Scientist Tim Spector busts many food myths we were brought up to believe, and tells Wendyl Nissen why one diet does not fit all.
It is a bit of a tradition to start the new year with a new diet plan. “This year I’m going to lose 10kg,” could win the award for the most commonly said statement that ever comes true.
We have never been more confused about what we should and shouldn’t eat for our health, as we are bombarded with new scientific discoveries every day.
One person who knows more than most about this confusion is Professor Tim Spector, who has taken our deep-rooted ideas about food and proved that, shockingly, there is very little good evidence to support them.
The author of Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food is Wrong knows how to analyse science, and discovered to his horror the scandalous lack of good science behind many medical and government food regulations.
I have been a fan of Tim’s ever since he wrote The Diet Myth back in 2015, when he was one of the first people to talk about gut microbiomes and the first to eat a steak once a month instead of resorting to B12 injections.
We talked one evening on Zoom and I wasn’t at all surprised to see a very healthy, fit man my age, dressed in a T-shirt, happy to have a chat and a laugh. For a scientist he has a great sense of humour.
I eagerly read Spoon-Fed and before I knew it I was testing my blood glucose levels using the device my mother used to control her diabetes. She died in 2019, but my father had tucked it away in the medicine drawer.
We’re all different
Tim has found that no one is the same, which is why one diet won’t work for everyone. Some people get massive blood sugar spikes from eating bread, others don’t. And when you get a spike it means you are putting stress on your pancreas and liver, and those spikes also affect how you process fats.
To my alarm I was getting high readings for carbs such as potatoes, and I immediately decided I needed to change the way I eat. Less carbs, more vegetables.
“I walked around with a monitor on me for weeks and found that foods I ate regularly, believing they were good for me, like my tuna and sweetcorn sandwich every day for lunch, were causing huge spikes,” says Tim.
“I realised, after getting more people to monitor themselves, that we are all different and we all react differently to different foods, so why would we all try to eat the same things or lose weight the same way?”
Tim says the way we eat is often formed in our childhood, such as being told that eating breakfast is the most important meal of the day, eating fish will make you brainy, or having snacks like morning and afternoon tea with a biscuit is something you must do.
“I think it’s time to free ourselves from convention, and experiment to see what our body needs and what is good for it. We have so much choice and so many ways to experiment and look at different eating patterns.”
Tim recommends that people get a blood glucose monitor and test their reaction to food for a couple of weeks to at least get some idea of the things that cause blood sugar spikes. Bread caused spikes for him, while his wife, Veronique Bataille, was fine. But she got high spikes for pasta and he didn’t.
Think for yourself
Tim believes that in the future we will all walk around with some kind of wearable device that records exercise, sleep, stress, our heart and probably more. It will help us work out how our bodies function best. And it will most likely be completely different from the people we live with and eat meals with.
He also questions every diet plan, government recommendation, miracle cure or food label and encourages us to think for ourselves rather than go with the flow.
“What I’m trying to do here is give people the wake-up call and tell them that they are sleepwalking towards more ill health and obesity if we carry on like this. Don’t be a sucker for marketing, don’t put up with it.
At least have your eyes open and experiment without following some religious dogma, because there is no perfect diet out there,” he says.
His book has not been popular with the food industry, who have paid influencers to attack him online, but he says that with his scientific credentials, he is quite hard to attack.
“I have been offered a lot of consulting positions by people who make cereals and things like that to shut me up,” says Tim. “And the food industry is now working on ‘personalised nutrition’, so expect to see that on labels along with ‘microbiome-friendly’ – that’s the new big thing.”
Once you read the myths Tim has busted, such as saturated fat is a major cause of heart disease, or sugar-free foods are a safe way to lose weight, Tim’s advice for eating is simple.
Diversity is important and he would like us to eat 20 to 30 different species of plants a week. At first I thought this was impossible, but then I realised that in one meal of salad or stir-fry I could pack in five or six different vegetables, not to mention some tofu, baked beans and herbs. In reality, 30 in a week is quite doable, especially once you add fruit and different types of berries.
He also recommends that you don’t drink zero- calorie soda drinks, as the science shows they don’t help you lose weight. For some reason – and scientists still haven’t found out why – artificial sweeteners, which are chemicals, are not processed by our bodies as simply as we think. There is a reaction but it’s not one that helps us lose weight and it’s not one that helps your gut microbiome.
He also recommends you get rid of processed foods, don’t count calories, and feed your gut with fermented foods. “Whatever you do, keep your gut microbiome safe. Try the keto diet by all means but make sure you still eat lots of different plants and go in with your eyes open. Just because it worked for someone you know, doesn’t mean it is right for your body.”
Tim Spector is a professor at King’s College, London, and has a passion for spreading the word about his research findings on diet and the gut microbiome.