Food Policy for Breakfast: A Conversation with Dr. Marion Nestle

by Leah Butz

On October 4, 2022, Marion Nestle’s latest book, Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics, was released by the University of California Press. The book is a reflection on “her late-in-life career as a world-renowned food politics expert, public health advocate, and founder of the field of food studies following decades of low expectations.” (Of note: Dr. Nestle was the recipient of the Center’s first-ever annual Changemaker Award.) To celebrate the book’s publication, the Center’s Executive Director, Charles Platkin, caught up with Dr. Nestle in a Food Policy for Breakfast interview.

“It felt like you were sitting over coffee with me and telling me your life story,” Dr. Platkin commented. The book takes readers back to Nestle’s childhood and early adulthood in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. “Why did you write the memoir?” Dr. Platkin asked. Earlier in the pandemic, Dr. Nestle had moved out of New York City to Ithaca, NY, and in this quiet(er) town, she said, “I really needed a project or something to work on.” Without access to the office or library for her usual research materials, she decided, “Now is the time to answer the questions I get asked all the time.” These included many personal questions about her  experiences, feelings, and opinions throughout her impressive career. “It was not easy,” Dr. Nestle explained. “First of all, I had to dig into a lot of very uncomfortable things and then look at patterns…I could see there were repetitive patterns and ways of dealing with adversity that were very similar that I hadn’t been so aware of before. And I tried to make it honest.

“I grew up with a set of values that are very core…I’ve kept those values throughout my entire life and career,” she said. “I think there should be equality of opportunity. I think everybody deserves a fair shake in life, that poor people are poor because they were born into the wrong family, not because they chose to be poor…My parents were members of the Communist Party. You don’t get to choose your parents!” Dr. Nestle did not have an idyllic childhood. She faced troubles in her family life, including frequent criticism from her mother and an oft-absent father. “My father was five-foot-ten, and weighed three hundred pounds and was a three-pack-a-day smoker…did that have anything to do with my interest in nutrition later on? I wonder about that.”

Dr. Nestle attended college at the University of California, Berkeley, dropped out for a year to get married at age 19, had children a few years afterwards, and then went to graduate school with two small children in tow. “That required survival skills,” she said of her young adulthood. She had aspirations to become a molecular biologist but received little encouragement from the people around her as she attempted to juggle schoolwork, motherhood, lab work, and everything else in life. “I had really good grades in college. It was the one thing I could do really well,” Dr. Nestle reflected. And she was the first in her family to go to college.

After her first marriage ended, she moved from California to the East Coast with her then-fiance and got a job as a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University. It was during this time that she had her “swimming pool epiphany”: during a longer-than-usual children’s swimming lesson at the Brandeis pool, she decided to leave her kids with the instructor to get some work done at the lab, something she didn’t usually do on the weekends due to familial commitments. In the lab that Saturday morning, she discovered that everyone—including other fellows, the lab director, lab technicians, and more—was in the lab. “Even if I had known, and even if I wanted to be there on a Saturday morning, there was no way in the world I could do that. I didn’t have childcare,” she said. “My lab career ended on that morning. That was it. It was perfectly obvious to me that I could not raise children and have a laboratory science career at the same time.”

Upon her leaving the lab, Brandeis “handed” Dr. Nestle a nutrition class to teach despite her not having any background in nutrition. She read introductory books and many, many nutrition research papers in order to prepare for and teach the class. “I like to say it was like falling in love,” Dr. Nestle reflected. “I’ve never looked back.” When some of her students requested a second nutrition course to follow, the department was flexible enough to allow Dr. Nestle to teach another one. “By the end of the year, I knew quite a bit about nutrition!” she said.

“What hooked me on nutrition? On the first day I started studying to prepare for this class, I had a bunch of textbooks. I opened them all up to the page that listed human nutrition requirements. And the lists were different.” This led to many hours in the library where she read up on nutrition, finding gaps and failures in the research. She recalled one study of six women in a mental hospital who were put on a thiamine-deficient diet, and the outcome was measured by how cooperative they were about completing chores. “I just couldn’t believe it! This is a study on which the thiamine requirement is based?” As she went through more and more studies, she found a lot of poorly implemented clinical trials.

She realized that nutrition was a way to teach biology that anyone can understand. Having undergraduate students read original papers on nutrition was much more feasible than asking them to wade through complicated and dense biology papers, and she invited them to criticize the bad ones. “No matter how critical they were of whatever the relationship was—they were writing papers about the relationship of some nutrient to disease, like fat and heart disease, vitamin C and the common cold, whatever—no matter what they were writing about, at the end of it they said they would take vitamin C for the common cold! That taught me that nutrition has an enormous emotional component in it that you have to take into consideration if you’re talking about dietary advice.”

After Brandeis, Dr. Nestle went on to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), to teach nutrition to medical students. Reflecting on this position, she said, “Our healthcare system is based on treatment, not prevention. Nutrition is a preventive strategy and it’s looked down on…because the evidence of one diet or one food or whatever is highly problematic. I think because nutrition studies are extraordinarily difficult to do…because people eat such complicated diets.” She noted that the medical field and medical professionals often look down on nutrition as something not scientific.The medical students she taught were interested in nutrition because every single one of them had patients who had questions about their diet. “And the students learned about nutrition from popular culture, just like everybody else.” She also noted how fraught the relationship between nutrition and real people’s lives really is. “If you want to fix diet-related chronic disease among the poor, you’ve got to fix their neighborhoods, you’ve got to give them money, you’ve got to make sure they’ve got jobs and education. That’s a societal problem.” 

There were some organizational changes at UCSF that led Dr. Nestle to seek the advice of Philip R. Lee, founder and director of the University of California San Francisco Institute for Health Policy Studies (later renamed the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies), who told her to go to public health school. She got two years of salary support from the dean to get a public health degree, an experience that opened many doors and signaled the beginning of when “things started to get better.” She got a job in Washington to work on the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health, her first and only government job. “I couldn’t believe how restrictive it was to work for the government,” she said. It was also during this appointment that she began working on her first book, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Published in 2002 when Nestle was 66 years old).

In 1988, she started a position as a professor chairing the Department of Home Economics at New York University (NYU), which she was tasked with modernizing. To paint a picture of what she was walking into at NYU, she tells the “dirty kitchen” story: “My faculty were nutritionists and they were all members of the American Dietetic Association.” And when she started the position, they were all out of town at an American Dietetic Association meeting. “So I went around and did ‘get acquainted’ visits. I started meeting people. I said, ‘Hi, I’m the new chair, nice to meet you.’ And one after another after another of the people I was meeting with said the same thing: ‘We’re so glad you’re here. They really need you…and I just hate to bring this up when you’ve only just arrived, but there’s just something I have to bring to your attention.’” The issue? The kitchen was dirty. “The department had a teaching kitchen. So I thought maybe I’d better go look at it. It was in another building. So I went into the other building, I got off the elevator, and I’ll tell you, I could smell it. There was just this awful odor.” The kitchen was a complete mess. “I thought, here I am. I have a degree in microbiology, I have a Masters in public health, and I’ve just taken over a department, and my first job is to clean a kitchen.” She could see that the program was neglected: from the students, to the faculty, to the physical space, nothing was given the resources necessary to create a great program.

As she began making major changes, she started developing NYU’s Food Studies program, which was designed to look at food in its entirety, as opposed to looking at individual nutrients, as many nutritionists and dietitians had done for years. It was also during this time that she began taking a closer look at how food companies and food marketing affect public health. She chaired the department for fifteen years before stepping down and into the “cushiest academic job that anybody could ever have” as Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition. She used her extra time to write, travel, and participate in speaking engagements. 

Dr. Nestle also reflected on the way her gender impacted her experiences at NYU. She was hired to make changes, “and if you’re going to make change and get anything done, you’ve got to push,” she said. But people criticized her for being “bossy” or difficult to work with. “And I’m sure I could have done it more diplomatically,” she recalls. “I think that, yeah, it’s easier for men to do that kind of thing because that pushing behavior is more expected from men than from women.”

Dr. Platkin wrapped up the conversation with a question he had asked Dr. Nestle before: “In an interview with PBS some years ago, you said that, ‘After fifty years of nutritional advice, the public was more confused than ever’…Has that changed?” Dr. Nestle does not think it has. People still do not know what to eat. But there are new conversations about the environmental considerations of food choices, such as what foods are sustainably produced. “The obvious problems about hunger and chronic disease have not changed, and people still don’t know what to do to avoid them.” But she has some simple, straightforward dietary advice: “Just don’t eat a lot of junk food.” Ultra-processed “junk food” encourages people to eat a lot more calories than they should. Eating real food and encouraging home cooking is the best way to eat healthy. 

Watch the whole interview HERE, purchase a copy of Slow Cooked HERE (use discount code 21w2240), and read Dr. Nestle’s (almost) daily blog, Food Politics, HERE.

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