Food and Nutrition - 3 books on its history

Over the past few months, I have read a three books on nutrition covering its history, its effect on physical development and economic growth, and the current controversies surrounding proper nutrition. These three books were:
I must admit, that after reading these three books, I have a different outlook on the food in put in my body. As I child, I was lucky to have parents that feed me a very healthy diet - little junk food, lots of food from the garden and from grass feed cattle and chickens. Now I understand why it was so healthy and why I should be vigilant about the stuff I put into my body.

In Escape from Hunger and Premature death, my main take away was that the agricultural revolution (which closely coincided with the industrial revolution) lead to increasing calories available for consumption in Western European nations. The starting point was abysmal low levels of calories, close to starvation for large segments of the populations. With increased calories came greater energy and greater health. Greater energy and health led to greater productivity, further helping transform Europe's transformation into industrial society.

In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Weston Price chronicles his decade long quest in the early 20th century to find primitive peoples and document their diet and physical condition. In particular, he establishes what happens to these people before and after the introduction of western diets with large quantities of white bread, sugar, and canned food. Traveling throughout North America, South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Pacific islands, Price found that regards of the indigenous diet, all primitive diets resulted in strong health adults. Upon introduction of the Western diet of white bread, sugar, and canned foods, these primitive groups started experiencing degeneration of dental and bone health and increased occurrences of tuberculous and other diseases.

In Good calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes reviews the past 50 years or so of medical, nutritional, and diet research. In this review, he questions conventional wisdom that fat is the cause of modern diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. After navigating thousands of studies in a variety of disciplines, Taubes paints a convincing picture that fat is not the boogiman that its been made out to be. In fact, its carbs that are the most likely the biggest culprit in the increasing occurances of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Sugar in particular.

From these three books, a new picture of nutrition has formed in my mind. This picture consists of a simple view of food - each and every thing I put in my body should be for a purpose. Every thing should have nutritional content. Its not just the number of calories that I consume (although the number is important to maintain my energy levels), its the quality of the calories. In general, the more processing conducted on a food product, the less its nutritional value.

I've come to recognize that fat is not something that I need to be afraid off. In fact, many vitamins are only fat soluible, meaning that can only be ingested in fat. I've also found that pastas, rices, and breads have very little nutrition, so I have little motivation to eat them. Ingestion of simple carbohydrates like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup are perhaps the most damaging of to our bodies by creating widely fluctuating insulin levels.

Luckily, I have an understanding wife who has been trying to accomodate my change in diet. Her home cooking, besides being speculatory yummy, is also very nutritional. I still struggle at times when it comes time for me to make my own meals, such as breakfest and occasionally lunch, mostly because I like the convenience that comes with pre-processed foods. But as I discover ways to eat healthy with quick prep time foods (that are yummy), I'm sure I'll be on the road to maintaining my health in optimal ways.

I would particularly recommend Good Calories, Bad Calories if you are interested in personal nutrition. The other two books offer a good history of nutrition and a context for understanding Taubes book. Escape from Hunger is interesting from an economic point of view. It adds a perspective to the industrial revolution.


  1. For a contrasting view of Dr. Atkins mainly and Gary Taubes partly:


    If you are interested only in Taubes, you can do a search for the appropriate passages. I have not read the whole site. I find contrasting views helpful, especially if documented.

  2. How do you reconcile what you learned in the Fogel and Price books? How was the introduction of agriculture good for Western Europe, but later harmful to third world nations? This is not a challenge, but an honest question. I'm wondering if I should read those two books.

  3. Burgess,
    Thanks. I'll take a look.

    Good question. I asked the same thing when I first read those books. After a bit of thought I reconciled it like this. First, agriculture in and of itself is not bad. Second, keep in mind that Fogel does not distinguish between types of food (mostly out of necessity because the data does not exist for 1700). Fogel, documented that the number of calories consumed was insufficient to maintain good nutrition. Consider Europe in the 1600-1700. Mostly feudal. Few property rights. Lots of babies, but no motivation to farm the land to full efficiency. So while the land may have been able to support everyone in a healthy manner, it was not being utilized that way because of the political environment.

    Cereals, such as wheat, oats, and barley offer some nutrition in its raw form. So conducting more efficient farming of these goods can lead to increased health. Price however focused on white bread and sugar. White bread is a highly refined product that has stripped most of the nutrients from the cereals. So while the number of calories may be higher, the nutritional content is less leading to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

    Fogel noted in his book that the projectory of calories consumed and average height (which generally increased by 6-8 inches over the past 300 years) was not a smooth line. This may be in part because the increased consumption of white bread and sugar actually thwarted the health of western nations.

    Price generally focused on the introduction of white bread and sugar into primitive people's diets. These diets were in generally very nutritious and extremely high in vitamins and minerals. Because of the tribal nature of these populations, there was no systematic attack on property rights that occurs in medieval Europe, so plenty of food was available for these populations.

    Does that help? If you're interested in the history of nutrition, I would recommend the books.

  4. John, thanks. I don't think I'm quite interested enough to read them, but the extra information was helpful.