the next day.


Most dietitians follow the "plate model".

This means half of an ordinary sized dinner plate being filled with vegetables, one quarter with protein-rich food, and one quarter with your choice of a carbohydrate-rich food.

Cullinane says she prefers to cook "one-pan meals" such as risottos, curries, stir fry dishes, mainly because it's easy - and limits dishes.

"I smuggle peas into everything. I cannot rate those vegetables highly enough. They're full of protein and fibre, and they're cheap."

Cullinane says meals should make the most of seasonal foods. As we approach winter, soups, stews and slow-cooked meals are healthy and inexpensive choices.


Cullinane snacks mainly on fruit, or canned tuna and crackers, but admits to enjoy regular sweet treats.

"My most common snacks are [mini chocolate bars] - they're basically two squares of chocolate. I like to factor treats in all the time so I don't feel like I'm missing out," she says.



Cullinane describes herself as "a massive foodie".

"Food needs to be tasty and enjoyable.

"If 90 per cent of the time you're doing well, then don't worry about the 10 per cent of the time when you're not. We're human, and humans have bad days. If one weekend you have a decadent day for a celebration, then enjoy it, that's part of what makes food great."

Personally, Cullinane would prefer to play social sport or run outside over going to the gym.

Team sports are good, she says, because they're social, and you're more likely to continue when you're committed to a team.

"I like picking new goals and challenges. At the moment I'm training for a full marathon, which is damn ambitious!"


- Paleo diet:

The paleolithic diet is based on the presumed diet of cavemen. It consists mainly of fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar and processed oils.

"There are both good and bad things about this diet," Cullinane says.

"It's good in that it focuses on whole foods and avoids overly processed foods. It has a big focus on fruit and vegetables and that's fabulous.

"But, it's extreme, and cuts out what most dietitians would consider to be very important foods. For me, cutting out dairy is really dangerous as it's an important source of calcium, especially for women. It also says to cut legumes, which are a really affordable source of protein."

- The fast diet:

Otherwise known as the 5:2. That's five days of normal eating, with little thought to calorie control, then, on the other two days, you eat a quarter of your recommended daily calorie quota. (About 500 calories for women, and 600 for men).

Cullinane says this diet hasn't really taken off in New Zealand, "probably because it's so 'out there'".

"I would hate to be ravenously hungry for two days a week.

"Plus, the evidence behind it isn't really there yet, so you're unlikely to get dietitians recommending it. For people with a lot of weight to lose, it could be helpful to start with, but it's not sustainable."

- Gluten-free:

Going gluten-free seems rather on trend at the moment, but if you're not gluten intolerant, there's no benefit to removing the protein from your diet, Cullinane says.

"For people who have an intolerance, or Coeliac disease, then a gluten free diet is needed from a medical perspective. But otherwise I wouldn't recommend a gluten free diet. Mainly because when you try to cut out major foods from your diet you're at risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

"If you're following a gluten free diet you should really be seeking nutritional help to make sure you're meeting your dietary requirements."