Meet the queen of food policy, nutrition, and education: Marion Nestle

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For over 40 years, Marion Nestle has dedicated her life to helping folks take control of their health through food choice and safety education, and by working to hold food corporations accountable for misleading and/or damaging marketing approaches that target people of lower socioeconomic statuses.

Her resume, which is still ongoing, is impressive to be sure. Currently, she’s a Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University — a program she also chaired for fifteen years. Additionally, she’s an NYU sociology professor and visiting professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University.

But her credits don’t stop there. Nestle also holds honorary degrees from Transylvania University and from the City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College in addition to having earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and M.P.H. in public health nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley. We’ve searched, and few are more qualified to drop serious nutrition knowledge on the world than she is. Fortunately for all of us, that’s exactly what she’s doing.

A primary focus of Nestle’s work is how food politics influences how and what we eat. Unfortunately politics and our best interest do not go hand in hand.. To put it in numbers, the food industry, largely comprised of companies promoting processed foods, spends $10 billion a year in direct media advertising, while the campaign for fruits and vegetables spends about $2 million.

Nestle argues that processed foods, rather than healthier whole food alternatives, are being marketed to us because, “That’s where the profit is. Potatoes are cheap. Potato chips aren’t. And those really delicious olive oil rosemary ones that I happen to be particularly fond of are shockingly expensive, $3 for five ounces. The objective is to process foods as much as possible. But many of these highly processed foods are junk food — relatively high in calories and low in nutrients."

Food marketing is just the tip of Nestle’s frustration. The general lack of consumer education – and confusion – around dietary protocols, ingredients and portion control are astounding. While it’s clear to Nestle that portion size is positively correlated to obesity, she’s found that many of us have difficulty internalizing that notion. “You don’t need another explanation for obesity,” she said. “We have tons of evidence that people don’t realize that larger portions have more calories and are clueless about how much they’re eating.”

Much of that lack of consumer understanding can be attributed the contradictory messages we receive from news media regarding what, how and when we should be eating. One report will say that including a given ingredient in our diet will miraculously cure us of all that ails us, while the next might claim the very same ingredient is cancer-causing. Nestle argues that looking too closely at any one ingredient makes the whole healthy eating endeavor needlessly complicated. “The bottom line is so simple” she said, “Eat plenty of vegetables, don’t eat too much junk food and try not to gain too much weight.”

Marion Nestle’s lifetime body of work is motivated by these frustrations, and it has been integral in informing policy and compelling change around the food industry as a whole. She’s brought to light a myriad of ways food corporations take advantage of consumers for financial gain, and continues to propose new ways for consumers – people like us – to gain better insight into how we need to fuel our bodies for optimal health and wellness. 

While Nestle’s impressive credentials and extensive research have made for a longstanding and complex career, her prescription for healthy eating is simple: “Eat more vegetables, eat smaller portions and don’t drink sugar-sweetened beverages." We love the simplicity of this time-tested message, and hope you do as well.