Tim Spector was a practicing rheumatologist when he decided to change careers, got a graduate degree in epidemiology, and began a new career doing research and teaching at the King’s College London. He started studying twins 30 years ago and has ongoing data on 1400 twins to investigate the relative influence of genes and environment, especially to our microbiome. Mapping the human genome has not answered all the questions about health. This is the largest study of its kind and has yielded valuable information about the effects of diet which he has presented in numerous books. As a rheumatologist, I can only imagine his concern and frustration about the increasing number of autoimmune diseases that he saw in practice.
Epigenetics is a relatively new field which studies why certain genes are turned on and others are not based on their environment. Perhaps the most obvious example of this that some cells with the same genetic code develop into a kidney and the others develop into skin. We are just starting to learn how our microbiome turns genes on and off.
Tim Spector reveals examples of false advertising and false information from the big players in the food industry, but our government is also not a reliable source of information. He explicitly warns us not to trust food labels.
Along with the direct effects on us from eating ultra-processed food, he is also concerned about the effects that food production is having on our environment. Many of the changes in the environment from food production, packaging, and transportation are shocking.
It is his goal to rid people of the simplistic assumptions that we all react the same way to the foods that we eat, and that exercise will enable us to eat what we want and lose weight. Todd Rose warned us about simplistic assumptions in The End of Average. Even the microbiomes of identical twins vary significantly early in life. Consider the following:
Diet is the most important medicine that we all possess.
Our microbiome is a community of tiny organisms which together weigh as much as our brain. The microbiome consists of a mix of up to 100 trillion bacteria, fungi, parasites and 500 trillion mini viruses, outnumbering the number of cells in our body. Each microbe is capable of producing hundreds of chemicals, which act as mini factories regulating our immune system, providing many of the key metabolites and vitamins in our bloodstream, including brain chemicals that can affect our mood and even our appetite. When we consume food, it is as much for the benefit of our gut microbes as it is for us.
Normal people can vary tenfold in their blood sugar responses to identical foods.
99 percent of us don’t conform to some artificial average of the body’s response to fat and sugar.
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was the first major brand of processed cereal, invented in 1894 initially as a health product and now eaten by the millions of bowls worldwide each day. Made of refined corn, they have a high GI of 81 (causing your blood sugar to rise suddenly which is a detrimental stress to the system).
As we gain a better understanding of the different components of food and how they interact together, some calorie-content estimates are emerging as inaccurate or outright wrong. How the body uses and stores the energy gained from a food as difficult to digest as corn on the cob is very different to how it uses energy from corn bread or from cornflakes processed by superheating, pressurizing and roasting. Yet the simplistic calorie intake theory treats the energy gained from each as the same.
The ultra-processed nature of modern food generally means that the complex structure of the plant and animal cells is destroyed, turning it into a nutritionally empty mush that our body can process abnormally rapidly.
We now know that our liver naturally produces most of the cholesterol in our bodies and that cholesterol in food doesn’t alter its levels in the blood to any extent. For over seven years, 135,000 people from eighteen countries were followed and the results showed that people eating dairy and higher saturated fats were associated with lower mortality than those eating more carbohydrates.
We wildly overestimate the benefits of supplements and underestimate the risks. Virtually none has been proven to work, and the evidence increasingly points towards their doing more harm than good. People think that because studies have shown favorable effects of eating foods like fruits, vegetables, and oily fish on our health, consuming a few of the chemical components found within these foods as supplements will bring about the same health benefits. We know from large clinical studies that this isn’t true.
Despite the industry denials, all the evidence suggest that artificially sweetened beverages are far from inert and are definitely not a healthy substitute for sugar in drinks or other processed food products.
Nearly two-thirds of the food purchased in the US is ultra-processed with over $250 billion spent on fast food each year. 80 percent of ultra-processed food is made up of just four ingredients – corn, wheat, soy, and meat, with plenty of additives but barely any fiber. Regardless of body fat, junk-food diets with few vegetables lead to less microbial diversity and more inflammation markers in the blood, which increases the risk of multiple diseases.
Livestock for meat and dairy accounts for 83 percent of all land use. Around 95 percent of all mammals on earth are domesticated in farms for human consumption in just a handful of species. Of all the domestic animals, cows bred for beef are the most inefficient in terms of proteins productions and emissions, being on average (globally) about seven times less environmentally efficient than pork, and around ten times less efficient than chickens, and about thirty times less efficient that the equivalent protein from nuts or tofu.
Common concerns about drinking coffee relate to its effects on our toilet habits. Caffeine stimulates the bladder to produce urine more quickly than usual. You might need to rush to the loo more often, but there’s no evidence to suggest it actually dehydrates you. Polyphenols aren’t the only beneficial component in coffee – a mug of coffee is a reasonable source of fiber, with each cup having around half a gram. So drinking a few cups throughout the day gives you the same amount as eating a bowl of cereal or small banana.
Most of our energy expenditure is determined by our genes and is largely preset. Although there is no evidence that exercise in normal amounts helps weight loss in most people, there is good evidence it is invaluable for many other common conditions and should arguably be our number-one prescribed drug.
While we don’t know the cause of Alzheimer’s, the main type of dementia, we are realizing it is not just caused by a buildup of plaque in the brain as we thought until recently, but is more a defect of the immune system and is exacerbated by a poor diet.
Ironically, the countries that buy the most bottled water have some of the safest, most tested and controlled tap waters on the planet. We should all turn our attention to the environmental impact of bottled water production. Producing bottled water uses 2,000 times more energy than the equivalent volume of tap water. Worse still, it takes about 7 liters of water to purify a single liter of water and over 10 liters to make the plastic to carry it. Add to that the thousands of miles the bottled water travels to get to the cities like London or New York, where the demand is high. Exclusive brands such as Fiji Water claim to be ‘carbon neutral’ because they re-invest 1 percent of sales in environmental projects and try and plant trees in Fiji. But these small gestures cannot counteract the enormous energy costs and plastic wastage incurred; the maths don’t add up.