Bringing back the good microbes

Professor Tim Spector, author of the groundbreaking book The Diet Myth, talks to Vision about his research and why microbes are vital to our health 

Vision: What got your interested in this particular subject and how did you arrive at the conclusion that microbes are important to our health?

Tim Spector: It was a journey. I guess I was just triggered by some of the old work on ulcers and finding there was this microbe that was responsible for giving us ulcers. When you got rid of that microbe you got rid of ulcers.

And this in a way reversed all these myths about ulcers and stress causing them, and the fact that surgeons were doing ridiculous operations to get rid of ulcers. That was a nice story that microbes were to blame. But when you get rid of this microbe you cause other problems – such as different kinds of cancers.

That was several years ago and I realised there was more to this microbe story.

In the last four years, we had the gene technology that allowed us to look at all the good microbes and find that 99 per cent of the microbes inside us are really beneficial for us. Despite that, in the last 40 years we’ve been trying to destroy them. The more I looked into it, I saw that many of our modern problems, allergies and diseases which didn’t have a satisfactory explanation, could be explained with the deterioration in our gut health.

We’ve got the largest population that’s been tested for microbes in the world. We took 11,000 identical twins and followed them for 21 years and we know all about them. By looking at what they eat and their immune systems, we now understand why people’s microbes are so different.

V: At a time when fat is being shown as the biggest culprit in our diet – despite this view changing now – how did the science community perceive your research when you announced it?

TS: The most resistance I think was attacking some of the myths about diet rather than microbes. There were still many nutrition doctors who felt strongly about their own area of research - they might be pro-gluten. The fat experts and gluten experts don’t want to be told it’s not important. Many would say I came into this field recently and therefore I am not an expert, but I think I’ve come to it with fresh eyes, rather than people who’ve become biased and it’s very easy to get into a rut and do things without thinking. The reality is we are doing this thing wrong. Most people are interested in the microbe bit. Some people think it’s over hyped.

V: Why do you think we’ve been mislead all this time? Supermarkets are full of all kinds of low-fat products.

TS: We developed this myth about fat. It’s also because of fat’s unfortunate name. If it was called lipids, not fat, we wouldn’t have the same reaction to it. Then there were a whole series of studies in 60s and 70s that linked fat intake in populations with disease. That turned out to be erroneous, but people believed them at the time.

People made this leap between fat and diet, and fat and blood, without ever showing evidence in trial. Apart from one per cent of the population that have a genetic cholesterol condition it’s pretty much irrelevant. Then the industry leapt on this and realised they could substitute fat with extra sugar, soy and other subsidised chemicals and products, and sell it as healthy food and sometimes do it much more cheaply than other goods. Governments and industry were happy with this message until they realised that low fat diets don’t do any good.

It’s been one of those myths that’s been very hard to break and the food industry doesn’t want to change it. I think there is increasing recognition that the whole story was overblown.

V: So what is a healthy diet?

TS: Get a balanced diet rather than trying to remove gluten or lactose or sugar. We should eat natural foods and avoid chemicals and processed foods. About one per cent of the population maybe should avoid gluten, but nine out of 10 who think they have gluten intolerance don’t really have it. A lot of people just join the bandwagon of celebrity diet books saying it’s great for our health. The danger is when people exclude a quarter of main foods and many sources of good microbes and nutrients.

The diets I prefer are small amounts regularly, but diversely. I personally have a small amount of full fat yogurt with some seeds and fruits to get the benefits of microbes and food. You have to have them regularly - at least have them three times a week.

V: How do you see the application of this research and its relevance to the Gulf region where there are high levels of obesity?

TS: I think it was important to try and reach out to a non-European population and in researching of the book. Obesity and diabetes are the No. 1 health issues in the Gulf where they are at the highest rates in the world. Perhaps they are genetically predisposed to this so they have a lot to learn.  Perhaps if they go back to their roots, to the original foods they used to eat it would be healthier than McDonalds-style foods and they would be better off.