Sign up for my mailing list

Probiotics – how is your gut feeling?

Bloating, burping, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, indigestion … not nice! If your guts are not working well, the rest of your body will struggle to function at its optimum level. Even your immune system depends on healthy guts. Having a high immunity to disease does not come from a needle, herb drink or vitamin supplement. Your ability to fight off infections depends on how well your body’s defence system was developed when you were young. Ironically, in an age of hi-tech and hi-sanitation, it is exposure to a bit of grit and grime that can stimulate our defence systems the most. This is because the “friendly” bacteria in your gut have a vital role as immune system builders. If your immune system is mediocre (and you always catch the lasted cough, cold, or sore throat) it can be improved. Just like the muscles in your body, your immune system need to be stretched, exercised and fed in order to prevent illness, or recover well from an operation. One simple way to boost your immune system is to re-seed your gut with the very specific good bacteria – found in a good quality probiotic. There are plenty of these on the market, so how do you choose a good one?

Firstly, look for the number of bacteria which the probiotics contains. A few million may sound a lot, but it is not. You need BILLIONS of these wonderful bacteria.

Secondly, like paint or songs or people, there are many many different types of bacteria. Variety is the key. You need as many as possible. If the probiotic only lists 4 or 5 strains of bacteria this will be OK, but you can do better. Probiotics such as kefir contain around 50 different types of bacteria. Kefir is easy to make yourself. A good quality kefir, made from fresh goat milk can be ordered from the Chuckling Goat farm in Wales, UK. This kefir has been shown to help skin conditions – which are related to gut health. Goat’s milk contains a different type of protein, compared with that in cow’s milk. However, the probiotic bacteria love both. A small (100 – 150ml) portion of kefir has 40 – 50 different strains of probiotic bacteria. Variety is the key and, given the right conditions, they increase to boost the potency of the fermented milk. As the bacteria thrive, so will your gut function and digestive system. Taking a daily dose of kefir can certainly help if you suffer from bloating, constipation, heart burn, acid reflux. By healing your insides, expect to feel good on the outside too and watch your skin, hair and eyes shine!


Bring me sunshine, make me smile

fried eggsfried eggsMany factors affect how we feel each day, but weather has a significant influence. Studies show that high humidity tends to lower concentration and increase fatigue whilst hours of sunlight are directly related to a positive mood and optimism.shutterstock_93138706Lamb - cute in fieldLamb - cute in fieldLamb - cute in field

Sunlight is also an important source of vitamin D – which is useful as the modern foods are not good sources.Lamb - cute in field

Lamb - cute in fieldLamb - cute in fieldeggs happyIn the past, beef and milk were produced from animals which grazed on outdoor pastures. Eggs, with bright yellow yolks and rich in vitamin D, came from proper free range hens -living outdoors and fed on insects and fishmeal. These eggs, along with mackerel, salmon, herring, full fat milk and cream would provide you with enough vitamin D during the winter months. Nowadays we opt for skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. Fish get their source of vitamin D from eating plankton and smaller fish. Modern farmed salmon, unless artificially supplemented, is a poor source of vitamin D.

Thankfully sunshine can top up your levels. When sunlight is absorbed into our skin, a substance in the sub-cutaneous layer is converted to cholecalciferol – otherwise known as vitamin D. This conversion is rapid but the actual amount of vitamin D that you make will depend on the colour of your skin and where in the world you spend your time outdoors.

sweating - cyclist statue - Copy

A very fair skinned person standing in short sleeves outside in Florida will make about 5,000 International Units (IU) of vitamin D in approximately 15 minutes, but a very dark skinned person will need about 2 hour exposure to make the same amount. Many researchers suggest that we need about 4,000 IU of vitamin D each day from all sources. However EU countries vary in their recommendations. The UK has set a level of 5ug per day, whilst the Government in Norway recommends 20ug and in Italy it is 25ug (1,000 IU).

It is the ultraviolet (UV) light which is effective, but UV light is divided into 3 bands; UV-A; UV-B and UV-C. The latter is the shortest but most damaging of the UV bands, and will burn human skin rapidly, even in small doses. Fortunately, the ozone layer absorbs the UV-C light. UV-A is known as the tanning ray, as it stimulates the production of melanin – the brown pigment produced to protect the skin. UV-A penetrates deeply into the skin and is considered to be a major contributor to the high levels skin cancers. Sun beds and tanning bulbs have a high UV-A output.

The UV band which stimulates the production of vitamin D is UV-B. It is sometimes called the “burning ray” because it is the main cause of sunburn. It can be difficult to get enough vitamin D from sunlight if you spend long hours indoors. Only 5% of the UV-B light range goes through glass and it does not penetrate clouds, smog or fog.

Whilst UV-A is present throughout the day, the amount of UV-B will depend on where you are in the world. In Scotland, the rays during May to September will be most effective in making vitamin D. At this time of year, the minimum dose of effective sunshine which you should aim for is 20-30 minutes on your face and bare forearms, 2-3 times per week. Darker skinned people need more and those with very fair skins need less. As a general rule, if your midday shadow is shorter than your height, then you are making vitamin D. However, production of vitamin D from UV-B occurs before your skin turns pink. It is never necessary to tan or burn to obtain enough vitamin D.

Other countries, such as Iceland and Canada, recognise that vitamin D may be deficient due to a lack of effective sunshine. Consequently, many foods (such as orange juice, bread, breakfast cereals) are legally required to be fortified in these countries. In the UK, only margarine must be fortified by law (and this requirement is due to be dropped soon). However, the vitamin D it contains is not a reason for eating margarine. This highly processed spread contains damaging trans fatty acids which you do not want to put into your body for any reason. These fats also interfere with the enzymes which are needed to activate vitamin D in the liver.

If you prefer to take a vitamin D supplement make sure you also have enough calcium and magnesium in your diet – as these minerals all work together. Foods which are good sources of calcium include almonds, Brazil nuts, tinned sardines, sunflower seeds, muesli, bread, tahini, dried figs and dairy products such as milk and cheese. Magnesium is likewise found in Brazil nuts, bread and dried fruit and also in beetroot, broccoli, kale and cabbage. Another reason to eat your greens!

Any easy to use, DIY, home testing kit is available from City Assays. This kit will allow you to measure your own vitamin D level, and to assess if you would benefit from taking a supplement.


Nutrition for Hillwalking

The sun is shining, the days are long. After a stressful week at work, fresh air, exercise and good food can restore your body and nourish your soul! What to take to eat for a day in the hills will depend on many factors. Do you like to take food which you never normally eat during the week, or your faithful sandwich or soup you enjoy every day? Do you want comfort food, which will give you a mental boost and help you make it to the summit, or endure a day of rain and wind? Everyone will have their own needs, likes and dislikes, but we need to start somewhere.

One thing is certain, you need energy. How much will depend mainly on how heavy you are, how much you are carrying, and how far you are walking – in deep snow, heather, or landrover track. Most people take enough food with them, but forget about the minor nutrients which are needed for energy metabolism. These include the B vitamins. There are several B vitamins, but read the side of a cornflake packet and you may recognise names such as riboflavin, thiamin and niacin. These have a vital role in the release of energy, fron the food you have eaten. Unlike a sturdy rucksack, these vitamins are quite fragile and are not stored in your body to any great extent. It is best to eat a supply every day. The more active you are, the more important a regular supply of B vitamins will be. Luckily they are found in a range of different foods – including wholemeal bread, nuts, leafy vegetables such as spinach, bananas, oats, eggs, cows milk, and good old Marmite. So, a perfect sandwich for the hills which will provide energy as well as the energy releasing B vitamins would be a wholemeal bagel with peanut butter and Marmite. Try almond butter, or tahini (sesame seed paste) as alternatives to peanut butter and mix with mashed banana and dates.

Experiment with different breads – sourdough, rye, pumpernickel, gluten free potato, or wholemeal pitta. Turkey slices with a splash of chilli sauce, or pesto, and raw spinach leaves is a good source of B vitamins. Mashed avocado, Marmite and tahini can be messy to carry and eat, but is also a good choice to take for an energising day in the hills.

What do you eat – and why?

What will you eat for lunch? As a creature of habit, you may reach for the same sandwich you always eat. Or, if you are travelling, you may be spoilt for choice and be faced with a dizzy selection of Italian pizza, juice bar, or take away sushi? There are many factors which affect what we choose to eat, but availability is a major one. I have visited North Sea offshore oil and gas platforms, where the menu selction each day is impressive. Most of the fresh food comes out of a container, which is delivered by a supply ship. These can take up to 3 weeks to arrive. This means that the fresh cabbage inside is slowly losing its vitamin C content during the journey. How much vitamin C ends up on the plate will then depend on the skill of the chefs, and the length of time the cabbage is kept warm. However, people offshore don’t tend to worry about the cabbage. Rather, it is the arrival of the fresh fruit which gets people talking. There are apples and pears, but it is bananas and grapes which seem to hit the spot offshore. These are the first to disappear when the fruit bowls are replenished. Once they are gone, there is a long wait. Individuals stare longingly at the bowl, watching apples wrinkle, and hope that the supply ship will arrive early. Limited supplies are a feature of remote places. Last week, I visited Cape Wrath – the most North Westerly point on the UK mainland. It is an adventure to get there – cycling, ferry, and then more cycling or walking along 11 miles of rough track to the light house at the end point.

 I have always wanted to go there, not least to see what is available on the menu in one of the most remote cafes, The Ozone Cafe. The food choice was limited by what could be delivered by small boat and minibus. However, arguably, whatever was on sale would be eaten by those visiting? Luckily, the day I visited, there was home made soup and cakes on the menu.


Making changes to your eating habits not only involves a conscious decision to “eat this and not that.” Availability of foods is part of the complex equation. If you would like help and advice to make some changes to what, when, and how much you eat … please send me an email, or phone, to discuss your needs and book an individual consultation.

Diet, Peformance and the Race to the South Pole

It is 100 years since the British and Norwegian teams, lead by Scott and Amundsen, battled against high winds, sub-zero temperatures in their journey to be the first to the South Pole. If you remember your history, Scott and his team came second. Not only were they beaten by the Norwegians but they were trapped in their tent, by a terrible blizzard, on the return journey. Here, exhausted and demoralised is where they died, having run out of food. However, what they ate in the previous months is one of the main reason why Amundsen was successful but Scott was not.

Nutrition has come a long way in 100 years, but in 1911 the value and importance of vitamins was not fully understood. In particular Scott’s team started the journey deficient in vitamin C and the B vitamins, whilst the wortleberry jam enjoyed by Amundsen’s team gave them a small amount at least. Daily rations during the walk to the Pole were pemmican, biscuits, cocoa, tea and 12 lumps of sugar. Pemmican is a mixture of fat and dried pieces of meat. It is mixed with water and heated to make a stew called “hoosh.” These rations did not provide enough energy, let alone variety.

Not surprisingly, after days on these rations, food was either talked about or dreamed about as the men were slowly starving. The most popular fantasty meal was well seasoned mince meat, wrapped in thick slices of bacon with plenty of fat and covered with buttery pastry layers, fried in lard and eaten piping hot. Vitamin C is not made by the body and so must be provided by foods. The well known deficiency disease is scurvy but long before this stage is reached muscles turn sore and weak, old wounds open and new ones don’t heal.

The B vitamins are involved with energy release, brain and nerve function. Amundsen’s rations included biscuits enriched with oatmeal and yeast – which would have provided a source of these vital nutrients. Scott and his team however suffered from the symptoms of B vitamin deficiency – anaemia, low energy, nerve damage, skin rashes, mouth ulcers, hellucinations and depression.

Constantly feeling exhausted, confused, with painful mouth ulcers and blisters that will not heal is bad enough at home but becomes intolerable whilst shivering in a tent in the Antarctic. Modern expedition food is now designed with a greater knowledge of nutrition and understanding of the power of food and performance. Food is vital to power the body and to keep the mind at peace. My role is to design the eating plan for the environment and challenge. However, the adventurers and explorers, I have worked with, also seem to have an extra dose of mental strength – which helps them to push their boundaries.

Adventure & Travel Show, London, Olympia


It is the New Year and thoughts turn to expanding waistlines and a resolve to eat less … or better. For others it is travel, and the yearning for adventure. Happily I can help with both.

I will be speaking at the Telegraph Adventure and Travel Show in London. It is a fabulous two day event, with a programme of speakers and plenty of outdoor gadgets and clothing to be tried, tested, or lovingly inspected. I will be speaking on Saturday 28th January (at 4pm, in Lecture Theatre 4).

My talk will take the audience on a journey … of my research findings and science facts about how altitude and different environments affect food habits. The Adventure Show programme is packed with stories about travels and incredible adventures around the globe. My story takes you behind the scenes to reveal some of the planning and preparation that goes on for a major expedition.

What you eat affect your performance, whether it is the mental performance of working effectively and coping with a stressful workload, or physical performance and having enough energy to get you where you want to be. I have worked with expeditions to Everest, and individuals who want to run a marathon … or walk to the North Pole.

If you would like some discount tickets for the Show (£6 per ticket, advance price, saving £4 on door price), please enter the code DRCHRISFENN when ordering online – www.adventureshow.com or phone 0871 230 7159 (calls cost 10p per minute + network extras) and quote code.

Looking forward to the Show, and giving my talk. If you come, and would like to discuss good food and the challenges of adventure, please come and say hello. If you can’t make it, please contact me to discuss presenting a talk to your group or company. This page  has more details about one of my presentations.

Fiona reaches her peak


Thanks very much to Fiona O’Neill, Faculty Head HE/PE at Brechin Academy and Duke of Edinburgh Award leader who has sent me this account of the changes she has made since coming to my Eat for Fitness seminar. The photo above shows Fiona on top of her last Munro Sgurr Mor.

“I am a keen hillwalker and supported my training with a well known brand of sports drink powder. I was prone to nausea and headaches with an acrid taste left in my mouth after a day in the hills. Following a workshop with Chris I stopped this supplement and chose a natural pure fresh juice drink diluted to taste, with a pinch of salt added to it. It’s so much  more refreshing and has no side effects. I also made some additional small changes such as changing to decaf coffee and from margarine to butter. All in all some small changes, but the effect has been tremendous.”

Fuelling the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race

My latest adventure is a vicarious one as I’m currently engaged as nutrition advisor to the Edinburgh Inspiring Capital yacht crew. As we speak the crew are taking part in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race 2011-2012 which kicked off yesterday (31 July 2011).

My role is to give advice and practical suggestions about which foods should be part of the ration supply. Organising the food for a crew of 18 hungry people as they work hard to keep their yacht ahead in the race takes a lot of planning.

I’ll be keeping up with the crew as they sail and will keep you updated on their progress. In the meantime, here’s a post from the official website on the start of the race.

Cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats

In 2006, I cycled from one end of the UK to the other: a journey of 1,076 miles taking 23 days. The idea was to promote the Slow Food movement and to complete an ecological journey. I used as many biodegradable or recycled products on me and my bike.

Along the way, I sampled traditional, regional foods – Cornish pasties in Cornwall, Devonshire cream tea in Devon, and Cheddar cheese in Cheddar – and visited as many “eco” places as I could.

One of my favourite stops was the incredible Eden Project in Cornwall. I fitted in a week’s work for Eden where I presented some talks for their “Around the world in healthy ways” campaign, and engaged visitors with my shopping trolley full of everyday foods. Whilst I was there I got the chance to travel along the longest zip wire in Europe (see pic).

When I finally arrived at John O’Groats I met a group of cycling GPs who had completed their journey in seven days. They were amused that I had taken more than three times as long, but I saw and learned so much along the way. I’d recommend it to anyone.

I am now a proud member of the Land’s End to John O’Groats Association.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

At 17,342 feet hight, Kilimanjaro is the highest free standing mountain in the world. In 1995, inspired by Rebecca Stephens’s Everest expedition I decided to climb Africa’s highest peak.

Writing for Trail Walking magazine, I also took recording equipment and gathered interviews and kept an audio diary of my own experiences. With the skillful editing of Producer Mark Steven, these sounds were broadcast, as four nail biting episodes, on BBC Radio Scotland.

There is a large metal box on the summit – containing the highest visitors book in the world. Busy collecting interviews with my fellow trekkers on the summit, I forgot to sign the book. I therefore returned the next year, and climbed the mountain again just to sign the book. I wrote “Believe and Succeed!”