The scientist who says eating for a healthy gut will transform your sex life – inews

7 minutes, 21 seconds Read

On the face of it, sex and sauerkraut might seem completely unrelated. But for Dr Federica Amati, chief nutritionist for Zoe, the personalised health app that has reached cult status, what we eat affects every aspect of our health – including who we attract as sexual partners.

“Eating fermented foods like yoghurt, sauerkraut and kefir helps to support good gut health along with a high fibre diet, so the two together offer gut health benefits which will make us healthier and sexier,” says Dr Amati. “If we look after ourselves, we become healthier, feel better and attract good people.”

Zoe, co-founded by the epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector, has got us all talking about our microbiomes. And Dr Amati, whose new book, Every Body Should Know This: The Science of Eating for a Lifetime of Health is published this Thursday, remains passionate about nurturing the bugs inside us. She says microbes in the gut control the release of pheremones, chemicals that play a key role in attracting a partner.

“We have to remember that we choose sexual partners, evolutionarily, to procreate. So what’s really important for the success of conception and of the offspring is a robust immune system. Having compatible immune systems is really important.”

Dr Amati got into nutrition because she always wanted to help people. Her father’s death, aged 63 from bowel cancer, had a huge effect on her work. “What he went through was preventable – maybe we couldn’t have stopped him getting cancer, but certainly the age and the course it took,” she says.

But despite that devastating loss at such a young age, Amati’s ethos is one of joy, and this runs through her book. Even as she’s delivering the chilling news that we’re setting up children to have a worse life than we’ve had, for example, and that 80 per cent of chronic diseases could be prevented by diet or lifestyle changes, she does so in a way that celebrates eating. She talks about abundance rather than deprivation: it’s the opposite of dieting culture.

“The principles of positive nutrition are much easier to make part of life,” she explains. “I’m Italian. I grew up in a household where food was king. I was in Italy in my early childhood [until eight] and was lucky to be born into a joyful food culture. I don’t think we talk enough about the impact of hunger: being hungry is not joyful for anyone.” 

Dr Amati now lives in London with her husband Paul Sculfor, supermodel and addiction charity Stride Foundation founder, and two daughters, aged six and four. Here in the UK, a huge 65 per cent of an average child’s diet comes from ultra-processed foods, which are linked to serious disease in later life. Our nutrition is so bad that children’s height is actually decreasing compared with other European countries. It’s shocking – and she’s appalled. “Do I think politicians need to make this a priority? Absolutely. The problem is, right now, our food environment, nutrition and health aren’t even on the list. So when I say ‘let’s vote for people who actually care’, there’s nobody I can think of, in any party, who has this as a priority.” 

While her work with Zoe is all about individualised eating plans, she’s clear that everyone’s health improves if they follow the Mediterranean diet: high in vegetables, seeds, grains, beans, fibre, some oily fish and dairy, low in red meat. Even if you wait until your forties you can gain over 10 years by switching to it, while in your seventies you can add five years, she says.

In her book, she offers advice on what to eat for all the stages and states of life – for example, adolescents should eat eggs (high in iron) and mushrooms (for B vitamins and vitamin D), while teenage boys and young men need zinc and omega-3s.

Women need iron when menstruating, while in menopause they should eat more plants and aim for a healthy body weight to alleviate symptoms, and build more muscle to optimise health. Once people hit 50, she recommends restricting alcohol to wine drunk sociably over dinner, rather than on an empty stomach or to combat stress.

“I hope it leaves people feeling like they have power and can take agency of their own health,” she says.

She dedicates a chapter to the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, from conception to the age of two, and emphasises the importance of good nutrition during this time. Introduce allergens; avoid UPFs where possible; let babies play with whole foods and get messy, and involve them in family meals. She says breast milk is better than formula and believes it should be made available to all women and their babies through breast milk banks.

“My sense is: knowledge is power. Hopefully what comes across is that as a species, we’re extremely resilient. So it’s not to scare people,” she tells me. “It’s a call to arms to make sure we’re aware. My mum started looking after herself after my dad died, really, well into her sixties. So it’s never too late. She’s transformed her health.” 

Dr Amati hopes that in time, our Government will support us all being healthier, at every age. She points to Singapore, which responded to a rise in type 2 diabetes by subsidising healthy food and giving it more advertising space. “Voters have the power to change the narrative, and if we’re aware of the power of food, we have the power to make change happen.”

Five ways to a healthier, sexier microbiome

  • Rather than five-a-day, aim for diversity with 30 different plants a week: eat fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes and wholegrains
  • Increase your fibre intake
  • Avoid ultra-processed food
  • Eat fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and yoghurt, daily. Little and often works best
  • Avoid eating after 9pm and give your gut microbes a break overnight

For now, while the environment outside our homes is far from ideal, we can be our own “health architects” inside our homes. Both Dr Amati and Zoe founder Tim Spector talk about the 80/20 rule, where 80 percent of what they eat is very helpful food. Dr Amati says it’s how her family fills the food cupboards. “We don’t have ready meals, they’re cooked from scratch,” she explains. “Paul is enthusiastic about nutrition and very supportive, but I’m Italian so I do the cooking alongside my mum and our Italian nanny.”

It’s so refreshing to hear a successful woman with young children acknowledge a nanny’s help – and be honest about feeding a young family. The less helpful 20 per cent of their diets includes, she says, ice lollies, Percy Pigs or Candy Kittens. “The days before my period, there’s no chance I’m not eating at least three forms of chocolate“, she says.

While she’s a proponent of intermittent fasting, she doesn’t make it a ‘rule’.

“I often eat within a ten-hour window,” she says. “I eat observing circadian rhythms and avoid eating after 9pm, so I let my body rest overnight. I wait to eat in the morning until I’m hungry.”

But she prioritises socialising. “When you see people not going to dinner parties, we’ve lost touch of the point of time-restricted eating,” she believes. “Aligning with our circadian rhythm is so important, but if it starts impinging on your social life, no. Social connection is crucial for good health.”

She’s concerned by how disconnected the UK is from food, hunger and our body’s signals. It starts in childhood, she says, when a child tells a parent they’re hungry and receives the reply: ‘But you’ve just eaten’ or ‘Have a drink’. “If they say they’re hungry, that means their body’s telling them they’re hungry,” she says. “I want to go back to a place where we understand the importance of food: how amazing it is for our health, how it impacts every single system including our mood; how we respect our hunger.” Her work as a nutritionist is helping people rebuild their food relationships. Once they start eating a diet that helps them feel good, rather than leaves them hungry, they tend to stop craving food that isn’t helpful for their body. 

While the junk food lobby is powerful, it may have met its match in Dr Amati. I’m not sure anyone else could make gut microbiomes sound sexy. “Focusing on our own health and happiness is the best way to attract the best kind of partners,” she says with a smile.

Every Body Should Know This: The Science of Eating for a Lifetime of Health is published by Michael Joseph this Thursday 25th April 2024 (£22)

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