In her policy work for the government, and through initiatives like the StrongWomen program, Miriam “Mim” Nelson has pushed Americans to exercise more, take charge of their health, and to see food as a whole, rather than a pile of fat, carbs, and protein. Now, the nutrition researcher is tackling the environmental impacts of what we do and eat: In March, she will leave Tufts University, her academic home for more than 30 years, to run the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire.
STAT talked to Nelson about her interest in climate change, the upcoming dietary guidelines (which she helped write), and why everyone should visit a family farm.
What can individuals do to combat a problem the size of climate change?
You can vote by how you shop. Right now, most Americans don’t understand the connection between what they buy for food and how that affects climate change, land use, and social justice with migrant workers.
What do you do in your own life to minimize your carbon footprint?
I am unbelievably lucky because my brother-in-law runs a 35-year-old organic, diversified small farm in New Hampshire that my husband and I live on. I only eat the meat that he produces. We put away so much food in the fall, between a root cellar, freezing, canning.
Aren’t you contributing to the problem by commuting all the way to Boston from the farm in northern New Hampshire?
That bums me out big-time. I drive back and forth once a week. We have a diesel VW, which we now realize isn’t as sound as we thought.
What are the biggest changes in the new dietary guidelines that will be coming out this year?
I was really involved in the [new recommendations to eat] no more than 10 percent of calories from added sugar. We’re not saying you should substitute that with artificial sweetener. We did some cool stuff on coffee — it seems to be quite health promoting. We don’t need a percentage fat guideline. It’s really the pattern of eating that matters and the types of fat we’re getting.
The obesity epidemic, which you’ve been fighting most of your career, seems pretty intractable. How do you stay motivated to fight it?
These things move slowly. Fewer children are becoming obese, so we’re pretty happy about that. We’ve got a long way to go. I can’t retire yet.
You’ve said that every American should visit a farm in 2016. Why?
I think people don’t understand where their food comes from. They also don’t understand how hard it is to be a farmer — the small- and medium-sized farms that are preserving the land and creating great, wonderful food for us. It’s really eye-opening.
What object in your office will come with you when you move?
My Marilyn Monroe photo [of her lifting weights] will follow me everywhere.