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Marion Nestle and president Williams

President R. Owen Williams congratulates nutrition expert and Kenan speaker Marion Nestle upon the awarding of her Transylvania honorary degree.

Nestle advocates ‘food revolution,’ receives honorary degree

Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health and professor of sociology at New York University, gave the fall Kenan Lecture titled “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health” October 23 in Haggin Auditorium.

Nestle talked about rising obesity rates in the United States and how they correlate with several changes that have taken place in the food industry and food politics over the past 15-30 years. She cited research that shows the obesity rate in the early 1980s was around 15 percent, and in the early 2000s, that number jumped to 33 percent and is still rising. She said the average American eats between 200-700 more calories per day than they did in the 1980s.

Several factors have led to people eating more, Nestle said, including deregulation of agriculture, Wall Street, and food marketing, which have allowed for much cheaper food to be available outside the home and created more pressure on the food companies to raise their profits.

“Much of that increase in the food outside the home came from fast food, which proliferated starting in the 1980s until they were all over the place,” she said. “The point here is that food outside the home has more calories in it than food cooked inside the home.”

Other variables in today’s high-calorie diets include an increase in portion size, particularly in sodas and other sugary drinks; lower prices for processed food; a rise in the prices of fruits and vegetables, which Nestle said have gone up approximately 40 percent; and lobbying from the food companies to keep regulations from being passed.

In spite of the turmoil within the food industry, she is hopeful about the future of food politics and health in America.

“One of the questions I get asked all the time is, ‘Doesn’t all of this depress you?’” she said. “One of the reasons I’m not depressed at all is that I think we’re in the middle of a food revolution.”

She pointed out a rise in the number of farmers markets, people like First Lady Michelle Obama who has spent much of her husband’s term working with schools to stimulate reform in how they serve food to students, and even an overall increase in awareness of food and health issues. She said we need to change our own habits now—buying food instead of products, eating smaller portions, buying locally, and learning and teaching our kids to cook.

“If we do those things, the next generation will be in really great shape,” she said. “And we need to take social responsibility for the kind of food system we have. Join the food movement.”

Nestle has authored several books, including Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), What to Eat, which was named one of’s top 10 books of 2006, and most recently Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics (2012).

Prior to the lecture, Transylvania awarded Nestle an honorary doctor of science degree in recognition of her career achievements in the field of nutrition as a teacher, scholar, author, public servant, and advocate for enlightened policies on diet, food choice and safety, and children’s health. Sharon Brown, professor of physical education and exercise science, presented the candidate, and President R. Owen Williams conferred the degree.

The talk was part of Transylvania’s Kenan Lecture Series, which is funded by a grant from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust.

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