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History of Nutritional Science

“The doctor of the future will give no medicine but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.” – Thomas Edison

Nutrition has always and will always remain one of the fundamental determinants of health. Nutritional discoveries from the earliest days of history have had a positive effect on our health and well-being. The word nutrition means “The process of nourishing or being nourished, especially the process by which a living organism assimilates food and uses it for growth and replacement of tissues.” Nutrients are substances provided by foods that are essential to life. Clinical nutrition is concerned with the relationship between diet and disease. There is now a large body of scientific knowledge to support what naturopathic doctors have been practicing for hundreds of years.

It all began in 400 BCE when Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, said, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food” and, “A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings.”

In the early 1800s, it was discovered that foods are composed primarily of four elements: carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen. Once this discovery was made, scientists began developing methods to determine the amounts of these elements in foods.

By 1840, Justus Liebig of Germany, a pioneer in early plant growth studies, became the first person to recognize the chemical makeup of carbohydrates, fats and proteins.  Carbohydrates were made of sugars, fats were fatty acids and proteins were made up of amino acids.

In 1897, Christiaan Eijkman, a Dutchman working with natives in Java, observed that some of the natives developed a disease called Beriberi, which caused heart problems and paralysis. Eijkman observed that when chickens were fed the native diet of white rice, they also developed the symptoms of Beriberi. When Eijkman fed the chickens unprocessed brown rice (with the outer bran intact), they did not develop the disease.  When he fed the same brown rice to his patients, they were cured. Eijkman proved that food could cure disease. Nutritionists later learned that the outer rice bran contained vitamin B1, and it was this vitamin that was curing Dr. Eijkman’s patients of Beriberi.

In 1912, E.V. McCollum, while working for the US Department of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, discovered the first fat-soluble vitamin, Vitamin A. McCollum fed butter to one group of rats and lard to another group. He found that the rats that were fed butter were healthier, as butter contains more Vitamin A.

Also in 1912, Dr. Casmir Funk coined the term “vitamins” as vital factors to diet. He wrote about these unidentified substances present in food that could prevent scurvy, beriberi and pellagra (a disease caused by a deficiency of niacin, vitamin B-3). The term vitamin is derived from the words vital and amine, because vitamins are required for life and they were originally thought to be amines — compounds derived from ammonia.

In the 1930s, William Rose discovered essential amino acids, which are responsible for forming the building blocks of protein.

By the 1940s, water soluble B and C vitamins were identified.

From the 1950s to the present, the roles of essential nutrients as part of bodily processes have been brought to light. For example, more is known about the role of vitamins and minerals as components of enzymes and hormones that work within the body.

In 1968, Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, created the term Orthomolecular Nutrition.  Orthomolecular is, literally, “pertaining to the right molecule.” Pauling proposed that by giving the body the right molecules in the right concentration, people could achieve better health and prolong life. Studies in the 1970s and 80s suggested that when very large doses of vitamin C were given intravenously they could increase the survival time and quality of life of terminal cancer patients.

Nutritional sciences is now a major area of study within the medical and research fields. Nutritional discoveries are constantly evolving as we gather a more in-depth understanding of the biochemistry and physiology of human beings. We have only just begun to truly understand the role that nutrition plays in health and wellness.