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Health Experts

Who Were the Original Natural Food Pioneers?

These visionaries changed the way we think about nutrition and sparked a wellness revolution

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They’re all gone now-the doctors and health enthusiasts who shaped our current thinking about natural health and nutritional therapies. But what a legacy they left behind. We owe almost everything we know about the healing powers of natural foods and supplements to these folks who led the way to a new understanding of health and wellness.

Adelle Davis (1904-1974)

Trained as a nutritionist, Davis became an early advocate of natural foods. She published several small books on nutrition and health in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1965, her encyclopedic book Let’s Get Well became a best seller.

While she wasn’t the only person during her era to promote alternative diet and health ideas, what distinguished Davis was her grasp of not just nutrition, but also nutritional biochemistry and scientific research in the field. She recommended that people eat natural, whole foods and-drawing on published studies and the clinical experiences of physicians-she recommended vitamin supplements for a diverse number of health problems.

“It can scarcely be emphasized that nutrition is never competitive with the practice of medicine, but is an aid to both the physician and the patient,” Davis wrote. “To eat wisely is different indeed from the home treatment of disease.”

Henry Bieler, MD, (1893-1975)

A contemporary of Davis, Bieler roared to fame in 1965 with his book, Food is Your Best Medicine, which remains in print today.

Bieler’s thesis was simple: you are what you eat, and opting for whole natural foods-as opposed to fast and convenience foods-is crucial to optimum health. “His advice is timeless,” says Linda Chamberlin, his granddaughter. Bieler wrote that he personally gave up the use of medications and relied “solely on food as my medicine.” He added that “it wasn’t long until (after repeated verified results) I discarded drugs in treating my patients. My colleagues, at the time, thought I had lost my mind. But time has only strengthened my belief.”

It was nothing less than controversial for a physician to avoid medications and rely strictly on the healing powers of food. And not surprisingly, Bieler had his battles with the American Medical Association. But he was on solid scientific ground-after all, nutrients form the foundation of our genes and biochemistry. “Dr. Bieler is probably best remembered for teaching people how to use natural foods to take care of themselves,” says Chamberlin. “That’s absolutely priceless.”

Jack LaLanne (1914-2011) 

As a kid, LaLanne was practically the stereotype of a pimply 98-pound weakling. But he gave up eating junk food when he was 15 years old, read up on anatomy, and started working out with weights. Six years later, he opened a combination gym, health food store, and juice bar-at the time, putting him firmly on the fringe. In the 1950s, he started a local, San Francisco-based television show to promote exercise, and soon, that show went national.

LaLanne admitted that he hated exercising, but you would have never guessed it by the enthusiasm he put into his television show and public appearances, often with his wife Elaine. That enthusiasm motivated millions of people to get fit and eat healthier foods. He promoted juicing of raw vegetables and fruits. To the very end, LaLanne remained trim and physically fit. Not a bad way of living 96 years.

Roger Williams, PhD, (1893-1988) 

One of the most eminent nutritional biochemists of his time, Williams discovered the B-vitamin pantothenic acid. He founded and directed the Clayton Foundation Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, where more vitamins and vitamin-like nutrients have been discovered than at any other laboratory in the world.

Williams’ greatest accomplishment, however, may have been his concept of biochemical individuality, which also became the title of a book he published in 1956. He originally developed the concept based on the strikingly different nutritional requirements of sibling lab animals, then extended his findings to people. In essence, biochemical individuality means this: We all share the same need for essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. But our genetics, anatomy, and biochemistry shape our individual requirements for these nutrients. Some people, for instance, may require large amounts of certain nutrients to maintain good health, while others may require very little.

Williams had the remarkable ability to explain complex biochemical concepts in terms that the average person could understand. His books, such as Biochemical Individuality and Nutrition Against Disease, still provide tremendous insight into the workings of the body and the importance of nutrition in health.

Linus Pauling, PhD, (1901-1994) 

Twice a Nobel Prize laureate, Pauling was regarded as one of the foremost modern scientists, second only to Albert Einstein, for his work in biochemistry and molecular biology. In 1965, after he had retired, Pauling became interested in the health benefits of large amounts of vitamins. At the time, conventional physicians dismissed Pauling’s claims for vitamin C and accused him of stepping outside his field of specialty and into medicine. But as it turned out, Pauling was right and the doctors were wrong.

In a 1968 article published in the journal Science, Pauling coined the phrase “orthomolecular” medicine to describe the goals of nutritional therapy and supplements. He explained that orthomolecular meant to straighten out the molecules of the body, using substances that are normally present, such as vitamins. As a chemist, Pauling clearly understood that suboptimal amounts of vitamins slowed important biochemical reactions in the body. Large amounts of vitamin C, which he recommended for both the common cold and cancer, enhanced these biochemical reactions. Although Pauling’s recommendations for vitamin C are still considered controversial, considerable research does support its use.

When I met Pauling in 1990, he pulled three test tubes from his pocket. “These are just to prove that I’m still an old- fashioned chemist,” he said. But the test tubes proved another point also. The first was empty. “This is the amount of vitamin C people produce,” Pauling said. The second tube has a pinch of vitamin C in it. “This is the Recommended Daily Allowance for vitamin C-60 milligrams,” he pointed out. The third test tube contained a lot of vitamin C. “Thirteen grams. That’s what a goat produces in a day.” And that’s what Pauling thought would be good for most people.

Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD, (1917-2009)

Educated as a chemist and expert in the B-complex vitamins, Hoffer also trained to be a physician. He quickly found himself heading the mental health programs for the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. It was pure serendipity when he began collaborating with Humphrey Osmond, MD, who had recently relocated to Saskatchewan from England. Freud might have been all the rage in psychiatry, but Hoffer and Osmond took a biochemical approach, theorizing that a by-product of adrenaline caused delusions and hallucinations in the mentally ill-and that a combination of vitamins B3 and C might break down the problematic chemical.

Hoffer and Osmond conducted the first double-blind study in psychiatry, reporting that the vitamin combination (3,000 mg of each daily) led to recoveries among people with recent-onset schizophrenia. That study was published in the prestigious Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic. A year later, Hoffer and his colleagues showed that the niacin form of vitamin B3 could lower cholesterol levels, and the vitamin is still widely used for that purpose.

In the 1980s, Hoffer became interested in the nutritional treatment of cancer, and he began treating cancer patients with large doses of vitamins, achieving impressive long-term survivals in patients. He was also a prolific author, and one of his best books is Hoffer’s Laws of Natural Medicine.

Evan Shute, MD, (1905-1979), and Wilfrid Shute, MD, (1907-1982)

In the 1940s, Evan Shute began using vitamin E to successfully treat coronary artery disease-work that was lauded in the June 10, 1945 issue of Time magazine-and his brother Wilfrid soon joined him. But controversy followed the clinical use of vitamin E, and the Shutes’ work was often dismissed by conventional doctors.

The Shutes’ use of vitamin E remains controversial today, although considerable medical evidence has confirmed the vitamin’s benefits. When I met Evan Shute in 1975, he felt that his legacy would be related to the topical use of vitamin E to promote healing and reduce scar formation in burn victims.

And Don’t Forget …

In addition to the pioneers featured above, there are many, many others who deserve recognition for their groundbreaking work in the field of natural health, including:

Albert Szent-Györgi, MD, Ph.D., who suggested that people focus on optimal nutrition (not just treating deficiency diseases) in 1939;

Frederick Klenner, MD, who began using high-dose vitamin C in the 1940s to treat infectious diseases such as polio;

Lendon Smith, MD, whose warm sense of humor as the first “television doctor” helped popularize natural foods and supplements;

Hugh D. Riordan, MD, who measured blood levels of nutrients in his patients to fine-tune nutritional therapies, including using intravenous vitamin C to help treat cancer.