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Review: Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by Walter C. Willett

Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy EatingEat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by Walter C. Willett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best nutrition book I’ve read so far. It’s the perfect blend of factual nutrition science, study results, explanations of bodily processes, and practical food recommendations. This is more my style of book than Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, because I like to know the science behind the nutritional recommendations, and this book draws on over 40 years of research conducted at Harvard and elsewhere.

The author, Walter Willett, is chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School. The diet he advocates uses the Mediterranean diet as a foundation, because it’s been shown to reduce heart disease and cancer. He enhances the Mediterranean diet by incorporating decades of nutritional research, resulting in what he calls “a science-based, multicultural approach to healthy eating.”

Willett describes the strengths and weaknesses of several popular diets, including low-fat, low-carb, and low-glycemic diets. At the end, he includes recipes with detailed nutritional info.

I was familiar with most of the nutritional advice, but there were a couple surprises. Carbs are a large part of the diet, as long as they’re whole grains, not refined. I was most surprised by his stance on dairy, which he says is not only unnecessary in a healthy diet, but potentially dangerous. He gives a very interesting explanation of the role of calcium in the diet, and advice for avoiding osteoporosis. This has motivated me to do more research into dairy.

The Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source website has a lot of this book’s content online.

Nutritional strategy
  • Maintain a stable, healthy weight.
  • Replace saturated and trans fat with unsaturated fats.
  • Substitute whole-grain carbohydrates for refined grain carbs.
  • Choose healthier sources of protein by trading red meat for nuts, beans, chicken, and fish.
  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit.
  • Use alcohol in moderation.
  • Take a daily multivitamin for insurance.
The Healthy Eating Pyramid
  • Red meat, butter, white rice, white bread, white pasta, potatoes, soda, sweets: sparingly
  • Dairy or calcium supplement: 1-2 times/day
  • Fish, poultry, eggs: 0-2 times/day
  • Nuts, legumes: 1-3 times/day
  • Vegetables: in abundance
  • Fruits: 2-3 times/day
  • Whole grain foods: at most meals
  • Plant oils (olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut, other vegetable oils)
  • Daily exercise and weight control
Next to the pyramid are multivitamins and alcohol in moderation (if appropriate).

Exercise and weight
You shouldn’t gain weight after your early 20s; weight gain isn’t inevitable or healthy.
In a normal diet, the body converts fat, carbs, and protein to fat at the same rate. The calories are equal.
Exercise at least 30 minutes daily. Brisk walking gives many of the same benefits as vigorous exercise.

Replace saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats.
Replace butter and margarine with vegetable oil or margarine low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fat.

Sources of dietary fat
Monounsaturated: olives, olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, nuts, nut butter, avocados
Polyunsaturated: corn, soybean, safflower, & cottonseed oils; fish
Saturated: whole dairy, red meat
Trans: margarine, vegetable shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, deep-fried foods, commercial baked goods

Get enough Omega 3. Sources: fish (eat twice a week), walnuts, flaxseeds, canola or soybean oil.
Fish with low mercury contamination: salmon, pollock, catfish, shrimp, light tuna (not albacore).
If you don’t eat enough fish, take a fish oil supplement with 600 - 800 mg of EPA and DHA.

Excess calories, not dietary fat, increases body fat.

High fructose corn syrup isn’t the problem, sugar consumption is. Decrease it.

Protein sources: beans, nuts, legumes, whole grains, other vegetables are best. Chicken, turkey, and fish are better than beef. If you want to eat dairy, choose low- or non-fat.

Fruits and vegetables
Eat for variety and color. Try to eat at least one serving of the following:
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables
  • Yellow or orange fruits and vegetables
  • Red fruits and vegetables
  • Legumes (beans) and peas
  • Citrus fruits
Eat potatoes sparingly; they’re starchy and have a high glycemic index; don’t count them as vegetables.
Cooked or processed tomatoes have more bioavailable lycopene than raw. Try to eat tomatoes every day.
Frozen fruit and vegetables can be as good as fresh. Canned are OK if they’re low in sugar and salt.

Coffee has some benefits and no major health hazards. Tea has no major benefits or hazards.
People of middle age or prone to cardiovascular problems benefit from moderate alcohol drinking. There’s no benefit for young people.

Dairy isn’t an essential part of the diet; 75% of humans are lactose-intolerant. Dairy has many potential detriments: saturated fat, calories, hormones, prostate cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer. There are better ways to get calcium, and the detriments of dairy outweigh the benefits.

Active, healthy people who get only low to moderate amounts of calcium can have low fracture rates. However, there may be a small benefit to getting more calcium, so older women can take calcium supplements or eat low-fat dairy. Men should avoid excess calcium.

For bone health and to prevent osteoporosis:
  • Exercise and stay active.
  • Take 800-1000 IU of Vitamin D daily.
  • Get vitamin K by eating at least one serving of green leafy vegetables daily.
  • Don’t get too much preformed vitamin A (under 2000 IU from supplements).
Take a store-brand multivitamin plus a Vitamin E supplement (at least 400 mg/day) and a Vitamin D supplement (400-600 IU).

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