Reading up

I feel so ignorant about nutrition. My formal education about nutrition began and ended studying the food pyramid in 8th grade. I guess it’s just assumed that after minimal instruction, school children know everything about food, what to eat and how to make it. My informal education began much earlier: being bombarded with commercials from food companies and fast food vendors side-by-side with diet fads and obesity in the popular media.

My readers (you!) really ask some terrific questions that I don’t have the answers to (thankfully lots of other commenters do). But it bothers me that I can’t answer these basic questions about nutrition (and school lunches) so I’m taking a crash course: I checked out a bunch of interesting books at the library. Here’s what I’m going to attempt to read over the next couple months (in my spare time):

Lunch Lessons by Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes
Healthy Eating by Harvard Medical School
What to Eat by Marion Nestle
Nutrition for Life by Lisa Hark and Darwin Deen 
Free for All: Fixing School Food in America by Janet Poppendieck

Do you have any book/audiobook recommendations for me?

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52 thoughts on “Reading up”

  1. The Marion Nestle book is wonderful, and I'd also recommend Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

    All of these books have some very down to earth tips about eating healthier. They're also not too preachy.

  2. If you want to get some recipes that follow a traditional foods diet (think less processing, more foods our ancestors may have eaten), I'd recommend Nourishing Traditions. Generally speaking, however, whole foods are your best bet. From there, it's a matter of figuring out what your body tolerates best and feels best eating for fuel. Some of us want/need more fat and protein and some a little less, for example. Some of us can't tolerate dairy, gluten, soy or corn, some don't show symptoms of intolerance.

    This is a great blog and I'm following you on Twitter. What kids are eating in school fascinates me in that not-so-good way. Thanks for doing this!

    Diane Sanfilippo
    Owner, Balanced Bites Holistic Nutrition & Wellness
    C.H.E.K. Holistic Lifestyle Coach
    Holistic Nutrition Educator student @ Bauman College, Berkeley, CA

    Find Balanced Bites around the web:

  3. pH balancing your meals (and your life in general) is incredibly important to your health. Try checking out any book about body alkalizing; I recommend Alkalize or Die by Theodore Baroody.

  4. Michael Pollan's new book Food 101 is also great place to start. Good for you educating yourself on nutrition. I think the more you know the more concerned you will be about the school lunches.

    Thanks for doing this. I think it is an important issue and one that is too often ignored.

  5. I guess I'd better also throw in my token vegetarian suggestions: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Ethics of What We Eat by Pete Singer.

  6. My wife is currently reading "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – A Year of Food Life" by Barbara Kingsolver. An interesting look at the importance of buying food grown locally.

    Eric Langhorst

  7. OMG! I'm impressed you're attempting to learn about nutrition- i can't cook for nuts and my mum's not home, so believe it or not, the pictures you put up seem very very appetizing!

    Good going girl!

  8. Oh, I thought of another one: Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by M.D. Walter C. Willett and P. J. Skerrett.

  9. Agree with the commenters above about Michael Pollan… read his books, he knows what he's talking about.

  10. Read Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories." It will completely change the way you look at protein, fat, carbohydrates.

  11. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has great resources on nutrition AND on advocating for healthier school meals. Also suggest looking at Action for Healthy Kids

  12. “The Omnivore’s Delusion” can be found at

    For nutrition education, a registered dietitian would be a knowledgeable resource.
    is the website of the American Dietetic Association. Information to read there and resources to contact a local dietitian.

    Both nutrition science and food politics influence the foods we eat and the USDA school regulations. It’s a lot to digest (no pun intended). Looking forward to hearing your conclusions and thoughts later, and how to apply to school meals.

  13. Your meals are received either fresh or fresh frozen and heated in a convection oven. PLEASE get yourself a copy of the NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH GUIDELINES. They are available on line,this would answer many of your questions and your readers as well.
    Hopefully some of your readers aren't so passive about trying to improve student nutrition. Too much talk and not enough action. Why are you working undercover anyway? Teachers should do their homework too!

  14. I agree that any of Michael Pollan's books are great; they're really interesting reads that will give you more than just information about nutrition, but also will bring up some thought provoking issues in food ethics.

    I would also recommend Marion Nestle's book, Food Politics. It covers how the food pyramid was actually created. The amount of beaurocracy and lobbying that trumps scientific evidence is shocking.

  15. Those recommending Pollan's work are right on target–great journalism and great information about food. I also recommend David Zinczenko's co-written books on food in the _Eat This, Not That_ series (several books in the series, but the information at the beginning of each is essentially the same).

    I also recommend as a great resource for parents of small children looking to produce healthier lunches (my teen likes the recipes, too, and fixes or modifies several of them for her own lunches).

  16. No book recommendations to make – I'm just crawling out of the dark about nutrition myself – but I wanted to say it's great that you are taking a closer look at nutrition.

    My niece is a food science major. It's something she's been interested in all her life (at 5 she wanted to grow up and make Smartees). She works during the summer at someplace dealing with nutrition and recently attended a workshop in NYC sponsored by PepsiCo. She was the only undergraduate there (and she's only 19).

    I guess in a round about way, there are kids interested in nutrition and what they put in their bodies (and what others do as well!)

  17. "Real Food: What to Eat and Why" by Nina Planck was my first eye opener; it was the first book I read about the concept of "real food" and has spurred me on to read several of Michael Pollan's books, Barbara Kingsolver's, and to do more research online. I would also recommend the documentary "Food Inc" which contains commentary from Pollan and several others involved in the movement to change our society's current views on industrial food production issues.

  18. Like other readers have suggested, Michael Pollan's books are great. Marion Nestle's Food Politics is a great place to start with how food industry lobbying affects USDA nutrition information. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation is another classic.

    As for movies, Food Inc is awesome, and so is King Corn. Our Daily Bread, an Austrian documentary, is also pretty great at showing what the industrial food system looks like, though it doesn't talk that much about nutrition.

    Also, check out Ann Cooper's talk about her work changing school lunches in Berkeley at the EG 2007 conference, which can be found on too.

    Keep up the good work!

  19. I see no one has mentioned "The Gospel of Food" by Barry Glassner. Don't know how much it is going to tell you what you want, but it is a good read about many aspects of food.

    I don't think there is such a 'formula' for what to eat or what not to eat. Over thinking all of this can lead you to insanity, or some kind of eating disorder. Look at the U.S. with all its abundant food, and all of the advice and nutrition advocacy we have – then look at the extremes we have on both sides of the scale…

    There are so many good books about food in general. A historical/anthropological literature journey through cultures and traditions might also be really insightful, and may allow you to come up with some of your own observations and ideas on nutrition.

    Good luck!

  20. Eating Animals is a great book. It's the kind of book where after you read it you have no choice but to make a change in your eating habits. You learn to question where the food your about to consume came from and whether or not you really want to put that into your body. Do not read unless you're ready to make a change in your eating habits.

  21. I applaud what you are doing. Having been exposed to school lunches on Grandparents Day, I could not do it every day. (And those were "special lunches". My question is, do the kids eat the fresh fruit?

  22. What I really like about Pollan (as other commenters have said) is that he tries to steer the conversation away from nutrition as we've been taught and just tells people to eat "real" food–in short, food with minimal processing and additives. As an organic farmer, I think that makes a lot of sense.

  23. I'm in the middle of "What to Eat" right now. Great book! Marion Nestle's blog is actually how I found yours.

  24. I do like "In Defense of Food". As a teacher, you might appreciate The China Study. I'm not a vegan, or even a vegetarian, but after reading that book, I can't see eating too much of any animal product. When we do, it's of the "Nourashing Traditions" variety!

  25. I agree with the suggestions regarding Michael Pollan's books and also the book Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. Both fantastic!

  26. Just found your blog today and read back to the beginning. I'm adding you to my reader – I'll be interested in following your journey. I pack my kids' lunches every day – in part because I'm concerned about the quality of the meals offered, but also because my daughter has food allergies. My son (who does not have food allergies) asked to eat a hot lunch one day and has not asked to do it again. I frequently post about what I'm packing – I strive for healthy, well-balanced, waste-free lunches.

  27. Ditto all the comments about Michael Pollan. I also would recommend Mark Bittman's Food Matters – he has some great comments not only about nutrition, but what our food choices do the earth.

  28. I write quite a bit about nutrition in my health blog http:/ You might find the recent article on gluten and dairy-free diets useful since it impacts many students. I also have an article refuting The China Diet which draws conclusions the data doesn't support. I also wrote about the school garden to eat program which could inspire your students to grow and eat real food. You might want to look at Alice Water's web site.

  29. There's also "Queen of Fats" by Susan Allport. "why Omega-3s were removed from the western diet and what we can do to replace them".
    I was amazed that I could follow the chemistry as well as I did, she must be a very good writer, 8-). I'm also a fan of "Real Food" and "Food Rules" looks good.

  30. I think the suggestion about getting the federal (and state) government's guidelines for school lunches would really take this project to the next level. Either the guidelines themselves are really awful, or they aren't being followed. Something needs to change, and you could be an agent of that if you were to call out the "official line."

    Pollan as well as "Eating Animals" rocks.

    Keep kickin' butt!
    -Brandon, a science journalism student

  31. You made such a crucial point in this post about nutrition education! I am so glad you addressed the fact that our society & education system has completely neglected something as essential to life as proper nutrition. I run a food service company for private schools in NYC and I am constantly stressing that what happens in the lunchroom is as important a lesson as what happens in the classroom. No matter what they do students are going eat a minimum of 3 times a day, everyday, for the rest of their lives! It is SO important to be taught how to do this properly.

    Also, I am really enjoying your project. Thank you so much for giving us all eyes into the public school lunchroom.

  32. lots of really great suggestions!

    i'd also suggest Know Your Fats : The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol by Mary G. Enig.

    i'd recommend avoiding Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, however – he regurgitates a lot of information you can find with more facts attached in other books, and he isn't wholly honest, as he has quite the agenda to push with that book.

  33. Maggie: That "Omnivore's Delusion" guy lost me when he repeated the "turkeys looking up at the sky in a rainstorm and drowning" old wive's tale as a reason why turkeys need to be kept inside. This is an easily debunked biological impossibility. Here, look at this:

    I don't know who lied here, the writer of the article, or whoever told him they had 4,000 freerange turkeys drown in a rainstorm, but after repeating a quaint old myth like that as fact, I don't know if he's the most reliable person to listen to about modern, scientifically based farming.

    Mrs Q: Your "free time"? Yeah, good luck with that! I think you've got some good books chosen to start out with, but be sure to keep your "crap filters" on. That's a term a schoolteacher taught me about being careful to not believe everything you hear or read. Food is one of those subjects where people like to stretch the truth a bit to fit their agendas.

  34. Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis does a great job of outlining how we as a nation lost the connection to where our food comes from. She explains very cleverly how the rise of meatpacking, for instance, detached us from the understanding that beef comes from an actual animal, not a package. It's well-researched and written. She makes the reader stop and reflect on what is seen in our everyday "eating life" in America.

  35. 80-10-10 Diet
    by Dr. Douglas Graham

    Diet for a New America
    by John Robbins

    The Engine 2 Diet
    by Rip Esselstyn

    All the best!

  36. I have the Dr Oz books really informative.

    You: The Owner's Mannual
    You: On a Diet

    They really teach you the WHY behind the foods. What they actually do to your body.

  37. Many of the above recommended books are good, but they're not really focused on children's needs. A low-fat and/or low-carb diet suitable for adults isn't really appropriate in general for growing children. I highly recommend reading any books and articles by Ellyn Satter. She is a truly great child nutrition and eating behaviour expert, and focuses on "eating competence" – learning to eat a variety of food without fuss, and not creating a mystery around certain foods (it's been demonstrated that children whose parents heavily restrict junk food tend to binge when it is available).

    "How To Get Your Kid To Eat… But Not Too Much"
    "Child of Mine"
    "Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming"
    "Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Child"

    And there are many, many resources available on her website:

  38. An old favorite of mine is "Food and Healing," by Annemarie Colbin. It's a bit more "woo-woo" than many other literature in the area — it talks about the "Five element" theory of balancing the energetics of food, but it's much more broad in it's scope.

    Two things resonated especially well for me. First, Colbin outlines a number of different eating styles and their strengths and weaknesses. She makes a strong connection between your food choices and your lifestyle, so you can figure out how to eat appropriately for your constitution and your current circumstances. Secondly, she describes the different energies of the parts of plants that grow into the ground, or hang from a branch, or leaf up towards the sky, bringing an attention to the personalities of individual foods in a beautiful way. I came to love trying to balance the colors on my plate, and the natures of the different foods I bring in to my body. It helped me learn how to feel nourished on a whole different level.

    I'm a Marion Nestle fan, too, and I also enjoyed Mark Bittman's new book, "Food Matters." His cookbooks are wonderful.

    Right now I'm getting in to Indian cooking and ayurvedic theory, and WOW, is that an elegant eating system.

  39. I found _Eat to Live_ the most informative book yet. It has completely changed the way we eat, with a focus now on greens and whole fruits. And after what I read in his book, the school lunches you capture here really horrify me. good for you for getting the information out there.

  40. A great book is "The End of Overeating" by David A Kessler, MD. On the surface, it sounds like a diet book, but Dr. Kessler explores the manipulation of our eating habits by the restaurant industry. This is an extremely enlightening book!

  41. I recommend the book "What Color is Your Diet" by Dr. David Heber. It's a great book that explains the benefits of eating a diet with a wide variety of color and how each color of food will benefit your body. It is a major part of the plan that I have been following for the past 10 months that has allowed me to lose 87 lbs (with about 40 left to go still).

  42. Big thumbs-up for KITCHEN LITERACY. Author, Ann Vileisis, shows us how our good sense about eating has been hijacked by a revolution of advertising and growing a corporate driven economy. This book will not only make one think about how modern food choices are part of psychological brainwashing, but how it spills over into every aspect of our consumerism. The book is about food and how our ability to have confidence with preparing food has been robbed from us.

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