by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Calories

Aug 18 2015

Australian beer company says don’t worry about beer calories: be active!

Louise Fisher, a dietitian and food and nutrition consultant in Australia, writes:

I’ve loved your recent blog posts on Coca Cola’s sponsorship of research that fortuitously concludes that it’s not Coke that’s making us fat, it’s lack of exercise.  It’s no surprise to see that the alcohol industry here in Australia is running the same line. I just received a link to a guide to “get the facts on alcohol” Beer the beautiful truth from Lion, one of our biggest suppliers of beer. And what do you know, beer doesn’t make you fat, you just need to be more active.

Under Myth Busters on page 4:

DOES ALCOHOL CAUSE WEIGHT GAIN? DOES BEER MAKE ME FAT? It’s not the alcohol per se that causes weight gain. Eating or drinking more calories/kilojoules (energy) than you burn, from any food or drink, can contribute to weight gain. It is important to balance the calories we eat and drink with those we burn through physical activity and basic functioning like breathing and sleeping.

If you do drink, it’s important to know the calories in alcohol mainly come from the alcohol content, as well as the carbohydrate and sugars content. For example, a low strength beer will typically have less calories than a full strength beer. So really, it comes down to how much and what type of alcohol you have and what you eat with it – the chips, the kebab. Plus how active you are.

Hey.  If this strategy works for Coca-Cola….


Aug 14 2015

Let’s Ask Marion: Can Exercise Balance Out Soda Drinking?

This is the latest in a series of Q & A’s written by .   It appeared on Civil Eats, August 12, 2015.  And please note references added at the end.

Civil Eats: Your next book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), documents the history of how this sugary beverage gave rise to some of our most powerful corporations and has lately become Public Enemy Number One in the war on obesity.

With sales on the decline, the New York Times recently reported that Coca-Cola is pouring millions of dollars into a ‘science-based’ campaign to convince the public that the secret to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is not avoiding excess calories, but getting more exercise. What’s the science on more exercise versus fewer calories?

Marion Nestle: When it comes to studies about the health effects of sugary drinks, the science, alas, depends on who pays for it. Studies paid for by government or private health foundations show that if you want to prevent obesity, [a combination of] eating less and moving more works every time.

You can lose weight by eating less on its own. But you will have a much harder time doing that by increasing physical activity. This is because it takes lots of effort to compensate for excess calories. Eat two little Oreo cookies—100 calories—and you have to walk a mile to work them off. Drink a 20-ounce soda and you need to cover nearly three miles. This was the point of the New York City health department’s subway current poster campaign, which shows that you need to walk from Union Square in Manhattan to downtown Brooklyn to burn off 275 calories.

The soda industry would love you to believe that the principal cause of obesity is lack of physical activity, and they put tons of money into research to discourage other ideas. They much prefer you to believe that all of their products can be part of an active, healthy lifestyle that includes balanced diets, proper hydration, and regular physical activity. I call the idea the “physical activity diversion.” It deflects attention from what really counts in obesity prevention: not eating huge amounts of junk foods, snack foods, and sodas.

Mind you, I’m greatly in favor of physical activity for its many benefits: physiological, social, psychological, and health. But there is a good reason for the outraged reaction to Coca-Cola’s video seemingly suggesting that all you have to do to burn off the 140 “happy calories” in a 12-ounce soft drink is to laugh out loud for 75 seconds. This is so far from the reality of calorie balance that several countries actually banned the commercial [in 2013].

Soda companies promote the primacy of physical activity in other clever ways. The Coca-Cola Foundation says that about one-third of its philanthropic contributions go to organizations working to counter obesity, especially through promotion of physical activity.

Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo invest heavily in sponsorship of international sports teams. They put fortunes into recruiting sports celebrities as spokespersons. These investments accomplish two purposes: they influence fans to buy the products and shift the focus to physical activity. Obesity, these imply, is about what you do, not what you eat or drink. Public health advocates complain about how frequently young people—especially those of color or in low-income families—are exposed to advertising by professional athletes. The sponsored programs and celebrities never suggest that drinking less soda might be a useful health-promotion strategy.

As a nutritionist and co-author of a book titled Why Calories Count, I thoroughly agree that balance, variety, and moderation are fundamental principles of healthful diets, and that weight gain is a result of calorie imbalance.

But soda companies distort these principles to distract from their marketing of sugary drinks and how overconsumption of these drinks overrides normal physiological controls of hunger and satiety. Independently funded research makes it abundantly clear that avoiding sodas is one of the best things you can do for your health.

Sponsorship of research or research investigators by Coca-Cola or the American Beverage Association is reason alone for skepticism.

References: I am grateful to Richard Cooper for forwarding his paper on the relative contributions to obesity of diet and exercise.  From his review of the literature, you must reduce calories to lose weight.

He also pointed me to rebuttals by  Blair and Hill, the investigators featured in the New York Times article cited above.

The rebuttal by Steven Blair and colleagues.

  • Funding: Drs. Blair, Archer, and Hand are funded via unrestricted research grants from The Coca-Cola Company for analyses of dietary trends and for an energy balance study.
  • Conflict of interest: None declared [Evidently, these investigators do not perceive funding by Coca-Cola as a conflict]

The rebuttal from James Hill and John Peters:

  • Conflict of interest: J.H. receives research grants from the American Beverage Association and serves on advisory boards for McDonalds, General Mills and McCormicks. J.P. receives research funding from the American Beverage Association.


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Sep 17 2014

The food industry’s trillion calorie reduction challenge, evaluated

Remember the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF)—16 big food companies that account for about one-third of calories in the marketplace—and the companies’ pledge in 2010 to reduce the total number of calories they sold by 1.5 trillion by 2015?

As I wrote in my post on the pledge,

What are we to make of all this?  Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt?*  History suggests the latter possibility.  Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products without doing anything, and every promise helps stave off regulation.

On the other hand, the RWJF [Robert Wood Johnson Foundation] evaluation sounds plenty serious, and top-notch people are involved in it.  If the companies fail to do as promised, this will be evident and evidence for the need for regulation.

So now we have the RWJF-funded evaluation.

The study examining HWCF’s pledge shows that the largest calorie cuts came from sweets and snacks; cereals, granolas and other grain products; fats, oils and dressings; and carbonated soft drinks.  The companies participating in the pledge sold 60.4 trillion calories in 2007, the year defined as the baseline measurement for the pledge. In 2012, they sold 54 trillion calories. This 6.4 trillion calorie decline translates into a reduction of 78 calories per person in the United States per day.

Barry Popkin and his colleagues in North Carolina report this evaluation in two parts.  The first says:

The 16 HWCF companies collectively sold approximately 6.4 trillion fewer calories (–10.6%) in 2012 than in the baseline year of 2007. Taking
into account population changes over the 5-year period of 2007–2012, CPG [Consumer Package Goods]caloric sales from brands included in the HWCF pledge declined by an average of 78 kcal/capita/day. CPG caloric sales from non-HWCF national brands during the same period declined by 11 kcal/capita/day, and there were similar declines in calories from private label products. Thus, the total reduction in CPG caloric sales between 2007 and 2012 was 99 kcal/capita/day.

The second paper looked at sales data for households.  It concludes that although sales of calories declined, they were already declining before the pledge.

Post-pledge reductions in calories purchased from HWCF brands were less than expected, and reductions in calories purchased from non-HWCF name brands and PLs [Private Labels] were greater than expected after economic, sociodemographic, and secular factors were accounted for.  If the 16 HWCF companies had been able to maintain their pre-pledge trajectory, there should have been an additional 42 kcal/capita/day reduction in calories purchased from HWCF products in 2012 among households with children.

Mary MacVean’s account in the Los Angeles Times quotes any number of experts calling this an impressive achievement that will not, however, “reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity, especially among poor people and some minority groups.”

She quotes Popkin:

The calories purchased has really gone down. And most of the decline is in the kind of food you and I would call junk food or junk beverages.. But not all the news is positive…What we don’t have is an increase in beans, whole grains, produce.

Much publicity will be made of this small step in the right direction.  But what does it mean?

Is the reduction in calories due to lower sales of packaged foods in general—the secular trend—or to food companies’ taking the pledge seriously.  I vote for secular trends—fewer sugary soft drinks and sugary cereals.

The lack of evidence for increased purchases of healthier foods also is troubling.

Big retailers still show no evidence of promoting healthier foods.

Overall, this pledge is about selling packaged food products, not foods.

And what counts is what’s actually eaten.

The bottom line: Eat your veggies.

If you do—and manage to keep packaged, highly processed foods to a minimum—you don’t need to worry about any of this.

Addition, September 19:  I learned about these papers from a reporter, who sent me the two reports and an accompanying commentary by officials of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  I learned later that the journal also published another commentary on the papers, this one by Dariush Mozaffarian, now dean of the Friedman School at Tufts.  His analysis makes clear that the reduction in calories is fully explained by secular trends, of which food companies were well aware:

In this setting, the pledge appears to have been a stroke of marketing genius, turning their steadily declining calorie sales into a novel opportunity for self-promotion, an easily publicized but deceptive “sham” pledge that merely reflected ongoing trends…Although the food industry is a necessary partner for effective future solutions to address suboptimal diet, now the leading modifiable cause of U.S. deaths, we must remain vigilant and cautious about their intentions and objectively assess the evidence for real change—especially for promises that appear too good to be true.


Jul 28 2014

On deadline: comments on FDA’s food label proposals

The FDA is taking comments on its proposals to revamp the food label through August 1, 2014 (instructions are at bottom of post).

I’ve already filed comments on Added Sugars and on whether Vitamin D should be added to food labels.

And I just filed further comments on the FDA’s proposals for the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels.  If you would like to read what I said, click here.

I’ve also filed comments on the FDA’s Serving Size proposals.

These proposals are highly technical and tough to slog through, so I tried to deal with the big picture.

July 27, 2014

TO:                  FDA

FROM:           Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University

RE:                  Comments: Serving size proposals, Docket No. FDA-2004-N-0258

In addressing the question of how to change serving size designations on food labels, FDA is faced with an impossible dilemma .  Serving sizes, which are supposed to be based on amounts typically consumed from packaged products, are invariably perceived as recommendations for dietary intake.

To comment on each of the bold-face, italicized points:

  • Typically consumed:  This information derives from dietary intake surveys which invariably underestimate actual intake, often by 30% to 40%.
  • Packaged foods: Food labels only appear on packaged foods.  RACC amounts on packaged foods are often much lower than amounts served in restaurants or fast-food places (pizza is an obvious example).  It is unclear whether amounts reported as consumed are from packages (with Nutrition Facts labels) or are from restaurants or fast-food places where portion sizes can be much higher than those for foods in packages.
  • Recommendation:  Substantial anecdotal information suggests that people view labeled serving sizes as what they should be eating.  They view the serving sizes as meaningless compared to the portion sizes of foods they are accustomed to eating.

What is well established is that overall calorie intake has increased since RACCs were established in 1993 and marketplace portion sizes have also increased.

Therefore, any increase in RACC runs the risk of being interpreted as a validation of current portion sizes and as a recommendation to eat more.

On the other hand, larger portions have more calories.  These must appear on the label.

To address this dilemma, FDA should:

  • Make dual-column labeling mandatory for all food and beverage packages likely to be consumed in one sitting.
  • Require total calories in the package to be displayed on the front of the package.
  • Include a footnote explaining that the serving size is not meant as a recommendation


The FDA provides:

File comments here

Jun 7 2013

Chicago’s self-cancelling health program

A reader writes that she rode by this ad on her way to work yesterday.  It’s on Chicago’s beautiful lakefront walking-and-bike path.


It’s for a Big Gulp 32-ounce drink, and a bargain at 69 cents.

The Chicago Park District explains that it:

partnered with Chicago-based AdTraction Media to develop a temporary outdoor advertising solution that adheres to concrete areas and will be displayed April through October.  The additional revenue from this agreement will help the Chicago Park District enhance the programs, projects and events offered to Chicagoans and visitors.

Did nobody in the Park District consider the irony?

Better get moving!  It takes at least 4 miles of running and 8 to 10 of biking to work off the 400 calories in that 32-ounce soda.

May 31 2013

Annals of public relations: the food industry vs. obesity

Yesterday was a blitz day for food industry public relations.

PR #1.  Coca-Cola placed a full-page ad in the New York Times: “Beating obesity will take all of us.”

Coke’s promises [with my comments]:

  • Offer low- or no-calorie drinks in every market [but focus advertising on the sugary ones].
  • Provide transparent nutrition information, listing calories on the front of all packages [but per serving, not total for the big ones]
  • Help get people moving [divert attention from the caloric effects of sodas]
  • Market responsibly, including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world [I will believe it when I see it]

“Obesity won’t be solved overnight,” Coke says, but we know that when people come together around shared solutions, good things happen.” 

Like drinking less Coke? 

PR #2.  The food industry’s Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation issued a press release to say that its member companies have more than met their stated goal of reducing 1.5 trillion calories in the marketplace in the United States.   Indra Nooyi, HWCF Chair, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, said:

Our industry has an important role to play in helping people lead healthy lives and our actions are having a positive impact…We see continued opportunities to give consumers the choices they’re looking for and to work collaboratively with the public and non-profit sectors on initiatives that enable continued progress.

Really?  Where are the data?  On what basis does the group make this claim?  The press release says that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is doing a study but the results won’t be released until the fall.

Hence: Public relations.  As I noted in a previous post on this promise in 2010.

What are we to make of all this?  Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt?*  History suggests the latter possibility.  Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products without doing anything, and every promise helps stave off regulation.

Oops.  Forgot.  

Addition:  I forgot to post the accompanying report from the Hudson Institute about how low-calorie beverages are driving all the sales growth for soda companies, at least in the US.

Apr 25 2013

Coca-Cola: obesity is your fault, not ours

A reader sent me an e-mail received from Coca-Cola:

As you know, obesity is an issue that affects all of us. At Coca-Cola, we believe we can help solve it by working together. As you heard back in January, we are committed to doing our part – by offering more low- and no-calorie choices, more portion controlled packages, and useful calorie information in more places than ever before.

As part of our ongoing commitment to provide more information about calories, we want to share a new “Calorie Balance”  infographic that we created. This is posted on our Company website here.

Our infographic is a simple, easy tool that informs people about where Americans’ calories are coming from and what we can all do to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.

It communicates government data and third-party published studies in a compelling way, showing that too many calories consumed as compared to those expended can lead to weight gain.

OK.  I can’t resist.  Here’ just one piece of Coke’s infographic:

Guess what #4 is.   And what food is responsible for more than one-third of calories from sugars in U.S. diets?

The infographic gives no guidance about food choices or amounts best for health, but it is quite specific about physical activity.  Do lots!

Overall, I read the infographic as saying “Hey, it’s not our sugar-water that’s making you put on weight.  It’s up to you to choose what you drink and work it off with physical activity.”

Getting active is always good advice, but doesn’t Coke’s phenomenally comprehensive and astronomically expensive  marketing offensive have anything to do with food choices?  Coke must think all that is irrelevant.

I think it’s quite relevant.  And so does the research.

Jan 11 2013

The Leanwashing Index: Yes!

I was unfamiliar with the Leanwashing Index, but am delighted to learn about it.  EnviroMedia launched it in 2012 to discourage advertisers from using absurdities to push products.

EnviroMedia explains the inspiration for the Index: the appearance of the word “Superfood” on Lake Superior State University’s 38th annual List of Words to be Banished.

Here’s the 2013 Leanwashing list:

  • Natural
  • Made With
  • Whole Grains
  • Light
  • 100 Calorie

Away with all of them!  (I can think of plenty more.  Send your suggestions to the site.)

Here’s a prime example:

And while we are on the subject of whole grains, you might want to take a look at Colbert’s latest “Thought for Food.”

Enjoy the weekend!

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