There are "best of" anthologies for food writing, travel writing, short stories, etc. but nothing to celebrate gorgeous and impactful writing that comes from the diet world. For those of us who live on the nutrition internet (yes, this is a thing), work like that featured here - whether a blog piece, a book, a podcast, or a newspaper article - can keep us motivated, inspire us to make changes in our lives or nutrition practices, and hopefully work with greater compassion and curiosity.
In celebration of a great year of food and nutrition writing, I decided to put together my favorite pieces. Thanks to help from others who shared their favorite work on the NW Facebook and on Twitter, and also Kevin Klatt (@Nutrevolve) for helping narrow down the field.
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Why "diet" writing?
If you could pick a single nutrition-related word that's completely vilified, it would be "diet." Everyone is rightfully sick of recommendations for the best diet, or how to diet, or how not to diet. The word is judgy and exhausting and though it brings different thoughts to mind for every person, undoubtedly most of those thoughts are negative. Could a word be more misused or overused? Why not use the word "nutrition"?
"Diet" is supposed to mean "the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats" and/or "a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons." This means that even if you hate the word, you can't escape it. Whether you're a zen-like intuitive eater or frantically crash dieting for a high school reunion, you're on a diet.
Many of the articles included deal with how habitual diets have changed for the better or worse, while others deal with the act or performance of dieting. With this framework, diet is a more appropriate word than "nutrition" or "food." (There is also some hope that the phrase "best diet" could redirect people searching for diet advice and provide these readers better content!)
Like a lot of compilations, this list is pretty subjective (after all I picked out all the articles with some help from suggestions on Facebook or Twitter). The inclusion criteria I came up with were that the piece had to:
Be from 2017
Address a topic that could impact habitual diets or be about diet culture
Be a good read or listen
I also wanted to include pieces that were timely and covered a variety of topics. If you read this list and think of more great work, please send it!
Without further ado, the best diet writing of 2017:
You Must Read This Book. And if you can, go see Roxane Gay speak and read aloud from it because it is immensely satisfying to hear her musing aloud about her lovable, musclebound, yet dopey trainer and his sad, sad enjoyment-free diet.
In an interview (below), Gay said "The thing I want to write about least is fatness, and my body, and the experience of living in my body in this world. And that's when I knew, oh god damn it, this is the book I'm gonna have to write." Roxane Gay is a person in a large body who has experienced the worst that the medical and diet establishments have to offer. Her personal history is fascinating and impressive, but it is her frequent interactions with diet culture that make this book such an important read for people who work in the nutrition, medical, or weight loss space.
Buy the book and check out this interview about the book below:
"On February 15, 2014 Richard Simmons didn't show up to teach the exercise class he had led for 40 years. He hasn't been seen in public since."
How much pathos could be packed into a podcast about a missing fitness guru? How much humanity? This podcast is the "Serial" (Season 1) of the diet world, a whodunnit that details the amazing and troubled life of one of the most recognizable diet celebrities. And yes, it is similarly problematic to Serial - the writer repeatedly delves into a story full of rumors and half-truths that really aren't necessary to include in a biography of the workout star.
So why should nutrition enthusiasts take a listen? Like "Hunger" and many of the other pieces on this list, it is an exercise in compassion. Richard Simmons experienced profound struggles with health, weight, and personal acceptance, and he channeled this into an endless well of compassion he shared with his friends and devotees. This podcast is worth a listen just for the stories of the Richard Simmons fans who struggled with weight and body image in a world that was even harsher to large bodies then than it is now (if that's even possible).
"I went to an intuitive-eating class... Each time we did the eating exercise, I would cry. ‘‘What is going on for you?’’ the leader would ask. But it was the same answer every time: I am 41, I would say. I am 41 and accomplished and a beloved wife and a good mother and a hard worker and a contributor to society and I am learning how to eat a goddamned raisin. How did this all go so wrong for me?"
I can honestly say this is one of the best essays on dieting and diet culture I have ever read. From the early history of Weight Watchers and the fat acceptance movement, to Americans' changing views on weight and dieting, this deeply personal essay explores how to reject the concept of "dieting" in a world where aesthetic values haven't changed as much as our collective disgust for food restriction has. It also deals with the equally tricky question of how to improve social acceptance and justice for people in larger bodies and also acknowledge increased risks for adverse health outcomes that seemingly come along with larger size. Finally, Ackner shares some of her own experiences dealing with body size and food restriction in a way that is uniquely personal and yet relatable to most people in America.
"McCoy has also gotten kids to accept better food by buying seasonal produce from enterprising student farmers. She didn’t do this to mimic what was happening in Berkeley or Brooklyn—nor does it make her job any easier. The first crop of local peppers she purchased from a student arrived covered with dirt, not clean and shiny like the ones from a mega-distributor. But she understood that kids are more likely to try something if a friend had a hand in growing it."
I remember being so moved and disgusted by Jamie Oliver's documentary on school lunches in America. A bus-full of sugar dumped in a parking lot! How disgraceful! "Occupy School Cafeterias," I remember writing righteously on my Facebook page (this was back around 2011). But like with many food movements or philosophies (and basically all food documentaries), what you see is usually not the reality.
This longread will make you think twice before making an offhand remark about "bad school lunches" or the work of "lunch ladies" (often dietitians) that run these highly sophisticated programs that feed most of America's kids.
"...It was at this point that the audience, who were already restless whenever McGregor or I spoke, descended into outright hostility, shouting and hissing for us to get off stage. In a book shop after the event, as fans came up to Shaw to thank her for giving them “the glow”, I too burst into tears when one person jabbed her fingers at me and said I should be ashamed, as an “older women” (I am 43), to have criticised a younger one. On Twitter that night, some Shaw fans made derogatory comments about how McGregor and I looked, under the hashtag #youarewhatyoueat. The implication was that, if we were less photogenic than Shaw, we clearly had nothing of any value to say about food (never mind the fact that McGregor has degrees in biochemistry and nutrition)."
Everything you need to know about the rise and reasons for "clean eating" is in this brilliant longform by Bee Wilson. This trend, which we have likely all seen on social media or talked about with friends and colleagues, is as vague as it is ubiquitous. And since it focuses on "whole foods" and "natural" nutrition, it can be hard to criticize. Who is against "real food"? Seemingly no one. But similarly, no one can describe what "real food" is. Wilson looks at the pros, and significant cons, of the clean eating movement and the sometimes negative health outcomes these clean food diets can have.
"Demand for newness leads writers and publishers to focus on narratives that upend conventional wisdom. If new research doesn’t change or challenge the way readers think about the world, why is it a story worth publishing? Eggs are in, and now they’re gone. Butter? It’s back. Every six weeks, The New York Times is legally obligated to tell us either that breakfast isn't important or that skipping it causes death."
James Hamblin takes a hard look at the landscape of nutrition reporting through the lens of evaluating the PURE epidemiological study (which I also chatted about here). Hamblin talks about what the study actually found vs how it was reported across the internet and tied it to readers' (and writers) desire to constantly report something new. But how often are these studies actually finding something new? And when they do, how should findings from studies done in highly different populations be applied to eaters in the United States?
"...First, it takes a handful of cells from an animal and puts them in a controlled setting—in this case a bioreactor that looks and operates much like a beer vat. The company then uses a combination of nutrients gathered from certain plants to trigger the animal cells to reproduce and grow. And while some lab-grown meat companies have managed to create a ground beef product by essentially clumping all the cells together, the scientific Holy Grail for these companies is to create a single cut of meat, such as a New York strip steak. To date, no lab-grown meat company has yet released a product for consumers, as it remains too cost-prohibitive for the larger market."
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat vegan meat substitutes have been such trends this year. For many interested in ethical and sustainable meat production, lab-grown meat seems like the next step and it's getting closer to reality. Hampton Creek, a food company famous for making vegan-style mayonnaise, has acquired some of the original patents for lab-made meat, which were first filed in 1991.
"In many ways, Brazil is a microcosm of how growing incomes and government policies have led to longer, better lives and largely eradicated hunger. But now the country faces a stark new nutrition challenge: over the last decade, the country’s obesity rate has nearly doubled to 20 percent, and the portion of people who are overweight has nearly tripled to 58 percent."
Despite the "click-bait" title, this longform article deftly explains the complexity of providing more and better food in developing nations. Increasing availability of packaged foods, including infant formulas and dairy products, has led to better overall nutrition and lower rates of undernutrition for many in Brazil. But with these advances come highly palatable foods like candies and desserts, that can lead to overconsumption. Obviously people getting enough to eat and being able to eat for pleasure are good things. However, when over-nutrition leads to adverse health outcomes, many questions arise about how to maintain nutrition status without contributing to obesity or type II diabetes.
*My major point of criticism about the article is that reported interviewee weights and included photos of people and children with obesity are seemingly employed for effect. This portrayal, in my opinion, can misdirect readers from the problem -- that obesity is closely linked with development of chronic disease -- and instead may serve to activate readers' internal biases about people with obesity or overweight.*
"The idea that wholesome foods are expensive and junk foods are cheap because of the system of subsidies in the farm bill pervades the conversation about food policy. But that idea has one very big problem. It's false.
I have pointed this out before, but people keep saying it, so now I'm going to shout: IT'S FALSE."
Tamar Haspel eloquently explains why the idea that staple crops are cheap because of the farm bill and that this is why your carrots are more expensive (an idea popularized by Michael Pollan and promoted by many) is untrue. Turns out, vegetables are more expensive to grow! So while, yes, it would be great if your healthful fruits and veggies were more affordable, you don't have farm subsidies to blame.
"It’s a contradiction as compelling as the food itself: a beautiful woman constantly eating the most over-the-top meals imaginable, and yet never gaining weight. Hilton got so good at exploiting the paradox of her body and her appetites that she booked a whole Carl’s Jr. ad campaign where she housed a giant burger while wearing a bathing suit, and both to that audience and this one, the message is clear: If you get your aesthetic just right, if you’re cool enough, if you’re worthy enough, none of that science stuff about food and physiology will apply."
I love to post and look at food pictures on Instagram. Like the author of this piece, I also have marveled at some of the more indulgent foods (milkshakes with donuts on top!) that garner so many likes on the platform. But like everything you see on social media, it's to be taken with a grain of salt.
According to Amanda Mull, there are foods that are meant to be seen and not eaten. I've noticed this with some of the more beautiful smoothie bowls (if you look at the recipe it's often something like "six bananas blended with turmeric powder" topped with artfully arranged sliced fruits and seeds - who is eating the SIX turmeric-dyed bananas after this picture is taken, I ask you). Mull's piece is full of humor and clear-eyed observation of the Instagram food scene and definitely worth the read.
Did you read anything diet-related this year that really opened your eyes or inspired you? Share it with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or post in the comments below! (Also feel free to notify me if you see any mistakes!)