As of June, man-made trans fats—the unhealthy hydrogenated oils known to cause heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's—are now officially out of our food supply. You are looking at the man largely responsible for making that happen. Walter Willett has been studying the impact of trans fats on human health since the late 1970s, when he began to suspect a link between the engineered oil and high cholesterol levels.
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To say his concerns fell on deaf ears would be a massive understatement. After several decades of careful research, Willett's first study to show a clear increase in heart disease among trans-fat eaters got rejected several times before it was published three years later in 1993. "It was too off-the-radar for many journals," he explains. The link was also widely dismissed not just by big food companies, who tried to sweep the news under the rug (and even mounted what Willett calls a "whisper campaign" that he had been bought off by the olive oil industry). Even fellow nutritionists and major health organizations ignored the mounting research. "It was a struggle every step," says Willett. "I was really by myself for a long time."
Meanwhile, trans fats crept into more than 300,000 products, from baby food and crackers to pancake mix and soups—making it the most abundant artificial chemical in our diets. Willett continued to lobby the Food and Drug Administration. Finally, in 2003—more than a decade after that first study—the evidence was too overwhelming for the FDA to ignore: it ruled that products containing trans fats be labeled. "National policy has the advantage of having a broad impact, but the big disadvantage is it's very slow," says Margo Wootan, vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who worked with Willett to twist the government's arm on trans fats. That twisting continued until the FDA rescinded trans fats' Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status in 2015 and called for them to be eliminated from the food supply by this year. The World Health Organization recently moved to ban them globally by 2023. "They are metabolic poison," says Willett. "Virtually every biological process gets adversely affected by trans fats." Indeed, by conservative estimates, the U.S. ban will prevent tens of thousands of deaths from heart disease and other conditions annually.
That's not to say that trans fats have been Willett's only focus. Over his nearly 40-year career, he's published more than 1,800 studies on a wide range of health topics, including the adverse effects of sugary beverages and the ways diet impacts cancer risk, and has been a leader in shaping nutrition guidelines both in the U.S. and worldwide. (True to his health focus, Willett also rides his bike to work every day.) Adds Wootan: "The research he does doesn't just end up in a library somewhere. He shares that research with reporters, policymakers and advocacy groups to ensure that it makes a difference in people's lives."
Advice for people who want to make better food choices: "Well, it may be a little self-serving, but I did write a book for those people. (I get no royalties!)"
Surprising fact: "I grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan—eating cheese and steak and potatoes. The Willett family essentially moved out to the Midwest as pioneers and cleared the land and built a barn that's still there. There were five generations of dairy farmers there."
Nutrition pet peeve: "The excessive amount of salt that is used in restaurants and food services. Just last week I was at an upscale restaurant and the salad was so salty I had to send it back. It's troublesome because we know excess sodium is harmful, but it's so invisible and hard to control. We worked with school food services to take off 25 to 30 percent of the salt in the recipes that were super-high. And nobody noticed."