Truly mastering nutrition requires understanding it from the ground up, gaining competence in the sciences that it is based on. If you’re a self-motivated learner with an aptitude for science, you can put together your own nutrition education with the right selection of textbooks. Here are my top recommendations.
For nutrition, I recommend these:
- Beginner: Gropper, Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. 7th edition. 2017.
- Advanced: Ross, Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. 11th edition. 2012.
Advanced Nutrition provides a good introduction to nutrition, but Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease is the cream of the crop. No one could ever read it straight through, but it’s an incredible desk reference. Each chapter is a self-contained topic written by one of the world’s leading experts in the specific field the chapter covers, and the chapters can easily be read straight through when you need a refresher on that topic or need to dive deep into it for the first time.
For biochemistry, I recommend these:
- Beginner: Ferrier, Biochemistry. 6th edition. 2013.
- Advanced: Berg, Biochemistry. 8th edition. 2015.
The Ferrier book is labeled as a “review,” but it’s actually a superb introduction. You can read it from cover to cover (though not in one sitting!) and it is rich in well crafted, helpful illustrations. The Berg book is far larger, provides much more mechanistic detail, and is much better at demonstrating the clinical relevance of the principles and staying up to date over time. The 2002 version of the Berg book is free online. The free version is helpful for occasional use, but isn’t suitable for regular use or intensive study. You can keyword search it but not browse it or read it straight through. While huge swaths of the book remain the same in the 2015 edition, many sections are modified and some sections of the new edition do not even exist in the old edition.
Essential Background Information
Nutritional science is chemistry, biology, biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, and anatomy and physiology, all from the perspective of eating food. Although I think it can be helpful for anyone to jump into one of the textbooks listed above, you will get far more out of those books if you construct for yourself an education in the basic sciences on which they are based. In this section, I cover what I consider the most essential components of that foundation.
Silberberg, Chemistry: The Molecular Nature of Matter and Change. 7th edition. 2014.
Everything we eat is molecules, salts, ions, water, and a handful of other solvents. Chemistry teaches you what these actually are, why they form, and how they behave. Chemistry also provides you with the basic concepts of energy you need to understand how enzymes function and why biochemical pathways work. The Silberberg book is well explained and has fantastic illustrations. I rented it when I was teaching undergraduate nutritional biochemistry at Brooklyn College and I purchased it to help me design my MWM Energy Metabolism class.
Wade and Simek, Organic Chemistry, 9th edition, 2016.
Organic chemistry covers the chemistry of carbon-containing (organic) molecules. Let’s face it, we are mostly made of organic molecules and most of what we eat is organic molecules. Organic chemistry is especially helpful for understanding why chemicals are named the way they are and why biochemical reactions happen the way they do. I’ve used this book in designing my MWM Energy metabolism class for some of the more deeply mechanistic explanations. Unlike general chemistry (Silberberg), which I think deserves thorough study from beginning to end, I think you can be more liberal with organic if your purpose is to master nutrition. I would use this book to review the basic principles of chemical bonding, and then come back to specific chapters on an as-needed basis when your other studies leave you scratching your head wondering why a reaction happens the way it does. I’m not particularly wedded to the Wade and Simek book, but I’m happy with it.
Freeman, Biological Science. 6th edition. 2016.
Biology is chemistry come to life. Biology teaches you the big picture of where humans fit into the web of life as well as the nitty gritty of how cells function. Most of the biochemical pathways that nutrients undergo occur in specific subcellular compartments where understanding the cell and its compartments is as relevant as understanding the nutrients or the enzymes that metabolize them. For example, you can’t understand why cytosolic acetyl CoA becomes fat and mitochondrial acetyl CoA generates ATP without understanding the basic organization of the cell. If you look at the reviews, the Freeman book is praised for making the take-home points clear and not overloading you with information. The reason I loved it is because it tells the story of biology, making frequent reference to how we discovered key principles and the kind of experimentation that these discoveries required.
Anatomy and Physiology
Tortora, Principles of Anatomy and Physiology. 14th edition, 2013.
Anatomy teaches you how our organs are internally organized into cells and tissues and how they relate to one another in systems. Physiology teaches you how the biochemical pathways and cellular processes are coordinated on a whole-body level to fulfill the needs of the organism. All of these are essential to nutrition. If you want to understand how carbohydrates and fats have different effects on insulin, you need to understand how they are transported differently through the body. If you want to understand why vitamin A deficiency dries out the eyes, you need to understand the different types of epithelial tissues and how they change during deficiency. The Tortora book has succinct explanations and fantastic illustrations. I’m using it to help me design my MWM Energy metabolism class.
Molecular and Cellular Biology
Alberts, Molecular Biology of the Cell. 6th Edition, 2014.
The so-called “Bible” of molecular and cellular biology, the Alberts book has kept me warm and cozy on many a lonely night for the last decade. Molecular and cellular biology takes what you learned in outline about how cells function in a biology course and greatly expands on it. Like the Berg, Biochemistry book, the 2002 edition is available for free in searchable but not browsable format. Like the Berg book, it’s much better to buy the most recent edition if you want to use it regularly or study it intensively. And also like the Berg book, it can’t be read straight through, but it’s an excellent resource to chip away at over time.