Nutrition is essential to every life form. Specifically, nutrition is defined as “the sum of all processes by which an animal or plant takes in and utilizes food substances”. The intake and use of food has been studied since the beginning of civilization. Famous nutritionists in history have been compelled to understand the impact of food on the body. Even as the science of nutrition has advanced, it remains very important today. As the population of the world continues to increase and nutrients in the land are depleted due to chemicals and pollution, it is becoming more difficult to ensure people are getting proper nutrition. Additionally, there are epidemics of obesity and life-style related diseases that are growing at an alarming rate, which greatly impact quality of life and healthcare costs.
Father of Western Medicine
In ancient Greece, studies of the human sciences were flourishing. Anaxagoras noted that food was absorbed by the body and hypothesized that food contained “homoeomerics”, or basic nutrients. Hippocrates, who taught and practiced medicine throughout his life, believed that all diseases had a natural source, rather than being caused by the gods. Known as the father of western medicine, he famously said, “Let food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food”. Food was often used for both cosmetics and medicines at that time. Writings have described squeezing the juice of a liver, which is rich in Vitamin A, into the eye to treat a certain eye disease, now known to be due to Vitamin A deficiency.
Leonardo da Vinci
The 16th century marked the beginnings of modern science and extraordinary change in the understanding of the world. Leonardo da Vinci, while best known as an artist and inventor, also had a keen understanding of the human body. He compared the process of metabolism in the human body to the burning of a candle.
Dr. James Lind
The 18th century was host to a series of important nutrition discoveries. In 1747, Dr. James Lind performed the first scientific nutrition experiment. A British physician in the Navy, he recognized the deadly, painful bleeding disorder known as scurvy that sailors developed after years at sea. He noted this disease could be cured with the ingestion of the juice of limes; however, his findings were largely ignored for over forty years. It wasn’t until 1930 when the essential Vitamin C was isolated from lime juice.
Many theories had been published by scientists about how ingested food is used by the body, but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that this process was described with methods of chemical analysis and scientific testing. This boom of chemical knowledge became known as the “chemical revolution” in France. Most famous of these “chemical revolution” scientists was Antoine Lavoisier. Known as the father of nutrition and chemistry, he described the chemical process by which food is metabolized in the body. He created an equation demonstrating that the combination of food and oxygen in the body gives off water and heat, explaining the origin of heat given off by the body.
Studies continued to focus on the content of food and what nutrients were essential to the body. In the early 1800s, food was found to be comprised of four primary elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. Later, Justin Liebig, a German scientist, identified the chemical structure of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. In the early 1900s Carl Von Voit and Max Rubner were able to measure the expenditure of caloric energy in animals.
Disease can be caused by a deficiency in vitamins or nutrients. In 1897, Christiaan Eijkman was working with natives of Java who had developed the disease beriberi. Beriberi is a severe disease that causes heart disease and even paralysis. Through his deduction, Eijkman discovered that changing the natives’ diet from white rice to brown rice cured the beriberi. It was later discovered that the husk of the unprocessed brown rice contained thiamine, or Vitamin B1.
Dr. Casmir Funk
The first use of the term “vitamin” was by Dr. Casmir Funk, when he coined the term to describe these substances that were found in food and could cure diseases such as beriberi and scurvy. The term “vitamin” was formed from the combination of “vital” and “amine” because it was originally thought these substances were derived from ammonia. The first vitamins discovered were Vitamin A and Vitamin B in 1912. The discovery of vitamins culminated with the finding of Vitamin B12 in 1948.
Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winning chemist, pioneered the idea of Orthomolecular Nutrition. Orthomolecular means “pertaining to the right molecule”. Pauling believed that the correct molecules in the correct concentrations lead to optimum nutrition, enabling people to lead healthier and longer lives. In 1941, the first Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) were established by the National Research Council to help guide people on healthy eating. The RDAs are revised every ten years and outline recommended daily amounts of vitamins, minerals, sugars, proteins and carbohydrates.
As epidemics of obesity and lifestyle-related diseases continue to grow around the world, understanding the impact of food on the body will be more important than ever. Nutrition awards in the future may go to those people who find methods of nutrition that can prevent disease and prolong life. Consumers are faced with choosing foods that are healthful at the grocery store, often between highly-processed cheaper foods and minimally-processed more expensive foods. While scientists help to improve the knowledge we have about foods, day to day food choices are made by the consumers, making the role of the nutritionist irreplaceable. The study of nutrition continues to be an important field that will impact the daily lives of people around the world.