Dr. Hazel Wallace, better known as The Food Medic, has been making waves in the medical world in recent years with her progressive approach to health and wellness. Raised in Dundalk, the Instagram star is now based in the UK where she works as a GP and published author.

We caught up with the good doctor to discuss the wellness industry, social media use, our caffeine intake, and the brain-gut axis. 

You've stated previously that throughout your medical training, nutrition wasn't being discussed enough - has that changed? 
At medical school, there was little focus on nutrition and not much has changed since I’ve left. However, things are changing and last year the Association for Nutrition (AfN) in the UK have announced they will be working with the General Medical Council (GMC) moving forward to integrate nutrition into undergraduate and postgraduate curriculum for medics.

I think it’s important that doctors receive at least a foundation training in nutrition so that they can make informed decisions about how to integrate nutritional principles into their patient management plans.

While I hope that the medical system adopts a more holistic approach to health, I don’t think it will be adopting the current "wellness trends".

The wellness industry is incredibly popular at the moment, how do we know what brands to trust? Whose advice do we follow?
Yes, it is. The wellness industry is now said to be worth over $3.72 trillion, representing more than 5% of all global economic output (source: WellToDo, 2018 report). People are obsessed with future-proofing their bodies and being the healthiest versions of themselves. It’s difficult to know who to trust as a huge amount of information out there is not provided by credible, regulated sources but by self-proclaimed wellness gurus and bloggers.

If you’re looking for advice on nutrition, speak to a registered dietician or registered nutritionist. For advice on training or exercise, look out for a personal trainer with evidence of at least a few years’ experience under their belt, and for advice on everything else related to health - speak to a doctor.

When it comes to brands, unless they’re selling you something that sounds too good to be true (as it probably is), just do your homework - is the brand endorsed or sponsored by people you trust? Have you checked out the website and feel happy with the brand values?

The important thing to remember is that supplements are not regulated in the same way as medicines so they don’t go through the same safety or efficacy checks as a drug would. This doesn’t mean that all of them are unsafe or useless, but something to keep in mind before shelling out lots of money on a fancy herbal supplement when you can generally get all the nutrients you need from a well-balanced diet. 

Do you think wellness and lifestyle bloggers are helping people to lead healthier lifestyles or are we under more pressure than ever to find balance and 'have it all'?
I think social media has its pros and cons. I feel very privileged to be able to share important health information and breakdown the science for an audience of over 350k people. I also have connected with some incredible researchers and health professionals online who are doing great things.

I think certain bloggers and influencers can be misleading in that they share a very carefully curated lifestyle online. They may be genetically built in a certain way that is appealing for people, but their social media feed filled with workout plans and skinny teas suggest that it’s not down to genes - it’s down to hard work and diets. Social media filters out true reality which can be very damaging for young, impressionable people.

We know that an unhealthy lifestyle can lead to illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and depression but what is it that leads to these illnesses? What's doing the damage?
The link between type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and depression is that they are all multi-factorial (i.e. they are due to a combination of many things which trigger the disease) and they all have a lifestyle component, which means they can, in part, be prevented to a certain degree.

However, you can have the best diet in the world and exercise every day, and still get heart disease or depression - as genetics and other factors also play a role but by addressing your modifiable lifestyle factors - sleep, exercise, diet, smoking, and alcohol intake - you can massively slash your risk of developing multiple lifestyle-related diseases.

What are three simple things that people can take up this Summer to get on track to a healthier lifestyle?

  1. Move a little every day - even if it’s 10 minutes!
  2. Switch off your technology/devices at least 60 minutes before bed and you will see an improvement in your sleep.
  3. Switch up your fruit and vegetables - try something new, something in season.

The Brain-Gut axis - what is it and how can we 'boost' our mood with food?
Those butterflies in your tummy, or the really strong 'gut feeling' you can’t ignore – it’s a sign that your body and brain are talking to each other.

We call this the Brain-Gut axis and it’s one of the fastest growing areas of research, in both medicine and nutrition. Likely because, not only does your brain have an impact on your gut health, but your gut, and the food that you eat, influences the brain - and your mood.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that food should completely replace the standard treatment of mental health disorders, and no single food can ‘cure’ depression, we do know certain foods/nutrients confer benefits for our mental health and nervous system:

  • Omega 3 fatty acids, sources include fish such as salmon and mackerel, flaxseed, + walnuts.
  • Vitamin B12 + Folate - Vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods such as red meat, eggs + fish, or plant foods which are fortified, so should be supplemented if you exclude animal products. Folate is found in lentils and leafy green vegetables - think folate = foliage = green plant foods
  • Probiotics and prebiotics - probiotics are live beneficial bacteria that are found in some fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and yogurts which contain active, live cultures. Prebiotics are soluble fibres which feed the good bacteria in the gut, found in foods such as; artichokes, onion, garlic, chicory, asparagus, and leeks.

Is coffee bad for us?
It depends! It depends on how much you drink, how you take it (cream and sugar, or short and black?), if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you find you’re particularly susceptible to the effects on caffeine. But there’s not just caffeine in coffee – in fact, there are >800 compounds including chemicals called polyphenols which have antioxidant properties.

As such, coffee isn’t just a tool for waking you up in the morning. Evidence from epidemiological studies suggests that regular, moderate coffee consumption (of approximately 3–4 cups/day) is associated with a reduction in the multiple diseases including specific forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, neurodegenerative diseases (e.g. Alzheimers disease), and depression.

However, if you suffer from sleep issues or anxiety, or if you find it causes unpleasant symptoms (e.g. racing heartbeat, headache, or reflux) you may want to limit your intake. Also, there are compounds called tannins in coffee which can block absorption of iron so space it out 30mins from iron-containing meals. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you can consume coffee still but your safe coffee limit is 200mg/day – but actually, there is also evidence that decaffeinated coffee may, in some respect, have similar benefits.

Do 'fat burning' foods really exist?
The fact is that when you eat any food, your metabolism increases slightly to digest and use the food’s calories for various functions. This is called the thermic effect of food. It happens it all of us, it happens with any food (some slightly more than others).

However, regardless of the foods that you eat, food intake has a negligible effect on metabolism. Caffeine, Green tea, chilli peppers, — they’ve all been touted as "fat-burning" foods, but research has repeatedly shown that while some of them may cause a small increase in metabolic rate, the effects are not significant to produce measurable fat loss.

Technically, the only way to "burn" fat is, essentially, to use more energy than you take in (ie. calorie restriction or exercise). However, this can often backfire as very low calorie or extreme weight loss can slow your metabolism as your body must learn to be more efficient and energy-saving when calories are scares.

Dr. Hazel Wallace will speak in the Lifestyle Pavilion at Lahinch Golf Club during the Dubai Duty-Free Irish Open on Friday 5th and Saturday 6th July. Tickets are available from www.dubaidutyfreeirishopen.com

You can follow Dr. Hazel on Instagram or find out more information on her website.