Alex Talks Diet: I want my passion for healthy eating to bear fruit with Bishop's Stortford Independent readers
Alex Ballard, who grew up in Stortford and works as a specialist community dietitian for the NHS, writes about taking small steps towards a healthier lifestyle...
Growing, cooking and eating food runs deeply through all of my childhood memories.
Whether it was tending to the chickens at Thorn Grove Primary School, growing cress out of egg boxes on my kitchen window ledge or eating picnics at Bishop's Stortford Cricket Club, my passion for food, and all that it encompasses, has flourished throughout my life.
I was incredibly fortunate that the key messages of 'eat fresh', 'eat local' and 'eat healthily' were instilled into my brother Eddie and me from a young age.
Even my grandparents taught us the value of seed-to-plate and minimising food waste (they were trendy before their time). We would be taken annually to Cammas Hall to pick our own strawberries, involved in cooking one-pot camping stove wonders and shown how to use leftover vegetable peel to make home-made stock.
My specific interest in nutrition developed alongside my love for sport and exercise. I was heavily involved in Bishop’s Stortford lawn tennis and swimming clubs, where I became aware that what we consume has a vital role to play in how our body functions and performs. I remember workshops teaching teams what to eat before an early-morning swim session, drink throughout a tennis tournament and snack on at the end of a set.
A few years later, at Hockerill Anglo-European College, I discovered food technology with Mrs Whitley – and school became significantly more interesting.
Much to my teachers' and parents' dismay, 99.9% of my focus during my GCSE years went on my food technology project. For this, I chose the unusual task of making a packed lunch item for an individual on a low potassium diet. This is where I grasped that nutrition not only influences our sporting performance, but has a significant impact on how we prevent, treat and cure various health conditions.
I decided then that I wanted to pursue a career in the field of nutrition. After days of work experience with the environmental health department at East Herts Council and the nutrition team at Tesco, I walked into an NHS group session at Hatfield Heath village hall for individuals with type 2 diabetes. Unbeknown to me, the dietitian would later be my dietetic manager and I would be running those groups myself.
After trailing around various university campuses, accommodation blocks and student unions, I knew that Coventry University was the place for me. This became clear the moment I laid eyes on the diet kitchens, mock hospital wards and indoor world food market.
During my time at uni I spent the holidays working for Age UK Hertfordshire, which highlighted the colossal impact that social circumstances can have on food availability, affordability and nutritional choices. I also volunteered at Bishop’s Stortford Food Bank, helping to prepare food parcels; I conducted research involving the food bank for my final-year dissertation.
After four years of training and clinical placements, I was finally ready to spread my wings into the world of dietetics. I was incredibly fortunate to be offered a job with the NHS trust covering West Essex, which is where I have been for five years now.
My role is forever evolving as both the healthcare system and I develop and specialise. I assess and review patients in GP practice clinics, in their own homes, in residential and nursing homes, hospices, group education settings and on hospital wards.
Common reasons for patient referrals include malnutrition, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, food intolerances and allergies, coeliac disease, high blood cholesterol levels and weight management... the list goes on!
Outside of work, food continues to be a central focus. I spend substantial chunks of my weekends seeking out hidden food gems, sampling produce at local farmers' markets and walking the dog endlessly to find the finest blackberry picking spots.
I look forward to my weekly Bishop’s Stortford Library visit to pick out new recipe books and experiment with fresh ingredients.
Even my holidays revolve around cookery and baking classes; recent travels have involved making rye bread in Copenhagen, dahl in New Delhi and gelato in Florence.
I try to be active outside of my NHS work to share messages about healthy eating and to raise the profile of dietitians. This includes my work on social media, recording podcasts, group talks and writing scientific articles for professional magazines.
In a nutshell, I am truly passionate about food, cooking from scratch and nutritious eating, and I want to encourage others to take small, realistic steps towards a healthier lifestyle.
Alex's local treat...
I have fond recollections of my weekly visits to Bishop’s Stortford Library for the children’s storytime, swallowed up in brightly-coloured bean bags and listening intently to the enthusiastic librarian.
This ritual has not altered (except it's now with a more adult twist), as I still pop in to collect my week’s recipe books.
Hertfordshire and Essex libraries have a fantastic culinary selection from well-known classics to newly published authors. You can pick books directly from the shelves or reserve them online, via phone or in person. There is also a fantastic book sale with some hidden gems seeking a new home.
Experimenting with recipes encourages people to discover new ingredients, learn transferable cooking techniques and increase confidence when adapting recipes. This is incredibly important, as reducing our intake of processed, packaged foods and replacing them with home-cooked, fresh alternatives can be more nutritious, sustainable and cost-friendly.
Involving children in the kitchen from a young age has been shown to improve their health outcomes longer term.
Additionally, you can discover bargain recipe books in our vast selection of charity shops, including the Oxfam and St Clare Hospice bookshops.
Alex's recipe for sweet potato and spinach dhal
This speedy, fibre-filled recipe is adapted from the delicious, melt-in-mouth dhal dishes that I devoured on my travels around northern India.
- 2 tbsp rapeseed oil
- 2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp ground turmeric
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 175g dried red split lentils
- 750ml reduced-salt vegetable stock
- 1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped into small chunks (use carrots for a lower carbohydrate alternative)
- 200g fresh spinach
- 240g wholegrain basmati rice
- A handful of fresh coriander, chopped (optional)
- Heat the oil in a deep, lidded pan and gently fry the onions in the oil for about 5 minutes.
- Stir in the ground cumin, turmeric and coriander. Add the lentils, sweet potato chunks and vegetable stock.
- Bring to the boil and then leave to simmer with the lid ajar for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Bring a separate pot filled with water to the boil and add the rice, cook for about 25 minutes.
- After 25 minutes, stir through the spinach into the sweet potato dhal.
- Once the rice is cooked, drain and mix in the fresh coriander if using. Serve and enjoy!
* You can follow Alex on Instagram @alextalksdiet.