Professor Tim Spector is not only one of the most important names in health of our era, he’s the co-founder of Zoe, the personalised nutrition company, and the author of the Sunday Times best selling books ‘Food For Life’ and ‘Spoon Fed’ as well as a Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College London. At age 65 himself and after many years research into the gut microbiome, he’s extremely well qualified to advise on over 50s nutrition.
In fact, he had a mid-life health epiphany himself in his early 50s, when he suffered a mini stroke at the top of a mountain, whilst skiing in the Alps. “I went from being a sporty, fitter-than-average, middle-aged man, to a pill-popping, depressed, stroke victim with high blood pressure,” he said recently. This very harsh wake-up call caused him to reassess and revise everything he thought he knew about nutrition including what he’d learned at medical school. Before this health incident a typical breakfast for Professor Tim was muesli, orange juice and tea, occasionally with toast and marmalade. Once he had re-evaluated his diet, he would eat “a mixture of kefir and full fat yoghurt, with some berries and mixed nuts and seeds on top, plus one or two big cups of black coffee.”
In 2014, the discovery that the gut microbiome could influence body weight, also gave him pause for thought. He did research into the way twins and non twins digested and reacted to identical meals and found that they differed vastly according to both genetics and the gut microbiome. Whilst he acknowledges that the sleep we get, the quality of food and the exercise we get are all important factors in our health, he is focussed on the fact that “the microbiome is a major modifiable factor.”
How much fruits and vegetables should the over 50s be eating? Should it be more or less than those in other age groups?
Fruits and vegetables are some of the most nutrient dense foods on earth. Making sure we eat enough of them as we age, and our ability to absorb nutrients changes, is critical for good health. Aiming for 30 different plants every week is a great way to do this and includes nuts, herbs, legumes, whole grains and fruit and vegetables.
Do we need more fermented foods? Do we need prebiotics/probiotics and postbiotics?
The gut microbiome changes most in early life. In adulthood it’s fairly stable, apart from periods of prolonged antibiotic use or with lots of prescription medications which interact with our gut microbes. Eating 3 portions of fermented foods such as sauerkraut every day provides some of the prebiotics, the majority of probiotics and postbiotics to help keep us healthy.
Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are problematic in all age groups and are becoming a growing part of daily foods in older generations because they are accessible, easy to find, easy to serve and easier to chew. They lack the nutrients and natural water content of fresh foods, which is especially dangerous in the elderly where dehydration and nutrient deficiency is more likely. Added sugar and refined carbohydrates are usually found in UPFs, so reducing these is a simple way to improve dietary quality.
Extra virgin olive oil is a very healthy fat, as are nuts like walnuts and all seeds too. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel and anchovies and most of us only need two portions per week to maintain healthy levels. Chicken, especially the dark meat, is a great option for a nutrient dense meat. Buy organic and high welfare where possible. Remember that beans, chickpeas and tofu are a great source of affordable protein.
Any special tips for youthfulness and good health?
Our individual needs change as we age. Learning what works for you and personalising your diet can have huge benefits, as we’ve seen with the ZOE personalised nutrition programme, which I co-founded to bring personalised nutrition advice to everybody. Making sure we eat a variety of whole foods and move our body in ways that makes us feel happy is key to good health, as is the benefit of socialising. A meal with friends followed by some dancing or a walk is an excellent way to live this recommendation.