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Walter Willett

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Walter Willett
Willett at the Agriculture, Nutrition, Health, and the Environment in Africa conference in LMA, the 9th Annual Nutrition and Global Health Symposium, 2017
Born (1945-06-20) June 20, 1945 (age 79)[1]
Hart, Michigan, United States[2]
SpouseGail Pettiford Willett[3]
Scientific career
Fieldsnutrition, epidemiology, medicine, public health research

Walter C. Willett (born June 20, 1945)[1] is an American physician and nutrition researcher. He is the Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and was the chair of its department of nutrition from 1991 to 2017.[5][6][7] He is also a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.[8]

Willett is the principal investigator of the second Nurses' Health Study (NHS2 or NHS II), a compilation of studies regarding the health of older women and their risk factors for major chronic diseases.[9] He has published more than 1,500 scientific articles regarding various aspects of diet and disease[10] and is the second most cited author in clinical medicine.[11]

Willett is perhaps best known for his 2001 book Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy and the ensuing controversy over it. The book presents nutritional information and recommendations based on what was then the consensus of nutrition scientists, and is critical of many misconceptions about diet and nutrition, including ideas presented by guidelines from American organizations such as the USDA.[12] Willett is frequently quoted by the media in articles regarding nutrition.[13][14][15][16]

In 2016, Semantic Scholar AI program included Willett on its list of top ten most influential biomedical researchers.[17]



Influence on Harvard meal plans and cafeterias

Willett (right with microphone) on panel on vegan nutrition at Harvard, 2017

Willett has been actively involved in helping Harvard University food services to update their offerings along current nutritional guidelines. While his work has influenced the menu choices, students and Willett have noted that the menus still have a long way to go to reflect the currently available nutrition science.[6][18]

Dispute with Katherine Flegal


Willett has been a high-profile critic of research into the so-called "obesity paradox" posited by, among others, American epidemiologist Katherine Flegal and her colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics, going so far as to call it a "pile of rubbish ... No one should waste their time reading it."[19] In 2013, the journal Nature ran an editorial rebuking Willett for the style and manner of his criticism, saying it misrepresented the complexity of the science involved and used inappropriate language in doing so.[20]

In 2021, Flegal published an article in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases accusing Willett and some of his Harvard School of Public Health colleagues of being part of "an aggressive campaign that included insults, errors, misinformation, social media posts, behind-the-scenes gossip and maneuvers, and complaints to her employer."[21] Flegal wrote that the goal Willett and his allies "appeared to be to undermine and discredit her work," and that, "The controversy was something deliberately manufactured, and the attacks primarily consisted of repeated assertions of preconceived opinions." Flegal also questioned Willett's competence to criticize her team's statistical research, as he "was not a statistician and had no expertise in estimating the number of deaths associated with obesity."[21]



A 2013 article in The Boston Globe described Willett as the "world's most influential nutritionist".[22]

Willett's book Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy received a high-score at Red Pen Reviews who concluded that it "provides solid science backed advice without much hype. The dietary advice can be applied to a variety of dietary patterns and preferences. Adoption of the advice is likely to lead to improved health outcomes."[23] John Swartzberg and Sheldon Margen positively reviewed the book in the American Journal of Epidemiology, describing it as "one of the few books on nutrition and health written for the lay public that is based on a careful and thoughtful analysis of (of all things) science!".[24]


  • Nutritional Epidemiology (1998) ISBN 0-19-512297-6
  • Eat, Drink, and be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide To Healthy Eating (2005) ISBN 0-684-86337-5
  • Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less (2007) ISBN 1-4013-0892-9
  • The Fertility Diet (2008) ISBN 0-07-149479-0
  • More than 1,000 scientific articles[10]


  1. ^ a b "LC Linked Data Service: Authorities and Vocabularies (Library of Congress)".
  2. ^ "Honda Worldwide | September 29, 2004 "Honda Prize Awarded to Dr. Walter C. Willet"". World.honda.com. Retrieved 2011-06-08.
  3. ^ Boston.com Staff. Gail Willett's recipe for lentil nut laof with red pepper sauce. July 29, 2013
  4. ^ Pioneering bookstore in Harvard Sq. to close. The Boston Globe (Boston, MA)January 21, 1996.
  5. ^ Harvard School of Public Health, "Prof. Frank Hu assumes Chair of Department of Nutrition". Retrieved 14th April 2017.
  6. ^ a b Burros, Marian (2003-11-19). "EATING WELL; At a Harvard Cafe, Health for Lunch". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  7. ^ "Walter Willett". Harvard University. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  8. ^ a b "Walter C. Willett, MD, Dr.PH". BCRF: Breast Cancer Research Foundation. 2014-06-23. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  9. ^ "The Nurses' Health Study". Harvard University. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
  10. ^ a b "NCBI search". Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. 2017-04-14. Retrieved 2017-04-14.
  11. ^ "First Bimonthly Period of 2007 - Top 10 Researchers In Clinical Medicine". in-cites. Retrieved 2011-06-08.
  12. ^ HPH NOW, August 24, 2001, Nutrition Book Author Willett Rebuilds USDA Food Pyramid Archived September 3, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ A reversal on carbs, Marni Jameson, Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2010.
  14. ^ Taking Diet Soda Study with a Grain of Salt, ABC News, February 8, 2011.
  15. ^ Interview: Walter Willett, M.D., PBS Frontline, April 8, 2004.
  16. ^ The truth on foods and fats, Amanda Spake, U.S. News & World Report, July 4, 2004.
  17. ^ Singh, Dalmeet (2017-10-17). "Who's the most influential biomedical scientist? Computer program guided by artificial intelligence says it knows". Science | AAAS. Retrieved 2020-09-22.
  18. ^ At Harvard, Whole-Grain Concerns, Candy Sagon, Washington Post, March 8, 2006.
  19. ^ Hughes, Virginia (May 22, 2013). "The big fat truth". Nature. 497 (7450): 428–430. Bibcode:2013Natur.497..428H. doi:10.1038/497428a. PMID 23698426. S2CID 4407621.
  20. ^ "Shades of grey". Nature. 497 (7450): 410. 1 May 2013. doi:10.1038/497410a. PMID 23936910.
  21. ^ a b Flegal, Katherine M (May 22, 2013). "The obesity wars and the education of a researcher: A personal account". Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. 67. Elsevier: 75–79. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2021.06.009. PMID 34139265.
  22. ^ "Walter Willett's food fight". bostonglobe.com. Retrieved 29 April 2023.
  23. ^ "Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Eating". redpenreviews.org. Retrieved 29 April 2023.
  24. ^ Swartzberg, John; Margen, Sheldon (2001). "Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating". American Journal of Epidemiology. 154 (12): 1160. doi:10.1093/aje/154.12.1160-a.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)