Celebrity chef Brett McGregor lost one of his best friends to diabetes and decided he needed to do something to help. By Caroline Wood.
Brett McGregor is a dynamo, when he’s not cooking up a storm on TV, he’s writing books, developing new food products, volunteering in schools, being a trade ambassador, and most recently travelling to China to promote New Zealand’s sustainable seafood.
When I talk to him on the phone, he’s just finished a TV series Taste of a Traveller and is about to jet off to Thailand to help build stronger trade relations. His next book Chop Chop comes out in August and he’s working with KidsCan to develop a new app. At some point later this year he will fit in a holiday to America with his family.
It’s clear that family, friends and children play a central role in Brett’s life, which was transformed in 2010 when the former deputy principal won New Zealand’s first series of MasterChef and became a household name overnight. TV appearances, books and product endorsements followed. But he also donates a lot of his time to good causes.
Brett has been a men’s health ambassador for several years and promotes healthy eating in schools. More recently he has turned his attention to diabetes after one of his best friends died of type 2 related complications.
He teamed up with Diabetes Projects Trust in South Auckland to deliver its Keep Calm and Learn to Cook programme, which sees Brett going into schools to encourage kids to think outside the square and try new food.
“We achieve that by getting them involved with a cooking demonstration, they get to sample all the food and take simple recipes home, along with a spice rack and goody bag.
“It’s about trying to get our younger generation thinking about making the right choices, understanding what they put into their bodies and eating seasonally. We find that many are inexperienced when it comes to nutrition.”
So far Brett has visited 20 schools over two years, engaging with more than 3,000 children at both primary and high school. He hopes that some will be encouraged to cook and eat homemade foods, rather than nip to the corner dairy to buy a pie or fizzy drink.
“High school kids are harder to change as habits are ingrained. But if I can get in to see younger kids I can see more of a change in them,” he says.
And Brett should know because he was a teacher before he won MasterChef and his brother is still a teacher in Wellington.
Brett explains why he teamed up with Diabetes Projects Trust two years ago.
“I got involved because one of my best friends had type 2 diabetes but he didn’t make the right choices and he didn’t look after himself and was probably lacking a bit of knowledge and skill in the kitchen. He liked convenience food.
“He was 42 years old when he died of diabetes-related health complications late last year. He lost half his leg above the knee, he lost the vision in one eye, his kidneys failed and finally his heart gave way.
“I didn’t want to see anyone else go through that, it impacted hugely on his wife and family. But… it was preventable. I think it motivated me to try to get that message out there. There is help available, it’s about learning simple things.”
Brett acknowledges that this is incredibly difficult to do. Everyone is different so he just tries to connect with people to help them make better choices themselves. Family support is also important.
Brett first met his friend at the age of five. He was later diagnosed with type 2 diabetes as a teenager but didn’t actively manage his condition and control his blood sugars. He also struggled with his weight.
“I look at my friend and he was told many times by many doctors and others but they never connected with him.
“It’s important for the individual to realise what’s happening to their body, they have to want to make the change and understand what will happen if they don’t.”
Brett is determined to try to help the next generation of young people avoid the same fate as his friend.
Brett McGregor has been a men’s health ambassador for seven years, working for a number of good causes, including prostate cancer awareness. He thinks it’s important for men, particularly in New Zealand’s many and varied cultures, to talk more about their health and try new food.
“I think the way men view food is different. My generation grew up with meat and three veg. The men I meet have been making a change, we’re talking more about our health and it’s out in the open.
“I know when I was growing up it was very difficult but I do think men are getting better at it. I can see it in my son, and his friends, they are a lot more open to talking about their health and trying new foods. They are more conscious about their health.”
He says family support is important when it comes to improving men’s health through healthy eating and exercise. For example, Brett admits he wasn’t a great exerciser but recently that has changed thanks to the influence of his wife. He’s taken up running and completed his first half-marathon.
He was given a Fitbit to try during Men’s Health Week and that has been enlightening, he says, because he can see how little he sleeps! But he can also see how easy it is to keep active at home – he’s done 15,000 steps today and he’s not left the house.
Eating healthily on a budget
Many New Zealanders are becoming more aware about healthy eating but money is an issue for a huge number of people and food is expensive, says Brett.
He promotes three key messages for eating healthily on a budget:
Eat real – real homemade food, not convenience ready-made foods or takeaways
Eat in season – seasonal food is cheaper to buy
Eat Fresh – fresh is best when it comes to healthy eating
Cooking is a skill that needs to be learned like other skills and Brett wants to be in that space – connecting with people and helping them cook simple, fresh, seasonal meals.