In Conversation with...Tim Spector | Epsom College
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In Conversation with…Tim Spector

‘Life-changing’, ‘A must-read’ and ‘Fascinating’ have all been used to describe Professor Tim Spector’s recent book Food for Life, therefore we were privileged to welcome Tim on Monday 29 April for a talk with the Head, Sir Anthony Seldon.

Honoured with an OBE for his powerful efforts combatting Covid-19; Tim Spector’s pioneering work in microbiome research places him among the world’s top 100 most-cited scientists.

Food for Life is based on cutting-edge research and Tim’s personal insights, which have led to a revolution in the way we view a healthy diet. Gut health is now known to be key to people’s wellbeing, not only for their body, but for their mental wellbeing too and Tim believes our eating habits are the UK’s “number one health and economic problem”.

Many supermarket foods have a healthy “halo” yet in fact are often highly processed, and therefore incredibly harmful. Tim recommends looking for packaged food with the minimum of ingredients and advocates the relationship with food we more commonly see in countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, “going back to buying food in small amounts, where people do daily shops, local in their community. Just buy a handful of tomatoes that are fresh, rather than shopping every two weeks”. 

Tim highlighted how easy it is to eat ultra-processed food without necessarily realising it. A loaf of brown bread, children’s yoghurts, even ‘healthy’ smoothies or fruit juices are not as healthy as one might think and can be extremely high in sugar. With the UK being very close behind the US in consumption levels of ultra-processed food, we are seeing the result in increasing cases of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, obesity and cancer.

Tim went on to explain that in eating ultra-processed food, our gut does not receive the nutrients it needs. More and more evidence has come to light in recent years to show just how important a healthy microbiome in your gut is, and Tim explained his findings and recommendations in a clear and easy-to-understand manner.

Tim’s five key “pillars of wisdom” for developing a healthy gut are:

  1. Eat a diverse range of plants every week, the target is 30. Tim advised that, “A plant is not just spinach and kale; it’s a nut, it’s a seed, it’s a herb and a spice.  If you do that, you will have optimum gut health”.
  2. “Eat a rainbow” – colourful plant foods are high in fibre and “the colours, as well as the bitterness are telling you it’s got important chemicals in”. Colourful plants also contain lots of polyphenols which “good” gut microbes love. Focus on eating nuts, berries, seeds, bright fruits, extra virgin olive oil, vegetables and dark chocolate.
  3. Fermented foods have real benefits as they contain probiotics which increase the number and diversity of bacteria in your gut microbiome. Examples include: Greek yoghurt, kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut.
  4. “Give your gut a rest” – ideally leaving between 12-14 hours between your last meal at night and your first meal the following morning, “your microbes are like humans, they like to sleep”. It allows the gut to cleanse and repair itself, vital for maintaining a strong immune system.
  5. Limit ultra-processed food. These foods are not good for your gut microbes, are low in fibre and often high in sugar, unhealthy fats and artificial sweeteners. Moreover, these foods often don’t fill you up so you end up consuming up to 25% more, which leads to weight gain.

Sir Anthony’s talk with Tim was highly informative, with clear advice and suggestions on how to put into action. The good news is that it is never too late to start and just beginning with small improvements to your diet can really make a difference.