A feature from The Mail on Irish Doctor #TheFoodMedic 2024

Doctor in the House!


Brought up in Blackrock, an Irish seaside village near the border with Northern Ireland, Dundalk-born Dr. Hazel Wallace is an Instagram sensation. Her ‘The Food Medic’ account has over 600,000 followers who watch and learn from her videos about her daily life. She discusses healthcare, menstruation information, fertility worries, including egg freezing, and disordered relationships with food, all through a female lens, making it a very personal and informative journey. She’s a best-selling author of The Food Medic (2017), The Food Medic For Life (2018), and most recently ‘The Female Factor: Making Women’s Health Count and What It Means for You (2022). She runs a successful podcast, ‘The Food Medic, which is currently in its ninth season, has hosted a TED talk, is a regular columnist for Glamour Magazine, and does various guest spots on radio and TV shows such as ITV’s Lorraine, James Martin’s Saturday Kitchen and Sile Seoige’s podcast Ready to be Real. She is one busy lady. Oh, and last month she got engaged to her partner, David Birtwistle, a performance coach and fellow fitness professional.

So how did the juggernaut that is The Food Medic grow into a leading voice in health and nutrition, helping so many globally? It began when Hazel was a child in Dundalk. Her father died suddenly from a stroke when she was just 14 years old. 
As she struggled with the grief, she when she visited her GP, they introduced her to a nutritionist who helped steer her towards a more healthy relationship with food, and her interest in nutrition began. 
“That was when I realised food had the power to feed the body and mind.” she tells us. By working with a dietitian, I concentrated on eating the food I enjoyed. I started putting on weight and felt like I was coming alive again. I loved spending time cooking with my mom and I learned if you feed your body well, you’ll feed your mind. I could see that food could help me think better and essentially get me out of the depression and grief I was feeling at the time.”
It was also the tragedy of her father’s passing that prompted her to become a doctor.  "I couldn’t believe someone could die so suddenly and I wanted to learn everything I could about medicine to try to protect the other people I love".

Hazel went on to university in Wales to study medicine, which brought on another challenge: trying to find good, nutritious food to maintain all the progress she had made. She found herself putting on weight, studying late hours and snacking on junk food, but ironically, it is possibly this fact about the attractive, glossy-haired, perfect yoga-body woman that makes Dr Hazel so relatable: she has been both underweight and overweight which makes her the ideal person to offer advice to people experiencing an unhealthy relationship with food.

You started  ‘The Food Medic’ blog in 2012 as a medical student with a passion for nutrition and health promotion. Had you any idea it could lead to best-selling books, Ted Talks, and TV experiences? What advice might you have for anyone who’s just done their Leaving Cert and is interested in a career in nutrition?
I created The Food Medic  to help educate and inspire myself to become a healthier, and stronger person. During my training at medical school I noticed a gap in the curriculum for nutrition and other areas of lifestyle medicine. I soon realised that there was a lot more value in what I was doing than simply for myself,  and if I could share my message and extend it to my patients, and those around me, I could help improve the health of many people, both inside and outside of the hospital.
So it started as a passion project and something I was doing for myself. I wasn't the healthiest student and I wanted to change that, and lead by example for my future patients. There was no intention for it to grow to the size it has but I'm grateful that this is now what I do day in day out. 

You have become a voice in advocating new research and understanding into basic women’s health like understanding the menstrual cycle. You set up your unique programme Align. What are the most interesting facts about our periods that you’ve learned that might not be widely known?

I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that we use the words 'period' and 'menstrual cycle' synonymously or interchangeably but they are distinct - the 'period' or menstruation is just the first few days (5-7) of a typical 28 day menstrual cycle. However we only ever hear or learn about the bleeding phase when so many other changes occur across a monthly cycle and this ebb and flow of hormones affect how we feel, our mood, our energy, our metabolism, our gut - even how we sleep! I wish more girls and women were provided education on this because it's a lot more empowering when you know what to expect and what not to accept (e.g. painful heavy periods, dramatic mood changes premenstrually etc).

You recently got engaged in Rome with some beautiful posts on Instagram. Congratulations! Your finance David Birtwistle is a performance coach and has a career in nutrition too. Are there plans to work on something together soon? 

Thank you!  It wasn't expected but David made sure it was extremely special but doing it outside of the church where my parents got married in Rome.  David leads a team of coaches for his own app Endeavour and we've just started a partnership where his team will now provide coaching to all our food medic members so they get access to a progressive, strength training programme - so that's exciting. We help each other in other ways but it's also nice  having our own projects and dreams - it makes dinner time conversations much more interesting. 

Your instagram feed is so varied and your website is a blend of tasty recipes and nutritional guidance it feels no subject is off limits. Throughout 2023 you went public with your egg freezing journey, making weekly videos about the process. Do you think it brought you and your partner closer, or were there times when your partner wanted privacy on such a personal journey? Could you tell us the highs and lows of the experience?

Yes I debated for a long time whether to share my journey, and documented it a month before telling anyone because I wanted to experience it first hand as a patient and then make a decision as to whether my journey would be helpful to others and it was. The experience was full of ups and downs and don't think we fully prepare people for that, nor do we have open and honest conversations about fertility very often and I don't think people feel informed about their options. So I wanted to use my experience to help other women/couples thinking about their options or planning to freeze their eggs or embryos. My partner was super supportive but ultimately it was my decision, as it's my body and my eggs. I spoke to him about it and he was fully on board but reminded me all the time that I didn't have to go through this and we could look at other options but, I'm not ready for children - although I would love them one day and I think this gives us some time to get into a better place financially and emotionally before having children. David never asked for privacy and he helped me document the process because he knew it was important for me. I think that experience really bonded us and during my treatment, that was when he asked my mother for my hand in marriage. 

Tell us a bit about the membership and programmes you offer on your site and describe the style of recipes you offer 

Our recipes are simply this - quick, healthy, and delicious (and don't cost the world to make). We don't have a focus on restriction or calorie counts but focus more on what we can add in (like more protein, more fibre, more plants. Each month we have a theme in our membership so our recipes, articles and content are centred around that. For August our focus is on working on your relationship with food and your body so we are hosting an emotional eating workshop and sharing articles on this topic. 

Your most recent book The Female Factor is on the Times Best Seller list. People are clearly hungry for information on women’s health - Do you think it was an ignored subject in the past and have people’s attitudes changed as you have been involved in the industry for over a decade now?
Yes I think it was hugely ignored for a long time and even now many topics related to female health remain 'taboo'. Even using words like 'period' or the 'menopause' can be censored online and on social media which just blows my mind. I hope that my work helps to break down some of those barriers. 

What is the best 60-second piece of advice for anyone trying to eat better?
Stop focusing on what to cut out and focus on what you can add in - more veggies, more wholegrains and high fibre food, more protein at meal times and more plant-based foods. 

www.thefoodmedic.co.uk for details of books and courses.