You’re busy, but you want to learn more about nutrition science.
How much can you learn in a set amount of time?
Let’s take language learning as an analogue. The U.S. Foreign Service Institute estimates that Spanish and French each take around 600 hours to reach general proficiency (not “fluency”!).
So let’s assume you want to get to reasonable proficiency in nutrition science within 1,000 hours or less.
First of all, there’s a long list of essential subjects you should be familiar with, which you’ll only be able to cover lightly, if at all:
A bunch more
Second of all, research is evolving all the darn time, making outdated info a big issue.
So let’s get down to brass tacks: what can you actually expect to learn, given a set amount of time?
We’ll ratchet it up by magnitudes of order - 10 hours, 100 hours, and 1,000 hours.
In ten hours, you can skim the surface of what some of the main food compounds do (vitamins, minerals, etc.), but it’s probably better to learn about actual whole foods and what happens when you eat them.
Humans didn’t use to think about dozens of nutrients, they thought about what foods were nourishing, or occasionally even medicinal. So learn about plant foods (tubers, fruits, nuts, etc.) and about animal foods (meat, fish, organ meats, and so on), and about how traditional cultures ate. Understand how processing impacts nutrition, both for good (you have to cook most tubers to extract nutrients, fermentation helps food storage and gut bacteria) and bad (eating too much charred foods can promote carcinogenesis).
Then proceed to learn what happens to food when it passes your lips. You’ll discover tons of interesting facts, as the journey of food is long and winding, and its overall transit time varies depending on a bunch of factors, from stress to types of fiber and fat in the meal, to time of day.
Have you ever seen corn kernels in your poop? That’s one way to estimate intestinal transit time - time of corn appearance(s) minus time of corn ingestion. Some people’s corn kernels take hours, while others take days!
You might be wondering why the first few learning hours aren’t spent going all-out on the benefits of different vitamins and such. Well … just read on to find out.
In 10 hours, you can memorize a bunch of textbook facts about vitamins and minerals, but a better route could be learning about the foods you’ve been shovelling into your mouth, and seeing how traditional cultures ate.
Most of our readers ask us questions about things like autoimmune disease, weight loss, blood sugar and cardiovascular disease, and hormonal issues.
Many of these conditions are influenced heavily by our modern environments and modern diets, and given 100 hours, you can start to learn the basics.
You’ll even start reading studies on hot topics (low carb! vegetarian diets!), and understanding research methodology basics. What is a p-value? When is a study improperly conducted or reported? You might choose to go a totally different route rather than study methods, for example covering the essentials of sports nutrition. It all depends on your interests. But in these hours, you do have to learn about micronutrients and macronutrients, and how they affect your body.
So why didn’t these topics come up the first ten hours?
There are so many complex interactions between diet and disease, that the first ten hours may be better spent on the simpler fundamental topics of “What your body does to food you eat” and “What are the properties of common human foods?”. Diet’s impact on disease is rife with controversy, even among researchers. You’ll want to start learning about these research controversies during this 100 hour period.
In 100 hours, you should understand the very basics of nutrition and disease. Which nutrients and foods may impact heart disease, how nutrients interact with each other, and that kind of thing.
The first 100 hours exposed you to how nutrients interact with the bodies OF PEOPLE IN GENERAL.
Now it’s time to pull up your sleeves, because the work is going to get much harder. You’ll be exploring more complex cases, like that which occur in real people with various health conditions, using huge amounts of published research as your investigative tool.
These 1,000 hours are going to involve deep dives into the research. You’ll learn about the gut microbiome. You’ll learn about food toxins that seem to impact some people and not others, like FODMAPs, oxalates, histamines, and many more.
Why might some people not do well with seafood, or chicken, or nightshade vegetables, or any other type of food?
Somewhere in this 1,000 hours, you’ll realize that how much you DO know about nutrition is far eclipsed by how much you DON’T know.
1,000 hours makes you qualified to know something very important: there’s a vast sea of important stuff you don’t know, along with important stuff that no humans (yet) know.
When we analyze studies at Examine.com, we do it as humbly as possible. Even a dedicated team of researchers isn’t enough to fully grasp the nuances of nutrition science and all the related fields. Because nutrition research is so complex yet helpful, we encourage you to learn as much as you can, turning a critical eye to us and any other source of information.
Curious about what the latest research actually says?
If you want to stay on top of the latest nutrition research, check out the Examine Membership.
As an Examine Member, you unlock a fully referenced research database, actionable study summaries every month across 25 health categories, and in-depth analysis of the most interesting nutrition studies, using understandable language and helpful infographics.
If you’re a health professional (or you're just a nutrition nerd at heart), the suite of content you get as an Examine Member will pique your curiosity, and save you time and money.