In the bookstore you will find a summary of diet and nutrition books. I understand why – they are all health and food focused – but there is one important difference between them.
There are so many dimensions to consider when thinking about how food affects our health. Food nourishes our bodies, but it also plays a role in our social life, emotional health, and overall happiness. Nutrition books examine these things and help us better understand how food affects us without giving consistent advice.
Diet books, on the other hand, tend to ignore the complexities of food. They usually follow the goal of identifying a problem and providing the reader with a clearly defined solution. There is no shortage of these books out there, and more are coming. Ironically, most of them claim to be the last one you will ever need. (The last diet book you read is probably the last one you need, but not for the reasons the author might think.)
Nutrition books seem less attractive than face value diet books – they don’t promise to solve all of your problems – but they are far more rewarding. Read a few and you’ll never want to read a diet book again, you’ll be able to poke so many holes in their empty promises. Nutrition books give you a better understanding of how food affects your physical, mental, and emotional health. From this understanding, you can then determine which type of food is best for you.
The following five books are a good place to start. They are not trying to sell you the supposed virtues or evils of certain foods or nutrients, nor are they suggesting that you revise your own lifestyle to mimic one of a different culture, time, or circumstance. (They also don’t distill complex and systemic nutritional problems down to simplistic advice like “don’t eat too much, mostly plants.”) Instead, they show you why we eat the way we do and how foods affect our bodies. Many of them give advice on how to eat, but they also talk about the politics, history, and culture of the diet.
1. “The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition” by Anita Bean
(Photo: Courtesy Bloomsbury Sport)
There are tons of sports nutrition books out there, but none are as comprehensive and in-depth as the Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition. This isn’t a flashy post that records a top athlete’s very particular diet (ahem, TB12) or a manifest about how (insert a fashionable diet here) actually is the best way to get fueled. Instead, the evidence-based concepts of sports nutrition are presented in a way that is easy to understand but not overly simplified. You will have a good idea of how to eat for performance and why different foods affect you the way they do, but you won’t feel compelled to redesign your diet or live by a set of rules and regulations to die. Author Anita Bean is a renowned sports nutritionist and former bodybuilder who has worked with the British Olympic Association and many professional teams in a variety of sports. Your book is relevant to athletes of all skill levels.
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2. “The Great Starvation Experiment” by Todd Tucker
(Photo: Courtesy University of Minnesota Press)
If you’ve heard that “diets don’t work,” but aren’t sure why, learn about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment first. The 13-month clinical study, conducted in the 1940s, followed 36 healthy, young white men through a period of “half starvation” and subsequent rehabilitation, documenting not only how their bodies changed, but how theirs changed mental health deteriorated. The experiment is rightly considered inhuman by today’s standards, even though the men’s diets were higher in calories than that recommended by many trending diets. (They ate about 1,570 calories a day over two meals.) In the Great Starvation Experiment, historian Todd Tucker delves into the study and the effects it had on participants during and after the meal.
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3. “Intuitive Eating” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
(Photo: Courtesy St. Martin’s Essentials)
The intuitive eating approach is hugely popular with nutritionists these days, but it’s not a new framework. Nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch first published Intuitive Eating in 1995 after their clients tried repeatedly to lose weight and improve their health with traditional diets. Your book encourages reconsidering your own thoughts and feelings about food, diet, and weight. It draws on relatable anecdotes, as well as a significant and growing body of evidence, to support the idea that eating without food rules and giving up the pursuit of weight loss can improve your health. Even if you believe that intuitive eating is not for you, the book offers a new way of thinking about nutrition that might resonate. You’ll gain insight into how and why food restrictions often backfire, and learn how to cope with your own hunger pangs and food cravings.
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4. “Gentle Nutrition” by Rachael Hartley
(Photo: Courtesy Victory Belt Publishing)
Most of the messages we see about intuitive eating focus on breaking free of the food rules and making peace with our weight and body. One aspect that is central to intuitive eating, but not often discussed, is what the original authors of intuitive eating referred to as “gentle nutrition.” Essentially, it is about using evidence-based principles for healthy eating flexibly and individually. Nutritionist Rachael Hartley borrows the phrase and expands the concept in her book of the same name. In Gentle Nutrition, she walks readers through the basics of nutrition without labeling any type of food as right or wrong. Hartley’s approach is based on the Health at All Height framework, which is about promoting healthy behavior and providing quality health care to people of all sizes without any indication of weight loss or assuming that a person’s health is based on their weight is determined. The book is a helpful and empathetic guide to nutrition and a great alternative to traditional nutrition books for anyone who feels triggered by mentions of weight and weight loss.
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5. “Unsavory Truth” by Marion Nestle
(Photo: Courtesy Basic Books)
My recommendation of Marion Nestle’s unsavory truth includes some disclaimers. While it’s an insightful look at how the food industry affects politics and nutritional research, I caution you not to panic as much as the book might encourage. It is unreasonable to believe that food companies should not be involved in shaping the policies that affect them so directly, and not all industry-funded research is inherently wrong or bad. (Sometimes the only way to fund a study is by taking industrial grants.) Also, the modern food industry is not the evil beast it is often thought to be. Because of this food industry, you can conveniently buy all the food you need.
Even so, large food companies and lobbyists regularly push their limits. The Unsavory Truth teaches you to think more critically about any nutritional information you come across and provides insight into the frequency with which evidence is misrepresented or out of context. For me, an indirect aspect of the book was that it really is up to you to decide how to eat. In fact, many headlines about “superfoods” or very strict diets are sponsored by companies with a vested interest in getting you to buy these things. It is best to ignore them and stick to a flexible and varied diet that is filled with plenty of nutritious foods.
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