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Must Read Books about Nutrition that AREN'T Diet Books

It's January and you might be swamped with Facebook stories about your friends going on cleanses, or hot yoga binges, or committing to a month with no added sugar, or eating strictly cotton balls. Or they're reading some book heavy on the nutribabble and light on the science and telling you ALL ABOUT IT. Le sigh.

Maybe you- the dedicated nutrition nerd - need to escape from the madness. Maybe you want to send your friends a book full of common sense (but maybe don't be that person). Either way, it might be a good idea to take a look at the following.

All of these books involve or are about nutrition, but NONE OF THEM are diet books. None will promise to get you six-pack abs, show that ex what he or she was missing, or bring you a lifetime of fulfillment and a million bucks!

Because sometimes what you need is someone NOT throwing BS promises at you for, like, one second.

Without further ado:

1. First Bite by Bee Wilson

Mentioned in the (still unfinished...) Nutrition Summer Reading post, this book is fascinating. It delves into the science and history of how humans *learn* to eat. It also busts some longstanding myths about the way humans choose food. (Example: Often people cite a study showing how small children allowed to choose their own foods could intuitively select a perfectly balanced diet. These findings are used to argue that humans have an innate ability to nourish ourselves. Ms. Wilson digs deep into this theory and exposes it for what it is: a myth.)

The book also looks into the different ways cultures have viewed feeding children, from treating them like "mini adults" to feeding them only foods thought to be good for their sensitive digestive systems (lots of rice pudding and porridge, it seems).

She covers, in detail, issues that come up when kids and adults deal with eating disorders and extreme picky eating -- refusing all food except for, say, potato chips and plain pasta -- and talks about the more successful ways for treating these conditions. This book could be good for parents interested in creating a healthy, evidence-based food environment for their kids.

2. Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting Over 2000 Years by Louise Foxcroft

While the scientific understanding of diet and nutrition have advanced, the tactics for forcing human bodies into unnatural shapes and sizes are surprisingly old.

Remember how Hippocrates said "Let food be thy medicine"? How can you forget? It's the best ancient-phrase-turned-modern-meme frequently invoked to promote evidence-free nutrition interventions like juice cleanses.

A google-results collage of "Let Food Be They Medicine Memes"

Oddly there isn't a popular meme of Hippocrates other diet trick: puking.

Ms. Foxcroft explains, "More 'violent' exercise, including running long distances and gradually increasing your exertions, helped to burn off excess food in the body an was thought 'suitable for people who eat too much', along with the 'induction of vomiting' which he considered especially beneficial."

It turns out some of the most popular methods of dieting have a history hundreds of years old. Did you ever hear about Volumetrics - eating bulky, low energy foods first to fill up? The concept has been refined, but it's been around for a millennium at least.

Quick ire alert - you get the sense that Ms. Foxcroft does NOT LIKE the concept of dieting, and rightfully so. But if you're in for a lighthearted romp through the diet world rather than a thorough evisceration of the history of unrealistic beauty standards, this isn't the book for you.

Perhaps you could go the novel route and try:

3. Dietland by Sarai Walker

This novel might make you uncomfortable in the best way. I've reviewed this book previously on the blog and frequently recommend it (and sent it unsolicited) to friends. IF YOU'VE HAD IT UP TO HERE WITH TRYING THE LATEST DIET EACH JANUARY AND JOINING A GYM AND HAVING PEOPLE LOOK AT YOU FUNNY AND PUT SLY JUDGEMENTS ABOUT BODY SIZE IN THEIR CONVERSATIONS WITH YOU... you might love this book.

And even if you haven't - this book is worth a read for the hilarious and scary spin it puts on the world of dieting. It shines an uncomfortably clear mirror on the way societies seem to collectively "own" women's bodies and make demands on them.

Some people don't like this book because they find the fat, female protagonist to be angry, unhappy, and imperfect. Not often a reason people say they hate The Sun Also Rises or Of Mice and Men or On the Road even though those protagonists are rather anti-heroic.

To be fair, readers may not have expected a book with a big maraschino cherry or cupcake (ignoring the grenade pin) on the cover to make them take such a hard look at the way they think about people with obesity. Or to have an all-female violent vigilante group known only as "Jennifer." Several reviewers mentioned that this was not a "beach-read," suggesting that perhaps it was originally marketed that way.

One Amazon reviewer (named Book Reviewer) summed it up like this:

"If you want to grow as a person, read this. This is not a beach read, nor a fun read. Be prepared: you'll be thinking."

I disagree with the "fun read" part. I thought lots of this book were laugh-out-loud funny. Be ready for more of a feminist satire than a Danielle Steele transformation novel.

Before the famous and infamous Ancel Keys became associated with (but not caused by) the 7 Countries Study (please go here to leave comments about that if you must) he conducted a controversial trial to discover the physiology of human starvation.

Have you ever thought a science experiment couldn't possibly be a scintillating read? I'll admit I did, but this book proved me wrong. Not only does the author respectfully go into the motivations and lives of each of the study participants, but he regales readers with the the meticulous documentation of Keys and his team as they attempt to find out what happens when a human starves, and the best ways to help them recover.

You can feel however you want about Keys' frequently criticized (and often mischaracterized) magnum opus and STILL love this book. I swear.

It's got romance, it's got drama, it's got nutrition science. What could be better?

5. If Our Bodies Could Talk by James Hamblin, MD

If you don't know, James Hamblin is a senior editor for the Atlantic and host of the web series "If Our Bodies Could Talk." His book of the same name uses his quirky sense of humor to answer all the weird health and nutrition questions we can have like, "What is gluten?" or, "What happens if I swallow my tongue ring?"

Did you know that a bunch of extremely well-known nutrition folks got together and tried to come up with a common ground for what constitutes "a healthy diet"? Pick your viewpoint (vegan, low carb, paleo, MyPlate) they were there. It turned out that they don't all agree.

Here's an incomplete look at the prestigious guest list:

Walter Willett and Frank Hu (Dietary Guidelines Advisory - Harvard), Boyd Eaton (Paleo - Emory University), T. Colin Campbell (Vegan - Cornell), Dean Ornish (The Ornish Diet - UC San Francisco), Dariush Mozaffarian (The Friedman School - Go Jumbos!), David Ludwig (GI - Harvard), David Katz (Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center)-- I could keep listing, but there were 25 of them. Suffice it to say that many of the nutrition pros you often see quoted were there.

Oh, and Dr. Hamblin got to go too. In my opinion, it is worth reading this book just to experience his characterization of this event. It got into the weeds.

Now this book isn't ONLY about nutrition - eating and drinking probably make up a little more than 1/3 of the book. But the rest of the issues he gets into - including research on sleep and supplementation, social determinants of health, and the political and historical precedents for current health problems, make this book a good read.

Disclosure: I am anonymously mentioned in this book as a "student." Does the immediate fame and fortune this mention has brought me make me biased? You decide.

"Things are going to start happening to me now" - The Jerk


I hope this list can at least carry you through the end of January.

Looking for more?

If you're interested in more nutrition books and articles that AREN'T diet books, check out my post on the Best Diet Writing of 2017 - it's full of books, podcasts, and longform articles that are fascinating, informative and AREN'T full of BS diet advice.

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