Bill Hayes
I was recently invited to a breakfast featuring Dr. Marion Nestle, one of the nation’s leading experts on nutrition and author of Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning). She was in Seattle on her way to Barrow, Alaska to give a talk on type 2 diabetes in Native American populations, and was stopping to visit her fellow soda tax proponents at Healthy Food America (HFA), which is headquartered in Seattle. Kind of ironic, in light of how poorly such taxes have done here, but they do have a lot to celebrate elsewhere. San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda, Boulder, and Chicago’s Cook County all passed HFA-backed soda taxes in the last election cycle.

In a shifting sea of experts and studies, she’s probably one of the most trustworthy authorities on what is and isn’t good for you, so I jumped at the chance to pick her brain. While it wasn’t exactly a Moses on Mount Sinai experience, with ten neat rules for healthy eating handed down on tablets, that was actually her point: As much as we’d like to believe there’s a magic formula for healthy eating, there ain’t. Also, public health is super important and has major implications for social justice, which is something we could all stand to remind ourselves of more often.

Obviously you’re not here to shill for a soda tax in Seattle, but we actually had an attempt at it here. Why does something like that fail in an ultra progressive city like Seattle?

I don’t think they did their community organizing work well enough. I don’t know about the Seattle one at all, but the elements that have caused the successful soda tax initiatives were done with a fabulous amount of community organizing. Door to door canvassing, talking to people, getting out the vote. Making people understand that this is an issue that concerns them personally.

The soda industry argument against it is that it’s a regressive tax that’s going to hurt the poor. It is a regressive tax. There’s no question it’s a regressive tax, but so is type 2 diabetes. It’s a regressive disease because it’s hitting people who are poor more than it’s hitting people who are wealthy.

And insulin is really expensive.

Just bringing it to public attention in the way that these taxes do has been responsible for a lot of public education. You don’t want people drinking all this sugar. It’s just really a bad way to get it. It’s even worse than having it in candy.

I’m a type 1 diabetic so I know that it’s the fastest way to deliver sugar to your system when you need it.

You could carry a little vial of soda around with you—a better option would be orange juice. It used to be orange juice. I don’t know what they tell you now, do you carry pills?

Skittles. They’re basically the same as the glucose pills.

Fun! They taste a little better. But you don’t want to deliver large amounts of sugar, and the amounts of sugar in these drinks are just staggering. You don’t want people doing that, it’s really bad for health. If they are going to be drinking sodas, they should be drinking small ones and not very often. You see these kids carrying around these big liter bottles. That’s maybe not a good idea.

So on the other side of that I wanted to ask, is there a place for soda? How do you have a soda tax that allows for artisan soda makers to thrive?

It depends on what the cut points are. Usually the taxes are on beverages that have some cut point. They usually exclude juices—which have just as much sugar—but people don’t drink that much juice. I’d prefer to leave juices alone. But cities make their own decision about what’s in and what’s out.

So could they theoretically exempt soda at bars?

It’s an interesting question. I was told for my Barrow talk that I should not talk about sodas because they have a lot of alcoholics in Barrow. They’re drinking soda instead of alcohol and you don’t want to encourage them to drink alcohol. And I also shouldn’t talk about sodas because Coca-Cola ships a lot of Coca-Cola to Barrow and they can piggyback milk and other kinds of beverages along with that. So don’t say anything bad about soda.

I have a friend who is a recovering alcoholic and he drinks a case of Mountain Dew every two days.

It would probably be better if he didn’t. That’s exchanging one poison for another.

Which is how a lot of people beat addiction, ironically. That actually brings up another line of questioning on the everyday things that people can do for their health, and how overwhelming it can be to know what’s best. I wanted to ask you about some of those things. Like, in Seattle we have tons and tons of gluten-free places opening. Is the gluten-free thing real?

There’s now been pretty reasonable research that the prevalence of real gluten intolerance in the population has not changed. But the prevalence of people who are consuming gluten-free diets has increased dramatically. Those are two different things. People tell me they feel better when they don’t eat a lot of wheat. One thing is that they’re not eating as many calories, because wheat is in a lot of things with lots of calories. They don’t need wheat, it’s not essential to the human diet. So there’s nothing wrong with being gluten-free and the fact that there are all these restaurants and places that are doing gluten-free make it wonderful for celiacs!

What about soy and some of the other things that people make into bogeymen?

Well as far as I can tell from the research on soy, it’s a food and whenever you see research that shows that soy is wonderful and soy is terrible, it’s probably just a food. Everything in moderation.

So what about meat? Michale Pollan would say to eat your little credit-card sized portion once a week, but people eat tons and tons of it. Is that something we need to reduce?

People would be healthier if they ate more plants. But I don’t know where the cut point is.

The local and organic thing is something that people in Seattle are absolutely obsessed with, but it can be difficult to navigate. I saw on your website you were breaking down those priorities. Can you describe that a bit?

It depends on which one matters more. It depends on whether you care about environmental issues or whether you care about local farmers. People have different preferences. Organics are about production, how foods are produced. Local is about who is doing the producing. So it just depends. I prefer both, but not everybody can do both. I like to know my farmer.

So the main point I’m getting at is that it can be extremely overwhelming for someone to try and eat healthy.

But it shouldn’t be! Michael Pollan did it: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Just live by that?

Yeah! I mean that covers an astonishing amount of advice, boiled down to something really simple. Also, food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and you should eat what you like!