“Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food” advised Hippocrates more than 2000 years ago. An alluring notion, to be sure. And certainly a sensible one given that food is the source of all the components that make up the human body. But the famous Greek physician’s dietary prescriptions were hampered by a lack of understanding of the chemical complexity of food and the intricacies of human physiology.
Throughout history, advances in nutrition came about more or less through chance discoveries. Jacques Cartier’s second voyage to the New World in 1535 is a typical example. Many of Cartier’s men came down with Scurvy, a potentially deadly ailment for which the French explorers had no solution. But the Iroquois did! These people of the first nations of North America showed the sailors how to strip leaves from a white cedar tree and t boil them into a tea that was rich in Vitamin C. Today we know why drinking the tea had an almost miraculous effect. Scurvy is caused by a lack of Vitamin C, which is present in cedar but was almost non-existent in the explorer’s diet while at sea.
By the 20th century researchers had discovered a number of links between diet and health. In addition to Vitamin C, it become clear that 12 other Vitamins, a host of Minerals and a proper blend of Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins were required to prevent deficiency diseases. Then as such deficiency diseases were eliminated, at least in the developed world, researchers began to shift their attention to tackling the modern plagues of heart disease, cancer and obesity. Informations accumulated quickly and it was able to make concrete recommendations about which foods to eat and which to avoid. Since then, nutritional research has exploded to a great extent.
North American waistlines have expanded dramatically in the last few years, necessitating a fresh look at various weight loss programs. But of course, there is more to life than weight control. recent research has used epidemiological studies, laboratory experiments, and clinical trials to tease out information about certain components of foods and help determine which ones fight diseases. We discovered that lignans in flaxseed may reduce the risk of certain cancers, that beta glucan in oats lowers cholesterol, and that omega-3 fats in fish fight heart disease and may be even depression as well as ease allergies and inflammation related arthritis pain. Lycopene, the red pigment in tomatoes, can reduce the risk of prostrate cancer, and sulforaphane in broccoli has decided anticancer properties.
In the wake of new research findings, food itself is changing. Stanols, isolated from pine trees are being added to some margarines to reduce blood cholesterol;found that insulin from chicory, which fosters the growth of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract, is sometimes added to foods such as yogurt; and some eggs now contain omega-3 fats. On the other hand, researches have also found that hydrogenating fats introduces undesirable trans fatty acids into our food supply, and that many dietary supplements may not live upto the hype that surrounds them.
Numerous food and health questions arise everyday in our lives, and the information available is often confusing. Are artificial sweeteners safe? Can specific foods control the symptoms of menopause? Does sugar make children hyperactive? Is a glass of red wine a day good for us? As our population ages and medical and drug costs soar, it is becoming vitally important to learn how to avoid and treat various problems through the best food choices.