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- In 2015, Stanford lecturer Maya Adam, MD started teaching a course called Introduction to Food and Health on Coursera. Over half a million students have enrolled since then.
- The class focuses on developing healthy eating habits, emphasizing beneficial nutrients to add to your diet and harmful components to stay away from.
- I signed up for the class and it helped me make better food choices and reinforced my existing healthy habits.
According to the World Health Organization, chronic diseases are the leading causes of death and disability around the world. Yet a majority of them could be prevented or alleviated with lifestyle changes, such as “early detection, improved diet, exercise, and treatment therapy,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While diet is only part of the equation, the CDC notes that fewer than one in 10 US adults and adolescents eat enough fruits and vegetables. This is due to many factors, such as the promotion of processed food, harmful diet culture, and the lack of education around healthy eating.
Luckily, one online course is redefining nutrition education by teaching individuals how to eat to live longer, healthier lives. Taught by Stanford lecturer Maya Adam, MD, Coursera’s free class, Stanford Introduction to Food and Health debunks common food myths and helps individuals gain practical skills to start eating healthier.
Adam, a physician and professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, has been teaching courses on child health and nutrition since 2009. In 2013, she founded Just Cook for Kids, a nonprofit initiative that develops educational content for families on healthful eating and cooking. She started teaching her most popular course, Stanford Introduction to Food and Health, in 2015, and since then, 515,038 students have enrolled. To see firsthand why so many people are drawn to this course, I decided to sign up.
The course covers the following topics in five weekly installments:
- Background on Food & Nutrients
- Contemporary Trends in Eating
- Future Directions in Health – Part 1
- Future Directions in Health – Part 2
- Cooking Workshop
Included in the coursework are short videos, readings, and half-hour quizzes to apply your knowledge. It officially takes four weeks to finish the course, but there’s an optional fifth week you can take to learn how to prepare healthy meals, with recipes demonstrated by Adam herself.
What to expect from the class
The class is accessible and user-friendly. It takes big, broad health topics and breaks them down through short videos that focus on the different aspects through a nutritional lens. In the first week, you go from understanding the history of modern chronic diseases to ultimately learning which foods are good for you and which ones to steer clear of, all through documentary-style videos that take an hour to watch in total.
It’s fairly short, too — you can take the course over a span of four weeks or even in one sitting, which would just be a couple of hours. There are weekly quizzes to help you stay on top of everything, but absolutely no required reading or note-taking. All of the content is concise, easy to follow, and visually focused, with lots of graphics in the videos to help illustrate what optimizing your eating looks like.
Sign up for free here, or keep reading to learn about my experience.
My experience taking the class
I definitely revel in online classes and I take short ones often to deepen my knowledge in the health and wellness space. Prior to signing up for this one, I’ve taken courses on sustainability, plant-based eating, and meditation. I liked how I could take the course at my own pace and not have to worry so much about grading. It made the process stress-free, yet still engaging and enjoyable.
The best part of this course was being able to apply the knowledge in real life and in real-time. It felt convenient and pragmatic — I would incorporate something new on my trip to the grocery store each week. After I learned about how to effectively scan a nutrition label, I went beyond just looking at the calorie and sugar content of my groceries, but also started paying attention to the amount of dietary fiber, a plant-based nutrient that helps control blood sugar levels, promotes a healthy gut, and reduces the risk of heart disease.
I eventually realized many of my food choices were low in fiber and made some healthier swaps that are now my new favorite foods, like oat bran breakfast biscuits and yellow lentils. The course reinforced my existing healthy eating habits while adding new ones, broadening my understanding of the “why” behind what we should eat for good health.
Another aspect of the class that I immediately adopted was incorporating healthy cooking hacks in preparing convenient meals. As someone who’s always on-the-go, I learned a lot about what foods to stock up on in my pantry and fridge to whip up a nutritious and easy meal in minutes (and avoid relying on Uber Eats or DoorDash).
Now, I make sure to always have onions, tofu, olive oil, frozen veggies, and canned protein-rich beans in my kitchen. On days where I just need to grab a quick bite, you can find me throwing together a bean salad with canned chickpeas, olive oil, salt, and pepper in less than five minutes.
When I usually have more time, I cook a variety of flavorful dishes such as tofu stir-fry, veggie pasta, lentil soup, black bean tacos, and more. While these nourishing food hacks are a sustainable solution, the course does uphold intuitive eating – for those days where I crave a burger or ice cream sundae – affirming that it should be eaten in moderation.
Here’s what I liked:
Every aspect of the course is action-oriented.
For example, you learn about how to take a stepwise approach to a more sustainable dietary transformation. For me, this meant swapping my high-sodium, saturated fat snacks with healthier alternatives. Honestly, I am not a huge fan of meal prepping because I don’t prefer eating the same meal for days, but it’s different with snacks since I munch on pretty much the same things each day.
For instance, instead of popping a bag of salty popcorn in the microwave, I made my own popcorn ahead of time – topped with a sprinkle of olive oil, kosher salt, and nutritional yeast – and stored it in individual-sized bags for the days of the week. The course promoted this switch, which allows me to create homemade, more nutritious versions of my favorite snack without compromising on taste and flavor. Most of the content in the curriculum is centered around simple actions you can take in your daily life. It doesn’t just tell you what to eat — it tells you how to eat it too.
The quizzes provide a lot of structure and hold you accountable.
If you’re not a huge fan of grades (like me), you’ll still see that it is sort of an efficient portal to apply your knowledge and maintain your understanding. The course does cover quite a few topics each week and the weekly quiz helps you stay on top of the content so you don’t find yourself going back and forth. Plus, there are multiple attempts on the quizzes so you can surely try a few times!
You can easily interact with other students in the forum.
Luckily, the course does have an online forum where you can connect with other students, ask questions, and chat about course content each week. I really enjoyed hearing others’ perspectives and even learned a lot from a sociocultural point of view regarding the diversity in eating.
By the end, you’ll know exactly which nutrients to incorporate into your diet and what to avoid.
I love that the course has a whole unit on recipes (aka optional week 5) where you get 10 new healthy recipes to start with! The recipes are demonstrated by Adam herself, where she walks you step-by-step on how to prepare these easy, delicious meals in your home kitchen.
During the fifth week, I prepared one recipe each day, from idlis to sweet pea salad to a spicy lasagna. One of my favorite recipes from the course was the asparagus torta, which featured crispy sautéed asparagus baked with eggs and spices. As a plant-based eater, I subbed the eggs with a chickpea flour and water mixture. The dish was easy to throw together, tasted delectable, and was packed with nutrients. I’m excited to assemble this dish again and again experimenting with a variety of different vegetables, spices, and whole grains.
The bottom line:
Ultimately, this course is not just about giving you the knowledge on food and nutrition but helping you change your lifestyle. By the end of the class, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to empower others and influence your community to live more fulfilling, healthier lives just by the power of nutritious, home cooking.