I love that quote from Walter C Willett, M.D., Dr. P.H., chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and co-author of “Eat, Drink, & Weigh Less” (Hyperion, 2006). In the current issue of ┬áConsumer Reports On Health (July 2012)┬ámagazine, a three-minute consult article with Dr. Willett sheds some light on the power of diet on a person’s health. In the article, he cites the Nurses’ Health Study (which began in 1976 with 121,700 nurses) as a starting point in how nutrition affects heart disease and cancers, the two biggest killers in America. The original goal of the study was to look at the link between dietary fat and breast cancer. “People had noticed that women in Japan and developing countries had low breast cancer rates and low-fat intakes, and thought there was a casual relationship. But as it turns out, there wasn’t), reports Dr. Willett.” It turns out that weight gain as an adult and the use of hormone replacement therapy after menopause is highly related to breast cancer. Dr. Willett continues, “fat in the body is a serious issue, but not the percentage of fat calories in the diet. In the nurses study, the only low-risk group was women who did not gain weight as adults and never took hormone replacement therapy. That group made up only five percent of women, but in Japan, it’s almost everybody, which explains the difference in breast cancer rates.” Adult weight gain turns out to be an important risk factor for many cancers. In the U.S. overweight is about equal to smoking in terms of its contribution to cancer risks.

Dr. Willett goes to say that researchers were surprised to see how pervasive the effects of diet are. Every condition they looked at was influenced greatly by diet, whether it was cataracts, diabetes, gallstones, auto-immune diseases, infertility, and macular degeneration, as well as heart disease and cancers. The biggest problem with the American diet? The quality of carbohydrates, which make up 50% of the typical diet. The biggest single culprit is sugar-sweetened beverages. Recommendations eat more nuts and seeds, whole grain, high-fiber sources of carbs. More beans, less red meat, and modest amounts of poultry and fish. A plant-based diet is best for high health. Dairy is not essential, but one or two servings a day are OK. Also, add in some fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickles, or yogurt.

Stay well, John R Blilie, M.S.