A hearty portion of common sense, please. There’s no such thing as bad food, says the scientist behind a new healthy eating app. Intrigued, Tom Parker Bowles downloads it and digests the facts
- Tom Parker Bowles tries dietary programme Zoe to ‘master a new way of eating’
- He praises the ‘sensible’ and ‘rational’ programme which he can actually stick to
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It arrives in a large smart yellow box, neatly packaged and elegantly designed, more Selfridges hamper than starter pack for Zoe, a cutting-edge dietary programme ‘designed to help you master a new way of eating, based on your unique biology’.
Yeah, yeah, I hear you cry. Here we go again. Yet another slick, overpriced fad diet (£299.99 for tests and from £24.99 per month for a 12-month membership), a magic pill, a miracle cure, the soft route to a hard body.
But as I soon find out, Zoe is not your average diet. Nor is the man behind it, Tim Spector, your average snake-oil salesman.
A professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, as well as honorary consultant physician at Guy’s and St Thomas’, he’s also the man behind the Covid Symptom Study.
‘There is no single diet that will work for everyone,’ he writes in his book Food For Life: The New Science of Eating Well, ‘just as there is no such thing as a superfood or a toxic food. No food is simply good or bad.’
Forget the five-a-day rule – the diet advises 30 fruit and veg a week. Tom Parker-Bowles praises the ‘sensible’ and ‘rational’ programme which he can actually stick to
The book, which is impeccably researched and utterly fascinating, forms the basis for the Zoe dietary programme, which has little time for calorie counting. It’s all about tailoring each eating plan to the individual.
More important still is the role gut microbes play not just in regulating our weight, but in maintaining the health of our immune system, fighting heart disease, inflammation, depression and cancer, too. Now, I like to think I eat fairly well. Perhaps a few more glasses of wine than is recommended but I do try to stay off the booze for at least three days a week. As a food critic, I go to restaurants about four times a week but I mainly cook and eat at home – stir-fries and noodle soups, omelettes and salads, chickpeas with tinned sardines. Mixed with the odd steak, bowl of pasta, Deliveroo ramen or pizza.
First you download the Zoe app, then attach your continuous blood sugar sensor to your arm. This involves a small plastic tag, about the size of a 50p piece, with a small spike puncturing the skin.
Not ideal for the needle-phobic but only occasionally unnerving, if never actually painful. You scan your sensor with your phone a few times per day to measure blood sugar reactions to food.
Then there’s a gut health test (three pretty horrible breakfast muffins, a standardised method of measuring ‘how your blood sugar and blood fat levels change when you eat them’), and a blood finger-prick test. Post off a stool sample along with the blood measurements, scan your sensor and record everything you eat for two weeks on the app.
Four weeks later, the results plop into my inbox. My blood sugar control is ‘bad’. As are my blood fats (or how quickly my body clears fat after a meal). As for my gut microbiome – I’m in the bottom 25 per cent for diversity, with many more bad bacteria than good. Already a hypochondriac, I’m now convinced I have hours to live.
But you can make things better. Nothing is forbidden or banned, and every food is scored, from Enjoy Freely (75-100) via Enjoy Regularly (50-74), Enjoy in Moderation (25-49) to Once in a While (0-24).
Add in a list of Gut Boosters (hello avocado, kale, trout and coffee), and Suppressors to avoid (for me ‒ white rice, bread, burgers and salami), plus advice on combining certain foods to make them better for you (avocado and hummus with bread, for example), and you have the outline for a serious plan.
Spector also advises ignoring the government’s five-a-day guidelines when it comes to fruit and vegetables. Instead try for 30 a week, including spices and herbs.
Admittedly, much of my Zoe diet is plain common sense. Bright colours are important as they indicate polyphenols, which are good antioxidants. Eat more legumes, avoid ultra-processed foods, and eat more fermented stuff: sauerkraut, kimchi and yogurt. The whole reason I became interested in Zoe, though, was because of bloating after eating. I went to a dietician, who found no allergies, yet after just six weeks of Zoe, the bloating has almost gone.
My weight stayed constant, hovering around 13 stone, but this is a work-in-progress rather than a quick fix.
And I do feel better: more sprightly, and full of beans. What I really love about Zoe, though, is the lack of finger-wagging and guilt. It’s sensible, rational and pragmatic, and has not only made me look more closely at what I stuff in my gob, but given me a personalised framework I can stick to. For me, this is just the beginning. Small steps, perhaps, on a long old path. But at last, an eating plan that makes sense.
Visit joinzoe.com for more details
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