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A brief history of nutrition

Learn about the evolution of nutrition careers and dietitian jobs

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“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”

~ La Rochefoucauld

The history of the study of food as medicine reveals centuries of discovery and development of nutrition careers.

Although modern science and the latest discoveries in biology, medicine, and health inform today’s field of nutrition and diet, people have been investigating the very real link between food and health for much longer than you may think.

Food and the history of healing through nutrition

In 400 B.C. the Greek physician Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine” said, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates realized that food impacts a person’s health, body and mind to help prevent illness as well as maintain wellness.

In Hippocrates’ Greece, as well as across pre-modern Europe and Asia since ancient times, foods were used to affect health. For instance, the juice of liver was squeezed on the eye to treat eye diseases, connected to Vitamin A deficiency. Garlic was used to cure athlete’s foot, and eating ginger was thought to stimulate the metabolism.

In 1747, a British Navy physician, Dr. James Lind, saw that sailors were developing scurvy, a deadly bleeding disorder, on long voyages. He observed that they ate only nonperishable foods such as bread and meat.

Lind’s experiment fed one group of sailors salt water, one group vinegar, and one group limes. Those given limes didn’t develop scurvy. And although Vitamin C wasn’t discovered until the 1930s, this experiment changed the way physicians thought about food, creating a market for nutrition careers.

Scientific developments in nutrition

During the Enlightenment and into the Victorian age, scientific and medical development increased exponentially.

The concept of metabolism, the transfer of food and oxygen into heat and water in the body, creating energy, was discovered in 1770 by Antoine Lavoisier, the “Father of Nutrition and Chemistry.” And in the early 1800s, the elements of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen, the main components of food, were isolated and soon connected to health.

Work in the area of the chemical nature of foods—carbohydrates, fats, and proteins—was done by Justus Liebig of Germany, and led to research in the area of vitamins in the early 20th century. In 1912, a Polish doctor, Casimir Funk, coined the term “vitamins” as essential factors in the diet. The term vitamin—first called “vitamine”—comes from “vital” and “amine,” because vitamins are required for life and they were originally thought to be amines—compounds derived from ammonia.

In 1912, E.V. McCollum, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher at the University of Wisconsin, began using rats instead of humans in his experiments rather than cows and sheep. He found the first fat-soluble vitamin, Vitamin A, and discovered that rats were healthier when they were fed butter rather than lard, as butter contains more Vitamin A. Other diseases were linked to vitamin deficiencies, such as beri-beri, resulting from a lack of Vitamin B, and rickets, brought on by a lack of Vitamin D.

The growth of the health products industry

Many other vitamins were discovered and isolated in the early 20th century, and the concept of supplementing health with vitamins was born.

The first vitamin pills were marketed in the 1930s and created a new industry around science-based health products. In October of 1994, the Dietary and Supplement Health and Education Act was approved by Congress. It sets forth what can and cannot be said about nutritional supplements without prior Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review, showing the impact of this industry.

Dietitians and nutritionists first worked in hospitals in the late 19th century as the role of good nutrition in health began to be accepted. In the United States, the Public Health Service began including dietitians in PHS Hospital staff in 1919 after World War I, to help monitor and improve the health of World War I veterans, and became increasingly involved in the nation’s health care system and beyond, into the private sector.

The rise of the nutrition-oriented professions

As nutrition and dietitian programs started to become more prevalent, nutrition careers and dietitian jobs became more popular. Dietitians are registered with the American Dietetic Association and are only able to use the title “dietitian” when they have met strict, specific educational and experiential prerequisites and passed a national registration examination. The title “nutritionist” is protected and designated by many but not all states in the United States.

Traditionally, dietitians work in hospitals, schools, and prisons, and nutritionists more often work in private practice, in education and research, although there is some overlap between the two.

As we become increasingly aware and concerned about how nutrition affects our health, the fields of nutrition and alternative medicine have seen unprecedented growth and expansion. This continuing demand has fueled increasing nutrition jobs growth and has provided more career opportunities than ever. College distance-learning and online nutrition programs are a great way to explore this unique field with a distinguished and ancient pedigree.

Sources: United States Public Health Service, American Dietetic Association (ADA), NutritionBreathroughs.com.