Zoe Persionalised Nutrition - is it worth it?

I’ve been asked several times whether I thought the Zoe App and testing were worthwhile.  The short answer is “yes”.  The long answer is more nuanced.

Zoe is a system of personalised nutrition.  

Sign up and you get access to a phone App and a box of stuff comes in the mail.  

You use that stuff to capture and carry out a series of tests; on your poop (testing the gut microbiome; on your blood (testing your body’s response to eating fats); and a Continuous Glucose Monitor - a CGM - to testing your body’s response to sugar.  

The first phase of the Zoe programme involves this testing and you can find the details online.  When we did it in January 2023 it involved eating calibrated muffins in which the precise amounts of sugar and fat were known.  They’ve now switched to cookies because those muffins were hard to eat in the time allowed.

While your samples are being analysed and your personal report prepared, you do more self-testing with the CGM.  The device is made for diabetics to  monitor their glucose levels, and there’s some controversy whether they should be used by the ‘worried well’.  Using an applicator, the device sticks to the underside of your arm and a filament, thinner than an acupuncture needle, goes into your skin - it didn’t hurt at all.  This measures a fluid in your body that’s a close proxy for blood glucose. 

Glucose spikes are bad.  Again, there’s loads of stuff you can read about why.  It’s natural for levels to rise after eating, but a big sudden rise is frequently followed by a dip.  Not only is this seriously unhealthy, you feel hungry in that dip and overeat to compensate and bring the level up again.  It’s a glucose roller-coaster.

One test I remember are the different breakfasts on four separate days. I had to eat 50g of almonds and/or 50g of oatmeal porridge in different sequences.  Only almonds - no glucose rise.  Only porridge - glucose rise.  Porridge then almonds - glucose rise.  Almonds then porridge - no glucose rise.  Same food, different sequence.  Different results.  And different implication for hunger later in the day.

When your results come through from Zoe you’re told how you body responds to sugar, to fat, and the quality of your microbiome.  This is your personal profile and it feeds back into the App.

You can then record all you eat in the App (which feels a bit like MyFitness Pal except there are no calories or macros scored).  The App then gives your individual food choices a score relative to your personal profile.  It records these during the course of the day, so you’re allowed some ‘less good’ choices if the other stuff is good.  The objective is to end the day with a healthy score.  So much so… brilliant!

A lot depends on your lifestyle.  If your breakfast comes from a cereal box (even a good one), your lunch is a sandwich meal-deal, and your dinner is a ready meal, then the App will be amazing.  Just scan the barcode on each of the above, and you’ll immediately get its score.  I went through the plant-based sandwiches in M&S, scanning each, and, even in this small range, the suitability for my personal profile varied hugely.  Likewise the ready meals.  If I was still working 12+ hour days, I would find the App a hugely beneficial tool.

Now I spend my days writing and making videos, Liz and I  have time to make our own cereal, prepare our own lunches and cook dinners fresh almost every day.  Weighing every single ingredient and inputting these to the Zoe App takes  ages and is a huge pain.  The earlier testing confirmed our diet was already close to ideal and only needed a few tweaks.  So in the end, we stopped using the App.

I suspect once most people will follow this pattern.  They’ll love the testing because it reveals hidden truths about the way their  bodies work.  They’ll initially enjoy zapping bar codes and finding  what is  good and what’s bad for their personal profile.  Then they’ll stop using the App once they get a handle on what they ought to be eating.

We were so taken with the testing, we’re considering doing it again to see if  anything has  changed, especially our microbiomes.  In the meantime, we’re regular listeners to the Zoe  Podcast and learn new things in almost every episode.    

But, and it’\s a big but which perhaps I shouldn’t have left to the end.  Some scientists believe the Zoe App is more  marketing than science.  They suspect the desire to produce personalised nutrition has run ahead of our ability to truly understand how our bodies process food.  I suspect  the Zoe team would point to a recent study which they claim  proves their approach works.  Frankly, I’ll leave this to the scientists to argue the details.  It worked for me, and I found it fascinating.  It’s worth reading more about it before you head down the Zoe route.