by Marion Nestle
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.”


  • Anthro

    I would be in HEAVEN if I could get away with 2,279 calories/day! Just about half of that keeps me fairly stable. I have found this through trail and error and am wondering if there is a way to determine individual caloric needs at any given time of life. I obviously need fewer calories in (very) late middle age than at 25, but how does one keep up with changing needs other than to continually eat less?

    I am assuming that calorie needs continue to decline with age–or is that just me?

  • It’s hard not to think about the historical use of food control as a tool of war when I see food clubs and private raw milk sellers being raided by heavily armed swat teams from our own government.

  • Miss Swat

    Jacquelyn, do you have a link to any such event as a “heavily armed swat team” raiding anyone (illegally) selling raw milk? Or food clubs?

    I think you are exaggerating. I want the government to prevent the sale of raw milk so that people don’t get sick. I am not aware of any cases of the scenario you describe. I have participated in a food club for years and there is nothing to be raided for as far as I can tell–but we are not buying or selling raw milk or anything else that is illegal.

  • Garrett

    I would imagine that the 2,279/day figure comes from a calculation based on demographics. That is, Israel likely had an idea of how many adult men and women there were. They could use those numbers along with the WHO ranges you supplied above to arrive at average for the entire population. E.g., [(X men * 2700) + (Y women * 2100)] / (X + Y) = 2279.

    The ratio of X to Y is what drives the result. As it’s skewed towards the lower end of the range, I suspect there were more adult women than adult men at the time, my back-of-the-junk mail calculation puts it at about .91:1.

    This all ignores children, of course – but that makes the math easier.

  • Beth

    Of course Egypt could have also opened the rafa border so that those in Gaza could get more calories

  • Nina

    I generally agree with all your posts, but this one seems to me wrong in its implication that inhabitants of Gaza were allowed food at just above hunger level. Not everyone in Gaza is an adult male or adult female.
    The 2,279-calorie figure must be an average based on the demographics of Gaza and surely included calories required by children. Some people will require more than 2,279 calories and some less.

  • Surprised by this post as more political, as is anything about Israel/Gaza, then startled by raw milk being brought into conversation. Assumed there would be more about larger issue of food distribution as control between political adversaries. And what are the moral issues whether about calorie limits or food boycotts?

  • Greg

    Ahem, could I have your attention please. Revelation coming. The US did exactly this to recovering europe, but far worse. They deliberately refused to allow food in, because they wanted to keep the population subdued and weakened by hunger to make the post-war occupation easier. Read about the starvation of europe.

    And it wasn’t just a little. They were deliberately starvation rations. “Much of europe is slowly starving” was one of the complaints issued by public health authorities at the time. It was all entirely deliberate, not due to shortages.

  • Greg here you go. Of course wikipedia is always in the middle ground with regards to truth. You’ll always find the most outrageous things blunted in various ways.

  • Greg

    Also Jaqueline, will you get with the freaking program? This is not “historical”. It takes time for revelations to come out about what happens. It will happen again just like before, and something similar may be happening in plain sight right now.

  • yadayadayada


    “if there is a way to determine individual caloric needs at any given time of life”

    Yes, it’s your BMR (basal metabolic rate). It does decline over time. Google for a good BMR calculator. Everyone is surprised by how low their BMR is. Most women have a BMR of about 1350. That is, even with exercise, very few women need to eat more than about 1600 calories a day, altho’ in this era of supersize, people will complain that anything less than 2700 is unthinkable.

    Eat less, much much less – than you think. And then drop that amount by 100. Return to the cookbooks of the 50s when people were normal weight – you’ll see 3 oz meat portions really were the rule; a jello dessert was 1/2 cup; and a 12 oz bottle of coke was 2 servings. Yes they ate butter – exactly 1 pat, and they had 1/2 piece to 1 piece of bread at dinner instead of an entire basket of baguette.

    People are such disgusting pigs nowadays, it’s gross.

  • Talk about “food politics!” Using food restriction as a weapon or political tool is immoral.

  • TR

    In the late 1800s, the US government practiced a policy of killing off the buffalo to subdue the natives living on the plains. Buffalo nearly went extinct. Western ranchers today still think buffalo need to be killed off to protect their cow herds from brucellosis. Hooray for freedom and liberty.

    After getting the native people onto reservations, they were starved. I guess once you subdue a people you need to keep them subdued.

    As for raw milk. pfft…

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