Operation Transformation’s Aoife Hearne on the fruit of a healthy lifestyle

AOIFE Hearne is full of the joys of raising a young family. The straight-talking dietician is mum to Dylan, three, and Alva, 20 months, and is expecting her third child with husband Alan in May.

At breakfast last week, her worries about sibling rivalry and potential disruption with the impending new addition were swept away as she listened to a chat between her son and daughter.

“They are so sweet, Dylan said to Alva: ‘I’m going to mind you forever’. I mean, that’s all you want to hear, isn’t it?”

The passionate advocate of making healthy food choices is one of the country’s leading voices in the world of nutrition, but for a time, it looked as though Aoife’s career trajectory would take a different route. As a successful 100m sprinter, she took a scholarship to the University of Rhode Island at the age of 18 to pursue a career in sport.

“Looking back on it now, it seems bizarre that an 18-year-old would be sent over to America without an idea of who they were going to, or where they would be staying,” she says, laughing. “That was the way it was back then.”

While Rhode Island did not have the athletics focus that Aoife had hoped for, it did open her eyes to the idea of nutrition as a career. “I suppose nutrition had always been part of my athletics — I was always thinking about what I was eating and how it could help me recover, so it seemed like the right fit.”

A transfer to the University of Tennessee under the guidance of Olympian and fellow Waterford woman Susan Smith saw Aoife shine, and make a crucial career decision.

 “As a part of my undergrad in nutrition, I did a year-long internship at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“At that point, I realised that athletics probably wasn’t going to be my career. I packed in my running when I went to Boston and really embraced training to become a dietician.”

Following her experience in a hospital environment, she took a placement under Julie Burns, who was the consultant dietician with the Chicago Bulls and Bears.

 “This was a fascinating experience for me because I got to see someone working in a self-employed environment but also in a sporting environment.”

In 2005, after eight years in the US, she felt a pull to come home. 

“I didn’t want to meet an American guy and get stuck there, and I’m an only child and knew that my mother would be devastated if I never came home.”

Setting up her practice initially in her parent’s converted garage, Aoife’s first patients were referred to her by the local GP. 

“They were a couple who came to me for weight loss and the did really well. They referred seven more people to me, and it went from there.”

The next four years were a whirlwind for the young dietician, as the building blocks of her training and connections in Ireland’s sporting world fell into place. “I was kind of here there and everywhere at that time,” she explains. 

“I was doing work with the Kerry footballers and the Tipperary hurlers. Because I had grown up in sport, I knew a lot of people in the sporting world, and a lot of people my age or a little bit older were going into coaching roles so it was a great fit.

“I said yes to absolutely anything during this time; it was a crazy but amazing few years.”

In 2009, she met her husband-to-be, Alan, while consulting with her local GAA club (“he was the captain of the hurling team — very unprofessional!”), and they married in 2012. Dylan came along three years ago, after a pregnancy that challenged Aoife’s idea of what her body was capable of.

During her first pregnancy, she was diagnosed with symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD), often debilitating pelvic pain. As a former athlete who still ran regularly, this was one of the hardest challenges of her pregnancy.

“While I wasn’t as active as I would have been in my past, I was still running once a week and going to pilates and walking — I wanted to do it right throughout the pregnancy and I couldn’t.

“For me, that was the hardest thing during the pregnancy. I was lucky and I didn’t end up on crutches like some women but I was walking around like an old woman. I felt like I was weak and it really got to me.”

During her pregnancy with Alva, she was much more conscious of her pelvis, and had a comfortable pregnancy as a result of curtailing her exercise regime.

This time around, she’s not exercising much. “I’m going to a physio to keep it under control, but yesterday I wore tiny heels and I was really sore afterwards. I don’t want to go back to that place. I think you can plan as much as you want but you have to go with your body at the end of the day.”

Looking back, she says that morning sickness has definitely gotten worse with each pregnancy.

“I don’t get sick but I do get debilitatingly nauseous. This time, Alva wasn’t as good a sleeper; I’m more tired; I’m older and I have lots of work stuff going on, so it’s natural that I’m a bit more tired.“

It’s no surprise to hear that she does not change her attitude to food during pregnancy, sticking to her daily diet of lots of fruit and vegetables, and choosing wholegrains where possible. 

“I love to enjoy the odd treat and definitely because I’m pregnant I’m a little looser on myself.”

She hopes to breastfeed number three, and says that hydration is one of the most important things to consider for nursing mothers. 

“There is a myth that what you eat affects the quality of your milk, but there’s no evidence of that whatsoever. We want women making better choices because they feel better, but it doesn’t affect the milk in any way.”

When it comes to losing the baby weight, she adopts a very relaxed attitude. “I am really lucky and the first six weeks of breastfeeding really helps me. That extra calorie burn does me the world of good. I have all sizes of jeans that I’ll probably go back through during next summer but for me, I know that if I restrict calories it will restrict how much milk I am producing.”

Looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to losing baby weight, as she knows too well. After Alva was born, an overactive thyroid resulted in her losing a lot of weight in a very short time frame. “It was a good example of something, which appeared to be excellent health-wise was actually the opposite, because I felt terrible.”

Pregnancy and the postpartum period are times to be kind to yourself, she says.

“Pregnancy is not a time that requires perfection. I think that women put too much pressure on yourself to be ‘good’ in pregnancy, but sometimes being ‘good enough’ is the most important thing.


The obesity epidemic

We are seeing the level of obesity with kids stabilising, which is really positive, but I think sometimes there is too big a focus on food and not enough on people’s relationship with food and our habits around it. For me, treats are not off limits with my kids — it is about training people to have a better relationship with food.

Weight vs health

Having healthy habits no matter what size you are is what’s important. We want to see people moving more, getting their fruit and vegetables in, not smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation. Those four habits have a real impact on your longevity of life — it doesn’t really matter what weight you are. I think we have a ‘thin ideal’ that we are all following but what we need to have is a ‘health ideal’, and that looks different for everyone.

Energy drinks

There is no value whatsoever to them; if anything they are causing harm. There are very few things I would tell people to never consume — this is one of them.

The ones that have sugar have way too much sugar and the ones that don’t have sweeteners, which are not good for us either. The levels of caffeine they contain are too much, and there is virtually no benefit to them. They need to be banned — there is no redeemable factor to them, in my opinion.

Choosing real food

Just because something is low-calorie, fat-free, or sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Giving foods a healthy label because they are under a certain amount of calories really messes with people’s heads and gives a mixed message, especially for people who may not have a huge amount of education in that area. I’d like to see the food industry being clear on the difference between ‘healthy’ and low calorie.

Raising mindful eaters

I really think, for me, it’s about raising someone who is connected with their hunger and feeling of fullness. Even from the age of two, we started to introduce the treats to Dylan and training him that treats are not off limits, but in order to be healthy, we can’t eat them all the time.

We have a rule that no matter what goes on your plate, you try a bite of it all — you don’t have to eat it all, just try it. When my son tells me he is full, I accept that and believe him. That’s how we judge if he has had enough and he’s full. We are not part of the Clean Plate Club in our house.

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