by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Calories

May 7 2018

Today: Menu labeling goes national

Remember menu labeling?  In 2010, Congress said fast food places should reveal calories on their menus (New York City required this in 2008).

Food companies fought the measure and got delays, but the eight-year delay is up.  Menu labeling goes national today.

In a blog post, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb explained FDA thinking about such matters: the agency is pro-consumer and pro-market.

Information about how healthy our food is gives us the chance to make better choices about our diets. This same information also inspires competition among producers to formulate food in ways that make it more healthful…. food producers should be able to compete on the ability to develop foods that are healthier, and make reliable, science-based claims about these attributes to consumers.  So at FDA, we’re reforming our policies to make it more efficient to develop these claims. This clarity may encourage more manufacturers to invest in making foods healthier.

Uh oh.  More health claims (these, I insist, are about marketing, not health).  So that’s the trade-off; we get menu labeling at the price of more and inevitably misleading health claims.

Gottlieb defended the measure on Fox News.

If you have information on menu labels, the average consumer will reduce their caloric intake to 30-50 calories a day,” Gottlieb said during the interview. “That turns out to be about 3 to 5 pounds per year that you can lose just by having better information.

This is correct in theory, if you assume that one pound of fat contains about 3500 calories (this estimate comes from multiplying 454 grams per pound by 9 calories per gram for fat and rounding off).  Then it will take 3500 divided by 50 = 70 days to lose one pound.

In practice, such small calorie deficits are hardly measurable.  Most estimates suggest that losing weight requires a deficit of 300 to 500 calories a day (My co-author and I discuss all this in our book, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics).

For an quick summary of the studies of menu labeling, JAMA has a useful review.

It’s great that Commissioner Gottlieb defended menu labeling on Fox News.  Looking at the calories on menu items is fun!

And it most definitely works for me.  If I see a muffin labeling at 700 calories, I share it with friends.

Dec 12 2017

Oops. Fat replacing sugar in US diets.

In the late 1980s, nutrition scientists identified fat and saturated fat as key nutrients that needed to be reduced in US diets.

One result was the Snackwell’s phenomenon in the early 1990s—“no-fat” cookies with just as many calories as the ones with fat.  They flew off the shelves.

Image result for snackwell's no fat cookies

Now the push is to get rid of carbs, especially sugars.  The result?  Fat is back, along with its calories (fat has more than twice the calories per gram as carbohydrates, 9 as opposed to 4).

A tweet from Kevin Bass tells the story:

The USDA tells the same story, but with respect to specific products:

These products may be more satiating, but watch the calories!

Also watch out for the saturated fat:

 

Aug 3 2017

Is this for real?

Sent to me from a Cracker Barrel in Florida.

Yum.

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Feb 22 2017

Taking sodas out of SNAP: the debate

I’m out of the country for a few weeks (México) and missed the House hearing on whether SNAP-eligible food items should continue to include sugary beverages.

From what I gather, most witnesses opposed any change in the program, with one from the American Enterprise Institute the lone holdout.

As I discussed in the chapter on SNAP in Soda PoliticsI continue to think that taking sugar-sweetened beverages out of the package is a no brainer.

  • They are sugars and water and have no nutritional value.
  • Tons of research links their consumption to a higher risk for obesity and its consequences.
  • SNAP recipients spend a lot of taxpayer money on them.
  • SNAP recipients may well have worse diets and higher proportions of chronic disease than equally poor people who do not get SNAP benefits.
  • Surveys say that SNAP recipients would not mind this change.
  • SNAP recipients can always buy sodas with their own cash.

I recognize that not everyone sees things this way.  I suspect that people opposed to this idea are worried that any change to SNAP will leave it vulnerable to cuts, and they could well be right.

Here are their arguments:

Politico provides some sound bites on the topic:

  • “Food surveillance violates the basic principles of this great country.” — Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.)
  • “What can we do to incentivize rather than punish?” — Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.)
  • “If you want to do a pilot program, I’m happy to co-sponsor one at the White House. I’m worried about our president’s eating habits.” — Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Ma.)

The state of Maine, however, has just renewed its request to USDA to remove sugar-sweetened beverages and candy from SNAP-eligible items.

Maine believes the purchase of sugar sweetened beverages and candy is detrimental to the health of the SNAP population, and is antithetical to the purpose of the SNAP program.

SNAP is supposed to be a nutrition program, no?  Nutrition is about a lot more than calories (and this from someone who wrote a book about calories).

Feb 2 2017

USDA’s latest data on food trends

The USDA has just issued a report on trends in per capita food availability from 1970 to 2014.

Here’s my favorite figure:

The inner ring represents calories from those food groups in 1970. The outer ring includes data from 2014.

The bottom line: calories from all food groups increased, fats and oils and the meat group most of all, dairy and fruits and vegetables the least.

The sugar data are also interesting:

Total sugars (blue) peaked at about 1999 in parallel with high fructose corn syrup (orange).  Table sugar, sucrose, has been flat since the 1980s (green).

Eat your veggies!

Sep 15 2016

Calories, alas, do count

I did a bunch of interviews about the sugar industry’s funding and manipulation of research this week (see the list at the bottom of the post).

I tried to point out that in the fuss over sugars vs. saturated fat, calories get forgotten.  They shouldn’t be.

The balance between fat and carbohydrate matters much less when calorie intake is balanced by physical activity.

The Atlantic notes that Americans eat and waste vast amounts of food, using USDA data on the amount of calories made available by the food supply.

I love the USDA’s “Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System.”  Here’s how to use it:

  • Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page to Nutrient Availability.
  • Click on Nutrients.
  • Download Excel Spreadsheet.
  • Click on the worksheet, “Nutrients and other components of the US food supply.”  Have fun checking out the trends from 1909 to 2010.  We have available to us 4000 calories per day per capita.
  • Click on the second worksheet, “US Food supply: Nutrients contributed from major food groups.”  Now you can see where the calories come from:  Grain products and fats and oils together account for more than 1800 of the 4000 calories in the food supply.  Add in sugars and sweeteners and you are up to 2500.  Meat, poultry, and fish brings it over 3000.

Hmmm.

This is why I co-authored a book on the topic: Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.

Jun 28 2016

My Time Magazine op-ed: We are still confused about calories

While I was in Israel last week, Time Magazine published an op-ed it had invited me to write.  Here it is.

Even in ‘healthy’ foods, calories can tick up fast

Nutrition professor that I am, if I could teach just one thing to the American public, it is this: Larger portions have more calories.

Please don’t laugh.

If we all understood this, the United States would not have an obesity problem. And the recent revelation that places like Chipotle and Panera serve meals with more calories than McDonald’s would surprise nobody. We would realize the former’s “health” aura blinds people. But this basic rule applies to those places, too.

We would also, strangely, thank McDonald’s for at least one thing: It limits portion sizes. It’s easy to pile on calories by asking for a little more of this, then a refill of that—without realizing that the calories surpass those in McDonald’s meals.

It’s not easy to understand calories. They are not intuitive because they’re abstract. They cannot be seen, tasted or smelled, and are extraordinarily difficult to count accurately, even for scientists. My colleague Lisa Young, author of The Portion Teller, once asked an entry-level nutrition class to guess the calories in 8-ounce and 64-ounce soft drinks. We didn’t expect students to know that an 8-ounce Coke has 100 calories—but we certainly expected them to multiply whatever they guessed by eight for the 64-ounce drink. But the average multiplier was three.

The unintuitive relationship between amounts eaten and calorie intake is one of the reasons behind public health campaigns like the new soda tax in Philadelphia, which in part aims to get people to think twice before drinking sugary beverages. No nutritionist worries about an occasional 90-calorie mini-can of soda. But many people drink sugary beverages in 12-ounce, 20-ounce or liter sizes. Bigger sizes mean more calories, and more calories means more weight unless you compensate with physical activity.

But exercising off calories takes a lot of work. That was the message of aNew York City health department campaign demonstrating the need to walk the three miles from Union Square to Brooklyn to compensate for the nearly 300 calories in a 20-ounce soft drink.

And let’s not forget that all of the calories in soft drinks come from sugars, which provide nothing but calories—no vitamins, no minerals, no fiber. They may be delicious, but they have no redeeming nutritional value. That’s why their calories get called “empty.”

Does where calories come from make any difference? Yes, but in complicated ways. Weight balance depends on calories. But managing weight—and overall health—very much depends on where those calories come from. It’s not so easy to overeat vegetables, fruits and whole grains, or relatively unprocessed foods of any kind, because these tend to be bulky and fill you up before you eat too much. You can still gain weight on these healthy foods, but it’s harder. Chipotle may have healthier calories than McDonald’s, but its calories still count.

Sugars post particular problems because they induce insulin production, but also because they make foods taste good. We eat something sweet and want more of it. We start loving sweet tastes in infancy. Breast milk is sweet; it contains a tablespoon of lactose per cup and that’s there for a reason—to make babies do the work of nursing.

But sodas are very sweet. A 12-ounce soda contains more than threetablespoons of sugars—and the calories that go with them.

It’s also very hard to separate the effects of sugars from their calories. If scientists want to know whether the calories from sugars are worse than those from any other foods, they need to feed people precisely the same number of calories from diets widely varying in their content of sugar, other carbohydrates, protein, and fat for a long enough period of time to get meaningful results. The only way to do something like this would be to keep the study subjects under lock and key for as long as it takes—inconvenient, to say the least, and very expensive.

Until the science is resolved, we can all agree that eating less sugar is a good idea for just about everyone. Sugars are nutritionally empty, are hidden in foods, and encourage overeating.

Notice that I said less, not none. Personally, I love desserts and would never want to give up sugars entirely or ask anyone else to do so. I just follow my own dietary advice: eat lots of vegetables and other relatively unprocessed “real” foods, and for everything else, pay attention to portion size. This way, an occasional sugary treat is a pleasure and nothing to worry about.

Marion Nestle is professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and co-author of Why Calories Count. Her most recent book is Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).

Apr 21 2016

Annals of “healthy” eating: Olive Garden

My friend and colleague Maya Joseph submits this entry for the category Annals of American “Healthy” Dining:

I was at an Olive Garden last night and, while I greatly appreciated the calorie labeling, which prevented me from ordering the 1,480 calorie entree I was hankering after, I was unsettled by the promotional materials urging us to order two entrees for the price of one (you’re supposed to take one home…).

She includes this link to the two-for-one offer (Oops.  It’s no longer available.  Whew).

Comment: OK, they offered customers a choice.

But unlimited breadsticks and two Fettucine Alfredos?

The mind boggles.

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