by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Calories

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

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

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! 

Aug 27 2011

The Lancet’s series on obesity

The British journal, The Lancet, has a special series of papers on obesity and obesity policy, just out.

Don’t miss the Body Weight Simulator! It’s great fun to play with while waiting out a hurricane.

You type in your age, weight, and height (you can change the metrics to pounds and inches), and indicate your activity level.  It tells you how many calories you can eat every day to maintain that weight (Yikes!  That’s all? No wonder I have so much trouble).

It also tells you how many calories you need to reduce in order to lose weight over whatever time period you specify.

And here are the papers, reviews, and commentaries (you will need to log in to read more than the summary):

The future challenge of obesity
David King
Full Text | PDF

Reversing the tide of obesity
William H Dietz
Full Text | PDF

Where next for obesity
Harry Rutter
Full Text | PDF

The global obesity pandemic: shaped by global drivers and local environments
Boyd A Swinburn, Gary Sacks, Kevin D Hall, Klim McPherson, Diane T Finegood, Marjory L Moodie, Steven L Gortmaker
Summary | Full Text | PDF

Health and economic burden of the projected obesity trends in the USA and the UK
Y Claire Wang, Klim McPherson, Tim Marsh, Steven L Gortmaker, Martin Brown
Summary | Full Text | PDF

Quantification of the effect of energy imbalance on bodyweight
Kevin D Hall, Gary Sacks, Dhruva Chandramohan, Carson C Chow, Y Claire Wang, Steven L Gortmaker, Boyd A Swinburn
Summary | Full Text | PDF

Changing the future of obesity: science, policy, and action
Steven L Gortmaker, Boyd A Swinburn, David Levy, Rob Carter, Patricia L Mabry, Diane T Finegood, Terry Huang, Tim Marsh, Marjory L Moodie
Summary | Full Text | PDF


Aug 3 2011

Where did the 2,000 calorie diet idea come from?

I’m in the midst of working on the copy-edited manuscript of my forthcoming book with Malden Nesheim Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics (University of California Press, March 2012) and spending every minute I have on it.  So I’m going to take some shortcuts on the blog this week and deal with some questions I’ve been asked recently.

One is right on the topic of the book:

Q.  Could you address the 2,000 calorie a day number (both its history and speculate on how an individual can arrive at a more personalized amount)? Short of metabolic testing (and I read conflicting opinions on that, too), it seems rather difficult to figure out how much I should be eating.

A.  Nothing could be easier, and here’s a preview of the kind of thing that will be in this book (with footnotes, of course):

If you look at  a food label, you will see ingredient contents compared to a 2,000-calorie average diet: “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.”

Here’s the history of where that came from:

The FDA wanted consumers to be able to compare the amounts of saturated fat and sodium to the maximum amounts recommended for a day’s intake—the Daily Values.  Because the allowable limits would vary according to the number of calories consumed, the FDA needed benchmarks for average calorie consumption, even though calorie requirements vary according to body size and other individual characteristics.

From USDA food consumption surveys of that era, the FDA knew that women typically reported consuming 1,600 to 2,200 calories a day, men 2,000 to 3,000, and children 1,800 to 2,500. But stating ranges on food labels would take up too much space and did not seem particularly helpful. The FDA proposed using a single standard of daily calorie intake—2,350 calories per day, based on USDA survey data. The agency requested public comments on this proposal and on alternative figures: 2,000, 2,300, and 2,400 calories per day.

Despite the observable fact that 2,350 calories per day is below the average requirements for either men or women obtained from doubly labeled water experiments, most of the people who responded to the comments judged the proposed benchmark too high. Nutrition educators worried that it would encourage overconsumption, be irrelevant to women who consume fewer calories, and permit overstatement of acceptable levels of “eat less” nutrients such as saturated fat and sodium. Instead, they proposed 2,000 calories as:

  • consistent with widely used food plans
  • close to the calorie requirements for postmenopausal women, the population group most prone to weight gain
  • a reasonably rounded-down value from 2,350 calories
  • easier to use than 2,350 and, therefore, a better tool for nutrition education

Whether a rounding down of nearly 20 percent is reasonable or not, the FDA ultimately viewed these arguments as persuasive. It agreed that 2,000 calories per day would be more likely to make it clear that people needed to tailor dietary recommendations to their own diets. The FDA wanted people to understand that they must adjust calorie intake according to age, sex, activity, and life stage. It addressed the adjustment problem by requiring the percent Daily Value footnote on food labels for diets of 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day, the range of average values reported in dietary intake surveys.

 As to how many calories you personally need, I think they are too difficult for most people to count accurately to bother.  The bottom line: If you are eating too many, you will be gaining weight.   

The best advice I can give is to get a scale and use it.  If your weight starts creeping up, you have to eat less.

The book will go into far more explanation of such issues but for that you will have to wait until March.

Jul 20 2011

Yes calories count, especially in big numbers

Center for Science in the Public Interest anounces its Xtreme Eating Awards and describes them in detail in the latest issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.

Xtreme Eating gives the numbers for calories, saturated, fat and sodium (nicely summarized by  FoodNavigator), but let’s just look at calories.

  • Denny’s Fried Cheese Melt  1,260
  • The Cheesecake Factory Farmhouse Cheeseburger 1,530 (1,900 with fries)
  • IHOP Bacon ’N Beef Cheeseburger 1,250 (plus 620 for onion rings)
  • Cold Stone Creamery PB&C Shake 2,010
  • Applebee’s Provolone-Stuffed Meatballs With Fettuccine  1,520
  • The Cheesecake Factory Ultimate Red Velvet Cake Cheesecake 1,540
  • The Steakhouse (Morton’s) Porterhouse Steak and mash 1,390 for the steak; 850 for the mash
  • Great Steak extra large King Fries 1,500

These, it should be evident, are substantial fractions of the 2,000 to 3,000 calories most people need in a day.  And these numbers don’t include the additional calories from drinks and anything else that’s added.

CSPI gets sarcastic: “Let’s get one thing clear: Restaurants have nothing to do with the nation’s obesity epidemic. It’s not their fault that two out of three adults and one out of three children are either overweight or obese.”

Are the numbers accurate?  My July 20 JAMA hasn’t arrived yet but I hear that it has an article saying that the calorie numbers posted on restaurant menu boards seem close enough.

If an item says it’s 1,500 calories, it probably is.  Best to share with friends.





Page 4 of 7« First...23456...Last »