How to Think About Food

Thinking of Cupcake

Marion Nestle wears an awful lot of hats for one head. She’s a professor in the field of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, a job that includes teaching nutrition to doctors and medical students. Molecular biology is only one of her areas of expertise, and, by the way, she is also a professor of a very different discipline, sociology. Actually, there is a whole page of impressive achievements at the Food Politics website, but the interesting question is, what is Marion Nestle all about?

The bio says,

Her research focuses on how science and society influence dietary advice and practice.

Among other things, Nestle writes a monthly column called “Food Matters” for the San Francisco Chronicle, and has published six books on the proper feeding of both humans and pets. She was in the CNBC documentary Big Mac: Inside the McDonald’s Empire, speaking about the subversive nature of food advertising directed at children.

Nestle’s website is called Food Politics, and, picking a page at random, we find the Frequently Asked Questions. The random question is, “Do trans fats have anything to do with obesity?” The answer is comprehensible:

Trans fats raise the risk of heart disease, and that’s why it’s good to have them out of the food supply. Their association with obesity is indirect. They are used in a lot of junk foods because hydrogenation prevents fats from turning rancid. But whatever fats get used to replace trans fats will have the same number of calories. That’s why I wish the FDA would not allow food companies to put “no trans fats” on their package labels… It makes you think the food is a diet food when, in fact, it has the same amount of calories.

While tackling the question, “Whose nutrition advice can I trust?,” Nestle believes in healthy skepticism when interpreting anybody’s advice, even hers. She adds that it’s good to know whether an expert has a vested interest. A recent blog entry, “The perils of food and nutrition research,” elaborates on those thoughts. First, she is wary of certain kinds of research, saying,

When I read about single-factor studies, I want to know three things: Is the result biologically plausible? Did the study control for other dietary, behavioral or lifestyle factors that could have influenced the result? And who sponsored it? … Vested interests influence the design and interpretation of studies. The best-designed studies control for factors that might influence results. Even so, their results require interpretation. Interpretation requires interpreters. Interpreters bring their own biases into the interpretation.

Nestle gives an example of how a knowledgeable person might look at research. When reports came out that diet soda was linked to risk for heart disease and stroke, it didn’t make sense to her. She takes the reader through the various steps of how she considered the findings, in the light of those three questions, and ended up being not too impressed. Nestle writes,

Mostly, I can’t think of a biological reason why diet sodas might lead to cardiovascular disease unless they are an indicator for some other stroke risk factor such as obesity, high blood pressure or binge drinking. It would take a study designed to test this idea specifically — and a good biological explanation — to convince me that diet sodas cause strokes.

But that doesn’t mean diet soda is good, of course.

For 15 years now, UC Berkeley has been naming Public Health Heroes on a national scale, and you will never guess who is one of the recipients for 2011 — that’s right, Marion Nestle. The announcement page specifies that this is because of her “national leadership in nutrition policy and her guidance in stemming serious nutrition-based diseases, including obesity” (link is ours). Way to go!

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “About Marion Nestle,” Food Politics
Source: “Books,” Food Politics
Source: “FAQ,” Food Politics
Source: “The perils of food and nutrition research,” Food Politics, 03/06/11
Image by Sabrina Eras, used under its Creative Commons license.

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