At the bookstore, you’ll find diet and nutrition books lumped together. I get why—they’re all focused on health and eating—but there’s an important distinction between them.
There are so many dimensions to consider when you think about how eating influences our health. Food nourishes our bodies, but it also plays a role in our social lives, our emotional health, and our overall happiness. Nutrition books explore these things and help us better understand how food affects us, without giving one-size-fits-all advice.
Diet books, on the other hand, tend to ignore the complexities of food. They typically follow the trope of identifying a problem and prescribing the reader a clearly defined solution. There’s no shortage of these books out there, and more just keep on coming; ironically, most of them claim to be the last one you’ll ever need. (The last diet book you read probably is the last one you need, but not for the reasons the author may think.)
Nutrition books may seem less appealing than diet books at face value—they don’t promise to solve all your problems—but they’re far more worthwhile. 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 will give you a better grasp of how food affects your physical, mental, and emotional health. From that understanding, you can then determine what the best way of eating might be for you.
The following five books are a great place to start. They don’t try to sell you on the supposed virtues or evils of certain foods or nutrients, nor do they suggest that you overhaul your own lifestyle to mimic one from another culture, time, or circumstance. (They also don’t distill complex and systemic food issues down to oversimplified advice like “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”) Instead they’ll teach you why we eat the way we do and how food affects our bodies. Many of them do give some form of how-to-eat advice, but they also talk about policy, history, and the culture of dieting.
1. ‘The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition,’ by Anita Bean
There are countless sports-nutrition books out there, but none of them go both as broad and as deep as The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition. This isn’t some flashy release chronicling an elite athlete’s very particular diet (ahem, TB12) or a manifesto on how (insert fad diet here) is actually the best way to fuel. Instead, it presents the evidence-based concepts of sports nutrition in a way that’s easy to understand but not oversimplified. You’ll come away with 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 and die by a set of rules. Author Anita Bean is a renowned sports nutritionist and former competitive bodybuilder who has worked with the British Olympic Association and many professional teams across various sports, and her book is relevant to athletes of all levels.
2. ‘The Great Starvation Experiment,’ by Todd Tucker
If you’ve heard that “diets don’t work” but you’re not clear on why, start by learning about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. The 13-month clinical study, conducted in the 1940s, followed 36 healthy, young white men through a period of “semi-starvation” and then rehabilitation, documenting not only how their bodies changed but how their mental health deteriorated. The experiment is rightly considered inhumane by today’s standards, although the men’s diets were higher calorie than those recommended by many trendy diets. (They ate approximately 1,570 calories a day over two meals.) In The Great Starvation Experiment, historian Todd Tucker digs into the study and how it affected participants during and afterward.
3. ‘Intuitive Eating,’ by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
The intuitive-eating approach is extremely popular among nutrition experts today, but it’s not a new framework. Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch first published Intuitive Eating in 1995 after seeing their clients repeatedly try and fail to lose weight and improve their health with traditional diets. Their book encourages reconsidering your own thoughts and feelings about food, diets, and weight. It draws on relatable anecdotes, as well as a significant and growing body of evidence to back up the idea that eating without food rules and abandoning the pursuit of weight loss can improve your health. Even if you’re convinced that intuitive eating isn’t for you, the book offers a new way of thinking about nutrition that might resonate. You’ll gain insight into how and why food restriction often backfires, and learn how to tune into your own hunger cues and cravings.
4. ‘Gentle Nutrition,’ by Rachael Hartley
Most of the messages we see around intuitive eating focus on breaking free from food rules and making peace with our weight and our bodies. One aspect that’s central to intuitive eating but isn’t often discussed is what the original Intuitive Eating authors call “gentle nutrition.” Essentially, it’s about leveraging evidence-based healthy eating principles in a way that’s flexible and individualized. Dietitian Rachael Hartley borrows the phrase and expands on the concept in her book of the same name. In Gentle Nutrition, she guides readers through the basics of nutrition without painting any way of eating as right or wrong. Hartley’s approach is rooted in the Health at Every Size framework, which is all about encouraging healthy behaviors and providing quality health care to people of all body sizes, without suggesting weight loss or assuming that a person’s health is determined by their weight. The book is a helpful and empathetic guide to nutrition, and it’s a great alternative to conventional nutrition books for anyone who feels triggered by mentions of weight and weight loss.
5. ‘Unsavory Truth,’ by Marion Nestle
My recommendation of Marion Nestle’s Unsavory Truth comes with a couple disclaimers. Although it’s an eye-opening look at how the food industry influences policy and nutrition research, I warn you not to panic as much about this as the book might encourage you to. It’s unreasonable to think that food companies shouldn’t have a hand in shaping the policies that so directly affect them, and not all industry-funded research is inherently wrong or bad. (Sometimes the only viable way to fund a study is to take industry money.) Plus, the modern food industry isn’t the pure-evil behemoth that it’s often made out to be; it’s because of this food industry that you’re able to conveniently buy all the food you need.
That said, major food companies and lobbyists regularly overstep their bounds. Unsavory Truth will teach you to think more critically about any nutrition information you come across, and it lends some insight into how often evidence is misrepresented or taken out of context. For me, an indirect takeaway of the book was that it’s really up to you to choose how to eat. Many headlines about “superfoods” or very rigid diets are, in fact, sponsored by companies who have a vested interest in getting you to buy these things. It’s best to ignore them and stick to eating a flexible and varied diet filled with plenty of nutritious foods.