As a nutritionist and health food advocate, you might assume that NYU’s Marion Nestle doesn’t have a sweet tooth. But you would be wrong.
“Face it, sugar tastes good,” she says. “The trick is using it with some sense of proportion.”
Marion Nestle, an exceptionally intelligent, accomplished, lifelong leader of the food-for-health movement, doesn’t mince words -- or the truth -- when it comes to food. Named as one of the top ten people to follow in health and science by Time Magazine, Science Magazine, and The Guardian, Nestle has dedicated most of her life to educating people about the history, politics, and realities of how our food is grown, sold, and consumed.
During her decades-long career, she’s authored six bestselling books about food and nutrition, earned multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, and most notably, never backed away from her mission to bring fresh, healthy food to everyone -- and bring the global food industry to justice. And despite her candid remarks on its inarguable tastiness, that means exposing the truth and lies about the world’s most prolific flavor enhancer: sugar.
Below, find out what she really thinks about the deep connection between food and our health, the dangers of deplorable food marketing, and the very real consequences of filling our bodies with sweets instead of sustenance.
[Healthline] Define ‘food politics’ and ‘food justice.’
[Marion Nestle] Food politics is the way economic, social, ideological, and governmental factors affect food production and consumption; how money and stakeholder politics influence what we eat. Food justice has to do with economic, social, ideological, and governmental equity in access to food production and consumption; in other words, fairness.
[HL] How important to a person’s overall well-being do you think it is to eat healthfully and have access to fresh food? Are there any studies that support your perspective?
[MN] I see two separate questions here: the importance of food to health and the importance of fresh food to health. On the first, the answer is very important—essential in fact. We need nutrients and energy from food to live, grow, and reproduce. Without them, we get sick and die. World populations have figured out how to use available food plants and animals to construct diets that promote health and longevity. These diets vary enormously.
Preserved and frozen foods meet nutritional requirements and it ought to be possible to do just fine on them. Fresh foods taste better, but lots of relatively unprocessed preserved and frozen foods are just as nutritious. Heavily processed foods are best consumed in small amounts.
[HL] What are the most deplorable marketing tactics you’ve seen used in the food industry?
[MN] Marketing aimed at young kids is unethical and, therefore, deplorable. Kids don’t have the critical thinking skills to tell when they are being sold to. I also am increasingly distressed by food companies’ sponsorship of research studies. These invariably come out with results that can be used to market the donor’s products.
[HL] Tell us about the connection between low-fat diets, added sugars, heart disease, and other conditions.
[MN] Heart disease is the proverbial condition with multifactorial causes: genetic, behavioral, dietary, and other lifestyle characteristics. Diets based on a variety of relatively unprocessed foods in reasonable amounts, balanced by physical activity, are most strongly associated with protection against heart disease. The minute you start looking at single dietary factors like fat and sugars, you are into “nutritionism,” the reductive use of nutrients to stand for foods and diets. Neither fat nor sugars are poisons, and neither needs to be entirely avoided.
[HL] Talk to us about the pseudo-scientific studies, industry-funded advocacy programs, or other misinformation being shared with the public that is having a major impact on widespread health.
[MN] The biggest misinformation is that what you eat doesn’t matter for health. It does. A lot. Plenty is known about what kinds of diets best promote health. The basic principles are simple: eat plenty of vegetables, be active, don’t eat too much junk (meaning highly processed) food. Michael Pollan said it best: “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
[HL]What advice would you give to someone who is trying to break up with sugar?
[MN] I love sweet foods and would never advise anyone to give them up completely or do anything else that I wouldn’t do myself. But I’m one of those people who is happy with (relatively) small amounts, can keep candy in the house, and doesn’t enjoy sugary drinks. I understand that some people feel that sugars control them, not vice versa. If you can’t stop after a small amount, you may need to make sure that you can’t get to it. Don’t have sweets in the house and indulge only when the amount is fixed.
[HL]What has shocked you the most in terms of health/wellness/nutrition over the past 10 years? The past 20 years? 30 years?
[MN] The shock is learning about the relentlessness of the food industry in protecting its business objectives. Soda companies will stop at nothing to oppose public health measures. The surprise—a pleasant one—is finding so many people, including the First Lady, interested in the same kinds of food issues that I am.
[HL] What’s your hope for the future as far as nutrition is concerned?
[MN] The quality of the U.S. food supply is already much, much better than it was 20 years ago. I give the food movement credit for getting us to this point. We still have a long way to go to create food systems that promote human health, the lives of farm and restaurant workers, and environmental sustainability, but I’m heartened by the huge numbers of people working on these issues.
[HL]Do you think the U.S. will always be stuck in this “sugar craze/ epidemic”? If so, how can we get out of it?
[MN] [Learn] to appreciate other food tastes and textures. The best way I know of to appreciate other flavors and textures is to grow your own vegetables or buy them freshly picked.
[HL]What do you see as your role in this journey or process?
[MN] I write books and articles, and do a lot of public speaking about these issues. I’m currently working on a book on the effects of food industry funding of nutrition research and practice, tentatively titled “Buying Nutrition Science.”
[HL]Talk to us about your book, Soda Politics. Why should we read it?
[MN] I wrote Soda Politics as an analysis of the soda industry and as a soda-advocacy manual, but I meant sodas to stand for all unhealthful foods that are marketed extensively. Sodas are sugars and water, and nothing else of redeeming nutritional value. This makes them an easy target for public health intervention. Stop drinking sugary beverages and the pounds pour off—this works for lots of people. I subtitled the book Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) because sales of Coke and Pepsi are way down in the United States, have been declining for at least fifteen years, and show no signs of recovering. Health advocacy works! Read Soda Politics and be inspired to work on campaigns for soda taxes, getting sodas out of schools, and stopping companies from marketing such things to kids.
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