Wellness specialist Monika Divišová: even small changes can make a big difference when it comes to improving health

Monika Divišová

The Czech Republic has repeatedly ranked among the worst countries in Europe when it comes to obesity – placing in the “top five” in past Eurostat statistics. According to specialists, many adults in the country need to pay a good deal more attention to what they eat to avoid serious health problems. In this week’s Czech Life I spoke to nutritionist and wellness professional Monika Divišová, who runs a wellness centre in Prague. The first thing I asked her was why – when it comes to weight - many Czechs are so poorly off.

Monika Divišová
“There are several factors involved: one is eating habits which are still poor when compared to other countries in Europe. People are still excited by offers at the supermarket and the abundance of food served at restaurants and so on. Another factor is a minimum of physical activity which remains very low. But what I consider perhaps the single most important factor is that we eat food without enough nutrients that the body needs. We consume a lot of calories but because of the quality of the food in supermarkets – because of the way the food is prepared – we are not getting enough nutrients. The body then stores fat out of ‘fear’ of starvation and we gain weight.”

We will discuss some of the solutions in a moment but let me ask you this: is high alcohol consumption, especially among men, a factor in current weight levels?

“I think it is. As we all know alcohol has to be metabolised by the liver and if it is busy constantly with alcohol, as it has to cleanse the body and the system, it can not burn the fat and take care of the other processes. We also usually consume alcohol at night and also eat, and at night the body burns less fat so that also contributes to weight gain.”

The first step in dealing with a problem is realising that it exists: do you think it’s the case that many Czechs continue to underestimate the dangers of obesity and the health problems that are connected?

“Well I actually think the situation has improved a lot when it comes to awareness. But many people still think that because their parents ate white bread or rolls or a more meat-based diet that they can too. What they don’t take into account is that when their parents were in their 30s people walked much more and had much more physical activity. Today many have lifestyles that involve much less movement.”

Czech cuisine if often criticised as being overly-heavy with lots of dumplings, sauces, and meat: have there been improvements in peoples’ diets?

“The situation has changed and there are more choices. Organic food offers many new possibilities and especially people in bigger cities are turning to that. Organic food offers more nutrients without added chemicals and pesticides, so that is positive. Another positive change is that today quality nutritional supplements are available so that people who lead busy lives and have time-consuming jobs can fill in what they are missing.”

Your clients: are they people who already have a problem and have been referred to you by a doctor or do they find out about your centre through some other means?

“Five years ago people who were sent to us by their doctor were in the majority but since then things have changed. Back then, clients were more obese, say 20 kilos overweight; today they are usually five or ten. They come earlier because they feel tired and stressed and are concerned that if things continue and they continue to gain weight they will have real problems in five or ten years, say when they are 45. If they come earlier the whole process is a little easier.”

Does it require a major change in thinking on their part? Do you have to change every little thing about your diet?

“There are different approaches to changing eating habits. Our approach is that of nutrition coaches. First we have to find out what clients need: someone may need more fibre or fruit or this or that. This is what dieticians do, then giving advice before sending clients home.

Photo: CzechTourism
“But for us this is only the starting point: we analyse clients’ lifestyles, whether they have families, what kind of job they have, whether they are always in meetings, have physical activity, whether they cook or don’t have time or don’t want to. And we adjust nutritional theory to reality. Someone who spends most of their day can’t just pull out a box all of a sudden to eat a carrot. Or if they can, it won’t necessarily be what they need at that moment. So, we tailor the theory to reality and that is one reason I think we have worked successfully with our clients.”

Would you say that it is generally true that even small changes can make a big difference?

“Definitely. Every little step is god for the body because the way many people treat their body is that they just don’t listen to the signals. It is the equivalent of ignoring a red light that appears on the dashboard of your car when you are driving, warning you that you are just about out of gas. Your body is the same: a headache can tell you that you are dehydrated or other symptoms point to problems.

“Too often, we just ignore it, and ‘keep driving’ even if we are all out of gas. Instead, when it comes to problems, people take medication and expect the problem to go away on its own. They are then surprised when they end up with a heart attack or other problems. So the first thing is, is to begin listening to your body and slowly, step-by-step, to change your eating habits and how you care for yourself.”

Is it expensive, the basic analysis? Are there different plans?

Photo: Wellnessia
“Is it expensive? Well that depends on compared to what... If someone is at high-risk and could end up dying then I don’t think it is. But I know you mean in a practical sense: the initial consultation in which we go over everything about your life and eating habits and lifestyle for two hours costs 1,600 crowns. After that, we set up a plan called a programme which lasts from three to six months depending on clients’ needs. These include meal plans, consultation, sometimes we go shopping with people and hold small cooking classes, cleansing plans. And these plans cost from 5,000 crowns per month. It depends exactly on your needs.” From your perspective it must be very rewarding when you have someone come in who is 10 or 20 kilos overweight and then you begin working together and the weight comes off...

“That is a beautiful process and is one of the beautiful things about the job. Things can be pretty tough in the beginning for clients: the reason is that food for many of us is an emotional and social thing. It’s not just about nourishment and because we introduce restrictions it isn’t easy. On the other hand, once the weight begins to go down, your energy and emotions go up. We can see how people begin to change their lives, actually. If you have enough energy you can take better care of your family, so your family is happier; women who have trouble getting pregnant may have a better chance if they lose weight, people take on new jobs, even, and start businesses. When we feel healthy we are able to face life differently and it’s one of the great things about this job that we are able to witness that and have very nice relationships with our clients.”

We haven’t discussed fitness yet, aerobic training, cardio... I know that you cooperate with a popular Prague gym... how much is fitness an important part of a healthy lifestyle?

“It is, of course, an important part. Food is one thing, physical activity is another. I don’t push everyone to go the gym, though. While this works for some, there are others who have big families or less time, so our approach is to find activities that fit with your lifestyle: encouraging more walking, perhaps a trainer at home, and so on. It isn’t the ‘ideal’ activity that matters but the one you can fit into your lifestyle.”

Photo: European Commission
This week there was a report that the Bloomberg administration in New York wants to ban Big Gulp-style drinks: sugary drinks in huge containers at restaurants, cinemas and so on, in the effort to combat obesity or raise awareness. What do you think of the idea?

“I love it, I love it. Someone may interpret such a move as limiting freedom but we are not free anyways when it comes to most food choices: we buy what is available, what is packaged for us at the supermarket or at the restaurant. If someone is unaware of the health risk or potential damage, I think it is good that it would become impossible to buy such a portion. I think that’s pretty cool.”

I read that you have been involved in wellness and health since the beginning of the millennium: how many people have you helped over the years?

“Well, we started out as a small family business with my mum, just the two of us. Today we have eight nutritionists and we are still growing. This year we have seen about 30 new clients per month, so you can do the math {laughs}. Otherwise, the situation today has improved in the sense that we don’t have to explain the basics as much now: people who we work with more and more don’t need to be told to avoid white bread and are more interested not only in what they eat but in the process, for example, of food preparation, different types of food and greens, superfoods like sprouts, foods with high nutrient levels and so on. And that is rewarding too.”

If you would like to learn more in Czech, Slovak or English visit: www.hubnuti.org