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The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat (Tim Spector) - Book Review

Reviewed by Polly Dunn, Green Templeton College

One would hope, as a medical student, you would learn to tell the difference between the “healthy” and the “not-so-healthy”. And yet, when it comes to nutrition, a worrying amount of my own knowledge seems to originate from social media or heavily-biased messages on food packaging. Tim Spector’s “The Diet Myth” was published 5 years ago but is far more current than anything I’ve ever been taught about food in a formal setting. It has single-handedly transformed my perspective on food, and the role it has to play in today’s healthcare.

Given its title, it would be easy to mistake this for a self-help book. Instead, it encompasses the author’s own story of how, after a health-scare, he tried to change his diet to improve his chances of health and longevity. As a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, he could hardly have been better placed to interpret the most thorough and up-to-date research about healthy eating. However, Spector shares with the reader his own shock in uncovering the poor quality, contradictory, and wrongfully manipulated evidence supporting virtually every healthy eating claim we take for granted. He strives to “demolish the myth that obesity is simply a matter of counting calories in and out or eating less and exercising more or cutting out one food type”. Instead, he convincingly presents the case that microbes, food diversity and processed foods are secretly the key players in our current obesity crisis.

It’s reassuring to share this journey of discovery with Spector, a distinguished scientist who once held many of the false beliefs about food that you did. In a world plagued with weight issues and eating disorders, food is often a difficult topic, and no one likes to be told they’re wrong. This book demonstrates that many of today’s “healthy eating” rules are formulated to protect the income of food industries, and not the wellbeing of consumers. Low-fat, low-calorie and sterile “healthy” food options, ultra-processed and filled with sugar or artificial sweeteners, are undermining people’s well-intentioned attempts to look after their bodies and propelling the obesity crisis. Whether this book changes the way you eat, or makes you want to fight for change in health and dietary policy, you will also find yourself referencing it almost daily as your eyes are opened to just how ingrained these misconceptions are in our society.

One of the most interesting topics that this book touches on is human-microbe relationships. As is apparent from Clostridium difficile and MRSA infections in hospitals, disregard of the human microbiome is evidently unwise. Our arrogant depletion of microbial diversity in our own bodies in attempt to be “clean” and “healthy” appears to have dramatically changed the way we metabolise food, along with other important bodily functions such as immune system development. Spector hypothesises that overuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, along with a rise in Caesarean sections, may well have pushed our microbes in a more obesogenic direction, as well as contributing to the rise in allergies and autoimmune disease. Society-wide pressure to be conservative with antibiotics is clearly the first step to dealing with this problem, but Spector proposes that methods such as gut diversity tests to determine health risk, stool transplants to treat obesity, and routine prebiotics with courses of antibiotics, may also be useful in restoring the population’s healthy microbiome.

“The Diet Myth” discusses a wide range of food-related themes, from fasting to nutritional supplements, caffeine to government subsidies. Readers who are particularly interested or sceptical may want to go on and examine the literature further, as the book’s broad topic coverage from the interpretation of one individual does naturally leave out some alternative arguments and deeper discussions. However, if you’re looking for a succinct overview of the problems with the modern diet or simply a starting-point from which to explore this field in greater detail, “The Diet Myth” is an enjoyable, humorous, and thought-provoking read, and I shall continue to recommend it to virtually anyone I can.