Myth: Doctors Aren’t Taught Much Nutrition

Myth: Doctors don’t learn much about nutrition in medical school.

False. Doctors learn quite a bit- starting from the most elemental level of chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry – to how foods are processed in the human body and where (anatomy and physiology). In addition we learn with the requirements for macronutrients and micronutrients of healthy and sick people.  It is physicians who must put together the “total iv nutrition” –for those who cannot eat or use their guts for food.

When someone is critically ill in a hospital what you don’t see is a physician calling up the local health food store to get advice from the person behind the counter.  Nor do you see a physician calling a gym and asking a personal trainer to tell us what to give and how much.

How often do we hear this myth? Doctors don’t treat with food, but pills because of some grand conspiracy with “Big Pharma.” But in fact, doctors learn quite a bit about nutrition, from the most elemental scientific part of it, to the sickest patient that needs our nutritional care.  And when some say we only treat with pills – our response is often, because we can. Because we know what works, we know how those drugs interact with most people, and we have gone to eight years of school beyond high school, and then three to five more after that to learn how to treat and heal disease.  The reason that your local health food store guy can’t treat with drugs – he can’t practice medicine without a license. Giving food isn’t medicine- in fact, it is protected if you don’t use food or market food as a treatment for a specific disease.

Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” That was 2000 years ago when there wasn’t good medicine, beyond a few plants – and some of the “medicine” killed more than it cured.

There are plenty of quotes from people who talked about how food is better than drugs. Most of those quotes were from years ago when doctors had no science, and only anecdotes, and the medicine was just as likely to kill you as the disease.

How Doctors Used to Train:
Doctors used to get their medical degrees in as little as six weeks, but all that changed in 1910  when the “Flexner Report” was published. The report was critical of medical education in the United States and Canada.  It caused a number of medical schools to close down, and to eliminate the questionable teachings, such as that of homeopathy. It changed medical schools to the German model – of rigorous scientific thinking. Now, before one can even get into medical school, most require a degree from college. Medical school is now four years- two years of teaching basic medical science and two years of clinical teaching.  When graduating from medical school graduates then take an internship (1 year post medical school) and then specialize in a residency (2-7 years).

Food can kill you, but it can’t cure you.
People who eat healthy can get heart disease, cancer. People can eat processed food, and appear to have all the essential micronutrients, and can do poorly. But, you cannot cure heart disease with diet, nor can you cure cancer with diet, nor can you cure appendicitis with diet, nor can you cleanse the liver, or cleanse the colon. You can become obese eating healthy foods.  We have been seduced into thinking that since the Scottish Surgeon, James Lund, did the first experiment showing that citrus reversed scurvy that diet is the answer to all ills.

How Surgeons Learned Nutrition:
Surgeons are the ones who see the worst disasters when it comes to guts. We have to sometimes take out guts that have cancer, or infection, or are mangled in car accidents, or blown into bits by guns.  Or even patients who cannot eat for a while after having surgery, they need nutrition. It was surgeons who developed the first nutrition that could be given by an IV. It was surgeons who formulated the first great shakes for people who have feeding tubes into their stomachs, or their bowel. It was surgeons who discovered that you need fat as an energy source in food other the liver can become, paradoxically,  filled with fat.  It was surgeons who discovered that if you leave out chromium the patient’s blood sugars will become unstable leading to diabetes. It was surgeons who formulated how much protein a person would need, and that it would change depending on if they had a stress, like a burn, trauma,  or if they had surgery.

smoothies for health

This surgeon loves smoothies- great nutrition.

So when someone tells you that a doctor just doesn’t learn much about nutrition, you should ask, “compared to whom?”

Doctors in the Kitchen

When not on television or doing research, my practice is devoted to helping people who are obese lose weight.  Part of this is surgery- but the bigger part is nutrition. I spend more time teaching people how to cook than I do operating on them. Now this new field of  “culinary medicine,” has taken off- with courses offered from Harvard through the Culinary Institute of America.

Many doctors are teaching patients how to cook, which means they have to learn about ingredients, how they combine together, and how to cook them properly. They learn what is healthy, what can cause disease. They learn when it’s time to throw out food because it can cause disease. They develop an appreciation for food.

I tell every new patient who seeks to have weight loss surgery, “above all, I want you to be the cook. I want you to be the one that when someone is having a party, they want you to do the cooking. I want to turn you into a food snob. I want you to find chain restaurants not as interesting as restaurants that serve made-to-order food.”

Of course, the biggest myths in food today are not that doctor’s don’t know about nutrition, but the false notion that certain foods will heal, or cure. I was shocked when I read that T.Collin Campbell, who is not a physician but a Ph.D. in physiology, was trying to convince some women who had the gene for breast cancer that they didn’t need to have an operation, but just to change their diet.  Steve Jobs came under similar influence- thought that by eating vegetables only he could turn off the cancer in his body, and not have surgery- eventually he had his surgery, a year after his diagnosis and who knows if it was done earlier if it would have saved him.

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and received his MD. Dr. Simpson, then became a renowned weight loss surgeon, and a leading advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he advocates teaching people to improve their health through their food. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcom Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit


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