by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Calories

Apr 18 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Consuming Calories

On Tuesdays, I answer questions about nutrition for NYU’s student newspaper, the Washington Square News.  Yesterday’s was about when calories count.

Question: With finals approaching ,many students will be staying up very late. Is the time of day important in relation to when you are consuming most of your calories? What are some good late-night, study snack options for students?

Answer: Having just written a book about calories, they are much on my mind. Here is one take-home lesson from the book. If you look only at body weight, calories are the determining factor. If you eat more calories than you need, you gain weight no matter where the calories come from.

But if you care about health, the source of the calories is crucial. What can be confusing about this distinction is that eating a healthy diet — one with plenty of vegetables, fruits and grains and only occasional junk food — makes it much easier to balance calories.

The two results of what you eat — weight and health — are closely linked.

Does when you eat matter? From a strictly caloric standpoint, no. If you haven’t overeaten during the day, adding calories late at night should not be a problem.

But if you habitually add late-night calories to full meals during the day, you might find your weight creeping up. Some studies show that the more times a day people eat, the more calories they consume. But others find that consuming small amounts of food throughout the day helps people maintain weight. You need to figure out for yourself which pattern works best.

The only way to tell if you are eating the right amount of calories is to weigh yourself regularly. If your weight is going up, you might want to avoid adding calories in late-night snacks.

What’s a reasonable snack? Any real, relatively unprocessed food is always a good choice: fruits, vegetables, nuts, yogurt, cheese, crackers, sandwiches, salads. Even pizza can do the trick if it’s thin crust and not overflowing with cheese.

Apr 13 2012

Another Q and A on Why Calories Count

NYU did an interview for the Steinhardt School’s website:

Why did you write this book?

Calories are critical to the most important public health, social, and economic issues facing the world today. About a billion people in the world do not take in enough calories to maintain health and are hungry and malnourished and another billion or so take in so many that they are overweight or obese and have higher risks for chronic disease and disability. The food industry takes in more than a trillion dollars a year in the United States alone. The U.S. diet industry is worth about $60 billion a year. The public is demonstrably confused about the meaning of calories and their relationship to food intake and weight loss. We thought it would be useful to write a book that provided accessible information about calories in all of their dimensions—scientific, health, and political.

What is a calorie?

Calories measure energy to keep bodies warm, power essential body functions, move muscles, or get stored as fat.

Why are calories a problem?

You can’t see, taste, or smell them. The only way you can recognize them is by their effects on your waistline or on a scale. They are not easy to count accurately and the best way to measure them is to weigh yourself regularly.

What are some of the themes of the book?

If you want to understand calories, you need to know the difference between calories measured and estimated. Most studies of diet, health, and calorie balance depend on self reports of dietary intake and physical activity or educated guesses about the number of calories involved. Most diet studies rely on estimates. When it comes to anything about calories in food or in the body, you have to get used to working with imprecise numbers. That is why it works better to eat smaller portions than to try to count calories in food. Even small differences in the weight of food will throw calorie estimations off.

Politics? What’s political about calories?

As with everything else having to do with food and nutrition, many groups have a stake in how calories are marketed, perceived, labeled, and promoted. As we’ve already said, eating fewer calories is bad for business. Efforts to do something about obesity in adults and children focus on eating less or on eating better, meaning eating more fruits, vegetables, and grains but consuming less of sodas, fast food, snacks, and other highly profitable items. Such matters as soda taxes, listing calories on food labels or menu boards, or campaigns to promote smaller portions are all political responses to concerns about calorie consumption. Here’s one example: for years, consumer groups have pushed for calorie and nutrition labeling on alcoholic beverages, but the Treasury Department (not the FDA) regulates such things and responds to the wishes of the industry.

What are the most important conclusions of the book?

If you want to eat well and maintain a healthy weight in today’s food environment, we advise: First, get organized; get motivated, monitor your weight regularly, join a weight loss group. Then eat less, move more, eat better and get political; work to change the food environment to one that makes it easier to eat healthfully, support labeling laws, nutrition education, controlling advertising to children, agricultural policies that encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables and local food systems, and environments that encourage physical activity.

And for another view: My co-author, Dr. Malden Nesheim, did a Q and A on the book with Diets in Review.

Apr 5 2012

USA Today interview on Why Calories Count

USA Today’s Nanci Hellmich interviewed me and my co-author, Malden Nesheim, about Why Calories Count:

When it comes to calories, some people count them, others are confused by them and some just ignore them. Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, and Malden Nesheim, professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, look at the topic in Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics. USA TODAY’s Nanci Hellmich talked to them about the new book.

Q: Why do women in general need fewer calories than men?

A: Women are smaller and generally have a higher body fat content than men. Fatty tissue needs less energy to maintain than does muscle mass. Pregnancy and breast-feeding increase women’s calorie needs.

Q: Why do some people have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight than others? How many calories are used by basal metabolism?

A: Genetics has plenty to do with body weight and some people seem to be able to eat vast amounts of food without gaining weight. About two-thirds the calories we need go for basal metabolism — the amount of energy needed to support basic body functions like breathing, blood circulation, kidney function, etc. The rest primarily supports physical activity. So if you want to lose weight, you have to eat less or move a lot more.

Q: Why does energy expenditure decline as much as 20% by age 50 and 30% by age 71 and older?

A: This, in our opinion, is one of life’s great tragedies. Basal metabolism drops with age and so does muscle mass. Lots of people are less physically active when they get older. Staying active does lots of good things for health and one of them is compensating for the decline in calorie needs.

Q: Are all calories created equal when it comes to weight loss?

A: If you lock people in a metabolic ward and feed them the same number of calories in reduced-calorie diets that vary in fat and carbohydrates (all measured), you can show that they lose weight at the same rate regardless of diet composition. The number of calories determines how fast they lose, nothing else.

In the real world, some people lose weight faster on low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets, such as the Atkins diet, especially at the beginning when they excrete so much water. Some people find that low-carbohydrate diets make it easier to reduce calories and stay satiated. And it’s always a good idea to cut back on desserts and sodas.

Q: Do excess calories make some people gain weight faster than others?

A: Here’s where genetics comes in. In controlled studies of overfeeding, everyone gains weight when they eat more calories than they expend, but at different rates. Some people can overeat and gain only a little weight — growing teenage boys are a good example. They may spontaneously increase their physical activity to burn off excess calories. Other people easily store more of the extra calories as fat.

Q: What is your best advice to people who want to lose weight?

A. Our mantra is: Get organized; eat less; eat better; move more; get political. By get political, we mean work to change the food environment to one that makes it easier to eat healthfully: Support labeling laws and nutrition education; stop advertising to children; support agricultural policies that encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables, local food systems, and environments that encourage physical activity.

Q: What do calories have to do with politics?

A: How much food people eat — and whether they are malnourished or overweight — is affected by income, education, and, therefore, the political system. Many companies and vested-interest groups have a stake in how calories are marketed, perceived, labeled, and promoted, not least because eating less is bad for business.

Efforts to do something about obesity in adults and children focus on eating less or on eating better, meaning more fruits, vegetables, and grains but consuming less of sodas, fast food, snacks, and other highly profitable items.

Such matters as soda taxes, listing calories on food labels or menu boards, or campaigns to promote smaller portions are all political responses to concerns about calorie consumption. For years, consumer groups have pushed for calorie and nutrition labeling on alcoholic beverages, but the Treasury Department (not the FDA) regulates such things and responds to the wishes of the industry.

Mar 6 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Dining Out Estimations

My Tuesday Q and A for NYU’s Washington Square News:

Question: When you go out to eat, how can you estimate the amount of butter and grease that is used to cook vegetables? How does this detract from the nutritional value of the food?

Answer: If you are eating out, guessing the amount of anything in food calories or fat is next to impossible. You cannot guess accurately unless you are in the kitchen watching what goes into your food, looking up the composition of each ingredient and adding up the nutrients. If you want to try this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture food composition tables are at ndb.nal.usda.gov.

I like a little butter or olive oil on my vegetables. Fat brings out taste and makes vegetables taste delicious.

Fat does other good things to vegetables. Without some fat in your diet, you will not be able to absorb and use beta-carotene and other fat-soluble nutrients.

From a quantitative standpoint, fat provides twice the calories per unit weight than do either protein or carbohydrate. A tablespoon of fat provides about 100 calories. A tablespoon of sugar gives about 45 calories.

That kind of fat is important to health. All food fats — no exceptions — are mixtures of saturated, unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids but proportions differ. Animal fats like butter are more highly saturated than salad oils.

As for quality, grease sounds pejorative so I assume you mean oils that have been repeatedly reused. Those are best avoided, as are those that have been partially hydrogenated, a process that introduces heart-unhealthy trans fats.

How can you tell fat quantity and quality? If a food looks greasy and smells bad, don’t eat it. It’s unlikely to be good for you.

Email Marion Nestle at dining@nyunews.com.

Feb 25 2012

Why Calories Count: The First Review!

From The Scientist: Magazine of the Life Sciences, February 2012.

Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics

by Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim
University of California Press, April 2012

Nutritional science guru Marion Nestle’s new book, Why Calories Count, seeks to crack open the inscrutable nature of the calorie. Think of the book, cowritten with Cornell University nutritionist and biochemist Malden Nesheim, as a diner’s elemental guide to eating. Nestle and Nesheim deconstruct the calorie—the bane of many a belly in the developed and developing worlds—to its barest components as a humble unit of work or heat before reassembling it and discussing its implications for disease, obesity, politics, and modern marketing.

From the strict chemical definition of a calorie to the 25-year quest by the Center for Science in the Public Interest to require nutritional labels, including calories, on alcoholic beverages, Why Calories Count weaves scientific and social tales into a rich portrait of the American diet and the laws that have shaped it.

By thoroughly burrowing into the meaning and impacts of calories, the authors intend to bestow a more relaxed yet active state of mind upon the reader. “Get organized. Eat less. Move more. Get political,” they suggest. Sounds like the most succinct diet book ever written.

Jan 31 2012

Want to lose weight? Eat less.

A new diet study just out from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition went to a lot of trouble to prove the obvious.  When it comes to weight loss, how much you eat matters more than the proportion of fat, carbohydrate, and protein in your foods.

Researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center got volunteers to eat diets that were supposed to differ in proportions of fat (40% vs 20%), carbohydrates (35% vs. 65%), and protein (25% vs. 15%).

The results of the study are consistent with the findings from many previous studies:

  • The major predictor for weight loss was adherence to the diet.
  • People on all of the diets lost weight by six months, but regained some of it by two years.
  • The study had a high drop-out rate (hence the importance of adherence).
  • It was hard for people to stick to the diets, especially those at the extremes of one dietary component or another.

In my book with Malden Nesheim coming out on April 1, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, we review the previous studies of whether what you eat matters more to weight loss than how much you eat.

Some people find it easier to stick to diets that are higher in protein and fat.  I’m guessing that proponents of low-carbohydrate diets will argue that none of the diets in this particular study was really low in carbohydrate.

But studies show that people have a hard time adhering to diets that are very low in carbohydrate.  The low range in this study—35%—is at the lower end of acceptability for many people.

The bottom line: all diets work if you stick to them.

Dec 31 2011

Looking ahead: food politics in 2012

My monthly Food Matters (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle takes out a crystal ball…

Q: What’s on the food politics agenda for 2012? Can we expect anything good to happen?

A: By “good,” I assume you mean actions that make our food system safer and healthier for consumers, farmers, farm workers and the planet.

Ordinarily, I am optimistic about such things. This year? Not so much. The crystal ball is cloudy, but seems to suggest:

Political leaders will avoid or postpone taking action on food issues that threaten corporate interests. Sometimes Congress acts in favor of public health, but 2012 is an election year. Expect calls for corporate freedom to take precedence over those for responsible regulations. Maybe next year.

Something will happen on the farm bill, but what? Last fall’s secret draft bill included at least some support for producing and marketing fruits and vegetables, and only minimal cuts to SNAP (food stamps). Once that process failed, Congress must now adopt that draft, start over from scratch or postpone the whole mess until after the election.

SNAP participation will increase, but so will pressure to cut benefits. With the economy depressed, wages low and unemployment high, demands on SNAP keep rising. In 2011, SNAP benefits cost $72 billion, by far the largest farm bill expenditure and a tempting target for budget cutters. While some advocates will be struggling to keep the program’s benefits intact, others will try to transform SNAP so it promotes purchases of more healthful foods. Both groups should expect strong opposition.

Childhood obesity will be the flash point for fights about limits on food marketing. The Lancet recently summarized the state of the science on successful obesity interventions: taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages, restrictions on marketing such items, traffic-light front-of-package food labels, and programs to discourage consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and television viewing. Expect the food industry to continue to get Congress to block such measures, as it did with U.S. Department of Agriculture school nutrition standards (hence: pizza counts as a vegetable).

The Federal Trade Commission will postpone release of nutrition standards for marketing to children. Although Congress asked for such standards in the first place – and the standards are entirely voluntary – it just inserted a section in the appropriations bill requiring a cost-benefit analysis before the FTC can release them. Why does the food industry care about voluntary restrictions? Because they might work (see previous prediction).

The Food and Drug Administration will delay issuing front-of-package labeling guidelines as long as it can. The FDA asked the Institute of Medicine for advice about such labels. The institute recommended labels listing only calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugars – all nutrients to avoid. Although the institute did not mention traffic-light labels, it did recommend check marks or stars, which come close. The food industry much prefers its own method, Facts Up Front, which emphasizes “good-for-you” nutrients. It is already using this system. Will the FDA try to turn the institute recommendations into regulations? Maybe later.

The FDA will (still) be playing catch-up on food safety. The FDA got through the 2011 appropriations process with an increase of about $50 million for its inspection needs. This is better than nothing but nowhere near what it needs to carry out its food safety mandates. The FDA currently inspects less than 2 percent of imported food shipments and 5 percent of domestic production facilities. The overwhelming nature of the task requires FDA to set priorities. Small producers think these priorities are misplaced. Is the FDA going after them because they are easier targets than industrial producers whose products have been responsible for some of the more deadly outbreaks? Time will tell.

On the bright side, the food movement will gather even more momentum. While the food industry digs in to fight public health regulations, the food movement will continue to attract support from those willing to promote a healthier and more sustainable food system. Watch for more young people going into farming (see Chronicle staff writer Amanda Gold’s Dec. 25 article) and more farmers’ markets, farm-to-school programs, school meal initiatives, and grassroots community efforts to implement food programs and legislate local reforms. There is plenty of hope for the future in local efforts to improve school meals, reduce childhood obesity, and make healthier food more available and affordable for all.

And on a personal note: In April, University of California Press will publish my co-authored book, “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.” I’m hoping it will inspire more thinking and action on how we can change our food system to one that is better for people and the planet.

Happy new year!

 

Sep 2 2011

Sneak preview: the (forthcoming) calorie book has a cover!

Here’s what it’s likely to look like, courtesy of the designer, Lia Tjandra, and University of California Press.

 

 

Publication is still  a long way off—it’s scheduled for March 2012.  I will post occasional progress reports.  Stay tuned! 

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