The former chair of Harvard's nutrition department eats a high-fat, high-carb breakfast, and suggests you do the same
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- Harvard nutrition expert Dr. Walter Willett has been studying how the foods people eat impacts their long-term health for over 30 years.
- He says his own diet is "moderately low-carbohydrate," and he never drinks sugar-sweetened beverages.
- His go-to breakfast combo is a high-fat, high-carbohydrate combination of oats, nuts, and yogurt that many other nutrition pros adore, too.
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Harvard nutrition expert Dr. Walter Willett is not a fan of orange juice with breakfast, and there are no boxed cereals, croissants, or cinnamon rolls at his morning table. He says there's no need to load up on carbs like that at the beginning of the day.
"I just had breakfast with steel cut oats, and nuts, and some yogurt," he told Business Insider one recent morning. "It is a low-glycemic kind of carbohydrates that does bring a lot of microfiber and micronutrients, which do appear to have health value."
Willett's breakfast is one that is beloved in various iterations by many nutrition pros. It also reveals a central truth of healthy eating: weaponizing entire food groups, and shunning all carbs, or all fats - purely on principle - is not a science-backed way to eat.
Willett has been studying the diets of hundreds of thousands of people around the US and Canada for the past thirty years. He's noticed that low-fat diets often backfire, even if certain types of fat, like saturated fat, can still be bad for human hearts in large doses.
Recently, he authored a report for the EAT Lancet commission at the United Nations, suggesting that people around the globe should double their intake of "fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes" for optimal health, while cutting back on red meat and sugar, the simplest carbohydrate of all.
"We can tolerate small amounts of sugar," Willett said. But that doesn't mean he'd recommend fueling up on simple carbohydrates like white toast or waffles to get going in the morning, and he says he adheres to a "moderately low-carbohydrate diet" at home.
"When I do eat carbohydrates, it's almost all whole grains," Willett said.
He starts many days with a breakfast bowl of fat, protein, and some complex carbs.
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Oats are both full of fats and carbs, and they do a body good
Willett's breakfast makes sense health-wise for a number of reasons.
Fiber-rich foods like oats not only helps keep things moving along in the body, they are also tied to fewer instances of liver cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Scientists think this is probably because fiber keeps our gut microbiome well fed.
Whole foods are better than ultra-processed foods, regardless of carb count
Nutrition experts are starting to come around to the idea that breaking foods down into specific nutrients and carb counts misses the larger point of healthy eating.
Eating whole foods that are prepared at home is better than filling up on ultra-processed junk, whatever the carb-to-fat ratio may be. A mountain of scientific evidence has shown that relying on more processed foods leads to weight gain over time, and that people who eat more of these foods tend to get more cancer and die quicker than people who rely on fresh vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats like olive oil.
"Your unrefined carbs, your fruits, your vegetables, your whole grains, beans, lentils, things like that. These are some of the most healthful foods on the planet," Dr. Shivam Joshi recently told Business Insider.
The best carbs and fats tend to be the least processed ones. This can include whole grains like quinoa, oats, or teff, as well as fat sources like olive oil or fatty fish.
As is the case for fats, "it's not all bad, it's not all good," when it comes to carbs, Willett said.