Nurturing nutrition – Meet Ellyn Bicknell

Meet Ellyn Bicknell, a local changemaker, student and Food Revolution Ambassador who is passionate about changing lives through health and nutrition.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I’m a pretty much a local girl, other than a few years early on travelling around with my parents.  I have grown up and completed all my schooling here in Canberra. Currently, at the age of 20, I am a third year Medical Science student graduating in July 2015 but I’m certain this will not be the end of my studies – life is a constant learning experience and adventure.  Aside from immersing myself in learning about the human body, I have recently fallen in love with martial arts, something I’d never thought I could see myself doing, but you never know these things until you try. It’s quite invigorating and the confidence it builds is phenomenal!

What first drew you to nutrition and healthy eating activism? 

Nutrition has been a big part of my life since before I was even born. Yes, you read that right, BEFORE I was born. My mother, who suffers from Type 1 Diabetes (Insulin dependent) didn’t want her condition to affect my development. As a result she worked very hard to manage her diet and control her blood glucose levels from the moment she started trying to fall pregnant with me.

Now, we don’t have an alternate universe to compare what my health would have been like if she did not manage it as strictly, but we do have a lot of research on the effects poor diet and high glucose levels has had on the development of other children. Furthermore, due to my increased risk of getting Type I Diabetes (which can onset at any age, but usually under the age of 25) I wasn’t given lollies or ‘candy’ until after the age of four. My parents’ reasoning was that they did not want to have to tell a less-than-four-year-old they couldn’t really have lollies (except for emergency situations when diabetics need to rapidly raise their sugar levels). Some people used to say I was being deprived. But how is taking precautions for the health of your child deprivation? And I was given home-made desserts and such as banana and custard and fruit pies, but the contents of that are very different, free from a lot of refined sugar.  I never really developed a great sweet tooth for that artificially sweet taste – which always got me intrigued – could it have been this early influence of food that effected my taste development and current health?

Personally, I wouldn’t say what I am doing is ‘activism’. To me the word seems a bit harsh. I would describe it as ‘encouraging’ and ‘inspiring’. I grew up in a household that encouraged me to explore and learn about food. I had my own cooking set, which from a young age I would use to mimic Mum and Dad cooking, and was allowed to chop up soft things like bananas with plastic knives, or mix a mixing bowl. The interest to ‘be like mum and dad’ helped me to develop life skills.

I was also encouraged to try new foods, I was never fed ‘kids meals’. Although foods high in salt or spice like chilli were avoided, I was generally given a smaller version of whatever Mum and Dad ate. Even when I was only starting on solids I got blended versions, like blended roast vegetables and meat. This was a great platform to develop my palate to food and introduce me to a range of foods. My dad especially was a great role model and influence in the kitchen and always encouraged me to get involved. He is not someone to follow a recipe but used to create amazing masterpieces 95 percent of the time by combining all sorts of flavours. However, five percent of the things we would make wouldn’t really work at all – but that is life. It taught me that in order to create a masterpiece and to find something new, you have to try a few things along the way, and they may not always work out as you expected. It’s all an experiment.

How did you get involved with the Jamie Oliver Food Revolution?

Jamie Oliver has been an idol of mine for a long time. His motivation and commitment to make a difference to the health of individuals around the world is inspiring. Having such an interest in this area, I used to follow a lot of his work on his websites and blogs. It was two years ago that the Food Revolution Ambassadors began and I read an article on it and thought – I’d love to do that! At the time I was just starting first year uni and didn’t want to take on more than I could chew so I waited until second year and there still was no ambassador for the ACT, so I applied and got the position. Now there are two ambassadors in the ACT and we volunteer within our communities to connect and support individuals working on health and food related initiatives.

Do you think young people today aren’t being taught how to eat healthily, and how to prepare their own meals? Is this an issue we need to address?

Unfortunately we have got to the stage where ‘eating healthy’ needs to be ‘taught’. However, it is a way of life including home-cooking with fresh produce and sharing cooking skills on through generations that is the key. And I’m not talking about everyone being Masterchefs! I’m just talking about having the confidence to grab some meat and veggies and throw together a stir fry or something for dinner. I do feel this is an issue we need to address, we are suffering from a rising epidemic of lifestyle diseases (also known as Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Most of the time these conditions are preventable, through lifestyle.  The thing is that  lifestyle is a tricky thing to ‘teach’.  People will live how they want to live. I suppose what the Food Revolution movement is aiming for is educating and inspiring communities and getting them to find the joy in cooking and sharing those skills so that as a community we can promote a way of life that nourishes our health and wellbeing and that of the next generation.

What are some of the exciting things you’ve done so far as a Food Revolution Ambassador?

In December 2013 I went to the Annual Obesity Summit held at the John Curtin Medical School at the ANU, it was an insightful experience hearing from some professionals from around Australia and some from overseas about their research, initiatives and proposals to combat the growing health problems around diet and obesity.

I have met with an amazing array of passionate people around Canberra and surrounding regions that are working towards making change in the community including Kay Richardson from The Children’s Food Education Foundation and The Big Feed; Zoe Bowman and the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation and many more. I have been working over the past year with YWCA Canberra’s Lanyon Youth and Community Centre, establishing relationships with the surrounding schools and community to increase food education. In May we celebrated Food Revolution Day with the launch of a community garden and the youth centre and had a day of food education, cooking and gardening which was enjoyed by all involved.

What drew you to studying medical science, and how do you think it will tie in with your interests around healthy eating/nutrition?

I’m studying Medical Science at the ANU, which is an undergraduate degree that is a precursor to enrolling in postgraduate medicine but can also be a stand alone degree. I graduate in July next year and am not going straight into medicine. I may choose to revisit it at a later stage in my life but my direction at the moment is more in the communications side of things. Helping to communicate and educate about medical related issues and help empower people to manage their own conditions and maintain their health and wellbeing.

What is the one message you hope people take on board from the Food Revolution movement?

I love the Food Revolution motto: Cook it. Share it. Live it. I think this sums up our key messages beautifully. We require food everyday of our lives and it influences how we feel day to day, how much energy we have and our health long term. Although people need to mindful that food is a composition of chemicals that each interact with your body in different ways, food is not simply fuel for our bodies it is a complex part of our social and cultural environment.

Something that my mum always comments on is the support she got throughout her early years of being diagnosed with type I diabetes, from family, friends and the medical staff and educators. The effect of community support on someones health and wellbeing should not be underestimated.

Find out more about the Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution at their website.

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