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Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Way back in the 1970s, the epidemiologist Walter Willett noticed that dietary advice abounded, but dietary science did not. So Willett, a researcher with the massive, long-term Nurses' Health Study, began looking for scientific evidence of the health effects of diet.

As the data piled up, Willett and his colleagues began changing their own habits accordingly, and Willett decided to share their conclusions with the general public. His 2001 book Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy is the result, a brief compendium that, with its straightforward prose and practical advice, became both a bestseller and a modern classic.

Willett pulls no punches; from the start, he tackles the USDA for its misleading dietary advice in the form of the popular Food Guide Pyramid. This pyramid, periodically revised (the latest version came out in 2005), is dictated not by nutritionists but by agricultural and corporate interests. The diet advice therein is what you might expect: eat lots of carbs (refined are the same as whole), lots of dairy (it does a body good, right?), and lots of animal products (fish, chicken, beef, it doesn't matter).

Willett can't stand the pyramid. (Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy came out before the newest pyramid was unveiled, but Willett doesn't approve of the latest model, either.) The pyramid, Willett writes, "is supposed to offer straight talk that rises above the jungle of misinformation and contradictory claims." Instead, the pyramid is "a missed opportunity to improve the health of millions of people."

So Willett offers his own pyramid, which essentially inverts the 1992 version of the USDA pyramid. Carbs are no longer a single bargain basement; instead, they're divided into refined and whole. (Guess which category goes where in Willett's pyramid?) Fats are also divided, into good (plant) and bad (animal, trans). And so forth. No pomposity, just a nice picture less than 20 pages into the book. Ah, clarity.

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The rest of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy explores healthy eating by category (fats, carbohydrates, protein, fruit and veg, and beverages) and theory (the latest thinking on diets, weight, calcium, and multivitamins) before wrapping up with a lovely bonus section: "Recipes and Menus." Sure, scientific explanation is all well and good, but it's generous and practical of Willett to include quotidian meal-planning advice.

Six years after its original publication, Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy is still hale and hearty, a pragmatic book with an appealing balance of detailed evidence and calm simplicity.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.


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