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What the world's top nutritionist eats

The Truth

TRIBE Member
By: Megan Ogilvie Health Reporter, Published on Mon Jan 27 2014

Dr. Walter Willett has spent his scientific career trying to figure out how diet can cause or prevent disease.

The Harvard University expert has studied just about every aspect of our diet, from peanuts to coffee, red meat to potatoes, to see how it influences our health.

Most of his research studies involve hundreds of thousands of people whose habits and health have been followed for decades. Many of his findings garner widespread attention.

Willett’s team was among the first to show that trans fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease. More recently, Willett was part of a group that found an association between red meat consumption and risk of early death.

Often called the most-cited nutritionist in the world, Willett is in Toronto on Monday to accept the 2013 Bloomberg Manulife Prize for the Promotion of Active Health — a $50,000 award administered by McGill University.

Willett spoke to the Star from his hometown of Cambridge, Mass., about some of his current research projects, how his studies have influenced his diet and what vegetable he always keeps in his fridge.

You published your first nutrition paper in 1968, which means that you are in your fifth decade as a nutrition researcher. How has the nutrition research world changed in that time?

Our world has changed in a major way. Back in the ’60s, nutrition research was mainly test tube experiments and (experiments) in animals and short-term studies — a matter of weeks — in a small number of people.

What we have done is bring epidemiological approaches to nutrition so we can look at large populations and look at long-term effects over decades.

There are few scientific disciplines where your day-to-day research can be so immediately applied to your daily life. How has your personal diet changed over the years?

It has changed a lot. I grew up in the Midwest, which meant I was raised on mashed potatoes and roast beef and gravy. As our data has come in, it really has been clear that that is not an optimal diet. I have shifted my diet much toward the direction of what might be called a Mediterranean-type diet. Not many potatoes. Definitely a lot more whole grains. Not much red meat. More nuts and legumes. Some poultry and more fish. Our main fat that we use (in cooking) is olive oil, whereas that was a little tiny bottle in the back corner of my mother’s cabinet that had been sitting there for years and very stale.

Despite all the information available these days, nutrition continues to confuse many people. What are some of the nutrition mistruths that linger, even as scientific research has moved on?

There are lots of misconceptions. Nutrition is inherently very complicated. It’s not a single molecule; it’s hundreds of different molecules that together make a difference in our health and long-term well-being. One of the lingering misconceptions is that fat is bad for us and we should be eating lots of carbohydrates. What we’ve learned is there are good fats and bad fats and choosing among them makes a big difference. And the same with carbohydrates. Most of the carbohydrates in the North American diet are refined starch and sugar and those are definitely not good for us in the amounts we are consuming. On the other hand, whole grains do have positive health benefits.

Can you provide a specific example of a food that has received a bad reputation?

People were told not to consume nuts because they were high in fat. Whereas they are one of the healthiest choices we could be including in our diet.

It’s January, which means there is an onslaught of new diet advice in the media. What is the current diet or nutrition trend that bothers you the most?

In general, diets are heading in a better direction. It’s slow. These changes happen over years and decades, not over weeks or months. But in general, our diets are getting better.

What are some examples?

We’ve turned a corner, in a big way, on trans fat. (Consumption of) sugar-sweetened beverages are going down. (Consumption of) whole grains are going up. Looking at the broad trends, it is encouraging for me. The research is being translated, though we wish it could move faster.

Even when it comes to weight-loss diets?

There always is the fad of the month in terms of diet. Part of why that is an issue is because people going on an extreme diet will, most of the time, lose weight initially just because they are excluding so many things from their diet. Almost always that becomes unsustainable in the longer run. And, of course, it is the longer run that counts.

What did you eat for breakfast today?

I had oatmeal and nuts and a bit of yogurt and some dried blueberries.

It’s Friday night. Do you have a glass of wine or a pint of beer?

It would usually be a glass of wine. But a pint of beer on a hot summer’s night is a pretty good alternative.

Do you have a go-to snack?

Nuts. One of the great things about nuts, there is such a variety.

Your favourite nut?

Probably almonds or macadamia nuts.

What is the food always found in your fridge?


Are you a runner, jogger or a walker?

There is that line between running and jogging (laughs). I like to think I am a runner. I do ride my bike to work every day and go for a medium run — two or three miles — two or three times a week.

What does the world’s top nutritionist eat? | Toronto Star
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