Moira Howie, nutrition manager at Waitrose, describes how making incremental changes to product ingredients and processes can help improve the health of families – everyday.
Q: What led you to nutrition as a career?
A: There was a definite catalyst moment that led to me changing the direction of my career.
I worked in a hospital in the cardiology department as an ECG technician.
There, I saw a lot of people being admitted with heart disease, much of which was as a result of poor diet. It made me think there had to be a way of getting involved to help people and change that situation. So, I applied to study nutrition at college.
I knew there was more that could be done. I wanted to be in prevention rather than cure. It’s really too late once you have someone in the hospital having had a heart attack.
Q: What motivates you?
A: An ambition to improve public health is what gets me out of bed in the morning.
Of course diet is just one risk factor, but it is an important one and it’s something that can be modified. At the heart of public health is a desire to change things.
We now know that changes in diet can reduce heart disease and certain cancers and has huge implications for diabetes which is at an all time high in the UK in both adults and children. I want to play a part in lessening these health problems: that’s the aim.
Our approach at Waitrose involves making slight improvements to popular foods. Take yogurts: what we are interested in is making the yogurts slightly healthier, by lowering the sugar content in the fruit compote base for example. People aren’t going to stop eating yogurts, but if we can improve the nutritional content without compromising taste, then that’s going to make a difference. This project has saved 61 million calories.
In general, people are quite resistant to changing their individual eating habits. So – changing the everyday food people are buying and consuming – just a little bit, can have a bigger but more gradual impact. If people then choose these products regularly as part of their shopping basket and make small changes to what they prepare at home, then improvements can be made. It really is possible to make a difference.
The fact is that dietary change is incredibly difficult to effect. I don’t believe people will stop eating all the things they like, so we need to help people make those small changes.
Q; What are the biggest challenges you face?
A: I like to see everything as an opportunity rather than a challenge! You can’t do everything at once, so you have to have a programme of work. Every year we plan a range of things we want to achieve and naturally some projects are easier and some are more difficult.
We have so many products to work with and you have to do these things in a gradual way: you can’t make drastic changes, and that can sometimes be frustrating. We’re making these gradual adaptations all the time. You can’t do it all in one great move or you risk losing people along the way, and that’s not good for anyone.
We do a lot of work at Waitrose around communications. Health campaigns can be very effective in helping people get access to practical hints, tips and advice. When you see people changing their shopping baskets or using one of our diet plans it’s a really good thing. I consider that a success.
When you look at how many people downloaded a particular diet plan, for example, then you think: ‘yes we’ve hit the mark there’. It’s great when you see a healthy eating range go on sale and it does well, or when a product that we’ve amended becomes popular.
Q: What do you look for when you recruit?
A: I have two full-time nutritionists, one part-time and an industrial placement student. It’s a small team and we work very collaboratively and closely. I look for someone that complements my own skills (and those of the team). The values I look for are honesty, integrity and a thirst for knowledge. Nutrition is a field that’s emerging and changing fast, so a desire to seek out new information is important.
My preference when I’m recruiting is for candidates with a degree in nutrition and public health. Sometimes people have a first degree in another discipline like biochemistry then they go on to do an MSc in nutrition, so that works too.
It’s important that you have a sound knowledge of the science of nutrition and also an understanding of how the human body works.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to follow in your career footsteps?
A: This is a fantastic environment in which to work. When you get it right it’s terribly rewarding and it touches everyone. Shopping for food is something that people do every week – no matter where they are or how much disposable income they have. The retail environment and the food in our stores have the ability to touch so many people. There are not many places where you get the opportunity to make such a big difference.
As a nutritionist of course you can work in specialist areas, but by being in the broader food and drink industry your opportunities to influence are so much greater. You have everything to play for. I think retailing is the perfect job!
It’s hard though as there aren’t many job opportunities, and not even many placements. Those who come in generally really like it and want to stay, so there’s not much movement.
My advice would be: don’t give up; be dedicated; maintain your passion; and do as much voluntary work as you can – basically anything that adds weight to your CV and demonstrates the passion you have for the subject. Every conversation you have in whatever context can be relevant. If you think about it, people are generally very happy to talk about food. So there are a lot of opportunities to get that experience. Just stay dedicated.
Q: What professional lessons have you learned?
A: That you have to exercise patience in this field. You can ride the wave when it’s in your favour and make tremendous progress, but sometimes the tide is against you, but you still have to keep going.
Be patient and be passionate, and remember that sometimes you have to go with the flow. I think that if you’re a warm and welcoming individual who is accessible to people, that goes a long way.
Q: What’s next for you at Waitrose?
A: There is a major report this year on the subject of obesity, which will include a focus on childhood obesity. Clearly this will be front of mind and our task is going to be to translating the information in this report to make it alive and relevant.
This presents an immense opportunity to think about how we help parents construct healthy meals – for example, giving guidance and advice on what are appropriate portion sizes for children. Part of the childhood obesity issue is that some parents are giving larger portions than are required for normal growth and development.
It’s about creating very strong links between what we say (our communications) and then what people see and buy in our stores. We are continually trying to update the information we offer. With fewer people picking up leaflets and brochures in the stores we have to reach out with more online help and advice. People need to be able to trust and believe the information they read.
And if what they read then plays through to what they see in our stores, and ultimately to what they put in their baskets…then we are achieving our nutritional goal.
Moira Howie is nutrition manager at Waitrose, which has 382 outlets in England, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Middle East. Waitrose has 58,000 employees (partners) and is part of the John Lewis Partnership.
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