For decades, dietary advice has been notoriously faddy, ranging from 1980s and 1990s low-fat and low-carbohydrate guides to low-carb or intermittent fasting diets recommended in recent years.
But one program claims to be different: it promises to test how your individual body responds to different foods, and then teach you to eat the right ones for your biology.
And it all starts with eating a packet of muffins, a new twist, as the dieting world becomes more and more esoteric. But this program, created by the team behind the Covid symptom tracker app that was used during the pandemic, claims that its goal is better long-term health rather than weight loss.
The Guardian was invited to be the first British newspaper to sample the program by Prof Tim Spector, the scientific co-founder of Zoe, the company behind apps that track coronavirus and now nutrition. And the big lesson I’ve learned so far is “less sourdough, more nuts, cheese and avocado” – at least for me; another can get a completely different piece of advice.
The idea was born out of research suggesting that even identical twins respond differently to eating the exact same meal. By identifying which foods lead to large, prolonged increases in blood sugar or fats – both of which can trigger inflammation and contribute to the development of diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease or dementia – the idea is that you can learn to avoid these foods, or combine them with others to help minimize these tips.
Through the post, I received a blood sample with finger prick, several packets of standardized muffins, a continuous glucose monitor that I put on my arm, and a stool sample set to analyze my gut microbes. I was also told to download the Zoe app and was connected to a personal nutrition coach.
Every day for the next two weeks, I logged everything I ate into the app, sometimes I ate several muffins and took a blood sample to measure the amount of fat in my blood. This, combined with data from my food log, glucose sensor and stool sample, would be crushed by an algorithm to calculate my individual reactions to the foods I had eaten – and predict my responses to many more.
Spector is perhaps best known for his work leading the Zoe Covid study, but the company’s nutrition program was underway long before the pandemic. Now that continuous lockdowns have endowed so many of us with an extra “Covid stone,” Spector is on a mission to change the nation’s attitude toward food.
The goal is not weight loss per se, but better long-term health. Preliminary clinical study data show that after three months on a personal Zoe plan, 82% of participants had more energy, 83% no longer felt hungry, and members experienced an average weight loss of 4.3 kg.
Dr. Sammie Gill, a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, said: “I have no doubt that in the future, personal nutrition, which offers targeted interventions and tailored recommendations based on a person’s physiological and microbiological responses, will become part of routine clinical practice. “It’s a real paradigm shift and is based on the premise that dietary advice that offers standardized advice to everyone is too simplistic.”
Even before I received the results, my glucose sensor had provided some interesting insights. For example, my go-to breakfast, a slice of sourdough sprinkled in butter and honey, would cause my blood sugar to rise and then plummet, but if I ate the same breakfast immediately before exercise, the effect was far less pronounced.
“These sugar peaks also tend to be followed by a sugar dip in about every fourth person, and that then causes increased hunger and reduced energy levels, so you tend to eat more,” Spector said.
So when my results finally arrived, I was not so surprised to learn that blood sugar control is not my metabolically strong side – even though mine is fairly average. This does not mean that simple carbohydrates, such as white bread, are now banned.
Under the Zoe system, each food is assigned a score out of 100, specific to you as an individual. So while white rice gives me a score of 17-42, depending on the type, this rises to 75 if I combine rice with split peas – which means I can consume it regularly.
Fortunately, I can report that my lipid control – how quickly I remove it from my circulation – is excellent, even if it does not mean I can eat cakes and whipped cream with abandonment, because the app also takes into account their effect on the growth of good and bad intestinal bacteria (and these foods promote bad). However, that means avocados, cheese, Greek yogurt and nuts are now fixtures on my menu.
Although I am happy to eat more of them, I worry about the effect on my waist. But my coach tells me that not all calories are created equal and that they should be considered as an average indicator of energy supply.
I also got a score for my microbial health whose diversity is below average, possibly due to a longer course of antibiotics. But fortunately it is rich in bacteria that support blood sugar control. I was given a list of foods to try to increase their levels further – mostly vegetables and nuts, but also green tea and black coffee.
The total price of the test kit is £ 259.99 and most commit to a four-month program at £ 34.99 a month.
Zoe is not the only company developing this concept of personal nutrition, but it is one of the first to hit the UK market. Prof John Mathers, director of the Newcastle University’s Human Nutrition Research Center, broadly supports the idea, calling it “based on high-quality research” with the power to “help motivate individuals to eat healthier”.
His concern is over the urgency of commercialization and that it may be a simplified way to predict long-term health. He also does not like the suggestion that it is unnecessary to limit energy intake in order to lose weight. “These are seductive ideas, but in my opinion the evidence available is too limited to be sure they are correct.”
However, I love that the app provides real-time feedback on what you are considering putting in your mouth. I already drink less wine and have noticed that I am now less likely to feel like biscuits and chocolate after meals.
I also consume far more vegetables – especially at lunchtime, where my typical sandwich has been replaced with a wholemeal or bean-based salad with lots of leaves and seeds. Even though I am not losing weight, my gut microbes will definitely thank me. Just do not stand too close to me in an enclosed space.