Go with your gut: scientist Tim Spector on why food isn’t just fuel

Tim Spector’s kitchen fridge is teeming with life: kefir grains, sourdough mother, homemade kimchi and kombucha. Then there are the vegetables: as varied and colorful as possible.

While many diets avoid certain food groups, Spector’s focuses on including as much variety as possible: at least 30 different plants per week — including nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables — on top of starchy staples like potatoes or rice. The reason? According to him, diversity is crucial to ward off infections, fight age-related diseases and maintain a healthy weight.

Diversity cultivates a healthy microbiome — the microorganisms that live in our gut — that play a vital role in digesting food, regulating our immune system and modifying our brain chemistry through the chemicals they produce. “It’s that diversity of gut microbes that gives you a diversity of chemicals and, we believe, a healthier immune system and better metabolism,” Spector says. “Once people start to see that there’s a connection between the food we eat, our microbes and our immune system, I think that changes the way we think about food. It’s not just fuel. It really changes the way we think about food.” body works.”

Spector’s diet today is very different from what he used to eat: typical muesli, orange juice, and tea for breakfast—sometimes with toast and marmalade—and a tuna mayonnaise sandwich, a packet of crisps, and a carton of orange juice for lunch. “My breakfast now is a mixture of kefir and full-fat yogurt topped with some berries and mixed nuts and seeds, plus one or two large cups of black coffee. For lunch I might eat a curry, or some other heavily plant-based meal. I am virtually vegetarian and eat much less starchy foods than I used to.”

The event that led to this change was a mini-stroke on top of a mountain when he was in his early fifties, after an energetic day of skiing in the Alps. “I went from being a sporty, fitter-than-average middle-aged man to a pill-popping, depressed, high blood pressure stroke victim,” he recalls. It was a wake-up call that led him to reassess everything he thought he knew about healthy eating, including much of what he learned in medical school.

Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, has spent much of his career investigating how our life choices and events fuse with our genes. In 1993 he founded the UK Twins Registry at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, one of the richest collections of data on identical and non-identical twins in the world.

For years, Spector believed that genetics would explain a lot of why people are the way they are. And to a certain extent. Spector’s group, for example, was one of the first to show that people’s weight distribution is largely influenced by their genes.

The problem is, although identical twins have many similarities, they can often be very different – ​​despite sharing the same genes. “Trying to understand why one twin is sometimes overweight and the other skinny; one person gets diabetes or cancer and the other doesn’t has been an important theme for twenty years,” says Spector.

The discovery, in 2014, that the composition of the microbes in people’s guts could influence their body weight provided Spector’s first “Aha!” moment. But the blinders really fell off when he and his colleagues measured the responses of twins and non-twins to identical meals, and found that they could differ greatly between individuals, influenced by both the microbiome and genetics.

“Up until that point, we didn’t really believe enough that you could personalize food, or that you could link the uniqueness of the microbiome to the uniqueness in the food response — but suddenly you had those two elements together,” Spectator says. “We are all very different in how we respond to the same meal, and much of this is explained by the vast differences in our microbiomes.”

This doesn’t mean other factors aren’t relevant to people’s health: “How much you sleep at night, the quality of your food, the exercise you get, all of these things are important too,” Spector says. “All we’re saying is that the microbiome is an important modifiable factor.”

Spector likens the bacteria, fungi and viruses in our guts to a kind of inner chemical factory: “Our own bodies produce only 20 or so intestinal hormones or chemicals, but these microbes produce thousands, which not only break down food into small amounts and use its contents, but produce a lot of signaling chemicals that constantly send messages to our immune system,” he says. They also produce brain chemicals, such as serotonin, as well as additional molecules that control how our bodies turn food into energy.

“We don’t know exactly how, but the state of your gut microbes will affect your blood sugar spikes, as well as how you digest fats and how quickly those fats are cleared by the body. Indirectly, both will lead to inflammation.”

This is important, Spector explains, because chronic inflammation can increase the risk of several diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. It can also cause people to shed more body fat, which in turn causes more inflammation.

Our microbiome can also shape our responses to infections. Spector is probably best known for his work on the ZOE Covid Symptom Examinationwith millions of users recording their daily symptoms through an app to gain a better understanding of how Sars-CoV-2 spreads and the nature of the disease it causes.

Tim Specter carries giant asparagus
Photo: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

One insight from the study is that people who consumed a greater diversity of plant foods pre-pandemic appear to be less susceptible to contract Covid-19, or become seriously ill from it. While this doesn’t definitively prove that eating a varied plant-based diet can ward off infection, Spector believes it could help: “Your immune system is compromised if you don’t have a good microbiome controlling it, and so it can either under- or over-react. [to pathogens]”I don’t think eating for our microbiomes would stop pandemics, but I think it could make everyone less sick if they got infected.”

So, how do we eat for our microbiome? According to Spector, this comes back to consuming a varied and predominantly plant-based diet, which is free of highly processed foods. “These are foods you recognize that you can make yourself from your kitchen ingredients,” Spector says. “They are plants that are rich in defense chemicals called polyphenols – generally plants with a strong taste and color, a slight bitterness, a thick skin – basically the opposite of iceberg lettuce. It’s those grapes we had as kids that were a little sour and bitter. It is more the purple carrot than the white carrot”

To increase the polyphenol content even further, Spector recommends using green tea, extra virgin olive oil, brightly colored fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, plus a layer of dark chocolate. And don’t forget the four K’s: kefir, kombucha, kimchi and kraut (sauer) – as well as cheese and yogurt – which serve as fertilizer for our gut bacteria.

What this entails is very similar to a Mediterranean diet — a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and containing less meat and dairy products than a typical Western diet. Spector says: “It doesn’t really matter if you have extra bits of meat and fish on the side – I don’t think they’re necessarily healthy, but as long as you get enough plants on your plate it’s fine.”

In his latest book, Spoon Fed, Spector also discusses how microbes can affect people’s mental health. There is a growing consensus among scientists that depression may be linked to increased levels of inflammation in at least a subset of patients; Spector argues that having the right gut microbes can counteract this, as they secrete a range of chemicals that both control inflammation and change our mood more directly. For example, certain microbes help produce serotonin — the same chemical that’s increased by some antidepressants. Studies have also suggested that, on average, people with depression have a less diverse array of microbes compared to healthy individuals. “A varied Mediterranean diet that includes a range of fermented foods to keep your microbes happy looks like the best gift you can give your brain,” Spector writes.

Spector describes the changes he’s made to his diet as “an evolving process.” He only eats meat about once a month, while for sustainability he only eats fish occasionally, in restaurants: “I wouldn’t say I suddenly had the answer when I discovered the microbiome, but I’m slowly getting into the habit. change I had when I was a smug doctor who thought I knew everything.’ In addition to a desire to nurture his “indoor garden,” his food choices are motivated by the insights he gained from following his personal reactions to different foods. This is why he avoids large amounts of pasta, rice and potatoes – not because they are inherently unhealthy, but because use of a continuous glucose meter has been shown to cause worryingly high spikes in his blood sugar.

He is very dismissive of one-size-fits-all diets, and the idea that weight loss is all about calories in calories out: “It’s complete nonsense,” he says. “You and I can eat two identical muffins with the same calories in them, and you may have a mild sugar spike and no sugar dip, while I have a major sugar spike and a sugar dip, and I will eat 200 calories too much in that day, and I do You don’t. That simple experiment, which we’ve now done on thousands of people, throws the idea out of the blue that it’s all about calories.”

in April, ZOE, the personalized nutrition company Spector co-founded, began inviting about 180,000 people on the waiting list to purchase an early access version of its “ZOE programme”, an effort to bring personalized nutrition to the British masses. It’s still a luxury lifestyle option at the moment – its £260 price tag makes it out of reach for the mass market – but early access members will start with an at-home test, the results of which will give them personalized scores for thousands of foods across the country. ZOE app. Members also have access to daily lessons, recipes, live chat with ZOE coaches and more. The program consists of two parts: testing and continuous membership. A test kit consisting of three packs of standardized muffins (to test your biological responses and challenge your metabolism with high doses of fat and sugar), a continuous glucose meter, plus stool and blood collection kits; the idea is to test how people respond to different foods over a two-week period, and give them personalized scores for thousands of foods and nutritional coaching based on these results.

Spector’s ultimate goal is to change the way people think about food. “You eat hundreds of chemicals when you eat a carrot. It’s not just the orange color — there’s all these other things that are hidden,” he says. “All those things are lost when you put food in a factory, ultra-process it and put it in a vacuum package.”

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