I Overeat: The Zoe Nutrition App Found Dieting, Raising Millions, and the Perfect Microbiome

Tim Spector, professor of genetics and co-founder of the personal nutrition company Zoe, is recovering from a mild illness when Observer gets to know him and the company’s other founders.

People expect Tim to have a perfect immune system, jokes co-founder and CEO Jonathan Wolff, but even he, with his near-perfect microbiome, gets sick from time to time.

Since launching in April 2022, more than 130,000 people have signed up for Zoes’ personalized nutrition program, which aims to improve gut health and metabolism. Spector is a well-known personality on television and radio, and through his books The diet myth and Spoon-fed.

Zoe customers can be identified by the circular yellow patch on their arm that means they are wearing a blood sugar sensor. Kerry Johnson, wife of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, recently revealed on Instagram that she has signed up. Television presenter Davina McCall is one of its biggest advocates.

Zoe (life in Greek), gives personalized advice via an app on what users should eat, based on the results of gut health and blood fat tests and 14 days of blood sugar monitoring, all done at home and sent to a lab.

Spector does not believe in miracle diets. But he believes in the microbiome, the trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in our gut, which in addition to digesting food also play a vital role in regulating our immune system and our brain chemistry. We now understand that food is the most important choice that individuals can make for their health, he says.

Born in North London, he trained as a doctor and then became Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London. In 1992 he set up a registry of 15,000 adult twins at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, and his TwinsUK and Predict studies showed that even genetically identical people react very differently to food.

He had his first eureka moment in 2012 during a study of twins when he was looking for factors that would explain why some had different diseases. It wasn’t until I tested the microbiome that it was the first thing I ever found to be radically different between identical twins.

He had another aha moment while skiing, after suffering a mini-stroke that kept him out for three months. He reassessed what he knew about healthy eating.

I was moving away from being an epidemiologist, studying populations, to wanting to give precise advice to individuals. And that first person was me.

Davina McCall is one of Zoes’ celebrity advocates. Photo: ITV/Shutterstock

Spector found that his breakfast of high-carb muesli with low-fat milk and orange juice was very unhealthy for me: it left me exhausted, tired, and probably made me even hungrier. So I binged, which meant I was slowly gaining a pound a year.

These days he doesn’t eat until 11 o’clock, when for lunch he has kefir and full-fat yogurt with berries, nuts and seeds, along with a plant-based meal such as curry.

Wolff studied physics at Oxford and spent 20 years working for technology companies. He gained experience in the field of artificial intelligence in his previous job as chief product officer at Crite, one of the largest European technology firms. He says he overcame food intolerances by ditching highly processed carbohydrates and switching to a plant-based, fiber-rich diet. I’m hungry for breakfast, so yogurt and nuts aren’t enough. I still have bread, but I have rye bread and I often have avocado.

The third co-founder and president of Zoe is George Hadjigeorgiou, an engineer from Greece. He founded the largest online takeaway food company in Greece, e-food.gr, which was sold to Germany’s Delivery Hero in 2015. He had high cholesterol but reduced it by 40% by switching to berries, nuts and seeds , fish, legumes and extra virgin olive oil that he brings from Crete every year.

He and Wolff worked together at Yahoo. After hearing Spector speak publicly about the twin study, they decided to put together a personalized nutrition business proposal.

I said we really need to do a big science project to prove it, says Spector. And you’re going to go and raise a few million to make this happen. I really wasn’t sure if I would see them again.

But they raised 7 million in seed money and Zoe was born in 2017. Then came Covid. The trio decided to pause the project in March 2020 and launched an app to track Covid symptoms, which had more than 4 million users.

“It really proved that if you can get millions of people to participate in science at home, you can do better science than has ever been done in labs,” Wolff says.

Spector’s top five dietary tips include a plant-based diet, overnight fasting and cutting ultra-processed foods from 60% in the UK to close to 15% in Mediterranean countries.

A decade ago, his son Tom, then a student at Aberystwyth University, volunteered, as an experiment, to eat only McDonald’s food for 10 days. Tom reported feeling well for three days, but then became lethargic and ill. Although he didn’t gain weight, Spector says, what was really concerning was that he lost about 30% of his microbial species, and even now, his microbiome is below average.

Zoe has identified nearly 5,000 never-before-seen gut bacteria. Of these, 100 were strongly associated with health across all 35,000 participants, 50 good and 50 bad. This is fed into the app and personalized member scores will be updated over time.

Some doctors have reportedly said that personalized nutrition apps may cause unnecessary worry in healthy people. Zoe says she provides evidence-based advice and a clinically validated personalized nutrition program designed to improve health.

The company will release the results of its recent Method study this week, which shows that people who followed Zoes’ personalized program for 18 weeks saw improvements compared to a group that received standard nutritional advice. The Zoe group lost weight and had a healthier body composition, improved fats in the blood and a better gut microbiome.

Critics have previously said the trial was flawed because people knew which group they were in. Among those critics is Deborah Cohen, ex. Newsnight health editor and Margaret McCartney, GP and writer, who wrote on UnHerd: Zoe is just one of hundreds of apps measuring our biometrics in this age of the quantified self. But are these promises of personalized advice based on sound medicine?

The recent surge in demand means new Zoe users have to wait a few weeks for their test kit. So far, it has attracted $101 million in investment from several venture capital firms, Dragons Dance Steven Bartlett, and NFL champions Eli Manning and Ositadim Osi Umenyiora.

Results filed with Companies House show Zoe made a pre-tax loss of £10.5m in the year to the end of August 2022, down from £7.9m a year earlier, despite a jump in revenue to £5.9m from £1.8m, as distribution and sales force costs also increased.

Joining the program isn’t cheap: a starter kit costs 299.99 and membership starts at 24.99 per month. The company says the price will drop as lab testing becomes cheaper, and in the meantime, it’s providing free health advice via podcast. It also hopes to work with the NHS in the future and says its database of members is anonymous. And the data is also not shared with health insurers.

We know from our Covid discussions how painful it is to get anything agreed in the NHS, but the three of us would like the NHS to adopt Zoe programs in one form or another, says Spector.


Team Spector

Age 65

the family Married with two children.

education University College School, London; St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School, London.

Last holiday Istria, Croatia.

The best advice is given Make sure you enjoy what you do, otherwise life will be boring.

The biggest mistake of his career I applied for very bad jobs, but luckily I never got them.

Words he overuses Wonderful and complete rubbish.

How he relaxes Sports, cooking, red wine and meditation.

Jonathan Wolf

Age 48

the family Married with two children.

education in Physics from the University of Oxford.

Last holiday Italy.

The best advice is given Do something you love.

The biggest mistake of his career Joining a dotcom firm in March 2000, the day the Nasdaq bubble burst. He was worth billions then, and eight months later I was fired.

Words he overusess Amazing advice doable.

How he relaxes I am known throughout the company for my need for a nice cup of tea at frequent intervals.

George Hadjigeorgiou

Age 48

the family Married with two children.

education Anatolia College, Greece. Studied mechanical engineering at Tufts University in Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Last holiday Skopelos, Greece.

Best advice it was given to him Truth is the beginning of beautiful outcomes.

The biggest mistake of his career I’ve been working for big companies longer than I should have.

Words he overuses Focus, orthogonal, double click.

How he relaxes Going to a musical with the family, tennis, karaoke if anyone can stand my terrible singing.

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Image Source : www.theguardian.com

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