Why Calories Count

Why Calories Count Book

This is a guest blog post by Dr. Lisa Sutherland, PhD

Eat better, move more, get political! That is the message delivered by Dr.’s Marion Nestle and Mal Nesheim in their latest book, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.

I told a friend about my excitement at going on vacation and finally reading a good book – Why Calories Count.  My dear friend told me “You are the biggest food wonk I know.  Why don’t you read a mystery or drama?”

Oh silly friend, calories ARE a mystery and drama is always nearby.

Why Calories Count did not fail my high expectations.  If the stars of the book are clearly Dr.’s Nestle and Nesheim, the best supporting actor role undoubtedly is awarded to Wilbur O. Atwater, the scientist to whom Atwater Values – 4 calories per gram for carbohydrates and protein and 9 calories per gram of fat – are owed and to whom the book is also dedicated.  Dr.’s Nestle and Nesheim present an eloquent, well-researched examination of the “complex” history, evolution, controversy and societies’ love-hate relationship with calories.

The authors refer early in the book to calories as the “C-word”, I had to do a double take, and state, “Nobody wants to talk about them.”  So, they have done just that – presented six sections that take the reader through a linear caloric journey that describe the history, measurement, “energy housekeeping” (e.g. metabolism, regulation, absorption), biology, sociology and economics of too few and too many calories and the role of our food environment and government.

Admittedly, the “energy housekeeping” chapters took me back to my undergraduate and graduate school days and I found myself hyperventilating while reading the terminology and details.  With this said, had my professors explained half of the information as simply and straightforward (with a bit o’humor) my GPA might have been much higher.

My personal take-aways of note:

  • This is not a new topic.  Hippocrates (~460 – 370 B.C.) referring to balancing diet and activity states, “For it is from the overpowering of one or the other that diseases arise, while from their being evenly balanced comes good health.”
  • We are at a serious cross road. Globally, 925 million people suffer from chronic hunger; 1.5 billion are overweight or obese.
  • We have to get comfortable with calorie estimations, uncertainty, and imprecision.  “Estimates are good enough for most practical purposes.”
  • “When it comes to calories and body weight, how much you eat matters more than what you eat.”
  • Overeating calories is easy to do; moving more takes thought and effort.
  • It’s all about reducing calorie intake.  There is no magic in different diet programs (i.e. low carb, low fat, high protein etc).
  • My favorite quote from the book.  How many calories do you need? “You need as much energy as you need.”
  • Alcohol contains a lot of calories, but is not required to carry nutrition labels like every other food and beverage.  (I knew that, but always a good reminder).
  • I was pretty bummed out, but not surprised, to read that after the age of fifty “the great tragedy occurs”: our metabolism slows a bit and everything I put into my mouth will require more scrutiny.
  • Regulation of body weight is “complex” or as the authors translate, “not well understood.”
  • Pay attention!  “(We) do not make food choices in a vacuum.” I am paraphrasing – Knowledge is a powerful first step in creating strategies that work best for you.

The book importantly addresses both sides of the calorie equation, “Consumption of too few or too many calories is an important – arguably the most important – case of public health nutrition problems in the world today.”  It is made clear up front that this is “not a diet book with a break through scheme for losing weight…” Yet, I would contend anyone who has ever tried to lose weight, wants to lose weight, wants to understand the biology, psychology and environment of food and calories, debunk some popular myths, or simply enjoys a good science meets policy read, with a healthy dose of sarcasm that keeps the reader entertained, pick up this book (or load it on your favorite e-reader).

The authors note that they “present the science as they see it” and I would add meticulously reference their statements.  Dr. Nestle once told me, “Nutrition science is completely dependent on the interpretation.”  She and Dr. Nesheim repeat that sentiment early in Why Calories Count.  If you do not agree with their perspectives or interpretation, well then you should write your own book. Until then, eat better, move more and get political!  And remember, all calories count.

Lisa SutherlandDr. Lisa Sutherland is nationally recognized food and nutrition expert and the president/owner of LA Sutherland & Associates providing food and nutrition science, communication and policy strategic counsel to private and public organizations.  Dr. Sutherland also holds an adjunct professor appointment in pediatrics at Dartmouth College.  She received her doctoral degree in public health nutrition, with a special track in policy and interventions, from the UNC at Chapel Hill. 


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  • http://www.rainbowplate.com/ Janet Nezon

    Thank you so much for this excellent review and synopsis of this book. It has been on my “to read” list for a while. I have always been a fan of Dr. Nestle, and had the good fortune to meet her several years ago.  Your summary confirms a few things: 1. Dr. Nestle and her colleague do a wonderful job of cutting to the essence of the hot food/nutrition issues.  2. When it comes to diet and health, the basic biological facts haven’t changed much – just the political and social context in which people interpret them. Thanks!

    • http://twitter.com/CalorieChannel CalorieChannel

      Hi Janet,  Glad you enjoyed the review!  Your summary hits the nail on the head.  Cheers! Lisa

  • Lisa

    This is a subject more dieticians should take up! Simply referring clients to the food guide is a lazy and self-sabotaging way that won’t work. Many dieticians (not all, mind you, but ones I have met through work) act as if calories/the body regulate themselves, and our bodies will just know what to do with them regardless of the source. Even before the arbitrary number of 50, that’s pretty wishful thinking!

    What I have read by Dr. Nestle is usually sound, so I’ll have to pick this up. :)

    • http://twitter.com/CalorieChannel CalorieChannel

      Hey Lisa (great name!)

      I agree and think you will enjoy the book as such.  The book walks through exactly the complexities you outline.  Knowledge is power – we need to encourage more of it.  Enjoy the book!!  Lisa 

  • Brian

    I think that calories are important, but I would argue that what you eat is is just as important. 1000 calories of bagels, brownies, and candy bars does something much different to your body than 1000 calories of vegetables, butter and salmon. Also, I can probably stop after 2,200 calories of vegetables, butter and salmon… it’s not as easy to stop eating the candy bars. So while it is tied into the number of calories, it’s also what you are eating that causes you to keep eating.

    Looks like an interesting book. May have to pick it up.

    • Dlaciv12

      I agree with Brian. If I eat 2000 calories of cake and coke then spend 2300 calories I’m still going to gain fat.
      And when does the body do the arithmetic and decide to gain or lose weight? I hope 5 o’clock on Friday so I can eat cake all weekend then try to reduce my calories during the week.
      Does the math come daily? That’s more difficult for me.
      Or maybe it’s like 4 times a second since metabolism is always happening.

    • http://twitter.com/CalorieChannel CalorieChannel

      The book does a nice job discussing our “energy housekeeping” – metabolism & regulation – with regards to body weight. Most humans can endure, and do, large swings in calories day to day, but maintain consistent body weight.  Dr. Nestle and Nesheim address your points.  Definitely pick up and have a read.  You might not agree with it all – but that’s the beauty of nutrition.   I hope you enjoyed the review.

      (PS – I’m pretty sure I could eat more than 2200 cals if it includes butter)

  • Kyle Roseborrough

    “When it comes to calories and body weight, how much you eat matters more than what you eat.” Shouldn’t that be the other way around?  A pound of kale does not equal a pound of snickers.

  • Knowfoodnow

    Of course calories count. Many studies show that it is not important where calories come from. Weight loss is all about consuming less of them and still feeling satisfied. So whether you sign up for a plan that does the counting for you, or do your own math, it’s really about the numbers. 

    • Brian

      Calories do count, but not to the point of not caring what kind of calories they are. And counting calories all day, every day is a ludicrous idea. As you noted, this goes back to some of the satiety conversation that happened a week or so ago. It has a lot to do with that as well. You should be able to tell by listening to your hunger if you need some food or not. The problem is, foods are now engineered to be hyper palatable, and make us much hungrier than we would be if we just ate a whole foods diet (and could somehow ignore all the marketing). Calories in = calories out is an oversimplification of the metabolism process. There is validity to it, but it’s not the whole story…. the equation is much more complex.

  • EVIL food scientist

    “It’s all about reducing calorie intake.  There is no magic in different diet programs (i.e. low carb, low fat, high protein etc).”

    Doesn’t this sort of fly in the face of Fooducate’s recent mantra “IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT EATING LESS AND EXERCISING!!!”

    According to Marion Nestle, it is.

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Fooducate

      Go ahead with a 1000 calorie a day Twinkie diet for a year. Then come back and tell the forum how that worked for you.

      • EVIL food scientist

        Wholesome foods and wholesome morals? Organic foods reduce prosocial behavior and harshen moral judgments
        Social Psychological and Personality Science
        Kendall J. Eskinehttp://spp.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/05/14/1948550612447114.abstract
        “There’s a line of research showing that when people can pat themselves on the back for their moral behavior, they can become self-righteous,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Kendall J. Eskine, assistant professor of the psychological sciences department at Loyola University in New Orleans, told NBC’s Today show. Eskine and his team showed research subjects photographs of food, ranging from überorganic fruits and vegetables to fattening brownies and baked goods. He then gauged the primed eaters’ moral fiber with stories that warranted judgment, like one about a lawyer who lurks in an ER to try to persuade patients to sue for their injuries.
        Reacting to the events on a numbered scale, the organic-food participants were more judgmental than those in the comfort-food category. They were also more reluctant when asked to volunteer time to help strangers, the study found, offering only 13 minutes vs. the brownie eaters’ 24 minutes. It’s like the group had already fulfilled its moral-justice quota by buying organic, so it felt all right slacking off in other ethics-based situations. Eskine labeled it “moral licensing.”

        Read the article.  May just show you a teeny bit of insight into your thinking.

  • NUY lab rat

    Marion Nestle is one of the most incompetent nutritionists of our time. Her interest is laser-focused on selling pop science books like this one. Real scientists in the field of nutrition no longer take Marion Nestle seriously, if they ever did. What a shame New York University should fall so far from the tree of real science. NYU should have retired Nestle a few years ago.

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