A Red Light for Marion Nestle’s Calorie Advice

New York University professor Marion Nestle isn’t known for having a high opinion of the ability of “ordinary mortals” to choose their own food. She also lacks respect for the First Amendment rights of those with whom she disagrees. Elsewhere, pundit Mark Bittman is known for his love of discredited subsidies and dubious sin taxes — and his book of recipes that features a burger with more calories than a Big Mac. Put the two activists together, and the result should come with a “red light” warning label.

The calorie may be just a unit of measuring energy, but in Bittman’s and Nestle’s world calories are “ultimately…political.” And, of course, the policies that Nestle advocates are the usual mix: subsidize vegetables and shut up the food companies.

Look at the research behind her food activism, however, and it’s profoundly ironic that Nestle would ban all food package health claims “unless they’re backed up by universally accepted science.” Food taxes, menu labeling, supermarket subsidies, banning restaurants by zoning board fiat, and advertising bans (Nestle’s personal hobby-horse) are all based on weak scientific evidence where they haven’t been found to be outright failures. But little details like that haven’t stopped her from trying to shovel policies like those on the rest of us.

Bittman falls prey to his own logical howlers. To “debunk” the truth that a calorie is indeed a calorie, Bittman notes the following:

The “calorie is a calorie” argument is widely used by the processed food industry to explain that weight loss isn’t really about what you eat but about how many calories you eat. But if it were just about calories, you could eat only sugar and be fine. In fact, you’d die: sugar lacks essential nutrients.

Of course, that last bit is why precisely nobody claims that a diet of powdered sugar is just fine. The claim doesn’t refute the fact that if you want to lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories than you expend. We challenge Bittman (or Nestle) to find anybody who claims that nutrients don’t affect overall health. We certainly don’t think they’re writing the Farm Bill.

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