Ally is a fellow Bristol Alumni and we chat about turning ideas into reality and following our dreams. Ally shares her story of weaving her passion in nutrition, lifestyle medicine and mental health in her medical training and how she creates balance in her daily life.
Ally is cofounder of Nutritank, a medical student network connecting and empowering students and healthcare workers who want to expand their nutrition and lifestyle medicine knowledge.
Ally is also a current NHS Clinical Entrepreneur and is continuing to weave her love of food, nutrition and mental health into her clinical career.
Episode 28 features a chat with Ally.
It's lovely to have Ally chatting with me today. Ally is co-founder of Nutritank, a medical student network connecting and empowering students and healthcare workers who want to expand their nutrition and lifestyle medicine knowledge. Ally is also a current NHS clinical entrepreneur and is currently weaving her love of food, nutrition, and mental health into her clinical career with aspirations to follow her dreams into psychiatry. You're welcome, Ally.
Thank you, Rachel. So lovely to chat to you.
Thanks for being here today. I know you've done so much whilst you've been at med school which is actually fab to hear. So maybe we could start off by talking about Nutritank because I know that UK founded that in 2017. Tell us a bit about the story behind it and why you came up with the idea about wanting to create a place where you could share information on nutrition.
Absolutely. Just a massive thanks for having me on. I absolutely love that you're a Bristol alumni, so very special to chat to you. The origins of Nutritank start in 2017 when I was in my second year at medical school. I had taken a gap year before I started medical school because I didn't get in first time round, but [pass/fail?] we got that. I came across my co-founder Dr. Iain Broadley who was a grad medic, so he's now an F1 in Brighton.
What Ian and I noticed was that there was a huge gap in our medical education when it came to offering diet and lifestyle advice to patients. So when we were starting out lecture theatres right at the start of med school learning about the theory before we applied it, we only were learning around the physiology, the biochemistry, and the anatomy of the digestive system rather than the amazing research basis around nutrition and lifestyle interventions to not only prevent chronic disease but also manage the symptoms of chronic disease.
Then when we started shadowing GPs and doing more practical elements of the course, we noticed that in consultations that diet and lifestyle advice wasn't being offered either. So we thought to ourselves, "Hmm, is this just a local problem in Bristol? Or is there something bigger going on?" So we dug a little bit deeper, and we found that it was a systemic issue in our medical education.
The strangest thing was that in the NICE guidelines which as, you know, are the regulatory management guidelines that doctors are quite governed by that we saw the first-line management of most chronic diseases from polycystic ovarian syndrome to diabetes to high blood pressure the first-line management was to offer patients diet and lifestyle advice. So it was being paid lip service, but it actually wasn't implemented.
We wanted to get some hard evidence as well, so we started collecting national surveys from different pockets in the UK to find out what the barriers have been into implementing this. And it all came down to the number one factor was a lack of knowledge and a lack of confidence rather than a lack of time.
That's when we found it to be just the Eureka moment that we needed to make a difference, and so we founded Nutritank which has now evolved into an innovative information hub for food nutrition and lifestyle medicine. Our mission at the moment is to increase nutrition and lifestyle medicine education within medical training, and then hopefully that will also lead to being increased into other settings too.
It's just amazing. I just love it. It's so good, and it's wonderful to hear how much thought and effort you put into that whole process. But how did you take it from just an idea that you were sitting around in a whole thinking? How did you take it from that to actually what it is now and being the web platform? What kind of things helped you? Are there people that helped you along that path?
Yeah. It's always weird looking back at how did it become what it is now, and my co-founder and I we refer to it as our brain child. So it's been a very interesting journey watching it grow. From the onset, it was mainly Bristol-focused. And then quite soon we realized that we wanted to make sure that we weren't just going to create one area in UK with good pocket of practice, but we wanted to make sure that this mission was widespread.
Being millennials, we took to social media and we essentially reached out to get interest from other medical students nationwide who at the same time as us running our Bristol branch could also start setting up their own branches within their medical school. Now we're in 2021, and we have two-thirds of UK medical schools with Nutritank branches.
The idea is for these branches to do two main things. The first thing is for medical studentswho, as you know, are at great risk of burnout and mental health and wellbeing issues to learn around the diet and lifestyle interventions they can do for themselves for their own self care to improve their physical and mental wellbeing and increasing their resilience before they start foundation years.
Then the second part of the branches is for them to showcase to their faculty, "Hey, we're doing this out of hours. There's a huge student appetite demand. Please work with us. We'll direct you to a central Nutritank, and we can get more integrated into mainstream curricula."
That was all thanks to social media at the start. Then in terms of having mentors who supported us and pushed us forward, we're lucky at Bristol that the culture is already quite holistic. From the onset when I was a first year, I had one of my favorite dudes in the whole world Professor Trevor Thompson who's now head of primary care at Bristol. He ran a whole personal care module right at the start.
It gets different opinions amongst the students. Some students who want to be surgeons, "Oh, this is so airy-fairy, wishy-washy. What am I doing? Why am I speaking to an art therapist? Why am I speaking to someone who does gardening therapy?" For me, that was like, "Wow. This is incredible that we can learn all different types of tools that are arts-focused, that are nutrition-focused, and that we can still implement this alongside conventional medicine like medications and surgery."
Professor Trevor Thompson definitely was someone for me who I latched on to him from the start. He's never been able to get rid of me. He never will. And his wife, Dr. Liz Thompson, is also a huge inspiration for me because in second year I did a student choice module. So I very much geared my medical school all around these holistic options that were offered.
Students select a choice module. I did something called "Optimum Health in Later Life". And Trevor's wife, Dr. Liz Thompson, who was a palliative care doctor that then founded the National Center of Integrative Medicine which used to be called the Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine in Bristol. She co-taught along with another brilliant GP in Bristol who I'm so inspired by, Dr. Duncan Still, this entire module. And there I was introduced to so many other aspects of health. We were talking all about elderly wellbeing. We had a sex therapist come in and talk to us about how we can speak to patients about safe sex when they're older and more frail and all these kinds of taboo things.
I was just so inspired, and I latched on to all these mentors who have stood by me since starting Nutritank and provided so much support. And also to mention the brilliant doctor, Dr. Catherine Zollman, who is the founder of Penny Brohn. She has been so generous with actually providing us over the years with business consulting from a colleague that she once worked with, so she helped us get some key skills from professionals. It's just amazing because students don't have a lot of money, and we had these incredible forces helping us.
Yeah, so she's the founder of Penny Brohn which is an integrative cancer care platform and organization that's based just outside of Bristol in Pill in the most beautiful estate with incredible gardens that we've all gone to visit too. I could talk about how much I love these people for absolutely ages, but they've been so helpful and supportive. They've spoken at conferences we've ran, and they've just helped connect us up to people that have also been helpful in helping us amplify the mission. And they always say to us, "Stop thanking us, stop thanking us. We too stood on the shoulders of giants, and you've got to do that when you're young and starting out. We're here to help with the shared vision."
It's amazing. It sounds like though it's like you found those people who could help you facilitate your own ideas which is amazing, isn't it? Because also it's very evident that that comes from a passion and that interest and passion in you to keep pushing forward and seeing where it can take you and being bold and thinking about it. So it's amazing to listen to you, and it's so wonderful that you had all that support whilst you were at university to be able to think slightly outside the box and to start doing something else at the same time.
New Speaker (09:48):
Maybe give us a flavor of what that looks like now in terms of your balance. I know that you're just about to start your foundation year. And how do you envisage the balance between your work with Nutritank and then also being able to think about your own clinical career? What's your ideas and approach?
I definitely think it's all been a work in progress. I've definitely got the balance wrong over the years. And something that I'm learning, I've just finished an amazing course of high-performance coaching which has helped with my growth and just understanding how to nurture some of the values but also how to create boundaries for myself. And I think the key phrase that I didn't even realize to be true until I've just recognized it within myself and my territories is that you can still get burnout from doing something that you love. And I think for me is I always associated burnout when I used to hear of senior colleagues warning us about burnout and things. I always thought it was associated with doing aspects of the job that you don't like and being inundated in bureaucracy and delivering bad news and things like that.
But I've realized with doing Nutritank, I love it so much. Like I said, it's my brain child. I am so passionate about it, but I've definitely got the balance wrong over the years where I stopped practicing what I preach. I'd just go into this tunnel of like, "Chase, chase, chase, chase. Must do this." How I'm trying to envisage it now is that--And COVID's actually helped me with this because I've managed to practice a lot of stillness which is not something I've ever been fabulous at because I'm a very high energy, highly strong, I'm like the Tigger of Winnie the Pooh just always bouncing up and down. But obviously that's not sustainable.
With Nutritank at times definitely when we were starting out where it was Iain and I just hustling, hustling, hustling, it was super intense with how much time we gave to it and the impact that sometimes had on ourselves. I'm someone who suffers from depression and generalized anxiety disorder too, so I also had to be very mindful of how I manage my time and making sure that I'm not pouring from an empty cup and things like that. I think what I'm trying to do at the moment now--And I'm grateful that we have this team.
We have a brilliant team who are half voluntary, half paid depending on the roles. I'm very grateful that we do have this grant to be able to pay employees. But why we're on the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme is we want to be able to have financial longevity and sustainability with our organizations so that we can make more key hires and breathe a bit more ourselves. I'm looking forward to that. We're actually in the process of hiring some more people to help out with key aspects.
Going forward with foundation years, well, luckily for me my co-founder Iain is going to always be the year ahead of me now in training. So I can learn from him. He's been like the guinea pig how he's managed to time manage F1 as well as Nutritank. And I think for me, it's just all about feeling comfortable with that. It doesn't have to happen now. It can happen in some time. It doesn't have to be, "I'm trying not to be cannibalized by my ideas."
You have an idea, give it time. It will happen. Doesn't all have to be done immediately. I feel comfortable. I've always been a bit of a control freak, but I feel comfortable in the art of delegating. I realized how important it is, and I've managed to train quite a lot of people just to do the things that we wish we could do. But we're not superhuman. So I'm proud of them, and I rely on them very heavily.
Going forward, I know that the foundation years will probably be the most hectic because I won't have the flexibility with my own time. But I do think we'll all be fine. Then in the long term I would hope to do part-time clinical training and Nutritank the other time as well as I'm passionate about doing media work. It's something I'd love to do. So that's the rumbles of how I'm hoping to balance time and errors that have happened along the way that I've learned from in a way.
Wonderful. It sounds like you've learnt so much, and I think the ability to have that self-reflection and to learn those things is just so powerful in terms of trying to think about that balance and thinking forward. And it's great to hear your plans for the future and how that might look for you, so it's going to be exciting to see where life takes you in the next couple of years and how you pull these things together. You mentioned there about the NHS Clinical Entrepreneurship Programme. Does that also support some of your own personal development skills as well or is it very focused on what you're doing with Nutritank and the business aspect of it?
Yes. It's a exciting program. I think it's been going for seven years or so, and it's headed up by the most interesting and fabulous guy. His name is Professor Tony Young. He's the head of innovations at NHS England. He's a urological surgeon by training, and I think something like by his late twenties he'd set up like five businesses. He's brilliant.
He set us up with the idea to help upscale doctors initially who had an idea of cracking the system and how they wanted to improve it and how you can give a doctor those entrepreneurial skills to be able to innovate and upscale an idea into fruition. And then over the years it's become multidisciplinary. It's all about professionalism now, so it's incredible. Nurses and dentists and physios, et cetera all on the program.
The idea is that there are these pit stops every fortnight, and you learn different aspects of being an entrepreneur at these pit stops by hearing people's origin stories but then also getting a skilled-base knowledge alongside that. And then you get allocated a mentor. What's interesting about these mentors is a lot of the time they're not clinical.
Our mentor is a cool guy who if you like to shop like I dohe used to be very senior at Net-a-Porter. And he's very passionate about upscaling the next generation and Tony brought him on board to help mentor medics. It's the situation as what you put in is what you get out. I think it's something like you have to attend at least 50% of the pit stops which are all virtual. Usually they're in person in London. It's what you put in.
You can be on it as long as you like essentially, but the idea is you get to the stage where you applied for big grants or you find people to bring into your team from the program. Yeah, there's just so many opportunities that come from it. It's just incredible, but it's not as personalized as other kinds of accelerators. That's why I do my high-performance coaching separately.
With that high-performing coaching, how do you think you've changed from learning some other techniques or mindset shifts if you noticed in yourself?
Shout out to my coach, Dr. Nilesh Satguru. He's a lifestyle medicine and part-time GP but also did this high-performance coach training in the States, and that's what he's doing mainly now I suppose being a young dad. What I learned with Nilesh was a lot about me and how I can nurture the quality that I have to serve my communities and when I need to create boundaries and what are my challenges that I put out for myself that can easily be knocked down.
One of my favorite sessions has actually created my foundational values. I enjoyed that. It was a brilliant exercise where he got me to draw a timeline of my life. I'm 25 now, so zero to 25. And so he asked me to select five milestones in my life. And then from those milestones you use James Clear who's this brilliant, brilliant guy, the author of Atomic Habits. He has a list of values on his website that you can then assign to these milestones, and you can assign as many as you'd like.
Then after looking at these five milestones, you then try and--This was the hardest bit because I'm so indecisive. I'm not someone who always picks less, I always pick more. So then after putting all these bodies together, you have to distill them down to three to five of your foundational values. For me, all my values have meaning and stories behind them because they came from my life milestones. So I created my values as authenticity, adventure, connection, kindness. It was amazing. And it's something that now when I write emails to people, when I'm having difficult conflicts in conversations, I always calm down to my values essentially. And I found that a useful exercise with coaching.
Yeah. It's such a brilliant thing to do, isn't it? Because I've done something very similar, and I think it just helps you hang things onto them. So when you respond in certain ways or you do things, it creates that clarity, doesn't it? You're like, "Ah, okay. I understand myself now. I know why I'm doing this."
A hundred percent. A hundred percent exact clarity. I definitely believe in that. Yeah.
You shared a little bit there about your personal story with mental health and how you find ways to balance it. But has that also given you an interest in following your dream to train in psychiatry?
It's a interesting question, actually. Just remembered my fifth foundational value, and it's good for this question. My fifth foundational value is openness because I've made a commitment to myself to be open around my vulnerabilities and to not be indoctrinated by the traditional medicine culture of we're superhumans, sleep when you're tired, don't admit when you're struggling, don't admit when something's touched those emotional cords. So openness, openness, openness.
With wanting to pursue psychiatry, I actually have always wanted to be a psychiatrist. I became very interested in mental illness and the mind when I was like 13, 14. My grandfather in South Africa who was a brilliant physician, I actually found out the way he died. He died when I was a baby, so I never knew how he died. I found out that he actually took his own life and that he suffered a lot from depression. And he was just a brilliant person from hearing my mom and her siblings' narratives.
That made me fascinated. Maybe a little bit morbidly fascinated with the concept of suicide, the mind, and human suffering. So I knew from the onset that I was interested in it. Did a lot of my own research with school projects around mental illness, read a lot of books around the meaning of madness and things like that.
Then I started medical school. I had taken a gap year which was beneficial for me because it allowed me to understand my mind a bit better before being thrown into the madness. And during that gap year, I actually had started to develop a lot of issues around anxiety and panic disorders. I had gone to therapy and understood a little bit more about myself but not enough really. I was still a bit worried about the idea of going to therapy. I don't think I gave it my commitment.
Then I started medical school. My panic attacks continued, and then I always had up and down periods. I was just always up and down of being just like full-on with going out at night and during my studies and all of this and Nutritank and blah, blah, blah. And then I integrated in medical humanities, philosophy, law, and creative arts at Imperial College London.
I came back home to the year because a lot of my friends who weren't medics had also graduated now and went back home, and I'm a massive family person. So I just thought I'd love the opportunity. I came back home to study and prepare for the year. This was about three years ago now. And unfortunately a lot of things unraveled for me that year in a very severe manner. There was a very traumatic family death that came very suddenly.
From having the predisposition to always be up and down--And I always had really, high highs and then I would have lows. But they would always be snapped out of. Then I fell into a very dark period of depression in the second half of the year, and I was obviously going back to medical school to start fourth year which was the penultimate year that autumn. And it all started in the winter.
It was very challenging because I knew what was happening. It was all happening in slow motion, but I can admit for so long that I was struggling and that it was clinical rather than I can step out of there. I was very worried that I actually wouldn't make it back to medical school to continue my studies, but luckily I managed to get over my own bullshit and go on medication.
I think I also had a probable stigma towards that, and now I absolutely don't. I'm still on antidepressants, and I talk about it very openly on social media. I even did a little reel video the other day taking my pill and saying it's okay not to be okay, and that was very challenging because I obviously always had these ambitions to be a psychiatrist. And then I became mentally ill and I just wanted to wrap my mind around my identity and can this work and all of that.
Then once I started to get better and I felt a lot stronger and more empowered, and I spoke to a lot of other medics which was so useful who struggled mentally and who were more senior than me. And that's why I'm this ambassador for this beautiful charity You Okay, Doc? Which is a charity graced by doctors to support mental health and doctors. It was created by a surgical reg Dr. Daniel Gearon in Cambridge, and he created it after losing his cousin Liz who was a consultant anaesthetist to suicide.
Yeah. Once I got better and I spoke to them and I realized, "Oh, I'm only going to be a more compassionate psychiatrist. I'm only going to be able to connect to my patients more. There isn't an issue with having depression and being on medication and therapy for that and blah, blah, blah." It actually invigorated me and energized me because I realized I could actually add a whole new layer to my care with my patients and it not being as hierarchical and othering of, "You're ill, I'm not. You're patient, I'm doctor." And doctors can be patients.
A very long answer to your question. It's all merged together now. But psychiatry came first from an interest in family mental illness, and then my mental illness came. And it's all converged into this great aspiration to do psychiatry differently.
Thank you. Thank you for being so open and for sharing your own story because I think it only comes from those conversations and people sharing their lived experience and their truth that other people feel comfortable to share that. By hearing other people open up and hearing things, it does help people realize that they're not alone. So, yeah, thank you for sharing all of that.
It's great to see how you have got so much passion inside you to keep following your dreams. And despite having moments where you've had to recheck your own path and find a new way through, you're continuing moving forward. And that's wonderful. Now I know that you are actually working in a psychiatric intensive care unit, and you're using both your passion in nutrition and your passion in mental health to support the wellbeing program there which looks amazing. And I've loved seeing all your updates on social media. Maybe you can just explain a little bit about that, what you've been doing. Anything cooking on the wards, and how that supports the health of the patients there.
Absolutely. Honestly, this is my passion project to a tee. I'm so grateful that I'm able to do it, and it's for my elective for my final placement of medical school. I'm sure you and many other doctors before me all went to wonderful places abroad. That was the plan. I was meant to be in South America, but we move, we move, we move. And I'm so grateful that I actually have been able to do this project and know it's feasibility within the NHS.
It all came about because I connected with the most brilliant mental health nurse whose name is Matt Waugh. He's actually an ex lawyer who realized that he wants to work in mental health particularly lifestyle psychiatry because he's a big guy, very passionate about physical activity. And he essentially went on a innovative program to better lifestyle psychiatry in mental health space, and they paid for his mental health nursing degree.
Then he came to Nile Ward which is the male psychiatric intensive care unit in St. Charles in Notting Hill to innovate what's going on in the wards there and to meet a lot of the unmet needs of the patients. A lot of them have behavioral issues and have violent outbursts. Obviously, all of them are extremely ill. They've all been sectioned. They all have severe mental illness rather than a common mental disorder, so they will have diagnoses from bipolar to Schizoaffective disorder to schizophrenia.
What he's been doing with them is he got funding to create a ward gym because he has passed the training background. He has been getting the patients in to do strength training, and he's actually done it from a pretty improvement point of view and has seen a 45% reduction in violence by doing strength training with the guys.
Because as you can imagine, a lot of them in this PICU they're 19 to--There have been people in their sixties, but most of all they're 19 to 40. So, young men. You can imagine that the gym is actually a fantastic outlet. It not only has those kinds of wellbeing properties for just releasing those endorphins, but it's actually being translated into reducing violence.
He created the fabric at the ward for all this innovation to take place. And then because I'm super passionate about nutrition and cooking, I got in touch with him to see if there was a possibility of doing a program in my electives around cooking. They have a ward kitchen. They have everything. It's just about making people realize it's simpler than they think. It is less of a fact than they think.
I've been there since--What are we in now? We're mid-ish June. I've been in there since the end of April running a weekly cooking session, and it's just been absolutely magical because I didn't know what to expect at all. I was warned of like, "You're a young girl, a very small as well." And they were like, "Working in a male PICU, it's going to be challenging."
But on a whole, the experience I've had it's just been transcendent. I feel like there's such a bigger picture and a bigger mission other than myself going on here. I have had patients who are nearly ready to be discharged or moved down in their care to an open ward in the kitchen with me helping me make the pasta because it turned out to be my favorite. And I love making pasta from scratch.
I had him doing the dough making, and it's a very strenuous exercise. He was loving it. He was like, "Oh my gosh. This is a workout." And I was like, "Yeah, you work with your food." And it was just incredible and actually getting these gentlemen to look at the flavors of things and look at the colors and make it into a very sensual experience like cut a little of fresh herb and say, "Smell this. What do you think that fruit is?"
I don't like to preach the nutritional content to people because I just think it can all be a bit much when you're trying some menu, but I just weave it in from a kind of "Oh, do you know why that fruit's so colorful? Do you know why it's high in that?"
It's just been amazing, and it's very communal. And I just think food is an incredible vehicle for social connection and community. So that all sitting together, I had the consultant psychiatrist who I love to pieces, Dr Mehtab Rahman. I had him in the kitchen with me helping me do the eggs one session, and then he sat with us. He couldn't join the first few sessions due to Ramadan. But as soon as that was over, he sat with us for a lot of the sessions. He was eating the food with the patients.
He turned around and he said to me afterwards, "Thank you so much for this. Thank you for bringing this to the ward because so much of the time the patients see me as their enemy. I'm the one that holds all the power. I give them the bad news. I tell them they're staying here for longer or their medication regime isn't working. I'm going to have to increase it. I'm often met with so much anguish and frustration by them, and they hate me at times. And for me to just sit and have a meal with them and have a conversation away from their medication and their care, this has been incredibly powerful."
For me, I've just loved doing it from the wellbeing benefits I see it brings to the patients but also to the staff, the community on the PICU because it is an intense environment. The patients can't leave. It's intense, but it's incredible. And they do so many other kinds of holistic things on the ward as well. They've got music therapy, art therapy. I'm very passionate about film, TV, and theater.
So I joined in with the physiotherapy too which is run by a community actress or done on Zoom at the moment still, but it works well. It's usually done in person, but because of COVID obviously it's not feasible. I read out some of the parts, and the patients read out some of the parts. It's an equalizer. It just makes everything much less formalized and hierarchical. Yeah, they tell me I bring good vibes. So I'm just happy to hear that from them because it's such a hard time for them.
Sounds brilliant. It sounds brilliant. And I think it just highlights the power of food, doesn't it? Like you say, not just the nutritional content of food and how that can impact our own wellbeing both emotionally and physically. But also that sense of collective eating and sitting around a table and sharing a meal has such power in it, doesn't it? Like you say, to connect and to collaborate with people.
It sounds like an amazing program, and I wish you all success with that. I hope you continue enjoying it until you move on to your foundation year. Yeah. And hopefully, who knows? It will stimulate something else, and it will maybe give people an idea for change and to look at the ways that we approach illness in a much more holistic sense particularly around mental health and mental illness.
I know the hospital food situation in UK. I know obviously you're based in France, and I know just how much the French value their meals. Even from people working very busy corporate jobs, you always make time to sit down and have that meal rather than the British just shoving food into their gulp while [standing on the street?] It is a hugely cultural thing. And I think hopefully the Brits can, yeah, learn a bit from the French as well.
What does it look like for you if you're trying to maintain a good, healthy nutrition for yourself? What kind of things do you like to do? What are your favorites? You said pasta, but what are your favorite dishes? And how do you try and find a good balance?