Top | The Culinate Interview

Walter Willett

(article, Jessica MacMurray Blaine)

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p(blue). Dr. Walter Willett, the chair of the nutrition department at Harvard University, is a national advocate for understanding and reforming American eating habits. His 2001 book, the bestselling [/books/collections/3199/3575 "Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy" newpage=true], debunked dietary myths about fat, carbohydrates, and protein, and offered nutritional guidelines based on common sense.

What are the big questions about nutrition right now?
There are two levels we should look at. Our food choices can affect our health pretty directly by raising our cholesterol, increasing oxidant intake, those kinds of things. But there are other choices that, in the long run, can affect our health in an indirect way. It’s not just our individual health, but whole-population health.

I think it’s helpful to keep those things separate, because it’s possible that you may get different answers. For example, fish. There’s abundant evidence that eating fish reduces heart disease. But we could easily fish for the last fish. For long-term societal and population health, it’s very important that fishing be sustainable.

What do you see as the central issue in individual human nutrition?
The central issue is that the majority of what Americans are eating, and what the rest of the world is rapidly transitioning toward, is a diet that’s not fit for human consumption.

[%image willett float=left width=250 caption="Walter Willett" credit="Photo: Chris Terran"]

The three main pieces of this diet are refined starches and sugar (which together make up half of calories) and partially hydrogenated fats (which have many adverse effects). To a large extent, what the food industry is doing is reshaping and repackaging those three ingredients in different ways, because they’re cheap and provide huge profit margins. Unfortunately, they have really negative effects on human health.

Do you think the nutrition community acknowledges the effects of these ingredients?
I don’t think the nutrition community recognizes the role of refined starches. And one of the main problems is the huge percentage of sugar and total calories that come through sodas and sugar-sweetened beverages — basically just sugar water. For a long time, nutritionists were so concerned about fat calories, they ignored sugar calories — including beverages. Nutritionists looked the other way, because it wasn’t fat.

Has that attitude changed?
There’s been a shift in the nutrition community in the last couple of years going back to the idea that it’s not just fat calories but overall calories that are important. Nobody can ignore the fact that there’s been an explosion of obesity, which really comes from an increase in carbohydrate intake, not an increase in fat intake.

What’s your take on the carb phobia of recent years?
I think Robert Atkins was actually on to something important. Not that loading up on red meat and butter and sausage is a good thing, but he recognized that the high glycemic load of all this refined starch and sugar does horrible things to you, and if you reduce it, you get a lot better. In fact, it’s so bad, you can replace it with butter and sausage and red meat and lose weight and metabolically be no worse off.

What market forces do you see at work here?
One of the driving factors is that the cheaper, not-so-healthy foods produce more profits. It’s worth putting a lot of marketing into pushing them. It’s more complicated and difficult to make a lot of money on apples. Branding is harder, and there are the real costs of the apple, such as shipping it and keeping it fresh.

What about prepared, processed foods?
The food industry is always trying to create added value by processing and packaging and marketing; (consumers) are willing to pay for that, because there’s a reduction in time and thinking. People want those pre-prepared things, so now it’s an important task to make those things healthier by using vegetables and healthy fats.

Also, it’s key to empower people to get more involved in preparing their own food. We have to pursue both paths. People’s lives are so different; no single method works for everyone.

What role does government play?
Government plays many roles. They’re very involved in agriculture; huge investments are made in promoting production of basic commodities, and much less in production of healthier options. They’re also involved in dietary advice and guidelines. Unfortunately, the basic mantra of the industry at the moment is now the same mantra of the Department of Agriculture: that there’s no such thing as a good food or a bad food, and there’s a place for everything in a healthy diet.

Basically it’s carte blanche, everything goes — epitomized by the current Food Guide Pyramid, which has colorful stripes and totally no helpful information. Unfortunately, there’s really been an abdication in the government’s role in helping people have the information they should have to make healthy food choices.

What about whole-population health?
One of the issues here is that we really have an agricultural system that converts Middle East oil into food. I haven’t done the calculations myself, but other people have come up with numbers — something like 10 calories of Middle Eastern oil converts into 1 calorie of food for humans. It’s definitely not sustainable, and there’s just a huge negative environmental impact because of the way that we produce our food. When we’re flying in frozen peas from China, it just makes no sense.

Do you see any solutions?
We need to look more broadly at the costs of what we’re eating. Take soda, for example. It’s pretty bizarre that we’re subsidizing, in many ways, the cost of the sugar that goes into that soda, and we’re also subsidizing the consequences of consuming that soda. We’re paying huge amounts for diabetes and the complications of overweight.

Maybe we could include the actual cost to society of eating a certain food in its price. If you put on the price of that soda the costs of the oil, part of the costs of the wars to defend that cheap oil, and the medical costs of overweight, that soda would cost quite a bit more. It might make people think about it, and maybe think about a healthier alternative.

No one wants to use the term “tax,” but that money could go back into something like reducing health-care premiums, which are straining everybody, individuals and businesses alike. We’re effectively subsidizing the consequences of other people’s choices.

If you could make one fundamental change to the American diet, what would it be?
The worst single specific problem is trans fats. If we could take trans fats out of the generally-regarded-as-safe category, that would have a huge impact.

Perhaps a broader step might be to take the dietary-guideline process out of the hands of the Department of Agriculture and into the hands of the National Academy of Sciences. The focus should be on health, not profits.

p(bio). [ "Jessica MacMurray Blaine"] is a writer based in Crow, Oregon.

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