Food for thought…

Emily Woodward and Sian Spencer-Bray ready to enjoy a meal. Picture by Fiona Stubbs.

We are what we eat…or is it that simple? Fiona Stubbs discovers that how we eat can be just as important as the food on our plates for our mental and physical health.

EMILY Woodward and Sian Spencer-Bray are chatting over a healthy brunch. It’s a favourite way to catch up for the self-confessed foodies and long-term friends… though now a new line of conversation is being brought to the table.

Emily, a registered nutritional therapist, and Sian, a registered psychotherapist, are combining their expertise to highlight the benefits of mindful eating to a wider audience.

They are working together on a mindful eating programme with the aim of running workshops at Derbyshire community venues, in workplaces and online.

It’s a natural symbiosis, as Sian explains:  “If you’re not feeling well, you don’t eat well. If you’re not eating well, you don’t feel well.”

Mindful eating is an approach to food that focuses on being fully ‘present’ when you’re eating, without distractions. It increases awareness of thoughts, senses and feelings during and after you eat – including being aware of hunger and when you’re full.

Studies have suggested it can promote a healthier relationship with food, regulating appetite and emotional eating, aiding digestion and increasing the appreciation and enjoyment of food.

Emily introduces people to mindful eating through her business, Pinnacle Nutrition, and also through her work with Thrive Tribe, delivering the NHS England initiative, Healthier You Diabetes Prevention Programme, across Derbyshire.

She says: “A big part of mindfulness is getting people to slow down and recognise their own needs. We often prioritise being a parent, partner or carer – or our career – over our health. Mindfulness is allowing people to take some time to focus on themselves and on what they need to do, whether for their diet, their mental health or physical health.

“A lot of my clients have long-term gastro-intestinal issues and we work holistically, one-to-one, looking at what’s going on for the individual as a whole. I’m also able to reach people in group settings and help them to think about nutrition. We cover mindful eating in the NHS programme as there is evidence to show how effective it can be.”

She adds: “We all face a lot of pressures. We often eat on the go, when distracted. We still don’t fully understand the role of convenience foods, though there are more and more of them and we are more reliant on them. What it means in the long term is still unknown. 

“A key element of my work is to encourage clients to eat more slowly and chew properly. We look at the process of enjoying food. How does it smell? What does it look like? What does it taste like? The digestive system starts before you eat the food.

“When we slow down, we are more tuned into our bodies, we become more aware of when we’re full or satisfied, which can be helpful for some people. Nutritional therapy can feel like a privilege but there’s a lot of work to be done in the community to help individuals and families to understand what good nutrition looks like.”

Emily speaks from experience, having overcome her own health problems before training in nutritional therapy. She explains: “In my 20s, I had issues with gut health and irritable bowel syndrome. I muddled through for a while but it was very restrictive – socially and psychologically – and I realised I couldn’t live like that.

“I started doing my own research and became fascinated. I changed my diet and my health improved. I turned my own health around by being more aware of my relationship with food and taking steps to understand it better. 

“Through your late teens and 20s, you think you’re invincible – and I think it catches up with us. As you get older, you become more aware of self-preservation.”

Food is very much at the heart of Emily and Sian’s friendship… which began as 11-year-olds when they sat next to each other on their first day of secondary school in Tibshelf.

“We instantly hit it off,” recalls Sian. “And 26 years later, we’re still friends! We both love food and most of our meet-ups revolve around it.”

Emily adds: “For us, eating a meal together is about enjoying good conversation, making memories. And, through mindful eating, we are helping other people to rekindle their love of food.”

Sian’s interest in psychology began when she studied it in sixth form. “I’m fascinated by human beings – the human brain, why we do what we do, the way we think,” she says.

After graduating in Psychology from the University of Chester, Sian went on to train in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and psycho-sexual therapy. She has been involved in mental health for 16 years and worked in the NHS for 10 years.

Sian launched her own Therapy & Lifestyle Clinic (TLC) – based at Ashgate Manor medical practice in Chesterfield – two-and-a-half years ago.  “I wanted to open up access to credible psychotherapies,” she says. “I offer evidence-based, client-centred therapies with highly qualified psychotherapists. 

“There is enormous need just now – we’ve seen over 600 people since we opened. We treat so many different conditions – we see all the stresses and strains of life. We work with young people from the age of eight and have counsellors who work in schools.

“One of the things we’ve noticed is that a lot of young people are struggling more with self-esteem and social anxiety than with the pressures of school life and achievement, which were previously most prevalent. Lockdowns might have had an effect but so could the impact of social media and the comparisons – over appearance and other factors – that come with that.

“We see similar self-esteem and social anxiety issues in adults – and that also infiltrates into relationships. We often work with people with depression, OCD and general anxiety disorders. 

“Mindfulness can help us to be present in a very busy world. We’re constantly predicting what we should do and analysing what we’ve done. Thinking, ruminating. Mindfulness brings us into the now. It helps us to be calmer, slowing down the racing thoughts. The impact of mindfulness is huge when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.”

Both Sian and Emily are keen to bring a greater awareness of mental and physical health into workplaces.

Sian says: “Work is one of the places you’re likely to eat at your desk or grab something on the go. Yet this is so unhealthy for the digestion and your mental wellbeing.”

Emily adds: “We need a cultural change. It’s not enough for companies to simply say employees should take 30 minutes for lunch, even though they may not have the time to take a break. Organisations need to take responsibility for their employees’ wellbeing, not least because poor health means lost work days and reduced productivity.”

Meanwhile, Sian and Emily are practising what they preach and savouring the opportunity to combine their talents. “It’s very enjoyable being able to work with a friend,” say Sian. “We share the same goals in terms of wanting to help people and the same ethics in terms of how we work. And, of course, we always have plenty to talk about – usually over food!”

Pinnacle Nutrition

Therapy & Lifestyle

For more details about the NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme, visit