NOTeD: Dr. Walter Willett Discusses Food Labels, Fake Fibers, Legumes and You

Tom Rifai, MD, FACP
I am so honored to present this one hour deep dive with the esteemed Walter Willett, M.D., Dr. P.H. Dr. Willett is Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the most cited nutrition expert in the world and a fellow Michigan State University Spartan (and also a University of Michigan Wolverine). He also serves as a THI Board Member.
Dr. Walter WIllett on left speaks with Dr. Tom Rifai on right in this Zoom interview.

In our discussion, we cover everything from misleading fiber food labels to the story behind Starbuck’s healthy oatmeal offering. We discuss many reality checks, including food waste, the need to combine food with physical activity, dairy versus non-dairy milks and identifying non-dairy choices that excel in terms of nutrition and taste. Dr. Willett talks about a plan to feed the earth, saving planetary and human health and our own. We examine eating patterns, including my beloved Flexitarian eating style. To Dr. Willett’s way of thinking, Flexitarian eating makes the tent as big as possible in terms of folding people in.

Approaches to Helping Earth and Humans

We cover aquaculture and the regulatory framework regarding fishing to protect the global commons. He shares some background and findings of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health, made up of 35 of the world’s top nutrition experts from 17 different countries. He explains why the “1+1” approach is very achievable and how it can help both humans and the planet.

I ask Dr. Willett about his thoughts on legumes, and it is no surprise to hear that he is in favor! His response thoughtfully includes a nutritional, environmental and global dietary pattern perspective. Dr. Willett also touches on understanding of the relationship between intact fiber intake and our microbiome. You might sympathize with my true confessions moment discussing my own favored fast food choices, but you will have to watch to find out which of us has won blue ribbons for our vegetable cultivation.

The Down to Earth Nature of Dr. Walter Willett

Despite being a superstar of nutrition, Dr. Willett is super down to earth and a joy to converse with. So sit back – or better yet put in some earbuds to walk while listening – and enjoy this affable, informational interview with one of the most brilliant leaders in our field.


As promised, here are some of the major names of ingredients that identify processed, added fibers when you see a fiber number on a Nutrition Facts Panel which might be surprising or too good to be true. These are often seen in ice creams, yogurts, and nutrition bars. NOTE: polydextrose, maltodextrin, inulin (also known as “chicory root extract”), oligosaccharides or possibly 3 “confuse-ables:” “oat fiber,” “corn fiber” and “wheat fiber.”

Those latter 3 sound nice, but are distinctively different from healthy intact fiber, including oat BRAN, corn BRAN and wheat BRAN. Oat, corn and wheat fiber are processed fibers, extracted and “pulverized to dust” and then “sprinkled on” processed foods (like pixie dust!) largely to make their fiber numbers look better on a label. They offer very little health benefit required by the FDA to be added to the total fiber on a nutrition label. The FDA should, just like with “added sugars,” clarify BOTH the TOTAL and ADDED fibers so people know what quality level of fiber they are getting from a food.