Book Review: "Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy" by Walter C. Willett
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I was recently made aware of a website called Red Pen Reviews. The site, “uses a structured expert review method to deliver the most informative, consistent, and unbiased nutrition/health book reviews available, free of charge. Our reviewers all have a master’s degree, equivalent, or higher in a relevant field of science…. We exist to help consumers distinguish between books that are evidence-based and will promote health, and those that aren’t evidence-based and may harm health. We have two ultimate goals. First, to create an incentive for nutrition/health book authors and publishers to value truth more than they currently do. Second and more importantly, to improve public health by elevating the quality of the health-related information that surrounds us.”
I think this is a VERY valuable information, and highly suggest that we all check the reviews on this site before taking any nutrition book as fact or adopting the diet it promotes. (For example, The Carnivore Code received a 28% scientific accuracy and a 25% for healthfulness…)
Anyway, it was because of this site that I chose to read Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by Walter C. Willett, MD, PhD. The book received an overall score of 97%, 95% on scientific accuracy, 95% on reference accuracy, and a 100% on healthfulness! Pretty great numbers, so I decided to check it out.
THINGS I LIKED/FOUND HELPFUL/AGREE WITH:
There was a huge emphasis on eating whole real foods. Highly agree, although the book recommends eating more fruits and veggies than I’ve maybe ever eaten in a day…
The book recommends significantly decreasing/removing trans fats, and other heavily processed foods. While this is more easily said than done depending on various factors and where people are starting from, I do agree that these foods need to be monitored for health.
Mindfulness around drinking our calories and juices. Many times we don’t realize how many sugars or calories are in things we drink. Equally, juices don’t provide many actual nutrients or fiber, making their whole food counterparts more desirable anyway.
I did appreciate the explanation of the evolution of food recommendations in the US. From the original Food Pyramid, to My Plate, to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, etc. While many of these elements were intended to be helpful, their creation was (sometimes deeply) flawed and influenced by outside sources like farmers and politics. People were/are misled and are made to believe certain intakes or food sources are healthy or ideal for them when they are simply not. While this is certainly unfortunate, I imagine that the bottom line here is that we need to always look towards the science for guidance as it is ever evolving and developing, and, hopefully, has less outside influence.
The book advises that people take a multivitamin for “insurance.” I tend to agree that, for most people, this is helpful as most of us don’t get ALL the nutrients/vitamins we need from our food. I do know that recently more research has shown that we can’t absorb all the vitamins and minerals present in multis, but at the same time, they are not harmful in recommended doses.
In connection with the point above, the book includes thorough explanations of common supplements, where to find them in food, and how much to take if supplementing. I appreciate the “where to find them in food” part because I definitely believe in getting what we can from our food first instead of just loading up on various pills because they might help us. To this point, if we are aiming to cover our supplement bases through food intake, chances are we’re eating pretty healthily!
The book also ends with tons of (mostly) plant-based recipes. If that’s your thing, or you’re looking to enhance your recipe portfolio, that part might be super helpful!
THINGS I DISLIKED/FOUND UNHELPFUL/DISAGREE WITH:
This book is DENSE and was difficult to get through, even for me, and I'm interested in the content! It’s 300+ pages were VERY sciencey, but, like, not in an extremely helpful way, if that makes sense. To this point, the language was also somewhat complicated and high-and-mighty at times… we get it, you went to Harvard, are a professor at Harvard, the Harvard plate model is the best, and you did studies at Harvard…
The literal font/layout of the book was difficult for me to read. Like dark grey boxes with black font… who chose that?? (You know you’re getting old when you complain about the font size/color/layout of books…)
One of the major things I didn’t like about the content of the book was the huge demonization of some foods. It used words like “good” and “bad” to describe various foods and food groups, which isn’t helpful for most people. For example, veggies are great, red meat is very bad, olive oil is good, butter is very bad. The book also demonized foods which I don’t necessarily agree with, specifically potatoes… while they’re carb-heavy, they have their merit!
One thing that really blew my mind was the acceptance of, and borderline recommendation of, regular alcohol intake. One to two drinks per day was noted as acceptable! The book states, “Public health campaigns have traditionally urged people to but back on their drinking or to avoid alcohol altogether… Alcohol in moderation, though, can have benefits. A drink before a meal can improve digestion or offer a soothing respite at the end of a stressful day.” Ummm, what?! Like even though those “benefits” may be true, there are far more negatives to 1-2 drinks per day than any positives. And what happened to the “not wasting calories on beverages” piece I mentioned earlier?? This part of the book really threw me, and also contributes to my next point…
I think this book is a bit antiquated. It was originally published in 2001, and was updated in 2005, and again in 2017. So, I imagine some of the data and information in the book is on the older side, and that there have even been updated studies and scientific revelations that have come out since 2017 that can shift some of this information.
One of those such updates is around protein intake. In my opinion, and based on more recent recommendations, there is not enough emphasis on protein intake in the book. Certainly some of the foods the book does recommend, like lentils and bulgur, include protein, but, if I remember correctly, it also says that 50g is suitable for most women, which NO. Ah, yes, just found the part… “Getting 7-8 grams of protein per 20 pounds of bodyweight is a good guide for most people.” EEK. For me, a ~150 pound person, that equals a measly 60 grams… with updated 0.7g per pound of body weight/goal body weight, my protein goal is actually closer to 105 grams.
There was also a STRONG emphasis on/use of BMI as a reflection of health in the book. As I’ve made clear, I think this is problematic because it doesn’t take into account muscle mass, ethnicities and backgrounds, bone density, etc. The book states, “Here’s the bottom line on BMI: If your weight corresponds with a BMI below 25, do all that you can to keep it there by eating healthy and exercising… If your weight corresponds to a BMI above 25, you will do yourself a huge favor by keeping it from increasing and, if possible, by trying to bring it down.” Sooo, if you’re 5’3” you better weigh 135 or less, or ELSE! Barf! While there may be some merit to use of BMI, I don’t think it provides enough information to really reflect health. Thumbs down on this emphasis.
And my last point of commentary here is that I do not believe there was enough awareness around access to food and why it’s more difficult for some to eat whole, real foods than others. As you know, and as I’ve talked about here, demographics, food deserts, expenses, and access to healthy foods all matter, and the book didn’t really address that. It just said, go eat more veggies, duh.
Hmmm… did I just write a bitchy book review?? Maybe. But those are my real thoughts. So, overall, despite the accuracy and healthfulness scores, I’d skip this one unless you REALLY like science and putting foods into eat/don’t eat piles.
Although I’m not necessarily recommending this book, I am currently listening to Burn by Herman Pontzer and I’m REALLY liking it. I’m only 50% of the way through it but already would recommend it just from the information I’ve learned so far. It’s much more informative and easier to read/listen to. I’ll let you know my final thoughts when I’m done with it!
If you’ve read either of these books, I’d love to know what you thought of them; please share in the comments or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
As always, thank you for reading!