Best-selling fitness author Alexandra Heminsley lost a stone in six week on the Zoe diet

When my package arrived from Zoe Nutrition, it felt — and looked — like something from a fancy cosmetics range, or perhaps the hottest handbag of the season, straight from Selfridges. 

The expensive-looking butter-yellow box was delivered by courier, discreetly embossed with chic Zoe logos. But inside there was no pricey mascara or posh arm candy, rather small bundles of medical equipment: a lancet for testing my blood, a continuous blood glucose monitor to slap on the back of my arm and a small sling for the loo seat (yes, really) to help me collect a stool sample of my own. 

But I couldn’t have been more excited! And I’m not alone, because this particular parcel has a 221,000-strong waiting list. I’d spent the best part of the year edging to the top of the queue, and now it was finally my turn to enrol in the Zoe nutrition programme. 

Pioneered by Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, the programme is part-diet, part-health programme and partnutritional science study. 

At more than £500 for a year, the Zoe nutrition programme is not cheap. But the programme is extremely popular – boasting a 221,000-strong waiting list

I first came across Tim in the context of the Zoe Health Study, looking at an app downloaded by more than three million of us during the pandemic, tracking Covid-19 symptoms and enabling epidemiological results to be calculated. 

When I realised that the groundbreaking nutritional research of his team at King’s had been combined with an app as sophisticated as the Covid one, I was sold. Because this is more than just a diet — everyone who signs up is enrolled in a study, the largest in-depth nutritional research programme in the world. 

At more than £500 for a year, taking part is not cheap. But the wait gave me time to save my pennies, as I was keen to be a part of something that could really shift the dial in thinking about nutrition. After all, the Covid app was pivotal in helping scientists and the Government understand the symptoms of the virus and how fast it was spreading. 

Imagine what this might do to the way we eat — and, consequently, how we feel about our bodies. .

Since embarking on the programme Alexandra Heminsley has come to realise that the huge amount of control she has over her body is an enormous relief. She is pictured here before starting the diet 

Of course, no one wants to say they’re on ‘a diet’ these days. In an age of body positivity, saying you are signing up for a nutritional research programme might seem more appealing than admitting that you want to slim down. 

But I’m happy to be open about it. At 46, with a five-year-old son and rattling towards peri-menopause, I am exhausted — not just by a recent bout of Covid, but chiefly by nearly three decades’ worth of diets. 

I remember the F Plan diet in the house as a teenager, then the Atkins, various celebrities espousing everything from maple syrup to cabbage soup, plus blood types and Dr Dukan. If you could stick to any of them, salvation! If you couldn’t, more fool you. Might there be another way? 

By the time I edged out of my 20s I was demoralised by the whole merrygo-round and focused on improving my relationship with the body I had, rather then ones I saw in magazines. 

 I’d long fought the idea that a trim waist equated to moral superiority

I took up running and wrote books about marathons and open-water swimming. I learned to love my limbs for what they could do, rather than what they looked like. In the process, I didn’t just learn to love myself, I made a whole career out of it, too. 

My bestseller Running Like A Girl, which has been sold in more than 13 countries worldwide, led to a decade of experience in talking directly to readers about how they feel about body image. 

I hear from people every day about how they had long thought sport ‘wasn’t for them’ until they read my work. For years I have met women who have thanked me for saying out loud that you didn’t need to look like a runner in order to run; for encouraging them to get in the sea regardless of how they look in a swimsuit. ‘The fish don’t care what size you are!’ I’d say with abandon, and it always felt great. 

During my 30s, I underwent more than a year of IVF, before finally having a son with my ex-partner. Again, I prized my body far more for what it could do than what it looked like. I refused to bow to pressure to ‘snap back’, determined that spending time with my baby was more important than an immediate return to fitness. And I don’t regret it. 

Then, well into my 40s, I found myself shaken by how knocked I was by Covid. I was particularly rattled by how much of the impact was dietrelated. I had already gained more than a stone during lockdown, and now, too tired to make myself proper food, I was painfully aware of how my increasingly erratic eating habits were affecting my recuperation. 

Alexandra is pictured here after the diet. She lost one stone in six weeks. She admits that she realised much of her snacking was to do with a lack of sleep

I was also struggling with running, knowing that the extra weight was part of what made it feel tough. On top of that, as someone who has made a career out of body confidence — used to smiling brightly and encouraging others — I increasingly didn’t want to be recognised struggling along the seafront. 

Despite all this, I was still hugely resistant to the idea of going on a diet. I had spent more than a decade fighting the notion that a trimmer waistline equated to some sort of moral superiority. 

But when I heard about Zoe (which means ‘life’ in Greek), with its cutting-edge tests to measure how each of us is affected by the food we eat, it seemed less like another ride on the futile ferris wheel of dieting and more like a way to try and future-proof my health. 

As the team at Zoe explain, for some, processing blood-fat levels is challenging; for others their body finds it hard to keep blood glucose levels steady. Each of us digests food differently as a result of the medication we’ve taken over the years, the diet we grew up with and even the pets we have in our family home. 

 There’s nothing like a piece of tech all but screaming NO! to put you off your almond croissant

All of which meant that when my box of tricks arrived, I was less aghast at collecting my own stool sample than excited to know the state of my gut bacteria and which foods caused me more harm than they were worth. 

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The app guides you day by day — hour by hour and minute by minute at some points — through the testing process. A packet of specially formulated muffins is sent with the kit, each with specific levels of sugars and fats in them, designed to be eaten at certain times of day, so the team can monitor how your body responds. 

On day one I set up the blood sugar sensor — the same sort of glucose monitor worn by those with diabetes. It was easy to press into the back of my upper arm (using a circular plaster) without help, and I definitely wasn’t aware of the sensor after an hour or so. 

I wouldn’t have thought about it any further if I hadn’t been scanning my phone across it every eight hours for the next fortnight. Each time I did, I could see my blood glucose levels rising and dipping in perfect sync with what I ate, and even when I slept. 

This is the only part of the testing which provided instant results — and they had an almost immediate impact on how I ate. 

Pioneered by Tim Spector, (pictured) Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, the programme is part-diet, part-health programme and partnutritional science study 

It wasn’t that I didn’t know the almond croissant I treat myself to after school drop-off wasn’t going to get a nutritional gold star, but there is nothing quite like seeing a piece of medical equipment all but screaming ‘NOOOO!’ in real time to make you think twice about it. 

Day two was the stool testing, and again, it proved to be surprisingly easy. The paper ‘sling’ which went across the loo seat made scooping a small sample into a vial pretty simple, even if my five-yearold was dumbfounded when he appeared at the door. With the zeal of the convert, I popped the vial into the provided returns box and got it in the post asap. 

Day three involved eating the first two batches of muffins, testing blood fat and blood sugar. One portion was for breakfast and exactly four hours later came the lunch batch. Truly, I have never tasted a less appealing muffin. I knew they had been formulated in the name of science rather than pleasure, but I had not anticipated gagging on them. It took a full 20 minutes to get the ‘lunch’ down, an unprecedented pastry-eating speed! 

Two hours later, I took the simple fingerpick blood test. Again, a medical returns envelope was provided, and I forgot about the results for the best part of a month. 

 It’s less a diet, more a personalised way to futureproof my health

During this time the app encouraged me to monitor what I was eating by logging each meal in the diary within it, and gave me daily mini lectures on nutrition. 

As time passed I also realised that my previous resistance to ‘spending so much time being dictated to by a bloody app’ had been a little off; those ten minutes while I made morning coffee (now black rather than milky) were vastly preferable to the endless ticker tape of self-recriminations, mental calorie arithmetic and gazing at photos of days gone by that had so recently dominated my mental landscape. 

I am ashamed to say I once worked out that you could con a step monitor by attaching it to a knitting needle while making socks and watching Endeavour. Now, I feel different, not least because I don’t feel bossed around. 

Daily updates on the app informed me that portion sizes are not logged and no foods are ever entirely off-limits. This made my heart sing — my precious collection of cookbooks didn’t have to gather dust, I just had to work out which recipes within were going to work better for me. 

Furthermore, the app revealed that calories were never again to be counted. The morning I was told that ‘only you can determine the right amount of food you need to satisfy your needs’ I wanted to cry with relief. 

When my results finally arrived, there were more than 100 PDF pages, including the exact names of bacteria inside my gut plus how my data measures up against the rest of those who have taken the Zoe Predict Study. 

At first, the documents were overwhelming. But each member has an online appointment with their designated coach at this point to talk them through it. 

In short, my results boiled down to the fact that my body deals well with fat, that I have a wide variety of ‘good’ bacteria and relatively few ‘bad’ ones, but that my ability to regulate my blood glucose is pretty poor. No wonder my weight, my energy levels and, eventually, my mental health had all taken a slide. My blood sugar really was on a rollercoaster! 

 The sheer number of cheeses I can enjoy was a delightful surprise

When I later interviewed Sarah Berry PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at King’s College London and part of the Zoe team, she explained that this was probably connected to peri-menopause, as well as my gut diversity. 

Once my results were in, the app automatically updated. It is no longer about testing, but about learning which foods I should eat regularly, which to eat more of (‘Gut Boosters’) and which to keep to occasional indulgences (‘Gut Suppresors’). You can search for foods by name, as well as scan the barcodes of supermarket ingredients. Everything I have eaten since has had a number attributed to it, and I’m encouraged to log that number after each meal, keeping the score above 50 and as close to 100 as possible. 

It was no surprise to see that spinach was encouraged and doughnuts were not, but the sheer number of cheeses I can enjoy was a surprise and a delight. Younger, yo-yo dieter me could never have imagined that fat-laden Camembert was in but watermelon (surely so innocuous?) was not. 

As well as the 1.2million foods on the app, there are hundreds of suggested recipes specific to your Gut Boosters. The core mindset is learning what works for your body, rather than following a rigid plan. 

Keeping my blood glucose steady by choosing foods which don’t send it sky-rocketing is already producing results. Simply put, if you keep blood glucose steadier, your body is not constantly recovering from the inflammation associated with those sugar-highs, nor the dips and cravings that follow. 

As someone who enjoys cooking and gets bored by restrictive diet plans, the sheer variety now available to me has been encouraging. And knowing the order in which to eat certain things (for example, greens before carbs to slow down my glucose response) has meant I have changed a lot without feeling I’ve surrendered too much. 

Above all, being reminded of how much control I have over my own body has been an enormous relief. At last I feel free from whatever fad diet might come along next. 

It has only been six weeks since I downloaded the app, but the two biggest changes have been realising how much my lack of sleep has driven my snacking, and that eating much earlier in the evening helps with that. Consequently, I have already lost a stone without doing what I thought was ‘dieting’. 

I am determined not to follow my usual habit of eight weeks of victory followed by a slump. I have signed up for a year and won’t judge it an unqualified success until I have kept it up for more than 12 weeks. 

But for now, I’m in clothes I haven’t worn in two years, and I have downloaded the Couch-to-5k app all over again. It’s all to play for, but I’m back in the game.

Jacky

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