Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Readers aren’t told that expert is an activist.
Walter Willett is a professor of epidemiology, an area of medicine concerned with public health and disease as it affects large populations. Between 1991 and 2017, he chaired the nutrition department at Harvard University. He is famous, celebrated, and accomplished.
Willett’s opinions were prominently featured in a recent Business Insider article whose title explains it all: Keto dieters who fuel up on bacon and butter are ‘irresponsible’ stewards of the planet, a Harvard nutrition expert says.
According to Willett, reducing carbohydrates and embracing animal fats is
bad for the person eating it, but also really bad for our children and our grandchildren, so that’s something I think we should totally, strongly advise against. It’s – in fact – irresponsible.
…We’re racing down a path that is going to lead to destruction of viable environments over the next hundred years or so, and we have to get off that path. That means limiting substantially – not totally eliminating – but greatly reducing our consumption of red meat and dairy foods.
But there’s a big, sticky problem with this article. A professor whose career has been built on a particular school of thought is unlikely to give other dietary approaches a fair hearing.
Readers should have been alerted to the fact that Willett has been promoting a near-vegetarian diet for three decades. The keto dietary approach is pretty much the polar opposite of his own. Today, even though he has absolutely no expertise in environmental science, we see him confidently predicting future environmental events – and prescribing a remedy.
In other words, this man is an activist. He doesn’t require firsthand knowledge. He attempts to mold other people’s behaviour based on his own belief system.
This is a good time to re-read Nina Teicholz’s 2014 bestseller, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. After spending nine years researching nutritional dogma, she concludes that influential, politically connected personalities have distorted nutrition policy.
Willett, she reports, was instrumental in mainstreaming the Mediterranean Diet. Beginning around page 185 of the hardcover edition, she describes how this philosophy gained widespread popularity during the 1990s partly due to academics and journalists being wined and dined by olive oil companies. Numerous lavish, free trips to that part of the world were involved.
By page 218, Teicholz is discussing the shaky nature of the data on which this diet relies – and how Willett chose to ignore certain inconvenient facts. She writes:
Another historical inaccuracy of the Mediterranean diet pyramid is the near-absence of red meat. This is ironic because the [residents of Crete] actually preferred red meat…And it’s hard to find a cookbook or historical text on Italy, Spain, or Greece that does not make clear how the populations in these countries favored lamb, goat, and oxen over fowl…So how is it that the Mediterranean Diet pyramid recommends the reverse: poultry several times per week and red meat only a few times a month? [italics in the original]
…So it seems that Willett and his team selected chicken because they were already convinced that red meat was unhealthy…
…It therefore appears that in following the Mediterranean Diet we are relying on data collected…in postwar Greece from a mere handful of men, partly during Lent, and then distorted by Willett’s team…
Take a professor who has spent 30 years asserting that meat should be eaten sparingly. Link him up with climate researchers who argue vociferously, if unconvincingly, that the CO2 generated by raising animals for human consumption is bad for the planet. The result is entirely predictable.
The only real news would be if Willett was saying something different.
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|The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet