New Book Live! - Nutrition Intuitions

As promised in a previous post, I finished - and published - my book on nutrition in time for the new year.  The focus of this book wasn't about how much of which vitamins and minerals you should get, or what each thing does in your body.  There are already plenty of books cataloging that kind of thing, and I'm not certain they're useful anyway.

My aim in this book was to build intuitions for the non-biologist about how the body works and what to expect from the body.  Faithful readers of this blog will notice a few chapters were pulled from previous posts, though with some editing and modifications.  Even so, most of the book is new content, including a few chapters of data that are - to my mind - a lot of fun to read and reference.

The problem I've always had with the nutrition labels on all my food is that the information is presented to me as though it's meaningful.  Everyone pretends it's meaningful.  It's even formatted to look like it contains serious information.  Just look on the side of the box and there are the raw numbers, with percentages of how much you the consumer should get of each thing based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

But this is all nearly useless to a non-expert.  I'm not measuring what my calorie requirements are each day, or how they might change based on whether I'm planning to go hiking over the weekend, then recalculating how many grams of protein I should be eating.  And life is too short to keep track of exact percentages of riboflavin across foods to make sure I get to 100% - especially for those of us who like to prepare food from scratch.  And then there is the sheer volume of information among all the foods I can choose to eat and those that I considered buying.  Is food and eating this difficult?  Should it be this difficult?

I really think we've made it too complicated for the average person wanting to enjoy life to be able to care about.  And for all that I don't think we made ourselves any healthier.  What we need are some better intuitions about what nutrition means and how our bodies use the stuff we eat.  In the book that's exactly what I try to do - build intuitions and understanding of the underlying process.  What does it mean to 'burn fat'?  What exactly are carbohydrates?

Even all the graphs are meant at driving these intuitions.  My hope is that after you read it, you'll be able to glance at a nutrition label and see the predictable patterns in the data, so you don't have to feel guilty you didn't waste your life calculating percentages or tracking grams of fat, but instead have an intuitive understanding of what's in your food and why you should care.

A little over a year ago I created a massive spreadsheet and pulled information in a number of different food categories, comparing foods and brands against one another.  I normalized the serving sizes to either weight or volume, depending on the food, and expressed the results in percentage terms (usually, though there were times when absolute numbers were more instructive) for each of the different macromolecules.  I think there's something beautiful about seeing data in a useful context.  Maybe that sentiment doesn't generalize well, but those of you who've found this blog are more likely to agree with me about this sentiment than the general population, so you might want to skip straight to the chapter 4 (though I'd still recommend reading chapter 2 for the biochemistry intuitions).

The book is available now.  Let me know what you think.  Once you finish, let me know: did it help your intuitions about food?  The goal here is to get you thinking differently about your food long-term, not just in the moment you're reading the book.  The change should be subtle but profound, at least if I did my job well.

Here's an excerpt of the candy bar section I talked about in the previous blog post where I mentioned I was preparing this for publication.  That post had only one of the graphs (I had to split them up so they would fit on print/ebook pages in a readable way).  I regret not posting all of them as it led to some confusion.  In penance, here are the graphs and some of the discussion surrounding them from the book (comes right after the discussion on various snack cakes):


At least with snack cakes you can pretend ‘it’s just a snack’.  Candy is a different story – although Snickers wants you to believe that maybe candy could still count as a snack, if you’re hungry.  We’ll see whether that claim has any merit in a minute.  For now, let’s start by looking at candy that’s basically just spun sugar.  This should not surprise anyone.  Remembering what we learned in chapter 2 about how carbohydrates are sugars linked together in chains, we can add in a bunch more candies to the sugar category.  Again, no surprises here.

So far mostly these candies have been ways of modifying straight sugar to make it look different.  The candies below add something new to the mix.  Some are adding nuts, others are adding cream to make caramel, and still others add egg whites to make nougat or marshmallow.  Though that’s not enough to do much more than make the sugar look a little more interesting.  Finally, starting around Rolo on the next page, we have the category that’s less than 75% sugar and carbs.  These snacks might promise to ‘fill you up’ in a way eating sugar never can – and yes, Snickers is on this list.  If you want to stay away from sugar, but you just can’t help yourself and you want a tasty treat, try the fancy Ferrero Roche.

I also have graphs comparing cereals, drinks, party pizzas, ice creams, and a host of other subjects.  Check it out:

Nutrition Intuitions: Lessons from biology to avoid the next nutrition fad by [Webb, Mark]


  1. Ordered. Sounds very interesting.

    I'll let you know once I've finished it.

    I was surprised to see it was not available in Kindle format...

    1. Thanks! Not sure why you couldn't get the Kindle version. I was able to pull it up Incognito, so it should be live on Amazon's system. It's probably too late now, but try this link and let me know if it takes you there:

    2. Yeah, that worked, and when I went back the kindle format showed up, but for some reason the first time I clicked on it, it didn't. No worries.


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