Walt Willett and Mollie Katzen on Pyramids, Butter, Sensual Eating, and Food Conversations
I heard Dr. Walter Willett speak about the evidence-based food pyramid developed at the Harvard School of Public Health, the Healthy Eating Pyramid, and immediately read Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less: A Flexible and Delicious Way to Shrink Your Waist Without Going Hungry by Mollie Katzen and Walter Willet. Mollie Katzen is the well-known author of many cookbooks, including the acclaimed Moosewood Cookbook, with more than 6 million books in print. I interviewed Walt Willett and Mollie Katzen by email.
Lisa Gualtieri: Do you characterize your books as weight loss books, healthy living books, or something else? Are you working on another?
Walt Willett: Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy is about healthy and enjoyable eating. Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less is the same, but focused on weight control. I’m working on another, focused on doing this with a limited budget.
Mollie Katzen: My books focus on making healthy, delicious food accessible to everyone.
Lisa Gualtieri: Are there foods where it makes a difference to buy organic or use specific cleaning processes before consumption?
Walt Willett: There is little evidence of direct effect on human health, but there can be important environmental benefits. So far, there is no real evidence for specific foods.
Mollie Katzen: If I have to prioritize organic, strawberries, nuts, bell peppers, and apples are at the top of my list. Also, if using citrus zest in a recipe, I try to be sure it is organic, so it won’t have chemical residue.
Lisa Gualtieri: With new research coming out all the time, how does one know what to believe especially when conflicting data arises?
Walt Willett: This is a critical point; you can find almost claim imaginable on the web. A key issue is to never view any study in isolation, but rather to consider all the evidence. We try to give this perspective on our departmental website: thenutritionsource.org.
Mollie Katzen: Fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, healthy oils and nuts, are always winners – and no research will tell you otherwise. So if you maximize these in your diet, you’re on a good track.
Lisa Gualtieri: How does one evaluate trends – such as everywhere you look there are articles about Vitamin D now, and the supermarket is full all of a sudden with Probiotics?
Walt Willett: We do try to do this on our website.
Mollie Katzen: I defer to Dr. Willett on this one.
Lisa Gualtieri: I heard Malcolm Gladwell attribute the popularity of the Atkins diet to the ease of following it – most people know what is protein, what is a carb. The revised HSPH food pyramid is significantly more complex than the USDA one. What can make it easier for people to understand and follow it?
Walt Willett: I think our pyramid is really pretty simple: the key points are healthy fats, healthy carbs, healthy protein source, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Mollie Katzen: Dr. Willett’s pyramid is the one I recommend.
Lisa Gualtieri: Julia Child promoted the use of butter in cooking. Does the use of butter vs. butter substitutes really matter and how careful do people have to be about their purchasing decisions?
Walt Willett: It does matter if you care about your health. Julia Child was not really interested in health, and if one doesn’t care, then you can follow her.
Mollie Katzen: The use of butter is a personal choice. If you love the flavor, but want to keep consumption of it to a minimum, you can “spike” olive oil with just a little butter. You’ll get the flavor that way, but not the added saturated fat.
Lisa Gualtieri: What do you think about websites and mobile health apps for calorie tracking, activity tracking, etc.? Have you ever used them?
Walt Willett: I haven’t tried them, but I don’t think that they can really be accurate enough for calorie tracking… keeping an eye on your weight is best.
Mollie Katzen: I have never used them. I don’t like to eat by the numbers – I call that “cerebral eating.” I recommend “sensual eating” – choosing a preponderance of brightly colored, beautifully prepared plant foods, and basing one’s diet on these. Eating fruit and vegetables to satiety can make numbers unnecessary.
Lisa Gualtieri: What motivated you to start writing cookbooks and how do you believe your cookbooks have influenced people’s attitudes to food and food preparation?
Mollie Katzen: I’ve always loved food and cooking, and have seen firsthand in others (as well as experienced it myself) how acquiring cooking skills can greatly improve the quality of life in every way. I think my cookbooks have made healthy more accessible, rather than more mysterious. At least that has been my goal.
Lisa Gualtieri: Finally, as a web and twitter user, how do you see the web and social media changing how people learn about diet and nutrition, find recipes, and share their experiences with recipes?
Mollie Katzen: There’s a lot of recipe swapping and idea sharing on Twitter and Facebook, all of which allows the subject of food to be a conversation, rather than just one person giving instructions. It creates a virtual town square, where discussion, collaboration, feedback, and support can be mutual. Even though it’s technically virtual, in many ways it makes the communication more immediate, real, and democratic. It’s very enriching and it breaks the isolation so many people would otherwise experience.
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