Boston Blog

Nutrition research: Booze, breast cancer, potatoes and Coke

Scientists don’t talk about findings before they’re published. The tradition can keep researchers from playing favorites. But it also allows researchers and their press people to play games.

If a researcher talks about an unpublished finding at an academic meeting, it’s fair to write about it. But what if they researcher is at a nonscientific meeting and unaware of the reporter sitting in the audience?

Last night, Harvard’s Walter Willett — who, according to his introduction is the most cited nutrition scientist in the world — spoke to a small group gathered in Harvard Yard’s Emerson Hall. While he spoke, he spilled the beans – extremely health substitute for red meat, by the way – on his upcoming paper on alcohol and breast cancer.

Later for that.


The event was sponsored by Harvard on the Move, a campus-wide program that encourages everyone at Harvard to exercise. Willett — a tall, confident man with a Mark Twainish moustache — noted that he rode his bike to the event.

His opening slide was decorated with fuchsia-tinted Swiss chard but he clicked right into three-dimensional column charts. His arguments – based on the long-term data from Nurses’ Health Study cohort -get a lot of press and are now familiar. The type of fat in your diet is more important than the amount of fat in your diet. He chided the makers of salad dressing, for example, for taking the canola oil out to create of low-fat dressings, thus depriving weight-watchers of a good source of Omega-3.

Red meat is a bad player all around and the health benefits of dairy are ambiguous, he said. Most of the world, he pointed out, eats no dairy.

“We need some calcium but the need is really overstated,” he said. In terms of dairy in general, he said: “It is not at all clear what the risk or benefits are.”

When it comes to weigh gain, Willet recently came under fire from Mainers for his anti-potato stance. While cast in with the healthy vegetables, he notes that they are actually insulin spiking starches. Potatoes, like refined carbohydrates, drive weight gain in much the same way a Classic coke does. The carbs quickly trigger a blood sugar surge and sudden drop, he said. This metabolic whiplash triggers the appetite and leads to overeating.

He showed a chart that correlated daily portions of certain types of food to weight gain. Higher than even red meat – potato chips and French fries.

“It’s not like “you’re going to explode if you eat these things – use them sparingly,” he said.

Willet has his own version of the USDA’s food plate, which he argues is designed to satisfy the agricultural industry more than the consumer. There’s not glass of wine on the table, but he made the point that alcohol – it doesn’t have to be red wine — lowers the risk of heart disease.

So, go for the scotch – unless you’re a recovering alcoholic or worried about breast cancer. The link between alcohol and breast cancer is clear and it will be even clearer when his new paper comes out. And even though he revealed the increased risk that comes with even light drinking, we won’t. Let’s just say that if you are more worried about breast cancer than heart disease, you might want to consider giving up the booze. Or cutting way,way back.

Willet doesn’t want to be a dietary kill-joy and he’s a big proponent of the Mediterranean diet – high in healthy olive oil, fish and fresh veggies and low in red meat. Many find it offers a balanced approach they can live with.

“If there is one thing that comes through – food has to be satisfying or you’ll eat more,” he said.

Graphic: Harvard School of Public Health


  1. Report this comment

    john maur said:

    There are so many variables and IMO it seems a little crazy to ruin one of the great joys in life (eating) just to gain a couple years of life. Og course I am not saying we should all go out and eat crap, but if we can’t have a little cake here and there then what’s the point, ya know?