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Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics

(California Studies in Food and Culture #33)

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  391 ratings  ·  69 reviews
Calories—too few or too many—are the source of health problems affecting billions of people in today’s globalized world. Although calories are essential to human health and survival, they cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. They are also hard to understand. In Why Calories Count, Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim explain in clear and accessible language what calories are an ...more
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 2012 by University of California Press (first published March 2nd 2012)
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Jan 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
It seems that we all talk about calories, whether it is too many or too few, but do we really know what a calorie is, how it came about and the role that it plays in each and everyone's life?

This scholarly work takes a look at this very question, attempting to cut through the hype from vested interest parties who want to promote their products and services by rallying around the humble calorie. We generally understand what happens when we consume too many or too few calories and the problems tha
Jul 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
I usually avoid reading about food because it usually makes me want to smear some Wonder Bread with the most hydrogenated peanut butter I can find, roll it all up into a ball, and shove it in my mouth. But this wasn't a diet book, or a lifestyle book - it was more of a history/science book (hence the "From Science to Politics" subtitle). The authors don't delve much into what to eat (a positive, in my view) except for the very obvious, I'm assuming because Nestle has another book called What to ...more
Apr 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is not a diet book. While it is probably considered a health book, it could easily be shelved in the political/current affairs section of any bookstore. Because what it talks about goes far beyond weight and waistlines into the very political structure of the weight-loss industry and big business.

Sure, it talks about how unhealthy most Americans are, and without a doubt the most troubling aspect is the rising obesity rates in children. But, given how many low-calorie and "diet" options are
Aug 10, 2012 rated it liked it
2.5 stars mainly. I skimmed through the whole book in a few hours. Bottom line, it doesn't matter what you eat, what you drink, when you eat's entirely about how many calories you consume. They brought up a recent experiment where a guy ate a twinkie every three hours and then if he was hungry in between he would eat doritos and oreos, and that was it. I can't recall the length of time he did this but it was at the most only a couple weeks and he lost 8 pounds. This was an example showin ...more
Apr 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
4 stars is generous, considering I had high hopes of learning a ton of new information from this book, and that was not the case. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is confused about calories and how our bodies use them. But for anyone who has taken some courses on nutrition, has a basic knowledge of the way the body functions, and especially those who've read Nestle's book: What to Eat, this would not be considered a necessary read. I was impressed with the logical approach to a topi ...more
Mar 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
If a fairly in-depth discussion of what a calorie is, how calorie input and output are measured, etc. sounds interesting to you, then you will most likely enjoy this book. My main takeaway was that the 'mainstream' methods of estimating caloric needs and measuring input/output (e.g., using an online food/exercise tracker) are extremely imprecise. It can definitely be helpful to ensure that you are on the right track with your nutrient intake in general, but anything more than that is difficult t ...more
Dennis Littrell
Aug 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Calories 101

This book gives the reader basic information about calories from food and how and why people gain and lose weight. It’s written from a scientific point of view citing peer-reviewed and other studies going back as far as the 19th century. The idea is to debunk the mass of misinformation, disinformation and downright BS that is rampant on television, the Web and in the popular literature. This is not the sort of book that is going to get you excited about the latest fad diet. Both auth
George McDonald
Dec 15, 2018 rated it liked it
A fairly dry account of a lot of research into the role calories play in weight maintenance. Nothing too surprising here. The basic conclusion is that all calories are essentially the same, and if you intake more calories than you expend, you gain weight.

I guess the most interesting thing I learned from the book was about Wilbur Atwater, a late 19th century nutritionist, who appears to have been exceedingly prodigious, and seemingly answered every important question in the field. The book devot
Mar 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim craft a well-flowing, deep dive into calories, from their nature to their issues. An interesting history lesson starts us off, with a surprisingly early date for the concept of calories and the intrinsic relation of the food we eat and its results on our bodies. This is followed by the scientific breakdown of calories, leading naturally into the results of too few or too many calories. Finally, we pivot to the politics of calories, where corporate lobbying mixes ...more
Guilherme Zeitounlian
Jul 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
A fascinating story of the calorie as a scientific unit, and also of the health and political implications of that.

It is a fascinating read, although some of its advice is downright contradictory - like the suggestion to follow some sort of "point-counting" system... if you're counting something, isn't it better to just count the calories, since they're noted everywhere (and you don't have to learn a new system for it)?

Or... you could just eat foods that happen to NOT trigger you to overeat, and
Mar 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: beginner foodies, dieters
I'm a big fan of Marion Nestle and found a book I hadn't yet read. It was good and provided important background information for anyone interested in food books, but I don't feel like I learned much and I'm not as inspired as I normally feel reading her work.
Jun 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ebooks
Olivia Roybal
Jul 19, 2020 rated it liked it
This book does a great job explaining how calories are CONSTRUCTED conceptually, their history in eugenics, what they're even good at measuring, and how the unit's meaning is obscured in politics.
Jun 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-ficton
The first part of this helpful book reviews what calories are, how nutritional calories are measured, the basics of how they're metabolized, and how calorie values of foods are arrived at (it's not easy!). It then moves on to the known effects of calorie deficiency (starvation or semi-starvation) and excess.

A virtue of Why Calories Count, or a deficiency if you're looking for something else, is that it's tightly focused on food calories and how they work. For example, if you want to look into ho
Mar 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is an excellent treatment of the complex subject of calories, what they are (and you thought you knew!), how they work, our attitudes toward them and how easily they fool us into eating too many of them. Nestle and Nesheim are professors of nutrition and have considered the subject of what and how we eat for decades—it shows in how thoroughly they cover this ground and with the comfort with which they do it. They are not writers by profession, so they come across sometimes as what they are: ...more
Apr 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A scientific, but still easy-to-read book regarding the science of calories and - more specifically - how your body uses those calories. While not a "diet book," it still presents a very logical and compelling framework for how you should eat - in particular that, primarily, the number of calories you eat is the most critical thing - followed by what you eat.

There is quite a bit of interesting science in here that was new to me...but anyone even remotely aware of nutrition won't find any new adv
May 22, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: ho-hum, food
I hate to say this, as I love Marion Nestle, but this book was pretty dry. I didn't learn much, however the information was laid out in a clear and understanding way. The prose was just incredibly dry, and uninspired, which is surprising for an author who has greatly inspired me in the past.

Therefore I was excited to read this book by one of my favorite authors, who I expected would cut through all of the noise surrounding the science of calories and provide answers to my questions. In this asp
Sep 08, 2012 rated it liked it
Gobs of information, written by two professors of nutritional sciences, resulting in what I call "thesis-like" reading. Not breezy or conversational, but backed up by a few lengthy and exhaustive appendices. Want to learn vocabulary words like "cholecystokinin?" Or the formula for figuring out the calories in alcoholic beverages if you know the alcohol percent? (Percent alcohol X number of ounces X 30 ml/ounce X 0.8 gram/ml X 7 calories/gram.)

Here is what I learned in a nutshell: "complex" is a
Mar 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
An interesting and fairly comprehensive overview of the history, science, and politics behind that eternal frustration of dieters everywhere, the calorie. What we know about the calorie, it turns out, isn't half so interesting as what we on't know, and why. Marion Nestle and her co-author, Malden Nesheim, explain the difficulties in measuring both inputs and outputs of calories, and then the further difficulties of both turning that into useful information and getting people to act on that usefu ...more
Joy Weese Moll
May 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: health
This is a science book that covers science the way that I most like to learn it — from history. The book begins with a definition of calorie in the first chapter, but then takes us all the way back to Ancient Greece to trace the knowledge of food energy forward from that point. The history covers two separate but related branches — how calories are counted in foods and how calorie use is measured in living bodies.

With that solid background, we’re then ready to tackle what calories do for us, the
Oct 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
Back in high school, I once had to burn a Cheeto in a science lab. Since then, I think I've had a pretty good grasp of what a calorie is (which is good, since that was the purpose of the lab). Apparently, though, not everyone got to burn up snack food in school. Chatting with the husband, he was fairly clueless about calories in food and how our bodies used them, etc. So I suppose a lot of this book would be totally new information for some folks whereas the "what a calorie is" bit was just furt ...more
Brenda Schoen
Jun 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I can't believe that I'm writing this about a science-based book but once I picked it up I couldn't put it down and finished reading it in one sitting. Yes, the general take away message is nothing new "eat less, move more" but this isn't a diet book at all. It was about the historical, scientific and political effect of the calorie and our food and weight.

I found it interesting to learn that statistically children are no less active then they were 30 years ago. This has often been my own opini
Jul 11, 2013 rated it liked it
Certainly not my typical type of book, but found it very informative and easy to read. It's filled with a lot of science, but the concepts and analysis are translated in a fashion that even I was able to understand, although not relay to others very well. In any case, I learned a lot, although I wish that there was a bit more content in the "politics of calories" section. I found the causes (agriculture politics, shareholder value movement) and consequences (foods away from home, new products, l ...more
Christine Garner
Jan 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Really good book. Dense and takes some effort to get through as it's quite detailed (at least to a non-scientist like me) but definitely worth it. I cook for a living and focus on healthful foods, but have really never taken the time to understand how calorie assessments are made, how different types of food are metabolized by the body...and why once you've trained your body to expect a lot of calories, it will fight you if you try to lessen the amount. :) I learned a lot. Especially like the "s ...more
Mar 29, 2012 rated it it was ok
I really like Marion Nestle, she has a no nonsense approach and is informative without being preachy, her books are always well-researched and helpful.
I did not much like this book. It retread a lot of her previous stuff ( I know she has a co- writer) and I thought she did not really defend her argument enough. Just because she and other nutritionists could not immediately tell the amount of calories in a resaurants meal does not then mean everyone over estimates their calories.
I really believe
Most nutrition books talk about calories at some point, but this is the first non-textbook I've read that really defines what calories are and go on in depth about them. The chapters are written in easy-to-read language that explains exactly what calories are, how they are counted, how often they are incorrectly estimated (answer: almost always), how our bodies use calories, what happens when we don't eat enough, and the politics surrounding what we in the U.S. are and are not told about the cal ...more
May 16, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: school
Having studied public health nutrition, I was pretty disappointed in this book. I had hoped the authors would go toe-to-toe with those dissenting energy balance as the key to thinness and fatness, proposing alternative contributors such as endocrinology, environmental toxins, etc. The book doesn't really engage in this debate, but for someone who is new to the topic, it does a great job of summarizing a lot of the key points in nutrition science, nutrition history, and public health nutrition.

Linda Rusenovich
Jan 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
Well written and worthwhile. I'm a dietitian, and found the info accurate and a good summary of some of the science around nutrition. The political analysis was interesting. One disagreement I have with the authors is about how much influence advertising has on what people eat. Personally, I've tuned out TV except for selected shows and am no longer in the most sought-after demographic for marketers. Perhaps those people who watch more TV are more susceptible to commercial messages. I feel that ...more
Mar 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: food
Why Calories Count does a nice job of sorting out a lot of the misinformation about dieting and nutrition. The book also examines the science, politics, and marketing behind that misinformation. It's not that there's anything groundbreaking here - if you've taken a nutrition course or done some research on your own, a lot of this is familiar. Nestle and Nesheim state in the introduction that this is not a diet book, and it's not. Rather than provide strict guidelines for what to eat, they offer ...more
Jul 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book is so freaking awesome. If you have ever read a diet or nutrition book, read this one and don't bother with the others. It will answer all your questions and straighten out all the weird ideas you got in your head from so much misinformation that is ubiquitous in diet books. Michael Pollen, Joel Furhman, Dr. Oz, Joe Friel, and on and on and on....Every book I've read has several flaws. This book is PURE AWESOME FACT. Science, people! And very frank, honest science that recognizes when ...more
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Marion Nestle, Ph.D, M.P.H., is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is also a professor of Sociology at NYU and a visiting professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University.

Nestle received her BA from UC Berkeley, Phi Beta Kappa, after attending school there from 1954-1959. Her degrees include a Ph.D in molecular biology an

Other books in the series

California Studies in Food and Culture (1 - 10 of 60 books)
  • Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices
  • Eating Right in the Renaissance (California Studies in Food and Culture, 2)
  • Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
  • Camembert: A  National Myth (California Studies in Food and Culture, 4)
  • Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism
  • Eating Apes (California Studies in Food and Culture, 6)
  • Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (California Studies in Food and Culture, 7)
  • Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (California Studies in Food and Culture, 8)
  • Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine
  • Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World

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