February 25, 2015

Voting with our forks: A conversation with Marion Nestle

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Marion Nestle is a big deal in the food world. Scratch that: she's a big deal -- period. In 2011, Michael Pollan has called her one of the most powerful foodies in the world, second only to Michelle Obama.

A professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, Marion is a powerful voice for consumers' rights to better information about what we put in our bodies.

She is the author of  Food PoliticsSafe FoodWhat to Eat, and  Pet Food Politics, and writes a monthly  Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle and is a contributor to  The Atlantic. You can also find her commentary on her blog, where she most recently wrote about controversy surrounding the recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a nutrition panel that helps update and revise federal dietary guidelines.

We recently caught up with Marion to get her thoughts on how to interpret ever-changing nutrition advice, how we as consumers can create change in the food system, and some insight into some of her latest and upcoming work.

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Food For Health: Each day brings a new study on nutrition and new nutrition advice. How do you think physicians and others in health care can best translate the ever-changing science around nutrition for their patients?

Marion Nestle : The best answer I can give to that question is to stand back and look at the big picture: basic dietary advice hasn’t changed in 60 years and whatever the latest study says is unlikely to change that advice. This is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, don’t eat more food than you need to maintain weight, and don’t eat too much junk food. Really, that takes care of it. Most studies deal with single nutrients or foods and are invariably misleading because that’s not how people eat. We eat many different foods each day and it’s the overall combination that counts.

FFH: That’s a good point. For example, new research from the British medical journal Open Heart has found that cheese and butter might not cause heart disease after all. First, full fat dairy (e.g. whole milk, cheese, butter) is bad for your heart and waistline, and now it's part of a healthy diet. This can be confusing for consumers.

MN: That’s exactly my point. If you look at single foods like cheese and butter, some studies say they are bad for you and some say they make no difference. This is because people eat lots of other foods as well as cheese or butter and those also could make a difference. It’s also worth questioning whether or not a study was sponsored. Sponsored studies almost invariably favor the interests of the sponsor and that’s the first question to ask about them.

FFHIn your book “Eat Drink Vote,” you use cartoons to talk about how politics address food choices. Why did you choose this medium to talk about such a serious topic?

MN: I think nutrition is fun! I was lucky enough to fall into a collaboration with the owner of a cartoon bank in Seattle (The Cartoonist Group) who sent me 1,200 cartoons to choose from. I wrote the text around the 250 or so cartoons I ended up with and let them speak for themselves. I call this book “Food Politics ‘Lite.’” It’s has a serious text, but very short. The cartoons do all the work.

FFH: Tell us about your upcoming book on big soda.

MN: This will be “Soda Politics,” out in September this year. It’s a book about the soda industry and how it operates and markets, but also about how food and health advocates have worked to reduce consumption of sugary drinks. In a sense, it’s a case study of successful food advocacy. Coca-Cola executives think health advocates have ruined their business and I’m not going to argue with them.

FFHAbout 31% of our food in the US goes uneaten. Food waste is a huge issue with social, economic and environmental implications. What can we do as consumers to reduce the amount of food that goes to waste?

MN : Waste is built into our food system, from farm to table. Individuals can do what they can to buy and prepare foods more carefully, but like everything else about our food system conservation begins at the policy level. If we had policies and incentives to conserve food, it would be a lot easier not to waste so much.

FFH: What’s the most important thing each of us can do as individuals each day to help improve our health and our food system?

MN: As individuals, we can vote with our forks. Every time we buy food, we are voting for the kind of food system we want.  If we want healthy, sustainably produced food, that’s what we should be buying to create a better market for it. At the same time, we need to act socially as well as individually. This means voting with your vote, engaging in politics, and working to create a healthier food system for people and the planet.

FFH: A new year means new food trends (we’re thinking of fermented food, bone broth and matcha). How can consumers evaluate these trends? Should we ignore them or jump on the bandwagon?

MN: Fads are fun and I enjoy them as much as anyone else. But this takes us back to your first question: what should we eat? I vote for real foods, minimally processed, with plenty of fruits and vegetables and not too much junk food. And I’m always in favor of more physical activity. A little matcha added to the mix can’t hurt if you like it. Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and if you have the choice you might as well use the basic rules to eat what you like.

Follow Marion's work on her blog, Food Politics, or on Twitter at @marionnestle.