The Interviews: Health Promotion & Chronic Illness with Orla McDaid

November 8, 2020

Due to my love and passion for all things health and wellbeing, I studied Human Nutrition at University and became a qualified Nutritionist (BSc, aNutr) after which I decided to specialise in Health Promotion and Public Health (MSc).  I have been working in the field of Nutrition and Health Promotion for 6 years. Uniquely, I have the experience of working in Health Promotion across 3 different sectors (Private, Public and Voluntary) and therefore have a broad understanding of the Health Promotion challenges we face across the board.

Aside from my career, I was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease in 2012, and outside of my work, my passion is raising awareness of this chronic autoimmune disease alongside helping those manage the disease nutritionally.

Tell me about your role in Health Promotion?

My current role in Health Promotion is working as a Health Promotion Specialist for a well-known charity in Northern Ireland. The role is multi-faceted in the sense that I work within workplaces, communities and soon will also be working in schools. A large remit is delivering private one-to-one Health Checks where I carry out a number of health tests such as cholesterol profiling, blood pressure, body composition etc., determine risk and provide a personalised health report focusing on lifestyle elements which could be improved. Alongside this, I also deliver workshops and health talks on the topics of nutrition, physical activity, sleep, stress, alcohol and smoking. These workshops are very interactive, where risk reduction and risk awareness is discussed. I also follow up with any clients who’s measurements were higher than the normal thresholds to ensure they have sought medical advice.

What are the perks and negative sides to your job?

The job is mostly perks with very few negatives. I really enjoy working for a charity which is making a huge difference in peoples lives. It is really nice when you receive positive feedback from clients or companies who were really happy with the service they received. I have been sent cards or e-mailed and this always gives me huge job satisfaction.

You also get to meet a huge range of people, from different backgrounds, communities and with differing health needs and I enjoy the challenge of delivering an effective, useful health check or health talk to make sure their needs are met. No day is the same and you are constantly learning.

The only negative would be the job is very tiring. When doing a full day of health checks, or delivering workshops you have to be very enthusiastic, engaging and show awareness of your audience, and this can be very draining.

How has your own personal journey with nutrition influenced your career?

I began studying Nutrition before I was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease however my diagnosis certainly further validated my career choice. When your whole life evolves around what you can and can’t eat, alongside difficult autoimmune disease side effects, you gain more empathy and understanding for your clients, which shines through.

Certainly building up my full time career in Health Promotion was my main focus of my 20s, however my own personal journey of living with an autoimmune disease has given me another focus in my career and that is raising awareness of Coeliac Disease and helping those with gluten intolerance, gut health and food intolerances and allergies. This has been my nutrition focus outside of full time work and with that I have just launched my new website The Coeliac Nutritionist NI https://www.coeliacnutritionistni.co.uk/. Here I will be posting about Coeliac Disease research and developments and how you can make changes nutritionally in order to manage the disease better. I also want to talk about gut health and gluten intolerance.

What barriers have you come across with having coeliac disease?

Where do you even start?! Haha. The biggest barrier is ignorance about the disease. Everyone assumes it is a basic gluten intolerance or allergy. They don’t realise its a serious chronic, lifelong autoimmune disease that can have devastating consequences on your health. Ignorance takes many forms, whether its hospitality staff, chefs, and even family and friends just not getting it and making hurtful comments. My favourite lines are ‘sure a bite won’t hurt’ or ‘can you eat potatoes?’ (very common in Ireland!). Its difficult eating out, or eating at friends. More often than not it’s easier to just eat beforehand or bring your own pre-prepared food!

Lack of support upon initial diagnosis has also been a barrier I have found not only for myself but for many individuals I have spoken with who have also been diagnosed.

The other barrier I find for Coeliacs (which is a contentious issue I know and this may raise a few eyebrows….) is individuals with gluten intolerance who self-diagnose themselves or are diagnosed through unreliable intolerance testing (IgG testing), not through their GP. This can be very dangerous. Not to take away from people who suffer a serious gluten intolerance diagnosed by their GP and that is not my intention; but I’ve unfortunately witnessed some people tell the waiter they are strict gluten free and then proceed to order a gluten filled sticky toffee pudding for dessert because ‘its just a few bites’. This confuses hospitality staff, sets a precedent and ultimately dilutes and trivialises Coeliac Disease, where we cannot be so relaxed and choosey. As a Coeliac, it is my ultimate pet peeve! What is also worth mentioning is the danger the companies or fake nutritionists create when promoting these unreliable intolerance tests.  I want to continue to work to raise awareness of this and getting nutrition advice only from a qualified source.

What are your aspirations for the future?

I want to continue to work in Health Promotion as it is really enjoyable and I get a lot out of making a difference in peoples lives. However I have aspirations outside of this to expand on my own private work raising awareness of Coeliac Disease and support with food allergies, intolerances and gut health as it is my absolute passion! I have a few things planned for 2021 so keep an eye on my website: https://www.coeliacnutritionistni.co.uk/.

Thank you SO much Orla for sharing your experiences, both career wise and personal. I hope it gives people some insight in all the areas!

Emma x

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