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The Transcript

Harvard professor connects disease, diet and the food pyramid

Staff November 16, 2012 News No Comments

By Carly Shields
Transcript Correspondent

The health and diet of American citizens and the progress, or lack thereof, made so far was the topic of discussion last week.

Walter Willett, the chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard Medical School, spoke on Tuesday, Nov. 6, on the issues of the food pyramid and the connection between food consumption and disease.

“Nutritionists agree that the food pyramid from the 1970’s was really off,” Willett said. “We need oils and fats. Eating fish and nuts is better than eating red meat.”
Christopher Fink, assistant professor of physical education and director of the Sagan National Colloquium, also agreed that the 1970’s food pyramid had good intentions but was wrong in its message.

“I agree with Dr. Willett entirely on the food pyramid,” Fink said.

“I think it intended to do good things, but that it was misguided and resulted in some confusion relative to healthy eating behaviors, because of the emphasis on carbohydrates and the lack of specificity about what kinds of carbohydrates were most nutrient dense.”

Willett said that the food pyramid from the 1970’s is one of the causes to the unbalanced and unhealthy diet in Americans.

The 70’s food pyramid tells us large amounts of carbohydrates are good and small portions of oils and fats are bad, but Willett said this is not true.
“The 2005 food pyramid is useless as well,” he said.

“It doesn’t tell you what to avoid and the 2010 new food plate diagram is not much better.

“It says you need a glass of milk at every meal but really water is the beverage of choice.”

Fink said he agrees with Willett that the intent of the 2010 food plate has made improvement but is still not accurate on what to eat.

“Still, it lacks specificity about the various kinds of grains and protein foods that are most nutrient dense and associated with lower risk of chronic disease, and I think it’s still too friendly to specific lobbies, such as the dairy industry,” Fink said.

Willett said he has done research on different diseases such as breast cancer, heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

He said he has tested to see if there is any correlation between animal fat and breast cancer mortality.

“We look at how diet affects heart disease or cancer over time,” Willett said.

“Most cancers have already started growing before they were even tested for.”

Willett said he discovered higher rates of fat and weight gain after age 18 leads to high rates of breast cancer in women.

He said this has to do with estrogen levels as well.

“You want to maintain your body weight and try and keep your weight as close to as what you weighed at age 18,” Willett said.

“Women in Asia actually decrease in weight after they turn 18, making their risk for breast cancer decrease even more.”

Willett discussed how everything became fat-free in the 90’s because there was a scare that fat was the cause for many diseases and cancers.
Women and men were eating fat-free everything.

Willett did a research project on trans fat and what it does to the body. Trans fat is correlated to coronary disease.

Willett said he discovered a correlation between men with coronary heart disease and Omega 3.

He said he discovered there is a decrease in deaths of men who have high rates of Omega 3.

Willett said in modern food productions, the food industry hydrogenates Omega 3’s to be able to sit on shelves for a long time.

But by hydrogenating the Omega 3’s out of the food, Willet said the nutrition in the food is also diminished.

“Nuts are high in Omega 3 and people who consume nuts most days of the week have a 30 percent less chance of coronary heart disease,” Willett said.

Willett discussed the common idea that fruits and vegetables will help keep all diseases away, but said this is not true.

“There is no correlation between increase of produce and decrease in cancer,” Willett said.

“However there has been a 30 percent decrease in cardiovascular disease with produce intake.

“So keep eating your fruit and vegetables.”

Willett discussed the rapid increase of obesity in America.

He said high levels of glycemic loads increases Type 2 diabetes.

Willett said doctors were telling women to increase their glycemic loads before they understood the correlation between high levels of glycemic intake and Type 2 Diabetes.
High levels of glycemic intake are even worse if a person is overweight or obese.

Willett also discussed the connection between milk and prostate cancer. He said there is evidence that milk is related to the cause of prostate cancer.
He also said there is no evidence that milk supports bones.

“We really don’t need that much milk and we really don’t need that much calcium either,” Willett said.

However the higher levels of Vitamin D the lower risk of colon cancer.

Willett said the lifestyle for lowering the risk of heart disease is the same lifestyle for lowering the risk for Type 2 Diabetes.

These low risk factors include not smoking, exercising for at least a half hour every day and having a good, balanced diet, which includes low trans fat, low glycemic load, high cereal fiber, high fish and low alcohol consumption.

Fink said he would like students to understand that there are “good scientists,” like Willett, working to help the public understand health and diet are always evolving.

“I think that Dr. Willett brought the discussion about the mutually transformative relationship with food into the arena of medicine and health,” Fink said.

“Certainly, with all of the focus on health care, medical costs, and the rise in various chronic diseases associated with our diet, we shouldn’t have a series focused on our relationship with food without speaking about the health impact.”

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