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For anyone sipping pomegranate juice, popping blueberries, savoring dark chocolate and otherwise worshiping at the altar of “superfoods” in the hopes they will lead to better health, Marion Nestle wants you to know the whole story.
That impressive research implying eating one particular food will boost your brain, body and longevity may have been funded by a company looking to sell more of that food, Nestle, who has been called a “nutrition goddess” by Bon Appétit, writes in her latest book.
She explores the influence of the soda, sugar, meat, dairy, fruit and vegetable industries on nutrition studies in “Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.”
“No one food makes a diet healthful,” writes Nestle, a professor emerita of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. “I want people to understand that all whole foods have nutritional value.”
So what is the best dietary advice to follow and how does Nestle eat herself? She answered those questions in an interview with TODAY.
How does nutrition research funded by food companies affect the way we eat?
Pretty much all research funded by industry, including the food industry, produces results favorable to the sponsor’s marketing interests. It’s not that food companies buy the results they want — the influence is much more subtle, apparently occurring at a subconscious level. Recipients of industry funding do not believe that they are influenced, but the funding effect proves otherwise.
You say “superfoods” is basically a marketing term. But shouldn’t some foods be singled out as nutritional champs?
All plant foods — fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and grains — have nutrients that are good for health. In that sense, every one of them is a superfood. I can’t think of any good reason to single out one over another. The key to healthy diets is to eat a wide variety of relatively unprocessed foods, in moderation of course.
Why do you say food companies benefit when dietary advice focuses on single nutrients and foods?
Easy. If you are a maker of a processed food product, you can sell more of it if you add vitamins and market it as a health food. Look at sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals for kids, for example. More than 40 percent of their calories come from added sugars, but they contain added vitamins and minerals. These are really vitamin-supplement cookies.
You call the government’s stance on cholesterol “head-spinning advice” — why?
Eggs are the largest source of cholesterol in American diets. The Dietary Guidelines say you don’t have to worry about dietary cholesterol, but should eat as few eggs as possible. Huh? The egg industry sponsors studies to show that eggs have no effect on blood cholesterol levels. Independently funded studies give mixed results. My advice for eggs is the same as for any other food: Enjoy them, but vary them with other foods.
How can we recognize misleading nutrition advice?
Use common sense. If a research result claims incredible benefits for a single food, it probably is incredible. Words like “breakthrough” are a giveaway. That’s not how science works. And be especially skeptical when you hear “everything you thought you knew about nutrition is wrong.”
What should we know about the role of diet vs. exercise in weight control and weight loss?
I am a great believer in the benefits of physical activity. This does not necessarily mean gyms. Even just getting up and moving frequently during the day promotes better health. But when it comes to weight, what you eat matters much more than how much you move. That’s because it takes a mile of walking or running to compensate for the 100 calories in just two Oreo cookies.
Knowing what you know, what is your diet like?
I have no trouble at all following my own advice and I would never advise anyone to do anything that I don’t do myself. I eat my veggies, I am active, I don’t overeat and I don’t eat too much junk food. I also try to eat only when I’m hungry. I usually don’t get hungry until around 11 in the morning so that’s when I start eating. What I eat varies so much from day to day.
What are the biggest mistakes you see people making when it comes to eating, dieting and nutrition?
It grieves me to hear that people are afraid of food and are not taking advantage of the extraordinary pleasure it gives. The key principles are variety and moderation. These leave lots of room for enjoying everything you eat.