Trained as a molecular biologist, Nestle recalls how she found her way to nutrition.
Marion Nestle: I was given a nutrition course to teach when I was teaching undergraduate biology at Brandeis University. And the rule in that department was that you had to teach anything that the department needed you to teach, whether you knew anything about it or not. My Ph.D is in molecular biology, and the students were clamoring in those days for a course in nutrition. It was my turn to teach and they said, “Here it is. Do something with it.” And on my first day of preparing for, when I started reading about nutrition and reading books about it, it was like falling in love. I’ve never looked back.
Question: Were there any other pivotal moments?
There were two moments. This was in the early 1970s or the mid 1970s. Frances Moore Lappe had just come out with Diet for a Small Planet. Linus Pauling . . . which was a book about how if you eat low on the food chain and eat a largely plant-based diet it would be better for you and for your health as well as for the planet. And Linus Pauling had come out with a book called Vitamin C and the Common Cold, and I wondered . . . I was trained in science. I wondered if there was any science behind that . . . any real science behind it. And that kind of formed the way I thought about it as I went into this course to teach it. The second book was the diet . . . The Recommended Dietary Allowances, which was a book put out by the National Academies of Science, which is a compendium of research information on diet and health, and the amount of nutrients that humans require in order to stay healthy. And I opened up that book, did one of these random, stick your finger on a page things, and started reading the background literature for it. And I realized that much of the basic research on nutrition and health was based on studies that used very, very few subjects and weren’t controlled very well. And I have fabulous examples of some of those studies. And I was completely hooked. I thought, “This is how public policy on nutrition gets made. This is really interesting.” And I loved the idea that you could go from basic science to public policy in one subject and do it in one class. And that really formed the way I think about it even to this day.