Off the cuff: Walter Willett

Walter Willett, Chair, Department of Nutrition

Spring/Summer 2011 ]

How would you improve the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans?

“The guidelines took baby steps in the right direction. For example, they are very clear about what foods should be increased: whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. They also said we should reduce refined grains—but the ideal diet would have almost no refined grains in it, because refined grains convey calories we don’t need, have adverse metabolic effects, and contribute to weight gain and heart disease and diabetes. The guidelines also recommend low-fat dairy and low-fat red meat—but they don’t say to eat less of the regular versions of red meat and dairy. One of my colleagues who’s a senior government official said, ‘You can talk about reducing red meat consumption, but if we say that, we’ll have senators from half a dozen western states on our doorsteps the next morning.’ Dairy is probably the area with the most controversy and complexity of the evidence. The major justification for consuming large amounts of milk—three servings a day—is that it will reduce bone fracture risk. But there is, in fact, no evidence that consuming more milk reduces fracture risk. The requirement of 1,000–1,200 mg of calcium a day for adults is almost certainly too high.”

Get more advice on healthy eating from HSPH’s The Nutrition Source.