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Nutritional Medicine as a Career Option

by Prof. Dato’ Sri Steve Yap


AROUND 450BC, Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, said:” Let your food be your medicine, and  your medicine be your food.”

So using food as medicine is probably the oldest western medical practice. Since more than 70% of all illnesses are linked to nutritional/ dietary deficiencies and poor lifestyle habits, nutritional medicine is being organised as a ‘new’ profession over the past two decades.

University degree courses on nutritional medicine started to appear a decade ago in the UK, then in Australia and now in the US. Until recently, there were three professional bodies on nutritional medicine/therapy in the UK. A recent government initiative saw the establishment of the Nutritional Therapy Council (NTC) to regulate this rapidly expanding branch of the healthcare.

The NTC (2006) defines nutritional therapy as:” The application of nutrition and health science to enable individuals to maximise their health potential. It can help (treat) a wide range of (medical) conditions and assist in the recovery from many ill-health situations. Nutritional therapists work with clients with chronic health problems and provide advice on prevention and control. These protocols (treatment) can impact on hormonal, neurological & immune functions.”

A therapy is a ‘treatment’ and a therapist is a trained healthcare professional who administers treatments.

Most nutritional therapists (NTs) operate in the wellness (rather than ‘sickness’) industry, which is projected to be the next trillion dollar global industry. In this fast growing new healthcare system, those who hare well also visit NTs so that they stay healthier for many more years. The emerging anti-ageing (lifespan) medicine popularised in North America and Western Europe is also part of this wellness industry.


NT different from nutritionist, dietician

NTs examine chronic health problems at a micro (or cellular) level and not at a macro level, which is better performed by the nutritionists. Macro information on healthcare may be useful for prevention, but not suited for use in treatment and / or reversal of health disorders of any particular individual.

For individuals already suffering from chronic health problems, just suppressing their symptoms may not satisfy their needs. This is where nutritional medicine comes in. if a health disorder is strongly linked to dietary and lifestyle habits, then it is considered reversible.

Some years ago, the Complementary Medical Association (UK) estimated that there were some 25,000 pieces of peer-reviewed journal evidence to substantiate the use of nutraceuticals in health therapies.

Today, the evidence would have at least doubled since medical knowledge doubles every two to three years/ Those who do not read peer-reviewed journals outside their own area of specialisation may unfairly claim that there is lack of ‘adequate’ evidence in the use of the nutraceuticals. Interestingly, at a local university a whole new department on nutraceutical research is making major contribution to the understanding of local edible plant extracts suitable for health therapy.

NTs do not agree that all the nutrients needed to live under today’s toxic and stressful conditions could be obtained from foods sold in the markets or served in restaurants. The amount of nutrients present in food depend on soil quality, fertilisers, harvesting, processing and storage, as well as cooking and serving methods. Most foodstuff today contain far less nutrients than those grown decades ago. In addition, pesticides, artificial fertilisers and colourings are widely used.

A NT must be an independent professional and not employed by any organisation on work under the instruction of any party with vested interest in the results of his therapy. He/She is not permitted to promote health/medical products on behalf of any company or use any product as a means of promoting the practice.


Division to monitor NTs

The Traditional and Complementary Medicine (T&CM) Division of the Ministry of Health (MoH) oversees all aspects of training and qualifications of those wishing to practise as nutritional therapists. In the near future, it is likely that the task of monitoring as well as the issuance of practising licences shall fall on the proposed T&CM Council, which is to be established by an Act of Parliament soon.

The T&CM division is located on the first and second floors of Block E of MoH, Jalan Cenderasari, in Kuala Lumpur. Members of public may contact the division at 03-2698077.


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