If there’s one thing y’all should know about me by now, it’s that I love to read. I’m always reading. Books, articles, chats, transcripts, all of it. If there’s some kind of knowledge to be gained from it, I’ll always give it a once-over… but there are some things that I give a regular look-over. As in, I read them repeatedly and often.

But what? And why?

I attribute a lot of my evolution as a health and fitness resource to the fact that I’m obsessive about reading – not just reading things that agree with me, either. I’m able to consider different viewpoints, I’m able to understand how circumstances affect potential outcomes (just think – all of my poverty research comes from listening to many of you who share how difficult it is to eat healthily on a budget), and I’m able to accept that there are no hard and fast answers in this thing we call “healthy living.” As much as people like being told the Hard and Fast Answer, I also know that – when the Hard and Fast Answer ultimately fails you – there has to be a more malleable, more pliable solution to help people get to where they need to go.

Hence, today’s post.

I want to share with you five different articles that were illuminating and, frankly, life-changing for me and my understanding of food. Here, you will find links to the information with not only a description of why the article was so meaningful to me, but an excerpt that will show you just how juicy the information within truly is. Most importantly, as these articles were also the impetus for much more thorough books, you’re getting this information… for free. (Y’all know me – I’m cheap, and I love free!)

Click each link, read each article – hell, print them out and whip out a highlighter (I’m notorious for that) – and then hit me up with any questions you have! (I loooove questions!)

1) “Sugar” – Rick Cohen

In August of 2013, National Geographic published an article delving into the love affair Americans have with sugar, and the history of our relationship to this unavoidable ingredient. Starting with the British and the French, and their obsession with sugar… an obsession that ultimately drove them to enslaving entire islands’ worth of men and women to harvest it for them… and connecting that history to what we see today reflected in modern medicine and healing, Sugar is an invaluable look at the inside history of sweet stuff, and how the game might be changing today.

Recently the American Heart Association added its voice to the warnings against too much added sugar in the diet. But its rationale is that sugar provides calories with no nutritional benefit. According to Johnson and his colleagues, this misses the point. Excessive sugar isn’t just empty calories; it’s toxic.

“It has nothing to do with its calories,” says endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco. “Sugar is a poison by itself when consumed at high doses.”

Johnson summed up the conventional wisdom this way: Americans are fat because they eat too much and exercise too little. But they eat too much and exercise too little because they’re addicted to sugar, which not only makes them fatter but, after the initial sugar rush, also saps their energy, beaching them on the couch. “The reason you’re watching TV is not because TV is so good,” he said, “but because you have no energy to exercise, because you’re eating too much sugar.” [read the full article here] [read my commentary here]

2) “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?”  – Gary Taubes

Over a decade ago, Gary Taubes wasn’t “best-selling author, extraordinaire” – he was a journalist probing into the collective understanding of nutrition, and where we were getting it wrong. Eventually, he’d hit pay dirt: we had no idea what we were doing when we were talking about dietary fat. (This article would then go on to spark Good Calories, Bad Calories, Taubes’ first powerhouse book.

These researchers point out that there are plenty of reasons to suggest that the low-fat-is-good-health hypothesis has now effectively failed the test of time. In particular, that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic that started around the early 1980’s, and that this was coincident with the rise of the low-fat dogma. (Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, also rose significantly through this period.) They say that low-fat weight-loss diets have proved in clinical trials and real life to be dismal failures, and that on top of it all, the percentage of fat in the American diet has been decreasing for two decades. Our cholesterol levels have been declining, and we have been smoking less, and yet the incidence of heart disease has not declined as would be expected. ”That is very disconcerting,” Willett says. ”It suggests that something else bad is happening.” [read the full article here] [read my commentary here]

3) “Unhappy Meals” by Michael Pollan

Wayyy back, once upon a time, before Michael Pollan became the “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” guy, he wrote a little article in the NYT discussing the current state of the food industry, its effects on the way we view “food,” and its ultimate consequence for the public: in the quest to get more fit, we… didn’t. This, too, would ultimately become Pollan’s In Defense of Food, another classic nutritional best-seller.

But what about the elephant in the room — the Western diet? It might be useful, in the midst of our deepening confusion about nutrition, to review what we do know about diet and health. What we know is that people who eat the way we do in America today suffer much higher rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity than people eating more traditional diets. (Four of the 10 leading killers in America are linked to diet.) Further, we know that simply by moving to America, people from nations with low rates of these “diseases of affluence” will quickly acquire them. Nutritionism by and large takes the Western diet as a given, seeking to moderate its most deleterious effects by isolating the bad nutrients in it — things like fat, sugar, salt — and encouraging the public and the food industry to limit them. But after several decades of nutrient-based health advice, rates of cancer and heart disease in the U.S. have declined only slightly (mortality from heart disease is down since the ’50s, but this is mainly because of improved treatment), and rates of obesity and diabetes have soared.

No one likes to admit that his or her best efforts at understanding and solving a problem have actually made the problem worse, but that’s exactly what has happened in the case of nutritionism. Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health. Perhaps what we need now is a broader, less reductive view of what food is, one that is at once more ecological and cultural. What would happen, for example, if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship? [read the full article here] [read my commentary here]

4) “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” – Michael Moss

In early 2013, an excerpt from the then-forthcoming Salt, Sugar, Fat was published in The New York Times Magazine, outlining exactly what the sub-title of the book promised: an in-depth look at how the giants of the food industry hooked us.

[…] a food-industry legend named Howard Moskowitz. Moskowitz, who studied mathematics and holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard, runs a consulting firm in White Plains, where for more than three decades he has “optimized” a variety of products for Campbell Soup, General Foods, Kraft and PepsiCo. “I’ve optimized soups,” Moskowitz told me. “I’ve optimized pizzas. I’ve optimized salad dressings and pickles. In this field, I’m a game changer.”

In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers. Moskowitz likes to imagine that his computer is divided into silos, in which each of the attributes is stacked. But it’s not simply a matter of comparing Color 23 with Color 24. In the most complicated projects, Color 23 must be combined with Syrup 11 and Packaging 6, and on and on, in seemingly infinite combinations. Even for jobs in which the only concern is taste and the variables are limited to the ingredients, endless charts and graphs will come spewing out of Moskowitz’s computer. “The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create,” he told me, “so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.”

Moskowitz’s work on Prego spaghetti sauce was memorialized in a 2004 presentation by the author Malcolm Gladwell at the TED conference in Monterey, Calif.: “After . . . months and months, he had a mountain of data about how the American people feel about spaghetti sauce. . . . And sure enough, if you sit down and you analyze all this data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy. And there are people who like it extra-chunky. And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant, because at the time, in the early 1980s, if you went to a supermarket, you would not find extra-chunky spaghetti sauce. And Prego turned to Howard, and they said, ‘Are you telling me that one-third of Americans crave extra-chunky spaghetti sauce, and yet no one is servicing their needs?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And Prego then went back and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce and came out with a line of extra-chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti-sauce business in this country. . . . That is Howard’s gift to the American people. . . . He fundamentally changed the way the food industry thinks about making you happy.” [read the full article here] [read my commentary here]

5) “How the Food Makers Captured Our Brains” – Tara Parker Pope

The article that introduced me to the life-changing book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.

In “The End of Overeating,” Dr. Kessler finds some similarities in the food industry, which has combined and created foods in a way that taps into our brain circuitry and stimulates our desire for more.

When it comes to stimulating our brains, Dr. Kessler noted, individual ingredients aren’t particularly potent. But by combining fats, sugar and salt in innumerable ways, food makers have essentially tapped into the brain’s reward system, creating a feedback loop that stimulates our desire to eat and leaves us wanting more and more even when we’re full.

Dr. Kessler isn’t convinced that food makers fully understand the neuroscience of the forces they have unleashed, but food companies certainly understand human behavior, taste preferences and desire. In fact, he offers descriptions of how restaurants and food makers manipulate ingredients to reach the aptly named “bliss point.” Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. But food scientists work hard to reach the precise point at which we derive the greatest pleasure from fat, sugar and salt. [read the full article here] [read about my unyielding love for Dr. Kessler]

What books and articles have you found helpful to you in your journey? Share below!