Roisin practices a range of complementary therapies, including acupuncture and kinesiology, in Belfast, Holywood and Portglenone. And she also writes a health column every Wednesday in the Irish News.
Soft-spoken, but with a commanding presence, Roisin, wrote the cookbook because she loves to cook, but also as a tool to help her clients, many of whom suffer from ailments that can be remedied with diet changes.
We met for a chat last Monday in Belfast, where she sees patients one day a week, helping people regain their health and improve their quality of life.
Roisin:I did a talk on Thursday for a company, it was a health day, and one of my main points was food should be the number one thing in your world, not the last thing. Because it is so important to how you function.
I liken your body to a car – it’s really simple. And the quality of the food is important – you wouldn’t put two stroke oil that you run your lawnmower on into your Ferrari, so why do you expect your body to run on garbage? It’s just not possible. It will be possible for a little while, while you’re young, but the older you get the worse the situation gets.
Jenny: Is it ever too late? Roisin: I don’t think so. I think you can rectify most things unless someone has a really serious disease. It makes a huge difference. Because I’m a kinesiologist and have been for the last 20-odd years, I see the difference it makes to things like skin problems, chest complaints, and joint pain. Those are really immediate things you can see. Bowel problems you can usually rectify pretty quickly unless there’s a more serious condition. You can see that within a few weeks, people come back and say, ‘Oh, I feel amazing, my energy is so good.’ That’s just the short-term – what have you laid down for the long-term? It’s hard to quantify, but you can see the big difference.
Jenny: What exactly is complementary therapy?
Roisin: I’m a complementary health practitioner. I work alongside doctors. I would never interfere with someone’s medicine, that’s not within my remit, whatsoever. You may at some point suggest that they go back and talk to their doctor about their medication but you’d never, ever say ‘don’t take that medication.’ I’m very, very respectful of the role the doctor has in their life.
Mine is a support role, and the integrative medicine movement is quite strong, where we work together. I have had referrals from GP’s directly to me. Not many, but they have happened in the last few years. It’s complement to, not against.
I don’t like the term alternative, and I don’t ever say that I’m an alternative medicine practitioner, that’s different.
Jenny: What kinds of issues do clients have, in general?
Roisin: A huge range – I’m a reasonable specialist in digestive issues, so I get a lot of that. Migraines, skin problems, chest issues, asthma, eczema, psoriasis – general health. It’s nearly always a reaction to internal factors. Anything to do with skin has to be rectified from the inside out. So you generally would change a person’s diet and look to their bowel health. I usually recommend pro-biotics and nutrition, taking away the things that are irritating them. But a lot of times it is food, not so much things that they rub on. Which is why creams tend to not sort the thing out. You can use creams to control, but you’re much better trying to get in and figure out what’s causing the ultimate issue…. It can be complicated to sort out, though, very complicated.
There’s also quite often an emotional issue as well. In Chinese medicine the skin is in the domain of the lungs, the lungs are about grief and sadness and stress. So you have to look at the big picture and figure out what’s going on in a person’s life that they can’t deal with, because it’s come to the surface.
Roisin Armstrong. Photo credit: Jenny Holland
Jenny: I was completely taken with the title of your book. How is porridge an aphrodisiac?
Roisin: It contains the amino acid L- arginine, which supports the production of testosterone in both males and females. Not quite sure you can invite someone round for a bowl on Saturday night and hope to get lucky!
But the title for the book actually came after I did a talk in the Women’s Institute in Newtonards quite a few years ago and they asked me to judge a competition they’d done for best aphrodisiac food. Porridge was one of the entries. And I thought, if I ever write a book, I’m using that. There is no porridge recipe in the book, though, as everyone has their own.
The processed porridges are awful, there’s very little nutrition in them. And then you put them in the microwave, which completely kills any hope of nutrition. So they’re kind of pointless. Just soak oats over night and heat it up in the morning.
One of cures for psoriasis is to put oats in a sock and hang it off the bath, let the water run through it. The starch that comes off the oats is so good for your skin. You generally don’t have to spend money on those products, you can make your own.
Jenny: The recipes in Porridge is an Aphrodisiac are fairly simple, that’s the point. Do you find from your clients that they have lost (or never had) the ability to carry out simple kitchen tasks? Have people lost connection with food?
Roisin: Yes. My initial training was as a home economics teacher. There was a generation where they downgraded home economics. Those people didn’t really learn how to cook if their mothers or fathers were out working or didn’t have time to teach them. So there’s a generation of people who are around 30 to 40 years old, who missed out a little bit.
And nowadays it’s a lot to do with speed. People are in a hurry a lot of the time. Everybody wants everything instantly, everybody comes home, goes off to the gym, takes their children to classes. There isn’t downtime.
But it is a matter of being organised. To me food is the most important issue. It’s also therapy, I love cooking, it’s how I chill after the day. I try to be organised and make a whole lot of something. So if I was making a bolognese, you make a chili as well. You make enough, you freeze it.
The whole point of this book is there is very little in it that you can’t cook, from scratch, in 15 to 20 minutes. That’s the point. It doesn’t have to be a whole day affair. It’s just a matter of getting the right ingredients and having them in the house.
The way I shop is I buy a whole lot of vegetables that are seasonal and I vary what I’m going to make, depending on what you have there.
Jenny: I’m going to try really hard to embrace eating according to the seasons. Eat turnips in the winter, not asparagus.
Roisin: It’s cheaper as well. And it works with your body much better – I completely go off peppers in the winter. It’s not a conscious thought, I just don’t want to eat them. Strawberries taste horrendous. Tomatoes taste horrendous. Why spend money buying expensive things that taste horrendous? And it’s easier here, because we have a really good quality food, even if it’s not organic. Lamb here is nearly all not far from organic because many farmers put them out on the mountain and don’t see them ‘til next year. So they may not be labeled organic but they are not far from it. And we have St George’s Market, which is fabulous and a great place to access vegetables.
Jenny: How much supermarket shopping do you do?
Roisin: Only when I have to. But it depends on time. I do the best I can, and I don’t like preaching. I do the best I can and hope other people do the best they can.
Jenny: How important is what we eat to our health?
Roisin: It’s the number one. The most important thing. It’s the baseline for your energy production. It affects how you think as well. What you eat affects your memory, your capacity to concentrate. It affects your performance as an employee. It affects your children’s behaviour. I treated a girl and changed her diet radically. She came back after three or four weeks, had lost loads of weight, totally changed energy-wise, body shape had changed. And she said, you know what? The best thing of all is I changed the children’s diet too, and they are so much easier to deal with. What a wonderful side effect.
She was a really, really busy girl with three small children, so it was all about eating clean, getting the garbage out of the house. All the sugar – don’t have biscuits everywhere. If you have to have chocolate, have dark chocolate. Get rid of all the milk chocolate, the e-numbers, the additives, the chemicals. So she changed a lot of things in her store cupboard.
It was hard for her because she lives in the country, she works shifts, late nights – but she did it. And because the kids were easier to deal with, she had more time.
Jenny: So what is the most important meal of the day? Roisin: My favourite is dinner. But most important is breakfast. You have break your fast. You can’t run on empty. You’ve got to have something to eat. A lot of people I treat have real difficulty with eating early in the morning. So you’ve got to find something that you can take – a banana, a good-quality yogurt – not the sugary stuff. Smoothies are good. What I have for breakfast if I’m in a hurry is an oat-cake with tahini on it.
Jenny: What is your typical breakfast?
Roisin: Oat cake and tahini or nutbutter, or porridge.
Jenny:Did you grow up with food as an important part of your family, or did you come to it in adulthood?
Roisin: I grew up on a farm – six children, father was very ill. You had lots of jobs to do and mine, often, was cooking. And I loved to eat. So my poor family had to suffer a lot of disasters as I went along.
I started cooking around 8, 9, or 10, I can’t really remember.
And then I went to grammar school and I was always experimenting with making things. Which mostly was a good experience for the rest of the family, sometimes it was a disaster.
But I think that anyone who likes to eat, should know how cook. I find it strange that kids leave home and don’t know how to cook. Other species teach their children basic survival skills. I’m not sure why that is skipped in humans.
That would be part of the point of the book – that there’s nothing complicated in cooking. It is easy. This is not a book designed for people who know a lot about food. This is a book designed to get people up a level. I wrote it because I change people’s diets a lot and they are always going ‘oh, what am I going to eat now?’ And now I can say, ‘here’ -- it is a tool. I’d like it to be further out there for people who need it.
Jenny: Do you think that now, with cooking shows and celebrity chefs, young people are getting back into cooking?
Roisin: I worry that they’re being encouraged to go the wrong way, because of shows like Great British Bake Off and Mary Berry – all that baking and all that excessive sugar, everybody’s into cakes, which is not really what you want. The whole point at the minute is against sugar, because it is such a poison. I read somewhere that sugar is the Genghis Khan of our generation – and it is. It’s setting up our kids for terrible issues, you only need to walk down the street and see the number of overweight people. That is new. 20 years ago that didn’t happen. So I’m nervous about it. So, yeah, it’s great that there are more people out there willing to try new things.
But I still meet people who’ve never tried an avocado. You have to work with them a little bit, encourage them, get them to try it three times before they give up, to add a little bit of olive oil and a tiny bit of salt. All you can do is encourage people and do your best, and hope that they take it up.
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