I think it’s about time for another of my spotlights on people and resources that have substantially influenced my thoughts on nutrition. Our next one up is Walter Willett, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. This man’s scientific credentials are extremely impressive: he was the principal investigator of the second Nurses’ Health Study, he has published over 1000 articles on the relationship between diet and chronic disease, and he is the second most cited author in clinical medicine. This guy knows his stuff.
Willett has published two books, both of which I absolutely love: Eat, Drink and Be Healthy and Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less (written with Mollie Katzen). In these books, he provides simple recommendations for healthy eating based on the best evidence researchers currently have to offer. Every suggestion is supported and well-explained. Willett differs from USDA advice on several points, arguing that the USDA food pyramid is based on outdated assumptions and has been unduly swayed by powerful agricultural interests. Among his basic ideas are the following:
- Vegetables and fruits are wonderful for you, and the more servings you can eat, the better. (Potatoes don’t count.)
- Low-fat diets are not actually good for you. Saturated and trans-fats wreak havoc on your body, but you will improve your health more by replacing them with healthy (and tasty) unsaturated fats than by replacing them with carbohydrates.
- You should eat healthy whole grains at almost every meal. Processed carbohydrates, on the other hand, provide little benefit and increase the risk of some diseases and should be saved for occasional treats.
- Unless you’re vegan, you don’t have to worry about getting enough protein. The important thing is to choose healthy protein sources like beans, nuts, fish and poultry. Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets can be perfectly healthy. And ignore the milk mustache ads: there is no reason to eat three servings of dairy per day.
- 30 minutes of walking a day will provide your body with a host of physical benefits. The more you can increase your activity from there, the more you reduce your risk of long term disease.
Eat, Drink and Be Healthy goes into more depth about the science behind the recommendations, while Eat, Drink and Weigh Less contains lots of practical suggestions for applying the recommendations in the real world when you are busy or eating out. Both are very good, and both will really inspire you to want to eat better. It’s absolutely mind-blowing how much influence good nutrition has on your long-term health. According to Willett, “A healthy diet combined with regular exercise and no smoking can eliminate 80% of heart disease and 70% of some cancers.” (emphasis added)
When I found Willett’s books, I was overwhelmed with a sense of relief. Traditional nutrition advice (low-fat, high-carb, lots of dairy, etc.) makes my body feel absolutely lousy. I’ve been that way since childhood. South Beach and various other diets addressed the problems that I had with mainstream nutrition advice, but I was completely fed up with being “on a diet” all the time. I think that a fatal flaw in pretty much every popular diet I have ever tried or read is an overly vague picture of what maintenance looks like. Most diets depict maintenance as some kind of fuzzy stage of eating well most of the time, but eating as many “bad foods” as you can get away with without gaining. I desperately wanted someone to show me a positive, realistic picture of a way that I could eat for the rest of my life. Willett’s books offered me that.
One thing that I love about Willett’s books is that he focuses on adding good things and swapping out good for bad rather than just reducing the bad. And it’s all about improvements rather than some magical dividing line between on and off-plan. I’ve learned from him that if I have a bad week, the first thing that I should do is drink more water and eat more vegetables (bonus points if they are cooked with EVOO!). Often, if I just make room for the good things and eat mindfully, my diet naturally balances itself out.
Much of the wonderful information in Willett’s books is available online at the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source. I really encourage you to take a look.