Monday morning and I am in Marks & Spencer scanning barcodes using a bracelet on my wrist.1
Feeling furtive, like a middle-aged woman engaged in biscuit-themed espionage, I scan a Tunnock’s caramel and chocolate wafer biscuit. The button on my bracelet turns red. I scowl. I cannot have them.
I pick up some chocolate digestive biscuits and scan them instead. The button on my bracelet turns green. Oh, victory! I can, if I wish, buy them, according to the bracelet. I have tried many diet-related crazes — Atkins, juice fasts, 5:2. I have bullied myself and invited others to bully me — personal trainers in gyms, nutritionists in diet clinics.
Perhaps I am ready for something gentler, to be nudged by a piece of technology that has read my DNA and, in concert with Britain’s leading supermarkets, will make gentle recommendations, via a flashing button, on what I should buy and eat, and when I should move. It is called the DNANudge and I wonder, when I first learn of it, if I will find it irritating.
Tanya Gold, 47, (pictured) who has tried diets including Atkins, juice fasts, 5:2 and visited diet clinics, gives verdict on the DNANudge bracelet
Why wouldn’t I? With food, I have no faith. I thought I would feel as if a robot were shouting at me in coloured lights like some mad, nutrition-obsessed R2-D2. One day soon, I thought, it will be a microchip that physically prevents me from reaching for the food. It might give me an electric shock.
But I need to be nudged — and badly, because it is plain to me, and everyone who knows me, that, at 47, I have an eating disorder. It is compulsive eating.
I stopped drinking alcohol 19 years ago, and I am very proud of that. But I switched at least some of the dependency to food, which is a very reliable anaesthetic. And so, I have got larger every year.
I am now 17 st. I feel ailing and sexless. My legs ache and itch. My back hurts. My ankles wobble. I have no energy. I don’t like to look at, or think about, my own body, from which I feel weirdly detached, almost certainly as self-protection.
This eating disorder behaves very similarly to alcoholism — before I hit that in the face with a spade and killed it dead by starving it. But you can’t do that with food.
This addiction talks to me, a small demon in my ear. Eat this, eat that. Have this, have that. Or — and this is its favourite — start tomorrow!
On a rare, good-food day (and they are very rare) it simply says — why bother? You can never have the body you want. The terrible thing is: I don’t even want this food. Would you believe me if I said I ate it unwillingly? But that is the way of all addictions. You must put the hours in; they consume you.
I have, briefly, and at times, been slim. For a while in my 30s, I ran 10 km three times a week and, at 10 st, was fast and strong. I have photographs from that time. I look so unhappy it’s comical.
Tanya (pictured) said her compulsive eating has been worse under lockdown, as she lives in the kitchen because it’s the warmest room in her house
I have been to diet clinics, which worked as long as I was actually locked up. I would leave inspired, and feeling well, and I would binge on the plane home. The last time I binged after a detox five years ago I collapsed in Pizza Express. But, as any compulsive eater will tell you, it is not the losing weight that is the problem. It is the believing that the new slimmer body is yours, and not yearning to return to the old one, which protected you.
So, in my 40s, with a home, a job I love and a wonderful husband and seven-year-old son, I don’t know how to do something as basic as eating.
I feel ailing and sexless. My back hurts. My ankles wobble. I don’t like to look at, or think about, my body
It has been worse under lockdown. We live in the kitchen because it is the warmest room in our house in Cornwall. My husband makes stews, pies and roasted meat. He can make golden syrup pudding, sponge cakes, even profiteroles, and at night I eat sweets.
Then I hear about DNANudge. It is a bracelet that connects to an app on my mobile phone. Together, these ‘nudge’ you towards healthier choices, based on your DNA.
You cannot change your DNA and inside it there are mutations that make it more likely that you will develop certain illnesses. Using a swab from inside your cheek, the DNANudge looks for single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) — variations in the DNA code — that are linked to chronic health conditions (obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension) that can be prevented or delayed by lifestyle factors such as exercise and diet.
The scientists behind DNANudge have painstakingly analysed the nutritional value of half a million products sold in Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Co-op, Morrisons and Asda and loaded the information into the gadget.
Tanya (pictured) sent a swab of her DNA to the DNANudge headquarters in London, then began taking dietary advice from the bracelet
The whole package — the bracelet, charger and DNA test — costs £120, available online or at pop-up counters in Waitrose and John Lewis and a flagship store in London’s Covent Garden.
You scan the barcode with the bracelet. It emits a bright red beam, like a laser and if the product is suitable for you, the wristband beams green. If it isn’t, it beams red but the app will instantly show you alternatives. You needn’t leave the biscuit aisle. You just need to choose a different type of biscuit.
The bracelet also watches your movement. It wants you to move little and often, which is healthier than eight hours of sitting and one hour of running. When it wants me to move the bracelet goes amber (as does the bar in the app); when I have moved it returns to green. If you don’t move, food that is green might become red until you move. When to move is, again, determined, by your personal DNA.
First, I have to swab for my DNA. I wiggle a soft stick in my cheek and post it to the DNANudge headquarters in London.
The bracelet tells me what food will likely poison me. Tunnock’s chocolate wafers make it flash red and crisps are the enemy!
The results come back a week later. They don’t tell me anything I didn’t know but they are still horrifying. I have a strong genetic predisposition for obesity and diabetes — my great-aunt went blind from diabetes — and a slight genetic predisposition for hypertension and high cholesterol. I cannot change this — it is my DNA. I can only be aware.
I thought I might hate wearing a bossy bracelet, but I don’t. When it arrives, I find it comforting. It sits gently on my left wrist, on the opposite side of my body to what I call the sugar demon, which whispers above my right ear.
You might think I sound insane, to which I say: how on earth do you think people drink, and eat, themselves to death? From a place of sanity? What you do think a compulsion is exactly? A quirky hobby?
The bracelet (pictured), charger and DNA test together costs £120, available online or at pop-up counters in Waitrose and John Lewis and a flagship store in London’s Covent Garden
Perhaps it is the loneliness of lockdown, too, but my bracelet feels like a new friend, and what compulsive woman doesn’t need a friend?
I have always enjoyed supermarkets — and this gives me something positive to enjoy in them beyond my obsessive and increasingly abusive relationship with food.
For the next two weeks I shop three times a week and, as I do, I scan things with the wristband or, sometimes, for variety, the app on my phone.
My DNA shows I have a genetic predisposition for obesity and diabetes — my great-aunt went blind from it
The good news first: most of the food I usually eat — rice, pasta, meat, vegetables, fruit — is fine. I don’t eat processed food except sweets because my husband is a wonderful cook.
I can’t scan the barcode of these home-cooked meals but I can scan the barcodes of the ingredients: meat, fish, vegetables, pulses, spices. They are all green.
It’s amounts, then. I just eat too much of it. The capsule doesn’t know how much I eat, it doesn’t count calories and it doesn’t make suggestions about how much to eat. It does tell me, though, when I should move. It gives me both guidance and leeway.
It’s subtle, though I wonder if it isn’t always. I am probably imagining it, but when I scan something I know is not ideal — Tunnock’s chocolate and caramel wafers, for instance — the light beams red swiftly.
Tanya (pictured) said the bracelet made exercise easier, explaining she goes for an early walk and then another after lunch
Another thing about my new conspirator: it hates crisps. Apparently, crisps are the ancient enemy of my DNA.
Exercise, too, is easier now. If I put the bracelet on when I wake up — some people sleep in them — I find it easy to go for an early walk along the prom by the sea. Usually, I don’t do this but I have been nudged, merely by its weight on my wrist — and sometimes I march.
Later, after lunch, I go for another walk that sometimes turns into a march too. I begin to think of it not as a nudge but as a reminder.
I find that with my alcoholism — which still torments me with thoughts, although I do not drink — I just need to be reminded of who I am: a sober woman who has skills in life.
Perhaps I need a similar reminder with food: to be brought back to myself and, through that, to nourish myself.
The other reason I like this gadget is because I doubt my obsession with food will ever end. This, perhaps, is just another way of entertaining it but in a healthier way. I can still pore over biscuit packets. But this has more purpose than self-harm. I speak to Professor Chris Toumazou, the inventor of the DNANudge, via Zoom.
Professor Chris Toumazou, the inventor of the DNANudge, became interested in the therapeutic application of engineering when his son lost his kidneys
His background is microchips and mobile phone technology. He has designed a cochlear implant for children who were born deaf and a small chip for an artificial pancreas. He is kind and slim and wildly expressive.
He became interested in the therapeutic application of engineering when his son lost his kidneys when he was seven.
‘It was,’ he says, ‘a renal genetic mutation and very rare. His kidneys packed up. We couldn’t have prevented it from happening because it is a genetic mutation, but we could have managed his lifestyle very differently if we’d known about it.
‘That got me into prevention and early detection.’
So he wanted to screen people to see if they have genetic errors that can lead to sickness; to ‘bring genetics to the consumer in a friendly and demystified way. I wanted to make it simple’.
I am no scientist, so I ask an idiotic question: is it my fault that I am fat?
‘It’s not your fault that you carry those genes. But what is your fault is lifestyle. The genes have to give you that trigger.’
And he explains the psychology of the DNANudge; how it nudges you away from the food that will harm you until perhaps you won’t want it any more.
Tanya (pictured) was told by the DNANudge company, that she could save herself half a kilo of sugar if she maintains their ‘swaps’ for a year
‘I’m going to have a bar of chocolate,’ he says, pretending to be me, ‘but I’m going to have the one that’s green for me. Over time, you think, “OK, maybe I don’t want it any more.” You start nudging away from it.’
Then he adds, kindly: ‘Just because it’s green for you it doesn’t mean to say that you should eat ten Snickers bars. You know that your DNA is as good as it gets, and you would be polluting your DNA if you did that.’
Quite so. I once sucked all the chocolate off a Snickers in a Russian hotel room because I don’t like peanuts.
At the end of my two weeks, I send my ‘swaps’ — things I have changed with the DNANudge — to the company, which will tell me what impact it will have if I maintain these ‘swaps’ for a year.
The results can be weighed. If I swap my usual strawberry jam for the lower-sugar jam — and eat jam five mornings a week — I will save myself half a kilo of sugar.
If I swap my beloved Tunnock’s chocolate caramel wafer biscuits for chocolate digestives — again assuming I eat two five times a week (in fact, I eat more) — I will save another half a kilo of sugar.
It is pleasing to imagine this: the food I will never eat mounting up in some theoretical warehouse in my mind.
Tanya (pictured) believes she will find food easier over time, if she continues to wear the bracelet most days
I don’t know if I’ve lost weight: it has only been two weeks and I do not find it helpful at the moment to weigh myself. But I feel less ill and more energetic.
I am not suggesting this bracelet is some kind of saviour. It is easy to be healthy, at least theoretically. Eat small portions of healthy food, avoid sugar and exercise moderately. I know that.
Everyone knows that, a fat woman most of all.
I wonder if now, as a woman approaching late middle age and wanting an active life free of obsession and self-hatred, I am ready to change.
I will keep wearing it; it just turned amber for exercise but there is a storm outside. (Tonight, I will ignore it. A nudge is not a kick.)
I suspect that, over time, if I only put it on most days, I will find food easier. I think that, merely by encouraging me to think about what I eat — but not in a threatening way, it is not taking the sugar away — the spell may be broken. I have a small piece of hope.
It is possible that the DNANudge is just another chapter in the boring and very long novel of my insane behaviour around food. But I can definitely say that I feel much calmer, I am exercising more and without hesitation, and, in the two weeks I use my bracelet, I have far more good food days than bad ones.
I don’t know what will happen next — but that, in itself, is something new for me.