Let Food Be Thy Medicine: A Brief Look at the History of Nutrition

In the past several weeks, we've discussed the role of registered dietitians in public health and preventive care. We've examined updates in public health nutrition. Today, we’re taking a look at how nutritional sciences became integrated into mainstream wellness and healthcare. 

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” It seems everyone, young and old, knows this expression. We have long recognized the association between a healthy diet and a healthy body. But, as we discussed recently, our idea of just what constitutes a healthy diet has changed dramatically over the years. A Canadian study in 2010 found that most physicians believed that most of their patients would benefit from nutritional counseling, and we certainly agree! But have you ever wondered how the relationship between nutritional counseling and primary care developed? 

Cultures from around the world have historically incorporated food into medical treatments for nearly every type of disease. Even in antiquity, people were making health claims about certain foods. A popular quote, “Let food be thy medicine,” is often attributed to Hippocrates, the father of western medicine. Greek scholars believed that our health was dependent on a balance between four “humors,” and that any disruptions could be rebalanced by consuming foods with specific properties. Notions about the balance between humors persisted for centuries. Eastern medical traditions, such as Ayurveda, also emphasized the importance of diet as treatment. 

Eventually, the Scientific Revolution changed the world, and these ideas gave way to evidence-backed claims about nutrition. However, there are many dubious health claims that circulate and are incorporated into diets. For further reading on the history of scientific developments in nutrition, take time to look at Kenneth Carpenter’s detailed 4-part series, A Short History of Nutritional Science, published in the Journal of Nutrition:

We’re glad that nutrition is now more “mainstream” when it comes to health and wellness. Evidence of this is that we celebrate National Nutrition Month each March. Its earliest incarnation began in 1973 with the slogan “Invest in Yourself--Buy Nutrition.” Over the years, this campaign has raised awareness of the importance of nutrition in health. Of course, there is much more progress to be made to incorporate nutrition into the primary care environment – and in debunking nutrition myths not grounded in evidence-based science. But with incredible dietitians like you leading the charge, we know change will continue! 

What are your favorite facts about the history of nutrition? Comment below!