#35in365 - Book 3 Review

'Everything in Moderation': Realistic Health Motto or Cop-Out?


'What to Eat', by Marion Nestle


In this no nonsense analysis of the modern supermarket, Nestle offers practical advice on how to look at food, understand the industry players, and analyze nutrition claims. She’s been praised for balancing consumer advocacy with nutritional expertise and delivering clear information without overcomplicating things. And that praise is well deserved.

She gives a comprehensive tour of every section of the grocery store, from the produce section, to the meat, fish, and bakery departments, as well as into the aisles, discussing snack foods and other processed foods. Nestle argues that dietary advice hasn’t really changed much in the last 100 years, despite numerous fad diets promoting drastically different approaches. Her take on healthy eating and living is nothing new and pretty straight forward. As far as she’s concerned, following the age-old advice of “eat fruits and vegetables, don’t eat too much junk and exercise” is really the bulk of what consumers need to know and follow.

Nestle does an excellent job of putting herself into consumers’ shoes, deciphering nutrition labels and health claims, comparing products, shedding light on industry lobbying, and interpreting research in a way that’s digestible and easy to understand. Nestle ends every section of the book with a ‘what I’d do if I were you’ conclusion that helps synthesize the information that has been covered into concrete advice for readers.

More Snippets

“The foods that sell best and bring in the most profits are not necessarily the ones that are best for you health, and the conflict between health and business goals is at the root of public confusion about food choice.”

“Government agencies cannot issue unambiguous dietary advice to eat this but not that without offending powerful industries.”

“Many of the produce companies are small and independent. Perhaps most important, the industry is not unified. Growers view each other as competitors - peaches versus pears, carrots versus cauliflower - rather than as part of an industry with common goals. In contrast, the meat and dairy industries sell one product and can more easily band together to market milk or beef collectively.”

“Foods in the center aisles are highly profitable. And why not? They are made with the cheapest ingredients, advertised with the biggest budgets, and manufactured by some of the largest food corporations in the world. These company pay slotting fees for that center-aisle space, but make up for that expense in sales.”

“If it makes good sense to cut down on sugars and their principal sources - soft drinks, juice drinks, cookies, cakes, candy, and ice cream - shouldn’t the government say so? Until recently it did say so, but the price of good advice and common sense proved too high in the face of industry pressures. [...] Sugar industry contributions to political parties and election campaign funds help to explain why federal dietary advice about sugar intake is such a sensitive topic.”

“If you take just the $11 million Kraft spent advertising Creme Savers - one candy product among thousands on supermarket shelves - it still amounts to more than five times the largest amount of money ever spent by the US government on the Five-a-Day for Better Health campaign to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables.”

“If, as I was, you are working full time and are way from yours kids most of the day, the last thing you want to do is argue with them about cereals and sodas. In the greater scheme of raising children, buying a box of cereal or a snack food seems harmless enough. So you give in. I certainly did. Marketers know this, and exploit the time-pressured realities of modern life to the hilt.”

“In the late 1980s, when health authorities urged everyone to pay attention to fat and eat less of it, they had no way of knowing that this sensible advice would be interpreted as a call to avoid fat entirely and to substitute carbohydrates instead. What we got was what my nutritionist colleagues call the ‘SnackWell’s phenomenon’ - fat-free, high-carb, same-calorie cookies consumed with abandon and the ensuing epidemic of obesity. Next came the low-carb backlash and the return to fat. Both trends focused on what you eat - fat versus carbohydrates - and not on what matters most in weight gain: how much you eat and, therefore, the calories you consume relative to the ones you use in physical activity.”

Worth reading if

You’re currently eating a Standard North American Diet, aka a diet high in processed foods, and are looking to understand how the food industry actually wants you to keep eating unhealthily. By understanding what’s at stake for the big players, and the strategies deployed to get you to eat more of their products, you’re likely to get some motivation to improve your diet. Moreover, if you’re looking to make small changes in your diet, without completely overhauling your current eating habits, this book may be for you. Nestle helps you make better choices at the grocery store without telling you to swear off any food forever. A good compromise.

Skip it if

You feel ready to make serious changes in your diet, and need clear do’s and don’ts to get you started.

My big take-away

Everything in moderation. Nestle doesn’t completely condemn any food, even candy, dairy, or other processed foods. She focuses on portion size above all. Have a treat once in a while, but not too much - that’s the motto.

This book also taught me a lot about how food companies get away with making health claims on their products that have almost no leg to stand on. Curious about what’s so “heart healthy” about those corn flakes? Not that much, actually, and this book explains why.

Bottom line

'What to Eat' offers a realistic overview of the ins and outs of North American grocery stores. There’s no doubt that an ‘everything in moderation’ approach is less intimidating for the average consumer. Nestle will tell you what she’d eat, but more often than not, it’s a little of everything. So is this book really about ‘what to eat’? Kind of. But the advice given walks a very fine line between nuanced and confusing. Some could argue it’s more of the latter. I may not disagree.