by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Calories

May 2 2012

FDA releases strategic plan for 2012-2016

Ordinarily I find government plans of this type to be soporific but this one is especially well written and well thought out (with some caveats).

The report is a statement of FDA commitment to what it is going to do in the next four years in food areas that affect people and animals.  It includes many promises, among them this one of particular interest: 

Program Goal 4: Provide accurate and useful information so consumers can choose a healthier diet and reduce the risk of chronic disease and obesity

Objective 1. Update the Nutrition Facts label.

  • Publish proposed rules updating the nutrition facts label and serving sizes [OK, but by when?].
  • Publish final rules updating the nutrition facts label and serving sizes [Ditto].

Objective 2.  Implement menu and vending machine labeling regulations.

  • Publish final menu and vending machine labeling regulations [OK, but by when?].
  • Collaborate with states, localities and other partners to ensure high rates of compliance.

Objective 3.  Improve consumer access to and use of nutrition information.

  • Explore front‐of‐pack nutrition labeling opportunities [Explore?  See comment below].
  • Collaborate with public/private sector parties on nutrition education [Collaborate?  See comment below].
  • Implement updated standards for the labeling of pet food including nutrition and ingredient information [How about a Pet Facts label for pet foods that someone might actually be able to understand?].
  • Implement standards for animal feed ingredients.
  • Publish final rule defining and permitting use of the term “gluten free” in the labeling of foods.

Goal-setting processes usually include dates by which the objectives are to be completed.  These do not, which suggests that the FDA can continue to delay action until 2016. 

I also do not understand what is meant by “Explore front‐of‐pack nutrition labeling opportunities.”  Explore?  The FDA has already sponsored two Institute of Medicine reports on front-of-pack labeling.  Does this mean the agency is ignoring them and intends further research?

And “Collaborate with public/private sector parties on nutrition education?”  What does the FDA have in mind for the content of such education?  You can bet that no collaborative campaign can focus on “don’t drink your calories.” 

FDA needs to deliver on these items, and sooner rather than later.  This year?  I’m not counting on it.

 

May 1 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Estimating nutrient requirements

My Tuesday question from student readers of NYU’s Washington Square News:

Question: How can we determine our individual caloric, vitamin, carbohydrates, fats and other intake requirements per day based on our own individual weight, height and lifestyle?

Answer: You can’t. You will have to be satisfied with estimates based on measurements performed years ago on a small number of study subjects.

We require calories and nutrients — 40 to 50 separate substances that our bodies cannot make, we must get from food. Because these interact, studying one at a time gives results that may well be misleading.

Early nutrition scientists got “volunteers”— in quotes because study subjects often were prisoners — to consume diets depleted in vitamin C, for example. They waited until the subjects began to develop scurvy, a sign of vitamin C deficiency. Then they fed the subjects the smallest amount of vitamin C that would eliminate symptoms.

Because individuals vary in nutrient requirements, scientists used this data to estimate the range of nutrient intake that would meet the needs of practically everyone.

The Institute of Medicine compiles such data into Dietary Reference Intakes and presents the estimates by sex and age group. You can look up your requirements in DRI tables. DRIs account for the needs of 98 percent of the population. If your requirements are average, you will need less.

Few American adults show signs of nutrient deficiencies, but if you are worried about your own intake of nutrients, you can take a multivitamin supplement. Note, however, that we have no evidence to show supplements make healthy people healthier.

You can estimate calories by looking up everything you eat or drink in food composition tables, but it is easier to weigh yourself at regular intervals. If you are gaining weight, you are eating too many calories for your activity level.

With nutrition, it’s best to get comfortable with estimates and probabilities.

Fortunately, eating a healthy diet takes care of nutrients without your having to give them a thought. Eat your veggies!

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, May 1 print edition. Marion Nestle is a contributing columnist. Email her questions at dining@nyunews.com.

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.

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