Tim Spector is an Epidemiologist and Author of ‘The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat.’ His company ZOE offers a personalised nutrition programme tailored to fluctuations in your blood sugar levels and gut microbiome.
Our mind consists of three brains: the head, the heart and the gut. When an embryo develops these formative structures co-emerge to create an intelligent feedback axis. While studies and trials provide indicative insights into sample populations, it is the ‘no-one-size’ fits all approach that’s driving personalised genomic solutions. Many of the most interesting insights about ourselves lie within the unconscious, the autonomic, and the intangible. The popularity of technology such as the Oura ring demonstrates our growing desire to monitor, track, alter and peek into these invisible worlds.
Foods can be categorised as ‘healthy‘ or ‘unhealthy’ using many different factors including caloric content, nutritional content, level of processing and glycemic index. It is the latter that ZOE aims to focus on. Broadly speaking ‘healthy’ foods have a lower glycemic index (GI), meaning that they spike blood insulin levels less rapidly, which helps to reduce the risk of co-morbidities such as diabetes. As a general rule, unprocessed, high fibre foods have a lower GI. However this can vary between individuals – in one person tomatoes might spike blood sugar levels more than a piece of chocolate cake. This is due to epigenetics: a person’s unique genetic makeup and the way in which gene expression changes according to dynamic interactions within a fluctuating environment.
Diet advice has notoriously been conflicting and confusing. From the processed pyramid scheme based on refined grains adopted by governmental guidelines, to the Atkins and Keto cults, studies show that today’s superfood is tomorrow’s villain. In The Diet Myth by Tim Spector he summarises his personal experiments as follows: “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Nothing is binary and in an environment of various industrial production practices, nothing is entirely safe. But ZOE promises to allay our paranoia by giving us a handle on that.
Created by the team behind the Covid symptom tracker app used during the pandemic, ZOE claims that its aims are better for long-term health rather than weight loss. Subscribers receive finger prick blood tests through the post, along with several packets of standardised muffins, a continuous glucose monitor for your arm, and a stool sample kit to analyse gut microbes. You are also connected to the ZOE app which invites you to consult with a personal nutrition coach.
If you’ve ever tried an at-home finger prick blood test, you will partly understand how and why Elizabeth Holmes managed to scam her way through Theranos. Because they are impossible. On top of this you are required to log everything you eat in the app, which then combines the data from your food log with your glucose sensor and stool sample to calculate your individual responses to foods, while using its oracle algorithm to predict your responses to many more. You literally have to be anal about this to want those long-term health effects.
However, interim clinical study data shows that after three months on a personalised ZOE plan, 82% of participants had more energy, 83% no longer felt hungry, and members experienced an average weight loss of 4.3kg. And the initial insights gained during the process have the potential to create sustainable shifts. For example, one participant described how she began a daily habit of exercising in the morning, after seeing visual evidence of the effects this had on lowering her blood glucose levels, despite making no changes to her breakfast diet. This holistic approach could help to prevent possible side-effects like orthorexia.
Professor John Mathers, the director of Newcastle University’s Human Nutrition Research Centre, is broadly supportive of the idea, calling it “based on high-quality research.” His concern is over the rush to commercialisation, and that it may be a simplistic way to predict long-term health. He also dislikes the suggestion that it is unnecessary to limit energy intake to lose weight. “These are seductive ideas, but in my view the available evidence is too limited to be confident that they are correct.”
At a price of £259.99, with most people committing to a four-month programme of £34.99 pcm (because those subscriptions have to sustain themselves), is it worth it? The answer will be individual. And dependent on your circumstances and environment. Aside from my curiosity around what niche supplemental lotions and potions might do to the algorithm, I enjoy being healthy as much as I enjoy my food, and at this stage in my life, I think I feel happy with a slightly more soulful approach.