The RDA to Nowhere

There are a lot of “Johnny-come-lately” doctors these days who have added nutritional medicine to their practices. Thanks, in part, to increased public demand for real solutions. But what does the average doctor really know about nutrition

Because, believe me, just wearing a white coat and draping a stethoscope around your neck doesn’t make you an expert.

The fact is, most doctors don’t learn a thing about nutrition in medical school. Medical schools today are far more focused on teaching doctors about drugs.

As a result, most physicians never learn what Hippocrates said about the importance of air, water, and food. Or what Thomas Jefferson said about a natural, healthy diet doing more good than all the physicians in town. Or what Thomas Edison recommended about the doctor of the future prescribing foods and exercise instead of drugs..

I’m always proud of my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. But that pride grew even more a few years ago. Thanks to the brilliant deans of the medical school. They led a group of faculty and alumni to the annual meeting of the American Association of Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. The purpose of this mission? To protest the idea of having drug companies dictate what medical students are taught.

This would have been unthinkable when I was in medical school. Of course, in those days, the leaders of Pharma were themselves doctors, pharmacists, scientists, and professionals. Not just multinational corporate raiders with vague European accents.

Once upon a time, leaders in government public health, pharmaceuticals, and medical schools were all generally drawn from the same pool of talent.

And the finest of that talent was (and still is) on display in the faculty of Penn. The most knowledgeable, skilled, hard-working group of people you would ever want to meet.

Penn worked the faculty hard and was good to the students. It was the kind of place where the same professors who wrote the textbooks we used also taught us in the classrooms and the laboratories.

I was fortunate enough to have the professor who wrote our textbook of physiology as my laboratory preceptor in my very first semester. Which is when we started to learn the basics of how the human body works.

I would love to be able to take credit for the question that soon came up. But it was actually one of the young women in my class who asked him: “When are we going to learn about nutrition?”

This brilliant, accomplished, distinguished professor carefully explained that it was “not that important.” And that we “did not have time” for it. But if we “really wanted,” there was a chapter on nutrition in the back of his book.

So that should give you a good sense of how nutrition was handled across the board. If the best medical school in the country had “no time” to teach its students about nutrition, who else would?

I finally got to learn about nutrition when I studied for my Ph.D. in anthropology (also at Penn). Human biology, diet and nutrition, human growth and development, dental and skeletal biology (another thing we “didn’t have time for” in medical school) were all required. And then I went on to advanced studies in these areas for my PhD field statements and dissertation topics. And I must say, my Ph.D. studies were far more demanding intellectually than my experience in medical school.

Don’t get me wrong. Medical school is very tough. But more as an exercise in rote memorization and sheer physical and emotional stamina.

And, to be honest, not much has changed since then.

So, is it any wonder that it often seems that modern medicine is just taking shots in the dark when it comes to understanding disease and nutrition? Or health and nutrition? Or even the basics about how healthy teeth, bones, and joints grow and age?

Most M.D.s still don’t recognize more than the recommended daily allowances (RDAs) of vitamins and nutrients. But the RDAs are only good for preventing the kind of severe nutritional deficiencies that have all but disappeared in modern society. The RDAs simply don’t offer the optimal levels of nutrients. Amounts that can truly help prevent the common chronic ailments that plague us today.

We can be confident that we’re protected by the RDA’s from beri-beri,  kwashiorkor, pellagra, scurvy and rickets. But when it comes to preventing and managing today’s big killers through better nutrition and nutrient supplementation—we’re on our own.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you more about why modern medicine’s nutritional short-sightedness is such a huge mistake—and what you can do to correct it.