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Busted: healthy food fads that are making us fatter

Dr Tim Specter reveals healthy food myths/ Photo source: Zoe
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Just when you follow one health expert’s advice another one comes along saying you’ve been doing it all wrong. In this article, we review some of the latest food fads that a world-leading gut health expert says are making us not healthier, but fatter


You should drink at least 8 glasses of water a day. Myth.

You need to up your protein. Myth.

Low-fat yoghurt will make you less fat than full-fat yoghurt. Myth.

These are the healthy food fad myths that are being busted by gut health expert Dr Tim Specter. The medical doctor sat down with Diary of a CEO podcast host Steven Bartlett earlier this week and had some rather shocking things to say about what many of us think are healthy eating habits.

Supposedly, we consumers are being duped by big-budget marketing. We’re all just consuming Frankenstein’s “health” food which is packed with “low fat” fillers developed to give us a more satisfying “mouth feel.” Is it just me or does that term make you queasy?

Why is this relevant to freelancers? Freelancers have to take care of themselves. If they don’t produce they don’t get paid and they don’t get sick pay either. That’s why many freelancers may be reading up on the latest ways to boost their immunity and bring down inflammation and stress, the latter two being causes of cancer. This thirst for knowledge can easily lead to freelancers and founders prescribing new food fads. Here are a few that Dr Specter says are doing us more harm than good.

Food fads and myths

Protein

Protein is overhyped in this country, says Specter. He explains that very few people are protein deficient and need supplements. Less than 5% of the population is not getting enough protein to perform their normal activities or build muscle, he says.

We’re focusing on protein because we’re victims of marketing, he says. Everywhere we look, protein is being sold as the thing that will make us big and strong. But the evidence is that most people are getting nearly twice as much protein in their diets as they need.

“We evolved as omnivores to get enough protein, and our ancestors didn’t fall apart because they didn’t have protein shakes,” says Specter.

He suggests the only people who really need to worry about protein intake are elderly people who aren’t eating very much or people who have certain medical conditions or dietary restrictions.

In short, most people don’t need to worry about getting enough protein.

Microbiomes: take care of them and they’ll take care of you

Perhaps the most eye-opening advice Specter gives in the podcast is the double-digit percentage spike in healthy years you can add to your life just by eating a few handfuls of seed and nut mix every day.

What the heck is a microbiome?

The microbiome is like a community of tiny living things, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, that live in or on our bodies. For example, on our skin or in our digestive tract. It can be positively and negatively affected based on what we eat and any chemicals we are exposed to.

Chronic inflammation and damage to the thyroid gland can result in hypothyroidism. It can all stem from a leaky gut, which can trigger the immune system, forming autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s, Graves’ disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.

Paloma Health

Scientists used to think that all bacteria were harmful, but now we know that many bacteria are beneficial and help us in many ways, according to Julia Segre, PhD, Chief and Senior Investigator of the Translational and Functional Genomics Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute, For example, gut bacteria help us digest food and skin bacteria help protect us from pathogens.

Gut health is also essential for thyroid health. People with autoimmune thyroid diseases like Hashimoto’s often have gut dysbiosis and leaky gut, according to Paloma Health, a US-based medical community addressing thyroid dysfunction. Chronic inflammation and damage to the thyroid gland can result in hypothyroidism. It can all stem from a leaky gut, which can trigger the immune system, forming autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s, Graves’ disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.

Fertilisation + fermentation = a fat-eating gut garden

Fibre cleans out our body’s systems of toxins, and chemicals and rids our body of extra fat. Think of it as the body’s cleaning brush. When you think of it like that, it’s easier to understand why fibre is good for you even though you can’t digest it.

Many of us have been on the extra-protein fad, but when we eat more protein than we are supposed to, that too doesn’t get digested, and it just gets stored as fat. High protein intake has been found to be associated with an increased risk of inflammatory bowel diseases [12]. So, take it easy on the steak, eggs, and those protein shakes and powders.

Thankfully, that’s where fibre comes in too along with the good bacteria it breeds. The good bacteria gobble up the fibre and extra protein so it does not sit dormant in our bodies turning into fat. Fibre also regulates blood sugar and helps lower protein in your urine10. Foods with fibre such as cruciferous vegetables, full-fat yoghurt, nuts, legumes and root vegetables will help the good bacteria thrive. Garlic, onion, leeks, and asparagus, help too.

Dr Specter encourages us to think of our guts as a garden that must be fertilised with good bacteria to flourish. He suggests we eat 30 different types of plants each week. Did you just raise your eyebrows? Trying to think of 30 plants you could eat?

By the same token if you eat very low processed foods and fibre for lunch and then follow it up with a dessert with bacteria-harming chemicals and sugars you undo all the good. That’s why you may want to avoid protein bars, certain yoghurts and ultra-processed snacks that contain ingredients like sugars, fillers like starches, “real fruit”, “natural flavourings, preservatives and emulsifiers (stuff that just keeps food from falling apart) which will actually harm the good bacteria.

Basically, if you don’t have an ingredient in your kitchen or wouldn’t even know where to buy it other than a laboratory, then it’s probably not supposed to be digested by humans.

Global obesity rates

If you are not convinced about the harm that ultra-processed foods have on our bodies and gut health, compare the obesity numbers in the US and UK with other parts of Europe, and you might see the correlation. According to Specter, about 50% of the food the British consume is ultra-processed, in the US that’s 60%. In Portugal, it’s just 10%. Now look at the obesity rates in the infographic below.

Specter is also a big believer in fermented foods. Pickles, for example, can be preserved with vinegar or brine (salty water). It’s worth noting only pickles fermented with brine contain probiotics. Look for more fermented products in the refrigeration section over canned or jarred.

We scoured the net for some fermented food ideas and here is what we came up with thanks to the UMass Chan Medical School in the US:

Top Fermented Foods

  • Kefir
  • Plain Yogurt
  • Dry Curd Cottage Cheese or Farmer’s Cheese, or fermented cottage cheese
  • Certain aged cheeses (check label for live and active cultures)
  • Fermented Vegetables
  • Tempeh (choose gluten-free)
  • Miso (refrigerated)
  • Pickles (in salt, not vinegar)
  • Sauerkraut (choose refrigerated)
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha (no sugar)
  • Other probiotic drinks (no sugar), like beet Kvass, apple cider
  • You can also easily make fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut at home

For an easy recipe try making a Miso Sauce for topping vegetables, fish, or chicken the university posted this recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup peanut butter (all natural)
  • 1/2 cup miso
  • 2 tbsp honey – local is best, or use spices if you prefer a savoury taste
  • 1/2 C hot water

Daily Hydration

Dr Specter suggests we don’t need to drink 8 glasses of water each day and that overhydrating can sometimes be unhealthy (i.e., overhydrated marathon runners). Tea and coffee also go towards your liquid intake. Thankfully, for coffee fiends, Specter says coffee should be stocked in the health food section of our supermarkets rather than in the “recreational” food section. This is a change of thinking for the scientist and doctor who wrote a paper many years ago on how coffee could cause cancer. Today, he takes his coffee black before he has his first meal of the day at around 11 a.m.


What is metabolic testing and how much does it cost?

Specter is one of the scientists and co-founders behind Zoe, a personalised health device company that measures things such as your healthy and bad gut bacteria and metabolic reaction to certain foods (i.e. your sugar levels rise higher when you eat certain foods. Other might have a different reaction to the same foods.). You may have even seen Zoe while scrolling through social media feeds.

The Zoe test kit test results help you determine which foods create certain metabolic responses in you as an individual. For example, spikes in sugar levels or causes in inflammation in your joints or muscles which could be caused by certain foods or drinks. Each food group will have a test result or grade based on your body’s reaction. The results will reveal your trigger foods so you can cut them down or out and replace them with other foods that balance your sugar levels and also contribute to good gut health.

Zoe now claims through additional research that its test kits can determine 50 different good and 50 bad types of bacteria.

Continuous Glucose Monitors: How They Work & How To Get One

Are health test kits and apps tax deductible?

While we can’t put a price on our health, the membership to Zoe is not cheap. Something like this is questionable from a business expense, but it is worth speaking to your accountant about whether reporting Zoe-related expenses as a Benefit-in-Kind would be possible for you as a company director, sole trader or anyone you employ. That would mean the costs are added to the value of a salary as benefits and taxed accordingly. You or your accountant would need to then fill in a P11D form and submit it as part of your self-assessment and annual filing to HMRC. But get professional advice first.

Zoe membership plans:

What does it include? Gut microbiome test, blood sugar and fat metabolism tests, your body’s responses to food, personalised food programme and tips on gut health

  • £24.99 per month for a 12-month membership plus £299.99 for testing. Membership is paid in one payment of £299.88, billed when you can see your ZOE Scores in the app.
  • £39.99 per month for a 4-month membership plus £299.99 for testing. Membership is paid in one payment of £159.96, billed when you can see your ZOE Scores in the app.
  • £59.99 per month for a rolling monthly membership plus £299.99 for testing, with the option to cancel at any time.

SecondNature

There is another company on the market called SecondNature showing customers how to keep their blood sugar levels in check. Geared up mainly for those with diabetes, it is now attracting more people to its test kits, articles and weight management plans. It seems to be more expensive but claims it doesn’t have a waiting list like Zoe. They do a product and cost comparison here, but remember it’s SecondNature writing it.

  • Second Nature is available for free on the NHS, but this depends on whether you’re eligible. Speak with your GP or local healthcare team. 
  • Otherwise, you can start the Second Nature programme immediately, and an ongoing subscription costs £49/month if you pay monthly, £39/month quarterly, and £33/month annually.
  • To learn about its testing kits and costs, go here.

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