Q&A: Preventative health expert talks diets

David Katz is the director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and a leading voice in the health and weight loss field. Along with Yale School of Medicine colleague Stephanie Meller MED ’14, Katz co-authored a review paper titled “Can We Say What Diet is Best for Health?” which compares a series of popular diets.

The paper, which appeared in the March edition of the journal Annual Reviews, concludes that the most healthful diets consist of minimally processed food that are predominantly plant-based. The News talked with Katz about how the media portrays food and the ways the public understands dietary health.

Q: An article in The Atlantic says that Annual Reviews asked you to conduct this study, but what was your own personal motivation and goal in comparing all these diets?

A: Over the span of my career, I hear so many ridiculous fad diets come along one after another and each one claims to be the truth. It sounds like religion — it’s an absolute truth, and everything you had to do last week is wrong. My motivation really is to help set the record straight because I believe if we use the knowledge that we do have, knowledge that is tried and true and has stood the test of time, we could get an enormous amount of good done.

Q: Your ideal dietary recommendations are very simple. Why do people have such a tough time sticking with such a simple plan? 

A: There are two answers to your question. As long as we pretend we don’t know how to feed ourselves, as long as we carry on that there’s some unknown mystery about how to be thin and healthy, it allows for an endless parade of new theories and fad diet books and weight loss programming and an awful amount of people making an awful amount of money out of all of that.

The second answer is at the level of individuals. Our culture has perpetuated an allowance for an extension of disbelief. If someone promises you the moon and the stars and sprinkles magical pixie dust on your head when it comes to weight loss and ageless vitality, reach for your credit card!

Q: Do you think a particular sector can be the most effective in providing us with the information and resources we need to make healthy choices? Possibly public policy or schools or even the food and beverage companies? 

A: My work and my belief is predicated on the notion that it’s going to take all of us, that we all have a hand in breaking this, and we all need to have a hand in fixing it. But if I had to pick the one thing I would tend to focus on most, it is the consumer. If we get them to rally around food, and we if can get people to use the same common sense for weight and health that they use for just about everything else, it’s a total game changer. Even planning a family vacation gets more serious attention than taking care of one’s health over the course of a lifetime. I think all too often one of the reasons why we don’t do health right is because the conversations take on these moral overtones.

Q: The media often presents conflicting opinions on how to eat right. How can the public sort these conflicting signals?

A: I would say we treat each new study and headline like those mad, daily gyrations of the stock market. Each study does not displace what we knew before — generally the headlines are wildly hyperbolic anyway and often they’re overtly wrong, and they egregiously distort what the study even said. Even what the study said may not be right because it’s just one. Treat the daily fluctuations in studies and headlines the way you watch the daily fluctuations of the stock market.

Q: Regarding the lifestyle aspect of the health, do you think part of the challenge comes from the fact that we have less time for meals and grocery shopping and that working parents and individuals have to spend more time eating food on the go?

A: Absolutely — modern living impairs health. It makes it hard not to be stressed out; it makes it hard to get stuff to eat; it makes it hard to fit in physical activity; it makes it hard to eat well. We have two choices: We can change the world or we can change ourselves to deal more effectively with the world. I recommend both. I can be healthy in spite of it all because I have the skill set that allows me be healthy, but I think we also ought to change the world, the policy and environmental reform. There’s no reason why being healthy should be so hard.

Q: Do you think that the nutrition crisis also comes down to socioeconomic issues that dictate access to certain types of food?

A: We found that more nutritious food does tend to cost more. The problem is that people don’t know how to identify the nutritious food in the first place, and so often they get duped into buying food that pretends to be more nutritious but isn’t. Things like low-fat peanut butter and multigrain bread [are] maybe less nutritious and more expensive. The evidence is overwhelming with the basic need of healthy eating. We can’t say which specific diet is the best, and we don’t need to, but we can say that this basic theme of healthy eating is associated with great health outcomes. Let’s agree on that, let’s acknowledge it, and then let’s commit our resources totally getting there.

Q: What would be your nutritional advice for graduating college students who will soon have to fend for themselves? 

A: I think young people should know if they [eat] right, they have the opportunity to reduce their lifetime risk of all major chronic disease by 80 percent — all the bad stuff that’s happening to their parents or grandparents, those don’t need to happen. We don’t need to get heart disease as we age, we don’t need to get diabetes and we don’t need to get dementia. If you can’t identify whether it’s animal, vegetable, or mineral, you should probably step away from the box. It’s not rocket science. You just have to make it a priority in your life, because healthy people have more fun.

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