‘I think we’ve fallen into the trap of looking at diets because we want to look good in a bikini’
With her glossy hair and yoga body, Hazel Wallace could just be another clean-eating clone. Instead, as Chrissie Russell discovers, the doctor-turned-Instagram star has a passion for health and a hatred of 'rabbit food'
I don't know what it is, but there's something about clean-living, yoga folk that brings out the worst in me. I'm barely five minutes into my phone call with Instagram's hottest new healthy-living guru when I'm attempting to besmirch her wholesome image by finding her guilty of social media's deadly sins.
"Have you ever taken more than 10 selfies before finally posting one?" I bark in a manner more befitting of Jeremy Paxman grilling politicians than a journalist asking about photos of flexed muscles. "Yeah," giggles Dr Hazel Wallace, aka The Food Medic. "I've definitely been guilty of that."
"What about letting your dinner get cold because you're so focused on getting a perfect photo for Instagram?" (I'm really going after the big crimes here). "Oh, yes, I've definitely had to re-microwave," she replies, laughing. "I want my meals to look great, but I don't spend hours," she adds. "There are some food stylists who have incredible Instagram feeds, and I'm envious of them, but I don't have that kind of time. It's all done on my phone and it's very true to me."
'Very true to me' is exactly the sort of phrase I expect social media stars to say, and at first glance you could be forgiven for dismissing The Food Medic as just another clean-eating clone, cut from the same (refined sugar-free) cookie cutter as the likes of Deliciously Ella and the Hemsley sisters. She has the glossy hair, the yoga body and skin so honeyed one can only assume she bathes daily in almond milk. "Kale me now," I grumble to myself as I spot a snap of her in a kale slogan T-shirt and scroll through an Instagram feed laden with plank poses, smoothies in jam jars and inspirational quotes. At one point, I rejoice, thinking I spy the word 'croissant' lurking among the beetroot and quinoa, except on closer inspection it turns out to be 'CrossFit'. Damn.
But - just like I'm willing to admit I was wrong about avocado in smoothies - so was I wrong to pre-judge The Food Medic and, after just half-an-hour chatting to her, I'm ready to join her existing legion of 132,000 fans and worship at her healthy-eating altar.
Not only is she smart, funny and self-deprecating, but (unlike many of the vaguely titled 'wellness experts') Dr Hazel Wallace actually has the clout to back up her brand of no-nonsense, healthy lifestyle advice. At 26 years of age she is a practising junior doctor and a personal trainer, qualifications that enable her to go beyond beautiful snaps of yoga poses and bowls of spiralised veg with actual scientific know-how and sound, evidence-based research.
A whole section of her debut book, The Food Medic: Recipes & Fitness for a Healthier, Happier You, published next week, is dedicated to the science of eating: why we need things like carbs and protein, what portion sizes should be and the importance of fats. Even better, she sets out to debunk a lot of the myths and misinformation around eating - is gluten bad? Should we have carbs after 6pm? Are six small meals better than three? Many of the big dietary trends go under the microscope for dissection in a clear, factual manner.
"I want this to be the last 'diet' book that people ever buy," declares Hazel. "I'd hope that it gives you all the knowledge you need so you'll be able to create your own healthy diet without being constrained by a meal plan or single programme."
More than that, she hopes The Food Medic book - which also includes workouts and more than 70 nutritious and flavoursome recipes (think beetroot and feta cauli-rice risotto, sweet potato nachos with chilli and chocolate swirl banana bread) - will also get readers focused on the impact good food can make on your life.
"I think in this day and age we've fallen into the trap of looking at diets because we want to look good in a bikini, but it goes beyond how we want to look to how we feel, physically and mentally," she explains.
Internet health gurus who don't get this point and who aren't guided by a background in medicine infuriate her. Gwyneth Paltrow might have the right initials, but she's no GP. And the fact that it doesn't stop her and many others dispensing health advice or advocating things like cleanses is something Hazel finds deeply concerning.
"You look at these people as people of authority and they're seen as role models," she says. "You've got so many people looking up to them, wanting to do exactly what they're doing, to look like them and have the life that they have and it's just so easy to be misled and that's really frustrating."
She continues: "I just hope that the brands who are working with these people or the celebrities begin to realise what impact they have on people and their health. Because it's not about selling as many products as possible; it's people's health in their hands, and that's a really serious thing." She believes the online world of lifestyle advice urgently needs better regulation.
A recent article on Hazel's Food Medic website, explaining why the alkaline diet is nonsense, prompted a wave of comments from fellow medics applauding her for calling out the pseudoscience that surrounds many fad eating trends. Her colleagues, including senior doctors at University College Hospital London, where she works, are all supportive of her online career. But their food envy, when she pulls out a lunch of tandoori chickpea and courgette burgers, does baffle her.
"Sometimes they'll say, 'I wish I had the time to make such a tasty lunch,' and I'm thinking, 'Well, we all have the same job,'" jokes Hazel. She's adamant that, with a bit of planning, even the busiest person can cook healthy meals from scratch.
Again, she has the readies to back this philosophy up. The Food Medic knows the reality of crawling home from a 12-hour shift and wanting something quick and easy for dinner.
"I'm a doctor and a really busy person and I understand the struggle," explains Hazel. "I want people to realise that healthy eating is accessible and it doesn't need to be fancy or take all night. Trying to be a role model for the working population is the one thing that I strive to do." Hence the inclusion of recipes like 'healthy homemade pizza in a flash' and 'one-minute chocolate protein brownie' in her new book.
But Hazel's passion for the power of good food comes from a place that goes far beyond a desire to have a pretty social media page. At 14 years old, her idyllic family life was shattered when her father, Kevin, collapsed at the dining table and later passed away in hospital, having suffered a stroke.
"We were sitting down to a family meal, just like we always did and everything imploded," writes Hazel in The Food Medic. "His death changed my life in every way - it's hard to explain really, except that I felt like the rug had been pulled right out from underneath me."
She tried to continue as normal but became anxious and depressed. Eating became a chore that she simply couldn't face. She was physically and mentally disappearing. A visit to a counsellor saw Hazel assessed as anorexic, but she says she knew in herself that wasn't the problem, writing, "There isn't a name for someone who is so crippled by loss that the very act of thinking about taking pleasure in food is impossible".
It was a referral to a dietician that helped her turn her life around and enabled her to start realising the connection between nourishing the body as well as the mind. Slowly, she began eating and exercising her way back to emotional and physical health.
The book is the first time she's written personally about that time in her life. "It was difficult; even though I've dealt with it by now, every time I bring it up, it's still difficult," she explains falteringly. "But, in a way, it was a bit of a relief writing it down on paper and putting it out there."
Hazel's health faced further hurdles. When she left Ireland at 18 to start a new chapter as a medical sciences student in Pontypridd in South Wales, she was eating well, but student life delivered challenges to her hard-won healthy lifestyle. Exam deadlines meant living on bags of Doritos, bowls of Frosties and microwavable meals, followed by intense bouts of devouring 'slimming' foods like low-fat yoghurts, high in sugar and low in nutritional content. Though still slender, weight gain saw Hazel creep up three dress sizes. "I was lethargic, I had dry skin and hair, and most of all, I completely lacked body confidence," she reveals.
Seeing photos of herself looking bloated on a night out prompted a new era. Hazel joined a gym and started cooking meals from scratch. In 2013, she began posting photos of her home-cooked meals and physical progress on Instagram: The Food Medic was born.
She believes it's her first-hand experience of the manta 'food is thy medicine' that motivates her to reach out to other people. "I know myself how it feels to feel that low and, personally, the experience I've gone through, food really changed me," she tells me earnestly.
"It gave me the energy to think clearer again. Once I was able to eat better, I felt the change in my body; I felt it physically and mentally. Having had that first-hand experience is why I'm so passionate about food and the impact it has on us, because I know - not just because I'm a doctor and I've read the papers and know the evidence - but I know personally how as a young girl it changed my life."
She still finds herself blindsided by grief, missing her dad at family occasions like birthdays and Christmas, "and the book - I would love for him to be here…" she trails off, her voice breaking. "I would love for him to see it because he would be so proud, really supportive and my number-one fan." She pauses. "But I don't know if I would have written a book if I wasn't inspired by the events that I've been through…"
The book is dedicated to her dad. The rest of the family - her mum, Jo, and two older sisters - will be attending the London launch. Hazel only gets back home to Dundalk a couple of times a year but finds that a side-trapping of having 100,000 people following your cooking tips is that everyone expects you to be chef. "It's always, 'What are you going to cook for dinner tonight?'" she laughs, "and I'm like, 'Mam, I'm only home twice a year: you're cooking dinner!'"
In a couple of years, "when I'm ready to settle down and have kids", a return to this side of the Irish Sea might be on the cards, but for now the hustle and bustle of London suits her. Is it easier to be healthy in London than the Republic of Ireland, I wonder? "I think in London people are more health-conscious and there are a lot of great health food stores and cafes," she muses. "But I think the beauty of Ireland is that people aren't completely obsessed with it."
She's adamant that her book isn't one just for the London foodie set. "I want it to be accessible for everyone and not just whoever can get to their nearest Wholefoods or has more time to cook in the evening," she says. "I get really put off when I open a recipe book and there's a stream of ingredients two pages long. My recipes don't take all night and the ingredients are easy to get."
Hmm, coconut flour, coconut sugar, pink Himalayan salt? Even if your local shop does stock them, are they not ingredients that are fine on a doctor's salary but out of reach for those further down the wage scale?
Hazel insists that's not the case. "Nearly all the recipes are ones I made in my student kitchen with a student budget," she says. "I know how to cook and keep it relatively cheap. Things like coconut flour last a long time - I can't remember when I bought mine - so I would actually say that this book is really budget-friendly for anyone."
Until recently she had been in a relationship with a boyfriend living in Hong Kong, but they've separated now. Free time - which she insists she has - is for friends, family and holidays. She gets some help with the running of her website, but her Instagram is all her. "I need that to be my voice," she reveals. "I think I owe my success to that because people do resonate with me. They know I'm not trying to feed them a load of baloney or push products down their throat to make a quick buck."
Patients don't tend to recognise her, she says. "It's happened once or twice, but generally I don't think people really expect the girl they follow online to be a doctor in the hospital." But that could soon change, with the ambitious Dr Wallace's sights set beyond the confines of the smartphone screen. "I would love to be on TV," she confesses. "I don't know if it's because I'm an Irish woman, but I love to chat. I think social media holds me back a bit - I'd love to have my own show and really promote what I'm doing and feel a bit more animated as well."
When I briefly fall back into Paxman mode and demand to know if she ever indulges in a "big dirty burger", she laughs and replies promptly: "Loaded nachos with cheese, guacamole and chicken with a cocktail at a Mexican restaurant is my idea of celebration." What's her biggest food vice? "But I wouldn't say 'vice'," she says. "I personally don't agree with labelling foods 'good' and 'bad' or 'clean' and 'dirty'."
Ah yes, the backlash against 'clean eating'. Once the poster girl for the eating-clean trend, Ella 'Deliciously Ella' Woodward has since purged her blog of any reference to the term. The Food Medic has no intentions of being attached to anything so controversial.
"What we need to do is not make food out of bounds," explains Hazel. "It's really about focusing on how we can include good foods rather than how we can exclude other foods." But she adds, "I think people are getting a bit too pedantic about it [terminology like clean eating] - like you can't say things like 'junk food' anymore, but a lot of people understand what that means."
And yet to many - myself included - it's the 'bad' foods that still tend to be associated with fun and flavour. I'm still strangely delighted when a further exploration of Hazel's healthy Instagram feed reveals a picture of cream cakes and the news that she's been on a bus for afternoon tea. Why does she think people (like me) are often so predisposed to negatively judge health food (and even its proponents) as bland?
"It's shop-bought salads!" laughs Hazel. "They give healthy eating a bad rap! People associate healthy eating with a couple of lettuce leaves and two cherry tomatoes - but that's rabbit food. Food has to be enjoyed. Yes, I do promote 'food as fuel' and the nutritional benefits, but it has to taste good too. I hope the book proves that."
I know I should trust her (she is a doctor) but later I make her chocolate sweet potato pudding just to check, and it's delicious. Chocolate and sweet potato - who knew? But sometimes, when you stop prejudging things you think you won't like, that's when you find something (or someone) entirely to your tastes.
- The Food Medic by Dr Hazel Wallace, with photography by Susan Bell, is published by Hodder & Stoughton on May 4, £20
Now you can try two of Hazel Wallace’s healthy recipes
Rice paper chicken rolls & peanut sauce
I first tried this recipe as an experiment when I was trying to impress on date night. It is such a fun dish to make with a friend, or your partner, and it encourages everyone to get involved and roll up their sleeves. The rice paper wraps are really light and, combined with the raw vegetables, this dish is much lighter and fresher than your classic Mexican chicken fajita. For a veggie alternative, swap the chicken breast for avocado.
8 spring roll wrappers (rice paper wraps)
¼ red cabbage, shredded
¼ cucumber, cut into matchsticks
1 red pepper, cut into matchsticks
½ mango, cut into matchsticks
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
2 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
For the peanut dipping sauce:
3 tbsp smooth peanut butter
1 tbsp coconut sugar
2 tbsp water
1 tbsp soy sauce
Fill a large bowl with warm water. Immerse 1 spring roll wrapper in the water until slightly softened (for about 10–15 seconds). Remove and spread the wrapper out onto a plastic chopping board. Repeat with all the wrappers.
Place some of each of the ingredients horizontally at the bottom or centre of a wrap, packing them as tightly together as possible. Fold in the right and left edges of the wrap. Take the bottom of the wrap and roll it upwards, taking the ingredients with it.
Try to wrap them as tightly as possible, then leave the wrap sealed-side down. Place the roll on a plate and repeat.
To make the dressing, blend or whisk the ingredients together until smooth. Pour into a small serving dish and serve on the side to dip the wraps in.
- Serves 2 as a main or 4 as a starter
Greek lamb meatball wraps & tzatziki
Lamb mince makes the best meatballs, in my opinion, but you can substitute the meat for beef, turkey or chicken mince. There are also so many ways you can eat them — in a wrap, on a salad, on courgette noodles, or simply on their own off a toothpick, as a quick, high-protein snack. My favourite way to eat them is in a wrap, with lots of crunchy slaw and homemade tzatziki.
For the meatballs:
½ onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, grated or crushed
2½ tbsp coconut oil
500g lean lamb mince
1 free-range egg
1 tbsp fresh mint, chopped
1 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
Salt and black pepper
For the tzatziki:
480g Greek yoghurt
½ cucumber, deseeded and diced
Juice of ½ lemon
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp fresh mint, chopped
1 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
Salt and black pepper
6–8 tortilla wraps
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4. In a saucepan, sauté the onion and garlic in ƒ tbsp of the coconut oil over a medium heat until translucent. Let it cool and set aside. Combine the mince, egg, herbs and cooled onion and garlic mixture in a large mixing bowl. Add a pinch of salt and pepper, and mix well. Using your hands, make 15–20 small meatballs from the mixture. Add the remaining coconut oil to a large frying pan and cook the meatballs on all sides for 5–10 minutes until brown. You may need to do this in batches, depending on the size of the pan.
Place the meatballs on a large baking tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake for a further 8–10 minutes until cooked right through. While the meatballs are cooking, combine the ingredients for the tzatziki in a bowl and allow it to chill in the fridge. When the meatballs are cooked, serve with tortilla wraps, tzatziki and a crunchy slaw.
- Serves 3-4