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Why Calories Count

Want to know more about calories? Most dieters are obsessed with calories, often counting them meticulously and incorrectly. They have no idea what a calorie actually is or how many calories they require.  My NYU colleague Dr. Marion Nestle and Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Malden Nesheim have just written a terrific new book Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.

While the book isn’t officially out until April, it has already received wonderful write ups. Last week, two articles on the book were written for the New York Times, one by Jane Brody and the other by Mark Bittman. I’ve had a chance to read my copy and here are some excellent points worth sharing.

This is not another fad diet book telling you exactly what to eat or not eat. It also does not advise you to count calories. On the contrary, Marion and Mal dissuade readers from counting calories. It is a well-researched guide (with over 30 pages of references) on what you need to know about the “mysterious” calorie, the science behind the calorie, and the social implications of living in a society surrounded by too much food.

Marion and Mal begin by defining a calorie, reviewing its history, and discussing how scientists count and measure calories. They review some of the confusion surrounding the calorie and the struggle we have to estimate our intake. As a nutritionist researching portion sizes and counseling overweight individuals, what I found particularly important in the book is the discussions on obesity (two thirds of us are overweight or obese), weight gain, diets, and an in-depth look at the politics of calories, Marion and Mal tackle our “eat more” society, the role of the food industry, and the issues surrounding calorie labeling. They help readers understand the calorie in terms of food labeling, fad diets, and calorie myths. One such example is the concept of negative calories– which is wishful thinking, they write, unless of course you are drinking ice cold water!

Finally, the book concludes with a section on how to cope with our current calorie environment. Some simple and practical take away messages from the book: “Get organized. Eat less. Eat better. Move more. And, get political.”

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