Colbert Macalister & Maria Borelius – Health Revolution Q&A

Copy from Karen Kay


Maria Borelius is an entrepreneur, science journalist, strategic business and communications advisor, social activist and author. Hailed as a powerful Eat Pray Love-style memoir that could inspire a generation to transform their way of life, Maria’s latest book, Health Revolution, is an emotive, informed account of the experiences and learnings that led her to discover the benefits of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle.

Maria is 58 years old (DOB 06:07:60, so turns 59 early July 2019) and lives in London with her husband, Greger, and their four children, Erica (29), Jacob (27), Gustaf (26) and Beata (24).

Describe your upbringing and the lifestyle you had as a child?

“I was raised by my English mother and Swedish father in Sweden, with some of my schooling in the UK. My parents loved the outdoors, so I had a very Scandinavian childhood, walking in the mountains and hiking in the woods. They weren’t overtly sporty: my mother played a little tennis and my father jogged, but they weren’t fitness fanatics. I would describe it as a healthy family lifestyle, with lots of time together outside in the fresh air.”

“We ate well with lots of home-cooked fare that was a kind of British take on the Swedish diet. In contrast to the classic Swedish breakfast, we’d have cereal in the mornings and I ate more vegetables than most of my school friends did, such as broccoli with a Sunday roast. But we’d eat traditional Swedish cinnamon buns, too.”

How did your dietary habits change as you entered your teens and moved away from home?

“As a teenager, the “low fat” movement swept through Europe, encouraging us all to swap butter for margarine and eat low-fat versions of everything. My father didn’t believe in that, so we continued to eat traditional, home-cooked fare. I was quite chubby, and as the years went by, and I moved away to university, we entered the era of crash diets – the air hostess diet, the grapefruit diet and suchlike. We now know they wreaked havoc on the metabolism and were not sustainable ways to lose weight or live a healthy, balanced life, but at the time, everyone loved the idea of the quick-fix.”

“Like many of my contemporaries, I would eat only cottage cheese or grapefruit or salad one day, or for a few days, then binge on wine and nachos and processed food the next. It was a cyclical rollercoaster. We started to believe the mantra that if you consumed fewer calories, you were a good person, and eating more made you a bad person, so the guilt associated with food started to set in.

What sort of exercise did you do as a young woman?

“In my early twenties, while I was studying at university and working part-time as an auxiliary nurse, the Jane Fonda Workout phenomenon hit Europe and my friends and I were mesmerised: it was fun, glamorous and high octane – nothing like the horrible male gyms that existed at the time. Young men had to do national service at that time and we didn’t, so this was a collective, empowering thing for women. It got us all moving and laughing and we bonded over the neon leggings and leg warmers we wore to the classes. I loved it and became quite obsessive about it, training to teach the Workout and setting up my own exercise groups.”

What is your background in terms of your scientific education and early career?

“I had a number of relatives who were clinicians – doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, midwives – and was always interested in health, healing and medicine. I was considering being a medical doctor, so applied to Lund University to do a science degree, which included biology (genetics), physics and maths. When I realised I wanted to pursue journalism in that sphere, I went on to do a Masters in Science Journalism in New York, as I couldn’t find a specialist course in Europe.”

“I won a scholarship and was sponsored by the National Science Foundation to do my Masters and as part of that, I worked as a producer for the World of Science radio programme on Innovation, a public broadcaster. I moved back to Sweden and began working as Science Editor on the evening news bulletin, then progressed to become anchor on an infotainment show, during which time I became pregnant with my first baby.”

How did pregnancy and parenthood affect you?

“I gave birth to four children in five and a half years, also suffering an ectopic pregnancy after my first child, Erica, was born in 1990. My boys, in particular, were very heavy (4.7kilos & 5.3kilos) and carrying them put an enormous strain on my back, causing me a lot of pain and I wasn’t really looking after myself because I was caring for the children.”

“I became very aware that I needed to monitor and listen to my body, but in Sweden all women work even if they have four kids. Childcare is more affordable and accessible, but both my parents were sick, and we had to make money to support our large family. I started my own TV production company so I could be more in control of professional decisions and the hours I worked, but it was so hard, and I was always exhausted, sometimes squeezing a half hour walk in the mornings to get some quiet time in the fresh air, amongst the trees, which was very restorative.”

How did you raise your own children?

“I have always loved vegetables, so the children had lots in their everyday diet. They had boiled potatoes, rice, fish fingers, Swedish meatballs, cinnamon buns, apple cake and custard. I did the best I could with the resources, time and information I had at the time, as every mother does.”

“If I had the knowledge I have now, I would feed them less bread and pasta, and look out for all those refined sugars in kids drinks and yoghurts. I would raise them 80:20 on an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, with a realistic eye on needing to live as part of the human village, where they will enjoy the treats and things with their friends and out with other families. Children shouldn’t be brought up to be fanatical about anything.”

How did life evolve as your children grew up and you moved to the UK?

“My husband’s work saw us moving to England in 2000, when our eldest child was ten and the youngest was five. We lived in Surrey, and I loved the abundance of organic food, especially fruit and vegetables that was in the major supermarkets. In Sweden, we’d had to go to a health food store and look for a few rotten apples and misshaped strawberries, but here it was readily available.”

“I continued to run my TV company with a business partner in Sweden, and worked as a columnist for a paper back home, but also formed a consultancy in London, working with board directors and entrepreneurs in the medical research, tech, health, environmental and pharmaceutical sectors. We also undertook some work for Gordon Brown and the UK government’s Department for Trade & Industry, and for the EU Commission.”

You began working in social enterprise – how did that come about?

“After a brief sojourn into Swedish politics in 2006, where I ran for office and swiftly fell from grace after an ill-advised comment, I had to reflect on where I wanted to go with my life. It was actually rather humbling, and when I discussed my situation with a trusted professional confidante, they suggested I look at use my skills with a social enterprise. I travelled to India to spend some time working with a micro-finance organisation that helped marginalised women in developing countries with health- and job-creation programmes. I soon found myself heading up the company, travelling constantly to our offices in London, Kenya, Afghanistan, South Africa and India.”

How did that work affect you?

“Five years down the line, and the stress, travel, erratic hours and eating patterns and permanent jet-lag had taken their toll. I was tired, jittery, had massive sweats, and felt consistently blue. My doctor did a hormone test and confirmed I had entered peri-menopause. My back problems had re-surfaced and began to be intolerable. I was taking a pillow everywhere I went, so I could cushion my agonising back pain. I was 52, but felt like a frail old lady. We took a break over new year in the sunshine and I rested, but I still felt dreadful. I took the decision then, at the start of 2013, that I didn’t want to feel like that, or worse, for the rest of my life and set about looking at options to help improve my health and wellbeing.”

How did you set about changing your life?

I went to the gym, but it was full of 19 year-old male personal trainers who knew nothing about the physiological needs of a 52 year old woman. So, I searched the web and found a woman called Rita Catolino, whose language and philosophies resonated with me. She was based in London, Ontario and I signed up to her online training programme, expecting to receive an exercise programme, but also received a whole pack outlining a daily food plan. Initially, I did the physical training and cheated on the eating, but as I began to adopt the dietary advice more diligently, I found I felt much better. By the end of April, I was feeling amazing. My back pain was gone, my body shape was different, my skin was glowing and the black cloud of depression had lifted.”

So, you had found the solution to your issues?

“It was essentially the beginning of a longer journey where I began piecing the science together and making the links between various lifestyle choices that affect us. For example, I was back visiting Lund University at home, attending a conference where one of the Professors Inger Björck, who leads to the Centre for Preventative Nutrition Research, was speaking about some research she was doing. When the Powerpoint slide on food came up, I nearly fell off my chair, I nearly fell off my chair because it was almost exactly the diet I was following. She challenged me that no-one lived that way, and I referred her to Rita Catolino’s thinking.”

“That’s where I began to ask even more questions, which led me to learn more about an anti-inflammatory lifestyle from a series of respected and peer-reviewed scientific experts, as well as those who live – sometimes unwittingly – according to a similar philosophy. As I result, I have become evangelical about this new way of living that has transformed my physical, emotional and mental health. I believe it has also minimised the risk of many of the most common life-threatening diseases and is slowing the ageing process.”

What is inflammation?

“There are two types of inflammation: the first is good, because it is the body’s reaction to an infection or wound. If you cut yourself, it will become red and swell because the body is fighting damage and repairing itself. There is a beginning, a peak and an end to this kind of inflammation.”

“The second form of inflammation is systemic and is long term, existing throughout the body, and that is the bad type. It is caused by stress, poor diet, sedentary lifestyles …. everyday existence for many of us. Low-degree inflammation is linked to an increased occurrence of practically all the major diseases that are on the increase in West, including degenerative and psychiatric disorders, cardiac- and pulmonary-disease, metabolic syndrome (which includes three conditions: diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, which individually carry risk, but combined together create a ‘super risk’ of serious heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular disease. It is also suspected that it is connected to certain cancers and even to heightened risk of dementia) and cancer. For example, a tumour cannot grow beyond a certain size without a certain level of inflammation in the body. It’s estimated that one quarter of the adult population in the US, Canada and Europe have metabolic syndrome, which is, in short, an epidemic that is an enormous threat to public health. We are, essentially, an inflamed society.”

What exactly is an anti-inflammatory diet?

“In terms of our daily diet, it essentially means avoiding processed foods and eating lots of fruit and egetables, especially raw and fermented ones. Kimchi, sauerkraut etc are excellent, as is kefir yoghurt, miso and kombucha. Inflammation-fighting Omega 3-rich foods such as oily fish and flax seeds are important, as are certain leaves, herb and spices such as watercress, turmeric, ginger, chilli, garlic, basil, capers, cinnamon, rosemary, oregano and pepper. Polyphenol-rich foods such berries are highly nutritious. We are not built to process refined sugars, so it’s vital to minimise cakes, sweets, processed meats, ready meals and the like, and to reduce dense carbohydrates, such as rice potatoes, pasta and bread. Never be scared of good fats, such as quality organic butter, extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts and coconut oil.”

“My four year investigation took me to Grayshott Hall, a leading health spa in the UK that specialises in gut health, and restoring digestive function. Participants in their programme, which incorporates a rich diet with plenty of fats and protein, but no sugar, dairy or starchy vegetables, have reported disappearing joint problems, reduced cholesterol levels, weight loss, clearer complexions, healthier hair, increased energy and sometimes the ability to decrease dosages of prescribed medication for diabetes and high blood pressure.”

Is there more to living an anti-inflammatory life?

“I have also established that there are other elements that amplify the benefits of the anti-inflammatory eating plan. To summarise, there essentially five points that are factors in my new way of life. I have called it BLISS, which is an acronym:

Boost with anti-inflammatory food
Lower sugar intake
In motion – regular, daily exercise, including aerobic, muscle-strengthening and stretching
Seek out awe
Stillness – calm, meditation, yoga, sleep

“I have travelled to what are known as ‘Blue Zones’, where communities appear to have extended life expectancy and delayed onset of age-related issues. Many of those groups of people, such as the Seventh Day Adventists, and villagers in specific regions of Japan and Italy, have certain parallels in their way of life, such as a diet that seems to intuitively reflect the one I describe above, and meets the other criteria, however subliminally, of BLISS.”

“I have learned that Ayurvedic thinking is a holistic approach to self-care that is focused on prevention rather than cure and ‘nature versus pharma’, which is what western medicine is largely based upon. Ayurvedic doctors recognise that we have more individual needs that fall loosely into categories but then need a more intuitive ‘prescription’ of food, meditation, sleep and massage and more to optimise wellbeing. Sleep is essential, but the pattern of sleep, going to bed when our cortisol levels encourage it around 10pm and rising early, maximises the benefits.”

“I actually describe the overall benefits of my anti-inflammatory lifestyle like a high good night’s sleep as that is one of the most restorative things you can do. If you are sleep-deprived, you crave bad foods, you are irritable, you look rough, feel more aches and pains and you have low energy. When you are well-rested, you feel the reverse.”

“I met with an eminent psychologist, Dr Jennifer Stellar, who has studied the positive impact of Awe in our lives – that feeling that you’re part of something bigger. That can be the overarching sense that comes with faith, or can be as simple as witnessing the spectacle of an amazing landscape or a stunning sunset, holding a newborn child, being part of a crowd at a football match, absorbing an incredible piece of art or listening to an awe-inspiring piece of music, whether that’s Freddie Mercury or Elgar. Being part of a community, and sharing experiences with others is essential to our health and wellbeing.”

“My journey has taught me a little about pyscho-neuro-immunology, and how daily stress, depression and issues such as marital breakdown and other crises are linked to increased risk of inflammation-driven disease. This is early days at the frontline of research but is a fascinating area of study that must surely make us re-think our priorities.”

How does this fit in to real life, when you have a family and a job?

“You can BLISS out a little, and see the benefits. Eat a real anti-inflammatory breakfast adding a rainbow of vegetables, and a palm-sized amount of protein with every meal. I go by the 80:20 rule that means it’s okay to enjoy the food my friends have cooked for me when I’m invited to supper or to have a few drinks for a birthday celebration. I’m not precious around other people, but 80 per cent of the time I try and stick to the framework I’ve set that I know makes me feel my best.”

“I exercise most days but aim for three or four times a week, mixing cardio-vascular work with strengthening and toning – you could cycle to work or the station, or swim a couple of times a week, then do some weight training and perhaps some yoga or Pilates at home. Saying you don’t have time is saying you don’t want to prioritise your wellbeing: maybe postpone watching an episode of that box-set on the sofa? Allow yourself some de-stress time and a little more awe: we can all switch off our phones for a while and simply soak up our surroundings.”

“I am 58 now. My general health and strength is higher now than when I was 35. I am doing weight training in the gym, I run faster. I am not super woman, but something good has happened.”