5 great books about food and nutrition I’ve read in the first half of 2021

These recent books are helping me make sense of today’s food and nutrition culture, think about where we’re headed, and plan how to be part of the solution. One of them may be required reading for you.

The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket (2020)

by Benjamin Lorr

Despite a few blips in the food supply chain at the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, most Westerners have come to take for granted that there will be food for them to buy at the grocery store when they go shopping. Few truly grasp the “everyday miracle” required to keep such treasure troves stocked. Benjamin Lorr spent five years as a participant observer in the complex and dark world behind the aisles lined with appealing value-added foods. Deconstructing the making of supermarkets as we know them, he shared a long-haul trucker’s cabin, explored the production of conveniently boxed salads, interviewed persons caught in the human-trafficking schemes that “staff” the seafood industry, and scraped the bottom of the fish display at Whole Foods so you don’t have to.

Required reading for: anyone who makes grocery lists.

How to Survive a Pandemic: Overcoming COVID-19 and Preventing the Next Deadly Outbreak (2020)

by Dr. Michael Greger

Before Dr. Michael Greger took it upon himself to review every scientific paper published about nutrition every year and make useful videos for the general public about them, he was a student of public health and published a book titled Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching. When a mysterious new and contagious disease arose in China in late 2019, Dr. Greger was uniquely prepared to quickly update his previous work and make it into a timely, heavily-referenced but eminently readable new book. Let’s all be thankful that what hit us on the head this time was the relatively mild SARS-CoV-2 virus rather than one of the terrifying avian flus that lurk in mega-poultry farms around the world, just a few mutations away from jumping from birds to humans and then from human to human. This book will make you angry at our collective complacency with regards to pandemic prevention and arm you with practical knowledge you can use to be part of the solution when it comes to decreasing the odds and damage of the next pandemic.

Required reading for: anyone who eats chicken.

UnDo It! How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases (2019)

by Dean Ornish and Anne Ornish

Healthy plant-based eating is the pillar of good health, but it’s not the only thing: regular exercise, stress management, restful sleep, loving relationships, and community participation are also critical to vital longevity. In this book, Ornish and Ornish quickly review the evidence supporting their advice on the pillars of good health and offer plenty of practical strategies and tips to help readers put them into practice. There are also recipes and shopping lists at the end, although I admit to skipping over those.

Required reading for: everyone with a body that doesn’t work 100% as it should.

Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal (2021)

by Mark Bittman

I can’t say I always agree with Mark Bittman’s choices of foods, but I deeply appreciated his ambitious (and reasonably successful) attempt at summarizing the history of food as it intersects with anthropological evolution, colonialism, capitalism, and more. This sweeping overview of historical and geographical trends provides useful background to the contemporary display of health-destroying foods lining up supermarket shelves (see The Secret Life of Groceries above).

Required reading for: people who like to understand the big picture.

How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered (2020)

by Mark Bittman and Dr. David L. Katz

Some reviewers have been critical of How to Eat because it’s somewhat repetitive, but that’s actually a feature of the book. Bittman and Katz highlight with great clarity and in an easy-to-read format that the foundation of healthy eating is far simpler than many would like us to believe. From a strict health perspective, the best diet is predominantly or wholly based on whole plant foods, more specifically whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, with limited added sugar or other processed “foods.” Some may choose a low-carb-high-fat combination of foods while others will go for high-carb-low-fat, and get extremely passionate about the topic of macronutrient ratios, but the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter half as much as they make it sound. (Plus, those arguments can stress you out and we know that’s not great for health, see UnDo It! above.)

Required reading for: those who feel overwhelmed about seemingly contradictory information about nutrition.

What’s next on my reading list

Every day I add at least one or two books to my “want to read” list, but here are some titles I really want to get to before the end of 2021:

  • The Future of Nutrition by T. Colin Campbell
  • Can We Feed the World Without Destroying it? by Eric Hold-Giménez
  • Work Clean: What Great Chefs Can Teach Us About Organization by Don Charnas (that’s an older book but looks powerful)
  • Food or War by Julian Cribb

What have YOU read about food and nutrition recently that was really good?

Hit the comments and let me know. I always welcome good reading suggestions.

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Brigitte Gemme

Brigitte Gemme

Vegan mom and cooking coach, runner, writer, reader, PhD in sociology, morning person. Chief Meal Planner at Vegan Family Kitchen.