TALKING POINT: Healthy, enjoyable food for all on board

August 24, 2023
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© NAMMA - Rev. David Rider

Each month, we will be sharing a discussion piece written by a member of the maritime industry who can offer a unique or interesting perspective on an aspect of seafarers’ welfare. You can join the conversation on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

This month, Nutritionist Dietitian Nichole Stylianou from international maritime catering management and training business MCTC discusses the importance of accommodating cultural diversity when supporting healthy eating on board.

Nichole Stylianou is MCTC’s Nutritionist Dietitian with a BSc degree in Food and Nutrition Sciences and Dietetics (U.S.A). She gained her experience through working in the healthcare system (hospitals, rehabilitation centers, universities, private practice) both in the United States and Cyprus. She gained her MA degree in Exercise in Health Promotion and Stress Management. Mrs. Stylianou delivers an in-depth presentation for MCTC’s annual Family Health and Nutrition Conference involving the wives and children of the seafarers, which aims to encourage positive lifestyle changes through small steps. She covers different health-related topics and how they can seriously impact our health.

We all know how vital good, tasty food is to seafarers – it is something that always comes up when seafarers are surveyed. A seafarer’s quality of life can also be seriously impacted if they do not have access to nutritious food. Chronic diseases are linked to poor diets – usually those high in calories, added sugars and fat – and unhealthy food obtained at work. Rough working schedules on board result in poor nutritional choices and often go against health recommendations. Food services should offer easy and accessible resources to all food handlers, especially while on board, including healthy food options and guidelines on nutrition.

A healthy diet involves the intake of highly nutrient-dense foods from key food groups in the recommended quantities and calories: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, protein and healthy oils. Dietary guidelines also suggest limiting the consumption of food and beverages that are high in sugar, saturated fat and sodium. By following a healthy diet, seafarers can minimise their risk of developing a chronic disease. In fact, healthy eating can be the best medicine in providing preventive barriers against chronic disease and promoting a healthy lifestyle. However, a healthy diet must be customized. Taking personal, cultural, and traditional preferences into consideration will increase the acceptance of healthy eating among all crew on board.

Accommodating cultural diversity

To support healthy living amongst a crew, it is important to ensure that all nationalities coexisting on a vessel have the same access to healthy food choices. Easy and accessible educational tools will increase their knowledge and help them in choosing and cooking healthier. Useful educational tools include: newsletters; webinars and seminars; articles related to health and wellbeing; courses related to food safety, health, and nutrition; and personalized meal plan preparation and guidance based on health history.

Sharing their own traditions and ethnic foods will help crew members express their own feelings towards food and experience and understand food preferences in different cultures, which can in turn maintain positive psychological and mental health on board. At MCTC, we regularly hold cooking competitions within our clients’ fleets – this is a great way to motivate crews during festive periods and encourage them to create delicious meals for their colleagues on board. The winners are announced in our newsletters and receive a special gift.

Crew members can share their culture with others on board through food

Being on a vessel means being away from home for long periods of time and therefore food becomes an important factor that brings seafarers closer to their families. Treating each nationality with respect and finding ways to combine different ethnicities must play a major role for the galley crew, who are highly responsible for bringing all nationalities together through trying different cuisines. They should therefore receive constant support from healthcare professionals who are easily reachable. MCTC does this by offering the crew different courses based on their needs, such as our ‘Safe Food Handling and Nutrition’ courses. In addition, we offer onshore trainings that enhance the knowledge and skills of onboard cooks in different cuisines and nationalities. Another important supportive tool is regular onboard visits to vessels, where our team of experts supports the cooks on board and provides informative material on how to cook healthier, handle food safely, minimize food waste and conduct proper inventory control.

There are some barriers in the accessibility and availability of healthy foods while on board a vessel – rough working conditions, long working hours, difficult weather conditions and immediate changes of schedule based on port complications. Hectic schedules often push seafarers to choose unhealthy and ready-made products high in sugar and fat. Providing plenty of healthy recipes and instructions can help the galley crew ensure there is always healthy food available. At MCTC, we have an experienced team of technologists, nutritionists and culinary training experts who provide biweekly newsletters filled with content to help with healthy eating, budgets and implementing food safety systems on board.

Due to intensive daily schedules and difficult working conditions, it is also important to include some strategies to minimize the workload of the galley crew. Preparation of well-designed menus with careful consideration of proper storage and preservation will benefit both those working in the galley and the nutritional needs of the rest of the crew on board. These menus should cater for the different nationalities and religious requirements of crew on board, as well as budgets and available inventory. Including nutritional intake recommendations for balanced meals which are both culturally inclusive and supported by healthcare professionals will also facilitate healthy eating on board.

Educating families

Healthy choices should continue at home, so MCTC holds an annual Family Health and Nutrition Conference to educate seafarers and their families on how to lead a healthy lifestyle. One benefit of attending is access to tips and strategies from experts and in-depth explanations of various subjects related to health and nutrition. Some of our previous subjects were the dangers of high sugar intake, ways to boost our immune system through eating healthy, and the dangers behind high consumption of ready-made products. Another important subject focused on providing strategies for handling stress and overconsumption of food.

Our goal is to provide scientific evidence that supports each statement – the audience should be able to recognize if the information they receive regarding food is valid. To achieve that, they should have basic knowledge on the human body, how the digestive system works and the relationship with food. We focus on providing solid examples of how an unhealthy way of living can seriously impact their quality of life and how a healthy lifestyle can treat or prevent serious health diseases.

The feedback we have received recognizes our effort and shows that seafarers and their families are highly satisfied in implementing some of the suggested guidelines to improve their health. Having their family with them makes it easier for seafarers to share personal experiences, which creates a fun and positive atmosphere for the whole family.

Looking forward

We are expecting a shift in mindset over nutrition and wellbeing over the next few years. The new generation of seafarers have an urge to learn more, and they are more aware of the dangers involved with unhealthy habits. With increased awareness, an emphasis on preventive healthcare and personalized nutrition plans, we can positively influence the quality of life of a seafarer. Food handlers should receive training in proper nutrition and safe food handling knowledge to avoid the development of foodborne illness, and everyone working in the galley kitchen should receive regular and updated trainings around health and nutrition.

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