The revolutionary scientist and co-founder of ZOE, the personalised nutrition company, who is changing the way we regard food, serves up the things that make him tick.
And yet the reason he was able to be so light on his feet when it came to developing the app was not only because of his considerable expertise in and knowledge of disease at population level. It was also because creating a health data-building app was not new territory for Spector. Far from it. Long before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out – some 28 years before, to be precise – he had been working with 14,000 sets of twins, studies of whom formed the basis of his development of the company he co-founded: Zoe. The accompanying app – which was repurposed for Covid data building within a mere week – was as ground-breaking as the work he did during the pandemic. In terms of its long-term impact on our health, it is almost certainly all the more so.
Zoe, after all, ‘analyses your unique gut, blood fat and blood sugar responses’ to the food you eat. It is being hailed as the future of weight loss and perhaps the greatest tool to tackle the growing obesity crisis. Meanwhile, its potential for helping to combat diabetes, heart disease and other chronic health problems could be truly game-changing. As its website notes, all of these are problems that are not going away. And, it argues, ‘Current approaches to address them view weight gain as the problem, rather than a symptom of poor metabolic health. They also treat us all the same, when in reality our bodies are all very different.’
Having launched earlier this year in the UK, the testimonials are hard to argue with. And while dropping extra pounds is a common response for participants who have weight they want to lose, the programme is also advisable for anyone who wants to achieve optimal health. As they say, ‘Our science shows that everybody’s response to food is unique. Even identical twins. Your metabolism is not defined by your genes and it can change.’
The bespoke approach to the way in which we eat is inarguable when you consider that, as Zoe’s long-term studies show, even twins – the most genetically similar people on earth – can have very different responses to food. In fact, the data that Zoe has gathered reveals that there can be a tenfold variation in responses to the same meal. When faced with such figures, it is much harder to argue that all overweight people should simply reduce calories or stick to a low fat diet.
It is absolutely trailblazing work from Tim Spector and his team at Zoe, who make a habit of busting the myths that surround food, debunking claims ranging from the alleged power of ‘superfoods’ (alas, not substantiated) to the spurious and harmful claim that all calories are created equal (they are not). In fact, Tim, as an expert in gut bacteria, encourages us to eat more of certain foods that feed the microbiota, rather than less.
Tim Spector is also the author of three excellent books: Spoon Fed, The Diet Myth and Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes.
Favourite place in all the world?
I absolutely love skiing and ski-trekking, so it has to be the wilderness of the Canadian Rockies. The snow, the mountains and the people just make it so special every time I go there with my family.
For me a dream holiday, would have to combine amazing food with skiing. I recently went to Hokkaido in Japan and it ticked every box.
Most coveted item right now?
It might sound a bit boring, but my laptop as it means I can work from anywhere.
Proudest professional moment to date?
I’ve had quite a few lately, but if I had to pick one, it would be receiving my OBE at Windsor Castle from Prince Charles. I was awarded it for my contributions to the health services during the COVID pandemic. Whilst it was an award for me, it was really an award for the team behind ZOE and the ZOE COVID Study. I couldn’t have done any of it without them.
Your dream future project?
My dream is to get a cohort of million people to do lifestyle experiments such as changing what time they eat or sleep so we can really see what day-to-day things people can do to help them lead happier, healthier lives. I’ve cheated a little here though as I’m actually already working on this dream with the ZOE Health Study (formerly ZOE COVID Study) and we hope to launch our first lifestyle intervention in the coming months.
Who has been your most inspiring mentor, professionally or personally?
I’ve taken a bit of an unusual career path as I’ve changed specialities a few times so professionally it’s a bit hard to say just one person. However, I really admire the work of Michael Pollan. He’s a brilliant investigative writer, who isn’t frightened to take on the establishment, which I like to think I do too.
Where would you live if you could live anywhere?
Oh, that’s a hard question, as I don’t think there is just one place that will suit all parts of our life. I’ve also been lucky enough to see lots of the world so it’s really hard to pick. However, Barcelona is pretty close, as it’s a city that has everything; food, culture, history and access the mountains and the sea.
What book is on your nightstand/ kindle right now?
Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World by Tom Burgis. My daughter recently gifted it to me. She’s a prolific reader and passes on her favourites to me. It’s really eye-opening read and something I’d suggest everyone should read.
Best film you’ve seen recently?
The Japanese film, Drive My Car. Loved the intensity
Best binge-watched TV show?
Anatomy of a Scandal on Netflix. It was brilliant and I couldn’t stop watching.
Top podcast of the moment?
I’m a bit biased, but it’s the ZOE Science and Nutrition podcast. I’m so proud of the ZOE team and everything we are doing. The podcast has already had over a million downloads and we only launched a few months ago. It just shows how much people want to learn about food and science.
I’m not sure I have a hero, but David Bowie would be the closest thing to a hero for me. I’ve loved his music since I was a kid growing up in north London and he remains such an icon.
If you were an animal, what would you be?
I think my family would say an octopus, because I’m resourceful and love the sea. I also recently loved the documentary My Octopus Teacher, so this might be affecting my discussion slightly.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A cowboy. I grew up watching all the old movies and thought I might be quite good at it.
Worst job you’ve ever done?
A junior assistant to a surgeon specialising in anal warts. I’m sure I don't need to say much more, but it was a messy job and one I’d never do again!
Favourite dish to cook?
Veggie fideua. Fideua is a Spanish noodle paella. I love it because I can put all my favourite veg in it and I like the crunchy burnt bits on the pasta.
Favourite café/ restaurant?
ROVI, in Mayfair. It’s one of Ottolenghi’s restaurants and I can get my 30 plants a week in just one delicious dish.
What tune always makes you want to dance?
Thriller by Michael Jackson.
Favourite website or app?
The ZOE app, as I’m constantly checking in on all the different foods I’m eating to check my ZOE score.
Most useful thing on your desk?
It’s got to be my microphone. I’ve been really busy recording lots of podcasts recently and having a good quality microphone has been a real game changer.
Which five people, dead or alive, would you find most interesting to be stuck in a lift with?
In my family, we love a good debate and lots of laughter so I’ve gone for a mix of
comedians, and some other interesting characters: Keith Floyd, ‘Groucho; Marx, Les Dawson, Penelope Cruz – I’d like to meet her, and Cleopatra.
Leaning Tower of Pisa. I remember seeing it when I was 18 on my gap year and being totally amazed that this building hadn’t fallen down.
Favourite Instagrammer or tweeter?
Eric Topol. Eric’s twitter has all the latest medical facts and is definitely worth a follow.
A picture of Japanese trees in the spring Snow.
What would your biography be called?
Prof Poo: The Man Who Made S**T Cool Again!
What would be your epitaph?
I hope it would be something along the lines of: ‘He changed the way we thought about food forever.’
By Nancy Alsop