by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Calories

Sep 15 2016

Calories, alas, do count

I did a bunch of interviews about the sugar industry’s funding and manipulation of research this week (see the list at the bottom of the post).

I tried to point out that in the fuss over sugars vs. saturated fat, calories get forgotten.  They shouldn’t be.

The balance between fat and carbohydrate matters much less when calorie intake is balanced by physical activity.

The Atlantic notes that Americans eat and waste vast amounts of food, using USDA data on the amount of calories made available by the food supply.

I love the USDA’s “Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System.”  Here’s how to use it:

  • Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page to Nutrient Availability.
  • Click on Nutrients.
  • Download Excel Spreadsheet.
  • Click on the worksheet, “Nutrients and other components of the US food supply.”  Have fun checking out the trends from 1909 to 2010.  We have available to us 4000 calories per day per capita.
  • Click on the second worksheet, “US Food supply: Nutrients contributed from major food groups.”  Now you can see where the calories come from:  Grain products and fats and oils together account for more than 1800 of the 4000 calories in the food supply.  Add in sugars and sweeteners and you are up to 2500.  Meat, poultry, and fish brings it over 3000.


This is why I co-authored a book on the topic: Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.

Jun 28 2016

My Time Magazine op-ed: We are still confused about calories

While I was in Israel last week, Time Magazine published an op-ed it had invited me to write.  Here it is.

Even in ‘healthy’ foods, calories can tick up fast

Nutrition professor that I am, if I could teach just one thing to the American public, it is this: Larger portions have more calories.

Please don’t laugh.

If we all understood this, the United States would not have an obesity problem. And the recent revelation that places like Chipotle and Panera serve meals with more calories than McDonald’s would surprise nobody. We would realize the former’s “health” aura blinds people. But this basic rule applies to those places, too.

We would also, strangely, thank McDonald’s for at least one thing: It limits portion sizes. It’s easy to pile on calories by asking for a little more of this, then a refill of that—without realizing that the calories surpass those in McDonald’s meals.

It’s not easy to understand calories. They are not intuitive because they’re abstract. They cannot be seen, tasted or smelled, and are extraordinarily difficult to count accurately, even for scientists. My colleague Lisa Young, author of The Portion Teller, once asked an entry-level nutrition class to guess the calories in 8-ounce and 64-ounce soft drinks. We didn’t expect students to know that an 8-ounce Coke has 100 calories—but we certainly expected them to multiply whatever they guessed by eight for the 64-ounce drink. But the average multiplier was three.

The unintuitive relationship between amounts eaten and calorie intake is one of the reasons behind public health campaigns like the new soda tax in Philadelphia, which in part aims to get people to think twice before drinking sugary beverages. No nutritionist worries about an occasional 90-calorie mini-can of soda. But many people drink sugary beverages in 12-ounce, 20-ounce or liter sizes. Bigger sizes mean more calories, and more calories means more weight unless you compensate with physical activity.

But exercising off calories takes a lot of work. That was the message of aNew York City health department campaign demonstrating the need to walk the three miles from Union Square to Brooklyn to compensate for the nearly 300 calories in a 20-ounce soft drink.

And let’s not forget that all of the calories in soft drinks come from sugars, which provide nothing but calories—no vitamins, no minerals, no fiber. They may be delicious, but they have no redeeming nutritional value. That’s why their calories get called “empty.”

Does where calories come from make any difference? Yes, but in complicated ways. Weight balance depends on calories. But managing weight—and overall health—very much depends on where those calories come from. It’s not so easy to overeat vegetables, fruits and whole grains, or relatively unprocessed foods of any kind, because these tend to be bulky and fill you up before you eat too much. You can still gain weight on these healthy foods, but it’s harder. Chipotle may have healthier calories than McDonald’s, but its calories still count.

Sugars post particular problems because they induce insulin production, but also because they make foods taste good. We eat something sweet and want more of it. We start loving sweet tastes in infancy. Breast milk is sweet; it contains a tablespoon of lactose per cup and that’s there for a reason—to make babies do the work of nursing.

But sodas are very sweet. A 12-ounce soda contains more than threetablespoons of sugars—and the calories that go with them.

It’s also very hard to separate the effects of sugars from their calories. If scientists want to know whether the calories from sugars are worse than those from any other foods, they need to feed people precisely the same number of calories from diets widely varying in their content of sugar, other carbohydrates, protein, and fat for a long enough period of time to get meaningful results. The only way to do something like this would be to keep the study subjects under lock and key for as long as it takes—inconvenient, to say the least, and very expensive.

Until the science is resolved, we can all agree that eating less sugar is a good idea for just about everyone. Sugars are nutritionally empty, are hidden in foods, and encourage overeating.

Notice that I said less, not none. Personally, I love desserts and would never want to give up sugars entirely or ask anyone else to do so. I just follow my own dietary advice: eat lots of vegetables and other relatively unprocessed “real” foods, and for everything else, pay attention to portion size. This way, an occasional sugary treat is a pleasure and nothing to worry about.

Marion Nestle is professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and co-author of Why Calories Count. Her most recent book is Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).

Apr 21 2016

Annals of “healthy” eating: Olive Garden

My friend and colleague Maya Joseph submits this entry for the category Annals of American “Healthy” Dining:

I was at an Olive Garden last night and, while I greatly appreciated the calorie labeling, which prevented me from ordering the 1,480 calorie entree I was hankering after, I was unsettled by the promotional materials urging us to order two entrees for the price of one (you’re supposed to take one home…).

She includes this link to the two-for-one offer (Oops.  It’s no longer available.  Whew).

Comment: OK, they offered customers a choice.

But unlimited breadsticks and two Fettucine Alfredos?

The mind boggles.

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.

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