by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Calories

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!

Oct 29 2012

Why isn’t USDA keeping up its series on calories in the food supply?

In November 2011, I wrote about my frustration over the USDA’s discontinuation of a data set it had published continuously since 1909: Nutrients in the Food Supply.   For unfathomable (to me) reasons, USDA stopped the data set in 2006.

For decades—since 1909—USDA has converted information about food availability (the amount of food produced in the U.S., less exports, plus imports) to per capita nutrient availability in a continuous series (it also publishes data on calorie intakes from certain foods). 

This is the data set I use to explain how calories in the food supply have increased to today’s 3,900 per person per day from 3200 in 1980—an increase of 700 calories per day in parallel with rising rates of obesity.

USDA stopped this series in 2006. It now only publishes calorie supply figures that have been adjusted for waste. 

When I wrote USDA to ask whether more recent data were available, here’s what I got back (in its entirety):

Because of other project priorities the Food Supply project has been curtailed.  There are programming issues to which we haven’t been able to devote available resources.

In July this year, I wrote letters to everyone I could think of at USDA who might shed some light on this and, hopefully, restore the data set.  Although I hated to bother her, I even wrote to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

Her reply: 

 As I will discuss in a later post this week about USDA’s data on sugar availability, the agency seems to be changing the way it evaluates food supply data. 

This is bizarre.  USDA must have figures on total calories available in the food supply.  Otherwise, how could it produce figures adjusted for waste? 

I’ve been concerned that I’m the only one who cares about this, but a similar issue has emerged about USDA data on sugar availability.  I’ll write about that once hurricane Sandy blows over.

Oct 19 2012

Calories as an instrument of government control?

My 2012 book with Mal Nesheim, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, includes a chapter on the use of calories in international relations.

I thought of this chapter while reading a story in yesterday’s New York Times.

Apparently, the Israeli military restricted the amount of food available to residents of Gaza during the blockade that lasted from from 2007 to mid-2010.

The Israeli military calculated the number of calories that the blockaded residents would need to avoid malnutrition.

The purpose of the blockade was to weaken support for Hamas, the militant group that won legislative elections in 2006 and took full control of Gaza in 2007 after a brief factional war…In the calculation, Israel applied an average daily requirement of 2,279 calories per person, in line with World Health Organization guidelines.

I’m not sure where the 2,279 figure comes from.  Calorie estimations established jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization say that adult men aged 20-70 need 2400 to 3000 calories a day on average, depending on age, weight, and physical activity level.  Adult women need 1800 to 2400.

The FAO sets a calorie cut point for populations to define hunger.  It defines populations consuming 1,800 calories per capita per day, on average, as chronically undernourished and hungry.

On this basis, 2,279 will be adequate for some adults—those who are female, smaller, older, and less active.  It is unlikely to be adequate for younger, bigger, more active men.

The Israeli Defense Ministry released this document under a court order.  It would be interesting to see how it arrived at this figure.

For an interesting discussion of the use of calories as an instrument of state power, see Nick Cullather’s “The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia.”


Sep 21 2012

Nova: Is a calorie a calorie?

Mal Nesheim and I have just written a piece for Nova Science Now, based on our book, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.

Is a Calorie a Calorie?

By Malden Nesheim and Marion Nestle

Ever since the 19th century, nutritionists and the general public have accepted the “calorie” as the unit of choice for describing the energy content of food. Yet some scientists still debate whether all food calories are the same.

Do calories from a chocolate bar, for example, have the same effect on your waistline as the same number of calories from an orange? Putting it another way—and getting to a oft-invoked question in the debate—will you be more successful losing weight with calories from a low-fat diet than with the same number of calories from a low-carbohydrate diet? Or might the reverse be true? (As protein typically occurs in low amounts in foods—10 to 15 percent in the average diet—a low-fat diet is necessarily a high-carb diet, and vice versa.)

To read the rest of it and see how Nova illustrated it, click here.

Aug 30 2012

Does starvation increase longevity? Not in monkeys.

The New York Times front page today has a report of a long-term study at NIH of severe calorie restriction in Rhesus monkeys.  It found that calorie restriction did not extend the monkeys’ lifespan.

I’m not at all surprised.  My co-author and I reviewed the literature on calorie restriction for a chapter in our book, Why Calories Count.

The new study makes news because it contradicts a study done in Wisconsin showing that severe calorie restriction extends life.  Severe means 25% to 30% fewer calories per day that are needed to maintain normal body weight.  I’d call this a starvation diet.

An editorial accompanying the report of the study in Nature attributes the difference between the results of this NIH trial and the Wisconsin study to a difference in dietary composition, suggesting that calories differ in their effects.

Not necessarily.  The Wisconsin study allowed the control monkeys to eat a lot of junk food and they were fatter than normal.  The NIH study restricted calorie intake in its control monkeys so they maintained normal weight and were healthier.  This is the simplest explanation of the difference.

Studies in rats, mice, and many other animals show that calorie restriction extends life.

But what about primates?

Starvation can hardly be good for health.  It causes weight loss, of course, but also a host of physiological and psychological problems.  These were extensively documented in humans during World War II in Ancel Keys’ Starvation studies.

The relationship between BMI and human longevity has been examined in several recent studies, all of which show similar results: Longevity is best associated with BMIs in the range considered normal or slightly overweight.  Above that range—but also below it—mortality increases.  

Being underweight is associated with higher mortality.

A Canadian study provides this example:

And one from the National Cancer Institute provides another:

The bottom line?  Eat a healthy diet and balance calories to maintain a healthy weight within that range.

Aug 5 2012

Low carb or low fat: Do calories count?

Here’s my once a month on the first Sunday Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle, out today:

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Q: I’m confused about calories. If I cut calories to lose weight, does it matter what foods I eat? Or are all calories the same?

A: As the co-author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” I hear this question all the time.

The short answer: Calories matter for weight. The choice of foods that provide the calories matters a lot for health and may make it easier for you to diet successfully.

To lose weight, reducing calorie intake below expenditure works every time.

To prove this point, a professor at Kansas State University lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks on the Twinkies diet – one Twinkies every three hours with occasional snacks of chips, sugary cereals and cookies. Even so, he cut his usual calorie intake by 800 a day. Anyone would lose weight doing that.

Only four dietary components provide calories: fat (9 per gram), carbohydrate and protein (4 per gram each) – and alcohol (7 per gram).

Does the particular mix of these components make any difference to weight loss? Yes, say proponents of diets low in carbohydrate, especially rapidly absorbable sugars and refined starches.

Low-carbohydrate diets are necessarily high in fat, and somewhat higher in protein. Do people lose weight on them because of the effects of carbohydrates on insulin levels or because low-carbohydrate diets help reduce calories?

This question does not have an easy answer, but not for lack of trying. Weight-loss studies are hard to do. Estimating calorie intake is notoriously inaccurate, and measuring calories is difficult and expensive.

The first measurement study I know of took place in 1964. Investigators from the Oakland Institute for Medical Research studied weight loss in five obese patients in a hospital metabolic ward. They calculated the number of calories needed to induce rapid weight loss in each patient, and fed each of them a liquid formula diet containing that number every day. Every few weeks, they changed the formula to vary the proportions of protein (ranging from 14 percent to 36 percent of calories), fat (12 percent to 83 percent), and carbohydrate (3 percent to 64 percent).

Regardless of the proportions, all patients lost weight at a constant rate. The investigators titled their study “Calories Do Count.”

This study was conducted under rigidly controlled conditions of hospitalization and involved actual measurements – not estimations – of calorie intake and body weight.

But what about weight-loss studies involving people who are not incarcerated? Since the early 2000s, numerous clinical trials have shown low-carbohydrate diets to produce greater weight loss than low-fat diets. Some also have observed improvements in blood pressure, blood glucose levels and blood lipids.

But it is so inaccurate to estimate calorie intake in such studies that most didn’t bother to try. This means they can’t say whether the weight loss was due to composition of the diet or to calorie reduction.

It’s possible that low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets make people less hungry, but the evidence for this is mixed. Most studies of extreme diets of any type report high dropout rates or failure to stick to the diet for more than six months or so. And even though initial weight loss is rapid on low-carbohydrate diets because of water loss, these diets are low in fiber and some vitamins.

One problem with losing weight is that it takes fewer calories to maintain smaller bodies. Dieting also reduces energy expenditure.

One recent study of that problem involved taking detailed measurements for several years, and illustrates the difficulties of obtaining definitive answers to questions about diet composition and energy balance.

The researchers wanted to know whether diet composition affected energy expenditure in very obese people who had just dieted off up to 15 percent of their weight. They found that a low-carbohydrate diet did not slow down energy expenditure nearly as much as a low-fat diet, meaning that low-carbohydrate diets might make it easier for people to maintain weight loss.

On this basis, the investigators said, “The results of our study challenge the notion that a calorie is a calorie from a metabolic perspective.”

Perhaps, but study subjects were fed prepared calorie-controlled diets for only four weeks, and lost and maintained weight under highly controlled conditions. Does diet composition matter for weight maintenance in the real world? Longer-term studies by other investigators show that diet composition makes little difference in the ability to maintain weight loss.

Most reviews of the subject conclude that any diet will lead to weight loss if it cuts calories sufficiently.

Obviously, some diets are better for health than others.

Face it. The greatest challenge in dieting is to figure out how to eat less – and to eat healthfully on a regular basis – in the midst of today’s “eat more” food environment. And that’s a much more important research problem than whether low-carbohydrate or low-fat diets work better for weight loss.

Marion Nestle is an author and a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. She blogs at E-mail:



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