In this interview, we spoke to Dr. Marion Nestle, a nutritionist, about her day-to-day roles and responsibilities as well as her career highlights.
What inspired your career into nutrition?
The short answer: I love to eat. And I’ve 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 to everything: family, belief systems, economics, geography, history, anthropology, sociology, you name it. I can hardly think of a major issue in today’s society that does not involve food. Think: hunger, food insecurity, and diet-influenced chronic diseases, of course, but also climate change, immigration. conflicts over land and water rights, even COVID-19.
The longer answer is that I was given a nutrition course to teach on my first academic job at Brandeis University. My academic degree is in molecular biology and that’s what I was teaching when students were asking for courses in human biology. It was my turn to teach one, and I was given a choice between physiology and nutrition. I picked nutrition, fell in love with it, and have never looked back.
What are your role/main responsibilities in your current job?
I retired from New York University in 2017, which makes me the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU, emerita. I kept my office and am still teaching courses on food systems policy and politics. I just submitted a manuscript for a forthcoming professional memoir, am about to sign a contract for a new edition of my 2006 book, What to Eat, and I write a daily blog at foodpolitics.com.
I’m still doing peer reviews for journals and book publishers, advising students, and answering questions from reporters. This is what retirement looks like. The big difference? I’m not getting paid (except by NYU’s excellent retirement program).
What does a typical day look like for you?
I write mornings and do everything else in the afternoon—deal with email, reporters’ interviews, Zooms, etc. I moved to Ithaca, New York early in the pandemic to be with my partner. We have a house on Cayuga Lake and I’m out on it in my kayak every day I can be.
What is the most rewarding part about your job?
Students! For me, the most wonderful part of teaching is interacting with students. They keep me up on what’s happening and what they care about, and it’s exciting to further their interests in making food systems better and healthier for people and the planet.
What do you find most challenging about working in nutrition?
It’s intellectually challenging—and exciting—to try to understand what people really eat (as opposed to what they say they eat or think they should), and what that has to do with their health. This sounds like it should be easy, but it’s not. People eat different foods every day; they also differ in physiology and lifestyle.
Nutrition research studies are complicated to conduct and their results require careful interpretation. I love it that people care so deeply about what they eat and have such strongly held beliefs about how foods affect them. And I love how everything about food research affects health but also involves economics, sociology, and politics.
Throughout your career, what has been your proudest achievement?
I’m proud of my books of course. I’ve written eleven to date, a twelfth is on its way (a professional memoir scheduled for fall 2022), and I’ve edited three others. 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, master’s, and doctoral programs in food studies, we were breaking new ground. Boston University had a program in Gastronomy, but ours were the first serious academic programs. Now there are dozens of such programs at universities. I’m also enormously pleased that the NYU library’s extraordinary food studies collection is named after me.
What has been the most exciting project that you have worked on?
I’m excited about every book project and most excited about whichever one I’m working on currently. That’s the memoir. But when I think of pure fun, my cartoon book, Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics leaps to mind. This was a collaboration with Sara Thaves, the owner of The Cartoonist Group, which represents many cartoonists. She sent me 1200 cartoons on food politics themes and I had a wonderful time sorting through them, selecting 200 for the book, and writing text around them. Rodale Press did a gorgeous job producing the book.
But for sheer excitement, I think my experience with the USDA’s food guide pyramid was a high point. After years of research, it was ready to be released when the USDA suddenly withdrew it saying that it had not been tested on children. A “deep throat” source at USDA sent me documents proving that the real reason was an objection from the meat industry. I spent the next year passing documents along to reporters covering the story. That too was fun.
What advice would you give to people who want to pursue a career in nutrition?
I certainly don’t advise them to do it the way I did, much as I find my degree in molecular biology to be useful; nobody messes with me about science. I do think a strong science background helps, along with as much social and behavioral science as possible.
It’s not enough to know which vitamins and minerals are required in the diet and what they do; it’s essential to understand why people choose to eat the way they do and how to help them improve their diets if needed. Also, because how we produce and consume food has such strong implications for climate change, nutritionists need to understand how agricultural policy works. And I think they all should study advocacy so 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 out in science, then got interested in nutrition, then in food, and then in the broader context of food choice—what we now call food systems (defined as everything that happens to food from production to harvesting, transport, processing, preparation, consumption, and waste).
I teach food systems policy, politics, and advocacy. I want everyone to engage in advocacy for foods systems that are healthier for people and the planet.
Where can readers find more information?
The easiest place to find out more about my work in food policy and advocacy is on my website, www.foodpolitics.com. There, I post a daily blog along with information about my books, lectures, and media appearances. My life is an open book on that site.
About Dr. Marion Nestle
Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University, in the department she chaired from 1988-2003 and from which she retired in September 2017. She is also Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She holds honorary degrees from Transylvania University in Kentucky and the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York.
She earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley. Previous faculty positions were at Brandeis University and the UCSF School of Medicine. From 1986-88, she was a senior nutrition policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services and editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. Her research and writing examine scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice and its consequences, emphasizing the role of food industry marketing.
She is the author of several prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002); Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003); What to Eat (2006); Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, with Dr. Malden Nesheim (2012); Eat, Drink Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics (2013); and Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) in 2015. She also has written two books about pet food, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine (2008) and Feed Your Pet Right in 2010 (also with Dr. Nesheim).
She published Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, in 2018 (and its Portuguese translation in 2019). Her most recent book, with Kerry Trueman, Let's Ask Marion: What You Need to Know about the Politics of Food, Nutrition, and Health, was published in September 2020. She is currently working on a professional memoir to be published by the University of California Press in Fall 2022.