FRANK HU AND Kentucky Fried Chicken arrived in Beijing around the same time. Hu, a recent graduate of Tongji Medical University, in Wuhan, had never seen a restaurant like it. Three-floored, gleaming, and distinctly Western in atmosphere, KFC proved irresistible to a country unfamiliar with the greasy efficiency of American fast food. On a frigid day in November 1987, thousands waited two hours in line to be among the first Chinese citizens to try the Colonel’s crispy drumsticks and gravy-doused mashed potatoes.
A few decades later, China’s first KFC remains open, a few blocks from Tiananmen Square. At first it stood alone. By 2007, KFCs were popping up around the country at a rate of one per day. Now there are nearly 6,000 KFCs, 3,000 McDonalds, and thousands more Pizza Huts, Burger Kings, and Dunkin’ Donuts.
In 1980, seven years before that first KFC, the prevalence of Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes in China was less than 1 percent of the population. In 2001, that had risen to 5.5 percent. Now, with an estimated 116 million diabetics in the country, the number is 12 percent—and still rising.
HU, NOW STARE PROFESSOR of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, moves along the salad bar in HSPH’s Kresge Cafeteria, serving himself a bountiful vegetable medley: arugula, cherry tomatoes, carrots, chickpeas, radishes, Brussels sprouts, a splash of balsamic vinaigrette. Some days, he includes a piece of salmon or chicken. Today, he adds half a hard-boiled egg and some crunchy noodles, for texture. He almost never brings lunch from home; with a cafeteria like this, he doesn’t need to.
Eating unhealthily in the Kresge Cafeteria is almost difficult. Hu works with staff to keep it that way. Above the lengthy salad bar spreads a huge depiction of the “Healthy Eating Plate,” which HSPH and Harvard Medical School (HMS) developed in response to MyPlate, an illustration of Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the U.S. departments of agriculture (USDA) and health and human services (HHS) and updated every five years. HSPH thought it could do a better job at following the science. “The Healthy Eating Plate is based exclusively on the best available evidence and was not subjected to political or commercial pressures from food-industry lobbyists,” the school’s Nutrition Source website notes—a jab at the government recommendations. If guests miss the several-foot-long poster—or don’t want to strain their necks while scooping leafy greens—they will notice, behind the bowls of food, six smaller images of the Healthy Eating Plate.
At the beginning of the line, beside the utensils, cardstock handouts offer more in-depth advice about vegetables and fruits, cholesterol and fats, calcium and milk, and fiber. “Limit milk and dairy foods to no more than one to two servings per day,” says one card. “More won’t necessarily do your bones any good—and less is fine, as long as you get enough calcium from other sources.” On MyPlate, a glass of milk sits next to the meal. The Healthy Eating Plate recommends water, coffee, or tea, suggestions that would likely displease the dairy-industry groups—including the National Dairy Council, International Dairy Foods Association, and National Milk Producers Federation—that gave presentations before the USDA’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), on which Hu served.
Hu shows off the cafeteria like a proud father displaying his child’s trophies. “The salad bar is the most popular among the students and faculty,” he notes, with understated satisfaction. “We have people coming from the hospitals to our cafeteria just to get a healthier lunch.” If he’s busy, and the salad line is particularly long, he’ll skip to the “Heart of the Plate” section, which offers five healthy, pre-made dishes. Today he scoops the lentil, sorghum, and chick-pea pilaf into his container, already filled with salad. The pizza section is not quite as healthy. “Sometimes we have whole-grain pizza and mostly vegetable pizza,” he says, smiling. “But we also have some unhealthy pizza.”
Hu is the third chair in the HSPH nutrition department’s 78-year history. As a nutritional epidemiologist, he studies the relationship between diet and health. Though he’s arguably the world’s leading expert on diet’s connection to chronic diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, his research interests range widely. In more than two decades at Harvard, he’s written or co-written more than 1,000 peer-reviewed papers, almost all of them group efforts.