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First Person

‘Total fat is a useless focus’ and other diet pointers

In July, cardiologist and epidemiologist Dariush Mozaffarian took over as dean of Tufts’s noted Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. He shares his views.

Harvard School of Public Health/Office of External Relations

At Tufts my main focus will be on the administration and leadership of the school. But I’m going to bring my research team, and my grants, and my core projects, and do my best to have a strong research presence, which is relatively unusual for a dean. 

My research spans three themes. The first is nutrition science — understanding how dietary factors affect different aspects of health, with my focus being on obesity and diabetes. The second is diet and global health — understanding what people are eating in different countries and how that’s influencing their health. Then the third theme is policy.

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I think the US and global obesity pandemic has been a double-edged sword for nutrition science. The benefit is that now real attention is being paid to nutrition and health. The negative has been that many of our nutrition policies now focus only on obesity. Regardless of your weight, diet has a huge impact on health. And right now much of our dietary policy priorities are focused on just total calories, rather than diet quality. There is very little evidence that counting calories will reduce obesity or prevent chronic disease.

One of the things I want to help build at the Friedman School is this connection between nutrition science and policy. Currently, the World Health Organization is focused on saturated fat and sodium, and maybe added sugars, as the [main dietary] problems leading to chronic disease. It’s a really myopic set of priorities, as total fat is a useless focus. You can have a high-fat diet that’s healthy or a low-fat diet that’s unhealthy. What’s missing in the diet is healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, some dairy, vegetable oils. And what’s really bad is the ultra-processing of carbohydrates and other packaged foods. We need to make it a priority to increase the good foods that are missing. We really need to bring the policies up to date with the science.  

Interview has been edited and condensed.

HIS NEW HOME Previously at Harvard, Mozaffarian is heading up the only graduate school of nutrition in the United States.

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