The Bittersweet Truth About what we Eat


Hey everyone! I’m Lillie, Biology student at the University of Portsmouth. Alana and Lisa got me involved with The Gut Stuff because I want to be a microbiologist, but more specifically, I want to research gut microbes (yes, I am probably going to spend many years looking at peoples’ poo. Ah.). I’m here to lend a helping hand with the science-y side of everything (because there’s a lot of medical jargon to translate). 

For my first ~official~ The Gut Stuff mission, I was sent to a Q&A style lecture put on by Intelligence2, called ‘The Bittersweet Truth About What We Eat: Nutrition, Health and the Science of the Gut.’. Last Thursday (16th of February 2017), I trundled on up to the Royal Geographical Society in London after a day packed with lectures in Portsmouth, and got myself all excited to spend an evening immersed in debate about one of the subjects I am most passionate about: Nutrition, health and the science of the gut (the talk was rather conveniently named – I know). 

The evening began with the chair of the event Dr Xand Van Tulleken, a medical doctor and TV broadcaster, introducing the panel of speakers:

Dr Sarah Jarvis – GP and resident doctor on Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show and on The One Show, as well as being the author of 6 health and medicine books. 

Professor Eran Segal – Biologist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and leader of the Personalised Nutrition Project.

Professor Tim Spector – Professor of Epidemiology at King’s College London and author of The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat.

And finally…

Gary Taubes (via video link) – American science and health writer, including his newest book The Case Against Sugar. 

The evening mainly provided me with an insight into how much debate there still is over what a healthy diet actually consists of. For years, the government was the sole source of readily available health information, and I think I speak for most people when I say that my family took that information as gospel. To this day pretty much everyone in my life sticks to the 5-a-day, dairy is the only source of calcium, meat provides you with best form of protein approach to healthy eating. But, as it turns out, we may have been too quick to assume that the information we were all being spoon-fed was and is correct.

The last few years has brought us the rise of the bloggers. Before I say anymore, I would like to point out that I am a massive fan and reader of a lot of healthy eating and lifestyle blogs. However, while they provide a lot of really helpful and relevant information, which comes from a completely different view-point to the information provided to us by government websites, we should be just as cautious (if not more cautious) of it. Take nothing for granted, because anyone can set up a blog, and the information they provide is not necessarily the complete truth. 

When I moved to university just over a year and a half ago, I stuck to the diet I was brought up on. Cereal and fruit juice for breakfast, tuna sandwich, packet of crisps, a biscuit and some grapes for lunch and a variable dinner of either sausage pasta bake, chicken fajitas or a shop-bought pizza (three of my most common old favourites). But as a student in a new and big city, I soon found out how easy it was to get hold of cheap, convenient junk food and takeaways. I stopped eating the diet I’d stuck to for years, and I felt awful. It didn’t take me long to realise why I felt so sluggish, and I tried going back to my old way of eating, with no luck, I still felt rubbish.
This is the point where I discovered all of the wondrous information the internet holds, and suddenly I became obsessed with health blogs. From here, I began to change my way of eating for better, but it’s been a long journey, involving a lot of false and misleading information. 

And that’s how I found myself at this event. I became so immersed in the world of healthy eating that it ended up leading me to an area of scientific research I’m convinced will become my life’s work. 

So then, where can we get a reliable source of information to tell us what we should and shouldn’t be eating? Scientists and health professionals, you would think, will know the truth. But they’re still researching and debating it. Having said that, as you probably know because you’re all already here reading The Gut Stuff, the newest and perhaps most promising area of research is into the human gut microbiome, which was extensively discussed at this Intelligence2 event. 

Tim Spector pointed out that while we all share about 20% of gut microbes with each other each person’s cohort is unique and provides them with 200-300 extra genes, all of which have been overlooked by years of nutrition research and advice.
And perhaps this is why nearly all of the speakers agreed that there is no one signal factor which has caused the obesity epidemic, and why Spector said that we “Shouldn’t rely on exercise to get rid of [the] obesity epidemic.”. Every single person on this planet has a slightly different gut composition, and so maybe there isn’t one diet to suit all. 

Spector also pointed out that as humans, we have lost 40% of our gut microbes compared to our African ancestors. So perhaps instead of trying to develop one diet which helps everyone to lose a few pounds, we should be focussing on looking after our microscopic friends in order to avoid losing the diversity we have left. 

But how do we look after our gut? Once again, because you’re already here and reading this post I’d guess you have a rough idea, but I’m going to go over the major points made during the Q&A when an audience member asked that exact question. 

No calorie restricted diets! Stop cutting out major food groups. If there’s one thing I took home from this evening, it’s that. Contrary to Gary Taube’s opinions on sugar and grains (which when refined and eaten in huge quantities absolutely are not the healthiest choice), everything is fine in moderation. Diets which completely restrict carbohydrates, or completely ban ‘bad fats’ (there’s no such thing) aren’t healthy, they’re limiting and probably involve you cutting out your favourite food. Not worth it. 

What else? Eat plenty of fibre rich food, but don’t go overboard. Fibre is good for the gut, as everyone knows, but it’s source in your diet should very. As Spector said, getting all your fibre from fruit would probably lead to you eating too much sugar each day. Nuts, beans and wholegrains (including wholegrain rice and pasta, not just bread) are the way forward in my opinion. 

You don’t have to completely cut out meat, but eating less of it will definitely help, purely because it’s hard to digest. Replace your meat portion with extra vegetables, and try to vary those veggies as much as possible. A more diverse range of veg in your diet leads to more species of bacteria in the gut!

There’s lots of evidence to suggest that polyphenols have a role in the prevention of degenerative diseases (such as cardiovascular diseases), so eating polyphenol rich foods (such as blueberries), while not being a definite way to prevent disease because of the number of other factors involved, will definitely benefit your overall health. 

And finally, enjoy fermented foods! They’re full of probiotics, which is especially good if you don’t eat dairy. 

So there you have it, a very brief overview of the topics discussed over the course of the evening. I hope you gained as much from this post as I did from the event!

Gut Stuff