About food science and professor Willett

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For her latest book, Pascale Naessens travelled to Boston to interview three of the most renowned authorities on nutrition in the world. Next in line: Walter Willett, the professor behind the glycaemic index.

Just like every visitor to Harvard University, I rub the toe of one of the founders of the university, John Harvard. Hence the shiny left shoe. I was there to interview Walter Willett, one of the most quoted and renowned authorities on nutrition in the world. It was not easy to set up an appointment with him and I did experience a moment of panic. I had only been granted a half hour, yet we couldn’t seem to find a suitable time for the interview. We eventually agreed to conduct the interview at his home in Cambridge and half an hour soon turned into one and a half hours, after which he excused himself to catch a flight to an international congress.

The eatwell plate is outdated

The greying professor cuts an impressive figure with his height and distinctive moustache, but his voice and twinkling eyes portray someone more pleasant and accessible. Willett is no longer a young man, so he has seen the changes in ideas on nutrition. In particular, in the last few decades, since he initiated much of those changes himself. He is one of the most progressive scientists of our time.

Nowadays, everybody is concerned with nutrition, but how did a young man 40 years ago become so interested?
Walter Willett: “My parents were farmers in Michigan and, as a matter of fact, my family still owns a farm down there. I was a member of the 4-H Club (Head, Heart, Hands and Health), a youth club especially created for the farmers’ kids where you could choose between ‘stock farming’ or ‘vegetable farming’. I chose the latter. At school I studied the natural sciences, then went on to study medicine where I implemented a number of nutrition-related projects. After graduation, I moved to Tanzania for three years where I worked on nutrition-related health problems. On my return to the United States, I decided to broaden my knowledge on the subject of nutrition and pursued a degree in it. I realised that if we wanted to increase our understanding of nutrition we had to conduct longer-term studies. Up until that moment, we had mainly concerned ourselves with short-term studies on animals or in test tubes. It hinted at, but didn’t give a complete picture of, how nutrition effects the human body long-term.”


I interviewed professor Mozaffarian in June 2016 for Feeling magazine; the full article can be found on the PDF file (in Dutch) below.