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.
Dr. 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.