Spoon-Fed by Tim Spector

Reviewed by Annabel

Kings College Hospital-based Professor Tim Spector’s name is, I hope, becoming more widely known in the UK since the pandemic began. He’s been involved in the development and promotion of the COVID-19 Symptom Tracker app, (https://covid.joinzoe.com/) which preceded the Govt app.

However, his primary interest is as an expert in personalised medicine and the gut microbiome. His work is uncovering so much about how the trillions of bacteria and more in our large intestine, weighing as much our brain in total, act together as an extra organ – a factory making so many of the chemicals that our bodies need.

His previous book The Diet Myth (2015) looked at the gut microbiome in detail, and specifically the effects of all the different food groups on gut health, and body health; a scientist’s view of nutrition. One of his main conclusions was that excluding foods from your diet was bad for your gut health and eating as many different plant-based foods as you can is one key.

His new book, Spoon-Fed essentially continues on from The Diet Myth, and takes a different, updated, look at where we are now in the field of nutrition science. Each chapter sets out to explode a particular nutritional myth, all those statements which have been ‘spoon-fed’ to us from the post-war decades onwards.

After his introduction, he begins with “It’s Personal – Myth: Nutritional guidelines and diet plans apply to everyone.”  He soon shows that everyone has different insulin responses to individual foods – what causes one person’s blood sugars to spike, may not have the same effect in another.  Next, he takes on the myth that skipping breakfast is a bad thing – apart from the fact that cereal is loaded with sugar, when you need to eat depends on an individual’s metabolism activity.

Importantly, he takes on the myth that calories measure how fattening a food is. Calories are purely a measure of energy released when burning a food in controlled conditions – they take no account of the type of food, of the chemical interactions between foods, of the indigestible components and so on.

He takes on topic after topic: saturated fats, salt, processed foods, food labelling, fast foods, sugar versus sweetener, butter versus spreads, allergies, gluten, exercise, bottled water, is fish better for you than meat and so on. Time after time, he exposes the fact that as many of these myths result from food research done some time ago paid for by food companies, there is often a very selective presentation of results. Tim Spector is doing for food what Ben Goldacre did for Big Pharma in his book ‘Bad Science’

Along the way though, there are some surprising facts – for instance, while looking at food miles, he shows that it is more environmentally friendly to ship tomatoes from Spain than to spend even more energy growing them in hothouse conditions in the UK.

I must admit that having read The Diet Myth, I found Spoon-Fed covered much of the same ground, but he presented the information in a different way. Spector has got more political over the years and the way he calls out some of the research bias was heartening and enlightening.

He ends the book with an Appendix which distils his advice into a ‘Twelve-Point Plan’ which begins with “1. Eat diverse foods, mainly plants, without added chemicals.” and ends with “12. Educate yourself and the next generation in the importance of real food.” In between are another ten maxims to apply to your lives to improve your diet and gut health, and make you think about what you put into your mouth.

Spector is an engaging writer. There is necessarily some science in this book, but he explains things clearly and summarises well. Straight-talking, impassioned, but with humour and a well-developed sense of irony, he’s also a superb speaker should you get the chance to see him. Spoon-Fed will be an eye-opening read for those new to the subject, and an essential update for Spector-converts.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors, a Spector-convert, but finds biscuits so difficult…

Tim Spector, Spoon-Fed (Jonathan Cape, 2020). 9781787332294, 280pp incl. notes/index, flapped paperback .

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