What should I have for dinner? A question you no doubt ask yourself daily. But maybe you don't spend too long coming up with an answer. ZOE's scientific co-founder, Tim Spector, has been trying to answer this question for a decade.
If you're a regular listener, you probably know him well. Five years ago, he published best-selling book, The Diet Myth, and just last month he released the follow-up, Food for Life, the New Science of Eating Well.
In this episode, you'll hear a chapter from the book, titled “So Now What Should I Have for Dinner?”
Tim Spector is a co-founder of ZOE and one of the world's top 100 most cited scientists.
If you want to uncover the right foods for your body, head to joinZOE.com/podcast and get 10% off your personalized nutrition program.
Get Tim’s book here.
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Episode transcripts are available here.
This podcast was produced by Fascinate Productions.
[00:00:00] Jonathan Wolf: Welcome to ZOE Science & Nutrition, where world-leading scientists explain how their research can improve your health.
Now, what should I have for dinner? A question you no doubt ask yourself daily. But perhaps you don't spend too long coming to an answer. ZOE's scientific co-founder, Tim Spector, has been trying to answer this question for a decade. If you're a regular listener, you probably know him well by now. He's one of the world's top 100 most-cited scientists and a successful author.
Five years ago, he published his best-selling book, The Diet Myth, and just last month he released the follow-up, Food for Life, the New Science of Eating Well.
In today's episode, you'll hear a chapter from the book, titled “So Now What Should I Have for Dinner?” This passage will transport you along Tim's food journey from the moment 11 years ago when he discovered he had a major health crisis, through a journey of deep scientific investigation to reassess everything he thought he knew about food, and to today, where he realizes the answer about the right food for his body is different from anyone else's.
Today's episode is a festive gift from Tim, myself, and everyone here at ZOE, full of philosophies to apply to your own diet. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this chapter from Food for Life, the New Science of Eating Well.
[00:01:44] Narrator: Chapter 11. So Now What Should I Have for Dinner?
The dreadful mistakes we have been making with food are perhaps most obvious in the diets of our children. All of the foods now identified as harmful and lacking any health benefits are the foods that we often feed children in the U.K. and U.S. UPFs in the many forms of crisps, snacks and pizzas, juices, breakfast cereals, and fruit yogurts with excessive added sugars, ready meals, and processed meats and fish.
Clever food marketing and dishonest labeling can fool parents into thinking they are buying food appropriate for their kids, but one in five children under 12 in the U.S. and U.K. is obese with numbers still growing, especially among the poorest children. We also need to ban the abomination of unnecessary children's menus in restaurants that do not exist in countries where childhood obesity is unusual and let children get used to eating real food early in life.
The first 1000 days from conception to the child's second birthday is the most important window where the blueprint for adult health is set and the microbiome is most flexible. By feeding our children fake foods from birth, from ultra-processed formula milk to ready-made puree pouches, to white processed bread, croissants, yupi veggie sticks, sugar-laden fromage frais, chips, and chicken nuggets, all washed down with fruit juice flavored milk, or even soda, we are emitting the key building blocks for their bodies and brains. As adults, we have a responsibility to the next generation. Growing social inequality is reflected most starkly in diet, where food insecurity leads to food choices that make obesity and type two diabetes nearly inevitable. And those effects are felt by the whole of society as our health infrastructure and economy crumble under its weight.
Teaching our children to choose, prepare, and eat real food in a family setting is one of the most wonderful lessons we can impart to future generations and something we should all try to make time for. Keeping close contact with food, handling it, and cooking it ourselves gives us an element of control, appreciation, and connection that we might otherwise lose.
Politicians have for decades ignored the devastating impact of poor diets on health, and it is naive to believe that governments will make critical policy steps anytime soon. There have been signs that this is moving up the agenda such as the commissioning of the 2021 Dimbleby food report mentioned earlier, but as we saw in 2022 with the U.K. government's wimpy response to it, they are scared of taking any real action to reverse the trends, quoting the nanny state and personal choice. Many of the recommendations they did accept are unlikely to become reality without a tougher stance. My hope and belief are that we can change the system via a ground-up approach, empowering individuals to change their habits and educate others.
While researching this book over the past five years, I have made many discoveries that have improved my life, and I hope you will gain similar insights too. Because of the very personal nature of food and health and our uniqueness in terms of our microbiomes, I am wary of personal anecdotes, but I am often asked about my own habits and diet, so I want to share them as examples, hoping that some of these ideas and my own food journey may also help you to experiment with yours.
When I had my first medical scare that started my food journey, I was 84 kilograms. I had been slowly gaining weight for over 10 years without noticing. I thought it was muscle and my waist had crept up to four inches more than my ideal size. My first diet change was fairly simple to stop eating meat, which forced me to seek out more plants.
I had to stop and think before eating the food offered to me and ask what exactly was in it. I also reduced my salt intake conscientiously for a month. Although I found like many others that despite the sacrifice, this had little effect on my blood pressure. As I read more about the benefits of plants, I decided to try a vegan diet.
I managed this for just over a month. Although I felt virtuous, it was tough going, not because of missing meat, but because I was traveling for work in the US with very limited and poor food choices, and because I really missed and craved real cheese. For the next few years, I settled into a meat-free plant and dairy-rich diet with occasional fish, and an organic vegetable and fruit box delivery to my home was really useful.
After a while, I switched to the now popular vegetarian organic meal boxes that come with a complete set of ingredients, including herbs and spices, and instructions on how to prepare your meal usually in half an hour. This increased my culinary repertoire and the diversity of plants I was eating every week, which I knew was good for my microbes.
I became more adventurous with novel ingredients when eating out and was often pleasantly surprised. Researching more deeply about individual foods helped me to increase my own food diversity further. I would investigate the far corners of my local Turkish-run greengrocers to find some interesting-looking vegetable fruit or variety of mushroom.
I now look at plants differently, selecting varieties that have more redness or color on the leaves that signal their protective polyphenols, or those that just look fresher. I go out of my way to find odd-colored vegetables like purple carrots, potatoes, and Jerusalem artichokes and have lost interest in bland iceberg lettuce and cucumbers.
I replace them with the many other diverse members of the cabbage family, which I became less afraid of as I learned to roast steam and fry them, in interesting. Understanding caramelization and the Maillard browning reaction really made me want to sear everything at the magic 140 degrees Celsius to get the extra chemicals and flavors in the pan or in the oven.
Just boiling vegetables now seems plain wrong. My herb and spice straw expanded and I started experimenting by adding sumac to avocado on toast or using a wide range of spices on roasted sweet potato, cauliflower, or hispi cabbage. Experimenting with the vegetables left in the fridge to make a curry or middle eastern dish became fun.
I became fussier with my cooking oils, rarely using anything other than high-quality, extra virgin olive oil and avoiding old oil that had started to deteriorate. I am less frightened to liven up a dish and change the acidity with lemon or vinegar liberally adding yogurt, kefir, or sour cream, or adding salt or soy sauce.
My views on meat and fish eating have also continued to evolve. In 2011, I thought the evidence was clear that red meat was bad and fish good. Now the distinction is murkier. Although heavily processed meat appears consistently bad, there is no good evidence that good quality red meat is worse for our health than fish, at least for most people.
And I worry about the sustainability of fish eating. So I eat less fish now, and when I do, I shop at my fishmongers and choose higher quality varieties from a known local source. I also eat a small amount of high-quality grass-fed organic meat or salami once or twice a month, which keeps my otherwise low B12 levels steady, helped by occasional organic free-range eggs, but I do now know that I could live meat free without my world ending.
Learning about all the fats, protein, fiber, and other nutrients in nuts and seeds made me add them to many more dishes and try to have a handful most days, whether for breakfast on yogurt, lunch with some fruit, or sprinkled on my evening meal, mushrooms have become more of a regular feature in my diet and I try to add them to many dishes, picking different varieties in season.
They are a great source of protein, fiber, polyphenols, and vitamin D, and when mixed with carbs, add a delicious umami flavor. I try to eat at least one fermented food per day, often several. And this can be in small amounts such as a single shot of kefir or kombucha or yogurt or kraut added to my curry or chili.
I have also started to make my own fermented foods, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, and sourdough, albeit with different levels of success. At first, my kombucha mother sank worryingly to the bottom. Tip, weight, and it usually re-floats. Our fridge is permanently stuffed with various mothers, blobs, and murky alien liquids in jars.
With kombucha, you can literally see the SCOBY changing the dark tea into a light complex sour sparkling drink over a few days. It is easy to imagine the similar process that goes on in our guts, every day. The latest data also points to the benefits of our gut microbes having a holiday every now and then. As well as reducing my snacking, I give mine a long break on as many days as I can by having a 14-hour fast.
This is easy to start to do on a Saturday night by finishing eating at nine and waiting until after 11 the next morning to have Sunday brunch. When I'm feeling virtuous or putting on weight, I might have an intermittent fasting day with minimal food. I like a glass or two of wine and try to pick red most of the time. But I know getting the balance right is a delicate matter. We can all justify our choices and mine is that it gives me pleasure and I may be helping my microbes as most of my intake is a polyphenol-rich red wine with a bit of artisan beer or cider.
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Along with many millions of people in the U.K. and other countries, I have tried a non-alcoholic dry January, which is a good lesson in self-control. Rather than have one dry month in 12, though it is looking healthier to spread out those 30 days over the year. So I try, note the word, and try to have an alcohol-free day once a week. The kombucha comes in very handy as an alcohol substitute on those days, plus, a fast-improving range of alcohol-free beers.
Helped by our collaboration with Matt Walker, the sleep expert at Berkeley, and author of the best-selling Why We Sleep, I also discovered the importance of sleep quality and timing in reducing our sugar peaks and in the functioning of our gut microbes. Our microbes need a good regular nap to fit in with their own circadian rhythm, and the PREDICT study shows the benefits on our metabolism of going to bed earlier and not eating late at night.
I also try to emulate the Hausa who, like our ancestors, go to sleep each night at 11 and wake at dawn to get their seven and a half hours, supplemented by the odd power nap in the afternoon. Foods and drinks can affect sleep quality, which is nearly as important as duration. And I have tried to limit drinking alcohol to earlier in the evening to reduce the disruption to sleep quality and have a herbal tea nightcap instead.
Personalizing my diet
I was lucky to be one of the first to take part in the ZOE PREDICT study, so I now have some unique insights into how my microbes and my metabolism respond to a wide range of foods. With the power to measure these scores at home, we are able to keep track of how the scores change as the body changes with age and improved health.
My results from the study allowed ZOE to compute individual scores for my foods, ranging from 100, eat as much as I like to zero, eat rarely. On setting up my continuous glucose monitor, my first shock was my blood sugar reading first thing in the morning, which on most days showed I was peaking with high levels, which classified me as pre-diabetic. My grandmother died of type two diabetes heart complications, aged 70, so there were a few genes running in the family, which I likely inherited with high baseline blood levels, it wasn't surprising I reacted strongly to some starchy foods such as rice and potatoes, though luckily not to all.
I also found out that like most people, I had a larger sugar reaction to my test muffins at lunch than at breakfast. But my peak, unlike most people, was not as high in the evening. This reinforced my instinct that regular large lunches were not ideal for me. I ate a sandwich at lunch for about 25 years, and I find warm fresh bread impossible to resist in restaurants so my high sugar reaction to the bread was really annoying. My score out of the ideal 100 was near zero, eat rarely, most bread types, except if packed with seeds or made with rye, especially German style, which I can eat in moderation. I try to eat bread as fermented sourdough with at least some rye. Home-baked gives me better ZOE scores and combined with some fats such as cheese or avocado to reduce the sugar peak.
I am still occasionally tempted by a great-smelling warm croissant, bagel, or baguette, but am more picky on the quality, making sure it tastes good enough to be worthwhile. Luckily, I have no major peaks with most types of rice and pasta. ZOE scores 30 to 40 and so generally do well with Italian and Asian meals, although I try to have a greater balance of the vegetable source to pasta ratio and have to be careful with sticky rice.
I have also learned that buying par-boiled rice is much better nutritionally and metabolically than I thought. Gnocchi is now an occasional treat as it is usually made with refined potato ZOE scores zero, so I counterbalance it with walnuts, mushrooms, and broccoli. In Middle Eastern dishes, I avoid couscous other than in very small amounts, score nine, and opt for bulgur wheat, 45, pearl barley,77, or quinoa 46.
Of all my meals breakfasts have perhaps changed most over the last 15 years. I used to eat different types of muesli, zero to four, with orange juice, zero. In winter, I often used to swap this for porridge made from oats and thought buying more expensive, organic, rolled jumbo oats, zero to 10, was healthy. I now eat steel cut varieties, 40, that need longer to soak and cook and are best made in larger batches most days now, if I'm eating breakfast, I will have a full-fat yogurt mixed with kefir, mixed nuts and seeds, and some chopped fruit or berries frozen or fresh. As for fruit, I have now gone for more variety so that I don't just eat my standard banana every day, which gave me a moderate spike, a score of 38, while apples, 68, and pears, 62, are better, as are all the berries.
Blackberries, 77, strawberries, 75. Grapes turned out to be my nemesis, 36. Not helped by the fact. I usually at too many. I still have just a few accompanied by cheese, which hopefully reduces the speed of the sugar absorption. The fats in nuts also seem to help reduce the effect of any fruit. Adding fat to your carbs may not suit everyone though.
In the ZOE PREDICT study, I was keen to explore how my body processed and got rid of the fats in my food. Especially as official guidelines suggest I should take statins. Due to my gender, age, and family history of cardiovascular disease, I'm in my sixties and fairly fit with a good set of microbes. My pre-meal, morning blood fat levels, LDL, and triglycerides were healthier, the low end of the range, and so I was confident of a good score.
But the final results showed my fat responses were in the worst 10% of men, six hours after eating too much fat was still hanging around in my bloodstream. This was disappointing. I thought I could handle unlimited fat, but apparently not. I would therefore fare badly on a traditional ketogenic diet, which is ideally 70% fat.
I was between a rock and a hard place, unable to eat too many carbs or too many fats. I have to be careful about which fats I do eat and how many at one sitting as I eat little meat and consume good quality extra virgin olive oil, avocados, or whole nuts, these high-quality fats are not the problem. My main fat vice is cheese.
I could just stop eating it, but that would be a disaster as I would be missing out on one of my favorite foods and a great source of probiotics. So now I try to reduce the amount of cheese I eat in one sitting, and choose the most ethical and probiotic-rich versions I can, giving my body time to digest it.
Despite my poor ZOE fat score, I have not stopped eating natural fats in tasty, good-quality foods. I eat butter and full-fat cream and yogurt. I don't drink much milk, but when I do buy it now it is full fat, organic, or increasingly fortified oat milk, which is better for the planet, but in small amounts, as it spikes my blood glucose.
There is nothing like one's own experience to change habits. I had already cut out orange and other fruit juice just based on the amount of sugar in it but confirming that my sugar peaks were as high for Coke or Pepsi, rammed the message home. I used to have an occasional diet drink with artificial sweeteners, but now I have seen my own metabolic reaction with sucrose, one of the commonest sweeteners, and read about the effect on microbes.
I now try to avoid them, but not obsessively. And don't think the occasional can or additive will harm me, as long as it is not regular. Paying attention to daily habits is more important than striving for perfection. I buy better quality coffee or tea as this is likely to improve the levels of beneficial polyphenols and fiber I get multiple times a day.
Some specialty coffees are now marketed as being high in polyphenols, and if you enjoy tea, make green tea part of your routine. My resting metabolic rate and estimated resting energy needs were low compared to most people. This confirmed that I need to be careful about my energy balance and what I eat to not gain weight.
I, like many others, found that exercising several hours per week felt good and improved my alertness and fitness and was undoubtedly good for my heart, but it had no effect on my weight, as the body compensates and tries to maintain the stored fat levels, I now cycle about five hours per week and swim regularly in the summer, which probably helps a bit, but I would need to double this before I saw a major effect on weight.
Most people cannot exercise to lose weight unless they are regularly running marathons. Although some studies show long-term exercise can reduce chances of relapse after an initial weight loss. Writing this book during one of the worst food and economic crises ever, I'm very aware of how difficult making food choices can be.
Many families have to choose between having a hot meal or a warm shower. I know I am privileged to have access to both every day. The luxury of time to prepare and cook food is also not always available, but hopefully, this book will show that expensive superfoods and prohibitive meal plans are not the way to harness the power of foods for our well-being.
Expensive does not mean superfood. Cheap does not always mean unhealthy, and some minimally processed food is perfectly healthy. Processed and pre-packed par-boiled rice that can be rapidly cooked in a microwave has a surprising amount of nutrients compared to more expensive rice. Whole plants from the market, vegetable aisle, or greengrocers are generally cheaper than meats or convenience foods.
Seasonal, local berries and cheaper legumes, nuts, and seeds are usually as good as more exotic varieties and can be enjoyed frozen, dried, or even canned. Frozen peas and berries, canned tomatoes and pulses, and even baked beans depending on the source are both economical and good for you. Even a baked potato or boiled potato with the skin on is perfectly healthy as part of a varied and diverse diet.
If buying organic produce is not an option, thoroughly cleaning fruits and vegetables with running water will help reduce the levels of pesticides we consume. Understanding which foods suit us best is important, but we shouldn't forget that the experience of cooking and eating together is probably as important as the food.
Sharing a table or plate with another human is one of the most important social interactions we have. The longevity of the population in areas like Liguria, Sardinia, Okinawa, or Crete, may owe more to the social side of eating and drinking communally, even in old age. Engaging with food invites others to share your experience and communal eating improves your well-being and happiness.
Nor should we ignore other lifestyle choices which impact our health and interact with our microbes. Obviously, smoking is bad for us and no amount of blueberries can balance the damage of cigarettes. The same can be said of crash diets with processed meal replacement bars and chemical powder meals.
Reaching an ideal weight should not be our main aim. Like many people, I don't always obey my own rules and can find myself tempted, or maybe in social situations where it is easier to comply than create a fuss. The key is to try to follow as many of the healthy eating rules as you can easily, and don't beat yourself up over the odd lap if you sometimes fail.
Diet over time is more important than absolute adherence every day. No one is perfect, and our bodies are designed to accommodate the odd takeaway in birthday cake. It's impossible to follow all the advice in this book. But changing just some of your habits most of the time will help both your health and the planet.
Hopefully, you have now gained some important insights into how food is made and what effects the components have on your body and the environment. The next part of the book looks at individual foods in detail, providing you with a personal toolkit to help you make healthy and tasty choices.
Five final tips
One. Aim for diversity in your diet, including 30 different plant types each week. Keep a tally on the fridge door if it helps.
Two. Treat children's gut microbes and diets with care and teach them about real food.
Three. Spread the word that UPFs should be avoided and are making us all sick.
Four. Experiment with your food to better understand your body and personal nutrition profile.
Five. Think of your food choices as transactions for both your and the planet's future health.
[00:27:00] Jonathan Wolf: Thank you to Tim for spending the last five years writing Food for Life and for letting us share this chapter on ZOE Science & Nutrition today. We hope you enjoy today's episode. If you did, please be sure to subscribe and leave us a review as we love reading your feedback.
If this episode left you with questions, Please send them in on Instagram or Facebook, and we will try to answer them in a future episode. If you'd like to understand what to eat for your dinner, then can we suggest you join the ZOE Program? Each ZOE program starts with an at-home test comparing you with participants in the world's largest nutrition science study.
We're all different, and ZOE can help you to understand how to eat right for your body. And improve your long-term health. If you're interested in learning more about ZOE, you can head to joinZOE.com/podcast and get 10% off your personalized nutrition program.
As always, I'm your host, Jonathan Wolf. ZOE Science & Nutrition is produced by Fascinate Productions with support from Sharon Feder, Dr. Yella Hewings-Martin, and Alex Jones here at ZOE.
See you next time.