In this interview, we spoke to nutritionist Dr. Marion Nestlé about her day-to-day roles and responsibilities as well as career highlights.
What inspired your career in nutrition?
The short answer: I love to eat. And I have always been fascinated by food: so many different kinds, so many shapes, colors and textures, all delicious and all contributing to nutritional health. Food connects with everything: family, belief systems, economics, geography, history, anthropology, sociology, etc. I can hardly think of a major problem in today’s society that doesn’t involve food. Think: hunger, food insecurity and chronic food-related diseases, of course, but also climate change, immigration. conflicts over land and water rights, even COVID-19.
The longer answer is that I took a nutrition course to teach during my first academic job at Brandeis University. My college degree is in molecular biology and this is what I was teaching when students requested courses in human biology. It was my turn to teach one, and I had the choice between physiology and nutrition. I chose nutrition, fell in love with it and never looked back.
What are your main roles / responsibilities in your current job?
I retired from New York University in 2017, which made me Professor Paulette Goddard of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU, Emeritus. I kept my desk and still teach food systems politics and politics. I have just submitted a manuscript for an upcoming professional dissertation, I am about to sign a contract for a new edition of my 2006 book, What to eat, and I write a daily blog on foodpolitics.com.
I always do peer reviews for journals and book editors, advise students, and answer questions from journalists. This is what retirement looks like. The big difference? I don’t get paid (except through NYU’s great retirement program).
What does a typical day look like for you?
I write in the morning and do everything else in the afternoon – handling emails, journalist interviews, zooms, etc. I moved to Ithaca, New York at the start of the pandemic to be with my partner. We have a house on Cayuga Lake and I go there every day in my kayak.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Students! For me, the most wonderful part of teaching is interacting with the students. They keep me up to date with what’s going on and what concerns them, and it’s exciting to advance their interests to make food systems better and healthier for people and the planet.
What do you find most difficult about working in nutrition?
It’s intellectually stimulating and exciting to try to understand what people really eat (as opposed to what they say they eat or think they should eat) and what it has to do with their health. It seems to be easy, but it is not. People eat different foods every day; they also differ in their physiology and lifestyle.
Nutrition research studies are complicated to conduct and their results require careful interpretation. I love that people care so deeply about what they eat and have such strong beliefs about how food affects them. And I love how everything about food research affects health, but also involves economics, sociology, and politics.
What have been your greatest pride throughout your career?
I am proud of my books of course. I’ve written eleven so far, a twelfth is on its way (a professional dissertation slated for fall 2022), and I’ve edited three more. I love them all. I also can’t help but be proud of how my NYU department pretty much invented the field of food studies as an academic discipline.
When we started our undergraduate, masters and doctoral programs in Food Studies, we were innovating. Boston University had a program in gastronomy, but ours was the first serious academic program. There are now dozens of such programs in universities. I am also very happy that the extraordinary collection of food studies in the NYU Library bears my name.
What has been the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
I am enthusiastic about each book project and especially the one I am currently working on. This is the brief. But when I think of pure pleasure, my cartoon book, Eat, drink, vote: an illustrated guide to food policy jumps to mind. It was a collaboration with Sara Thaves, owner of The Cartoonist Group, which represents many cartoonists. She sent me 1200 cartoons on food policy themes and I had a wonderful time sorting them out, selecting 200 for the book, and writing text around them. Rodale Press did a magnificent job producing the book.
But for sheer excitement, I think my experience with the USDA Food Guide Pyramid was a highlight. After years of research, it was ready for release when the USDA suddenly pulled it down saying it had not been tested on children. A USDA “deep throat” source sent me documents proving the real reason was a meat industry objection. I spent the following year passing on documents to reporters covering the story. It was also fun.
What advice would you give to people looking for a career in nutrition?
I certainly don’t advise them to do it the way I did, especially since I find my degree in molecular biology useful; nobody bothers me about science. I think a solid science background helps, as well as as much social and behavioral science as possible.
It is not enough to know which vitamins and minerals are needed in the diet and what they do; Understanding why people choose to eat the way they do and how to help them improve their diets when needed is essential. Additionally, since the way we produce and consume food has such strong implications for climate change, nutritionists need to understand how agricultural policy works. And I think they should all study advocacy so that they can help improve the food system.
Is there anything else about your career that you would like to share with our readers?
I came to nutrition in a roundabout way. I started in science, then I got interested in nutrition, then food, then the larger context of food choice – what we now call food systems (defined as everything that happens to the foods of production to harvest, transport, processing, preparation, consumption and waste).
I teach food systems policy, politics and advocacy. I want everyone to get involved in the advocacy for healthier food systems for people and the planet.
Where can readers find more information?
The easiest place to find out more about my food policy and advocacy work is on my website, www.foodpolitics.com. There I post a daily blog with information about my books, lectures, and media appearances. My life is an open book on this site.
About Dr Marion Nestlé
Marion Nestlé is Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University, in the department she chaired from 1988 to 2003 and from which she retired in September 2017. She is also Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She holds honorary degrees from the University of Transylvania in Kentucky and Macaulay Honors College, City University of New York.
She got a doctorate. in Molecular Biology and an MPH in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley. Previous faculty positions were at Brandeis University and UCSF School of Medicine. From 1986 to 1988, she was senior nutritional policy advisor at the Department of Health and Social Services and editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. His research and writing examines scientific and socio-economic influences on food choice and its consequences, with an emphasis on the marketing role of the food industry.
She is the author of several award-winning books: Food policy: how the food industry influences nutrition and health (2002); Safe Food: Food Safety Policy (2003); What to eat (2006); Why calories matter: from science to politics, with Dr Malden Nesheim (2012); Eat, drink Vote: an illustrated guide to food policy (2013); and Soda Politics: Face Big Soda (and Win) in 2015. She has also written two books on pet food, Pet Food Policy: Chihuahua in the Coal Mine (2008) and Feed your pet properly in 2010 (also with Dr Nesheim).
she published Unsavory truth: how food companies distort the science of what we eat in 2018 (and its Portuguese translation in 2019). His most recent book, with Kerry Trueman, Let’s ask Marion: what you need to know about food, nutrition and health policy, was published in September 2020. She is currently working on a professional dissertation to be published by the University of California Press in the fall of 2022.