Tim Spector holding up a fork - Credit: Nicky Johnston/Radio Times

Professor Tim Spector: “Choosing the right foods is the most important thing we can do for our health”

The microbiome expert talks about the health scare that made him overhaul his lifestyle and how he’s made poo popular.

Tim Spector, 65, is a professor with a passion for unlocking the secrets of health through genetics and our gut microbiome.

Wearing three hats – epidemiologist, medical doctor, and science writer – he’s a leading figure in the field and on a mission to empower people to take control of their health through simple, science-backed steps.

The two wake-up calls that put him on the path to a healthier life

The first, my father’s death from a heart attack aged 57, didn’t really hit me until the second: my own ‘mini stroke’, at 53.

It was the last day of a skiing tour in Italy. I started feeling nauseous and dizzy and by the time we got back down from the mountain I had double vision. I’d suffered a ‘minor occlusion’ that blocked off a tiny vessel supplying muscles and nerves in my eyes.

Weirdly, my blood pressure also shot up and for three months I wasn’t able to work. Until that point, despite the family history, I’d felt invincible, but I’d gone from healthy to very unhealthy in the blink of an eye.

Before, I’d been an epidemiologist studying populations. But, afterwards, my research became more selfish.

Aside from radically changing the way I eat, my activity level and my sleep regime, I did what I always do when I don’t know enough about a subject: I wrote a book about it to totally immerse myself, which resulted in The Diet Myth.

My latest book, Food For Life, came from the same desire for knowledge.

Featured product

The Diet Myth by Tim Spector

RRP: £6

The Diet Myth by Tim Spector

The popularity of ZOE, a gut health plan

We now have more than 100,000 subscribers on the ZOE plan, because it’s not a diet plan to help you squeeze into a bikini in six weeks’ time, but more a sustainable way of life and a new way of thinking about food.

Our science shows everybody’s response to food is unique. The more you know about your own biology, especially your gut microbiome, the better equipped you are to live and age well and to fight diseases.

Why the microbiome is so important

It’s a collective term for the micro-organisms that live in our gut and are vital to our digestion, immunity and brain health, and we know from analysing thousands of poo samples that everyone’s microbiome is different.

You can bolster it with fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut and by eating foods from 30 different plant sources each week, including virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, coffee and dark chocolate. It’s a lot easier than it sounds.

How the ZOE plan changed his life – and reduced his biological age

I’m around 9kg [1st 6lbs] lighter than I was when I had the mini stroke, I have more energy, I sleep better and my mood has improved.

Amazingly, my biological age is now pegged at below 50 – 15 years less than my actual age. I’m not claiming it’s all perfect.

I have knee injuries, so I can’t run any more, but I still ski regularly, and cycle everywhere when I’m at home in London. When we’re at our house in Catalonia I go swimming every day too. I feel at my healthiest ever, in so many ways, and am living proof that you’re never too old to change.

The biggest health lesson for us all to learn is…

…that choosing the right foods is the most important thing we can do for our health.

If I was Minister for the Saga generation, I’d put labels on ultra-processed foods, warning they harm your health, make you overeat and change your mood. I’d tax those foods while subsidising fresh fruit and vegetables, so everyone could afford a good diet.

Although he still has guilty pleasures

I’m a sucker for savoury treats – crisps would be up there. The easy solution is not buying them.

I also believe in the 80-20 rule. Do the right thing 80 per cent of the time and the other 20, be on holiday and have some fun.

The family – my daughter Sophie, 33 and son, Tom, 31 – have never listened to me! And my wife (dermatologist Veronique Bataille) is French-Belgian.

She was brought up on a rich diet of croissants, butter and cream sauces. She has given up meat during the week and we eat a plant-based diet, Monday to Friday, but as soon as she goes out, she’s ravenous for a steak!

His biggest regret

It would have been nice to know my dad (the respected Professor of Pathology Walter G Spector) better before he died. I was 23 and we weren’t close. I wish I’d known there was limited time with him.

When Sophie was a teenager, we just grunted at each other for three years. I’m glad we had time to put that right and we’re now the best of friends.

The best – and worst – moment of his life

They were short-staffed the day Sophie was born and being a doctor, I was asked to help out at the ‘business’ end. Delivering babies wasn’t my forte.

When I saw Sophie emerge, I was devastated that she was blue with the cord around her neck. I thought she was stillborn and, distressingly, Veronique saw my ashen face.

Happily, a few slaps later, Sophie cried: the best sound ever to follow the worst moment of our lives.

The secret to his 35-year marriage

Having a common understanding of each other’s world without treading on one another’s toes. Sharing interests, in our case, skiing and travelling. Being able to argue too – and we do that all the time – but never without a sense of humour. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

We both narrowly escaped a helicopter crash in 2018, while we were skiing in Georgia. The helicopter went down, but we escaped unhurt before it burst into flames. It shows you the randomness of life and teaches you to make the most of every day.

If you have ambitions, don’t wait until tomorrow.

Recieving an OBE for the ZOE Covid Symptom Study app in 2020

It was lovely to go to Windsor Castle and receive an honour because someone thought my team at King’s College and I had done a good job on Covid. For us though, the real reward, was helping people to feel supported during that terrible time.

How he liked to be remembered

The Gut Guy, perhaps? Or how about The Man Who Made Poo Popular…

Featured product

Food For Life: Your Guide to the New Science of Eating Well by Tim Spector

RRP: £10.99

Food For Life: Your Guide to the New Science of Eating Well by Tim Spector

Written by Daphne Lockyer