“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”
This is perhaps one of the best-known quotes on diet and health attributed to Hippocrates, the physician in Ancient Greece considered to be the father of medicine. Only it seems that he never said it.
Dr Diana Cardenas, in her 2013 paper “Let not thy food be confused with thy medicine: The Hippocratic misquotation”, investigated the origin of this supposedly Hippocratic quotation. With the assistance of Professor Jacques Jouanna, an expert in ancient Greek and an author of books on Hippocrates, she confirmed that the quotation does not exist in any of the writings of Hippocrates.
In contrast, Dr Cardenas argues that, although diet was a major part of his practice of medicine, Hippocrates would not have made this statement as it fundamentally contradicts his principles of Hippocratic practice. Namely that food and medicine were considered to be different, even if both very important.
Diana Cardenas concludes this misquotation has been accepted due to the iconic reputation of Hippocrates.
This leads to the obvious question posted by Diana herself. If it did not originate from Hippocrates, then where did this quote originate from? This led me to some interesting, if frustrating, searching in the realm of Google Books Ngram Viewer, a searchable archive of millions of printed publications over the past three centuries showing trends in the use of words.
Using “food be your medicine“, which seems to be the earliest used version of the phrase, there is nothing before the 1920s, when this first appears.
Similarly, the alternate archaic wording “food be thy medicine” first appears in the around 1959, but then its use really takes off during the early 1970’s.
The use of the phrase has increased steadily since its use caught on in the 1970s. It is now so ubiquitous that it is hard to imagine now that its origin is so recent. Although the lack of any results before the 1920s does not mean it was not used earlier, the lack of any written documents in the Google Books archive suggests that it was not widely used before that time.
Your food must be your medicine
The first time that I can find a similar phrase used, “Your food must make and keep you well; your food must be your medicine”, is in a periodical published in London in 1921 called Public Opinion (Volume 120), although there is no indication that this is linked to Hippocrates.
Let your food be your medicine
The first mention of the phrase “Let your food be your medicine” appears to be in a book by Otto Carqué called The Key to Rational Dietetics published in 1926. Otto was an early Los Angeles based diet and health diet book guru. The very first page of this book begins with this quote but this does not appear to be linked to Hippocrates, who is not mentioned in the book.
An edition of the magazine “National Magazine of Health” repeats the phrase in an apparent review of Otto’s book.
A year later in 1927, in page 296 of the Wisconsin Beekeeping (Volumes 4-6), we find “Let food be your medicine” used by one Mrs E Nedvidek of the Riese Naturopathic Sanitarium in relation to honey, but apparently not linked to Hippocrates.
Mrs. E. Nedvidek, Manager of the Riese Naturopathic Sanitarium, La- Crosse, in telling how she uses honey in her sanitarium, said, “We use all natural foods, and our motto is ‘Let food be your medicine‘. We use honey as a sweet in every instance. Honey is the best blood builder you can get. We start the little babies on honey. It is not only a food, it is also a medicine.
Thy food shall be thy medicine – Hippocrates
In the same year of 1927, we find the quote “Thy food shall be thy medicine” first attributed to Hippocrates in “Principles of Diet: A Simplified Index to the Most Important Facts of Food Science and an Appendix of Normalizing Menus” by Dr Fred Reinhold edited and revised by Emma Regina Way.
This archaic phrasing does not seem to have caught on and “Let food be thy medicine” does not appear again until 1962 in a book called “Barefoot in Eden: The Macfadden Plan for Health, Charm and Long-lasting Youth” by Johnnie Lee Macfadden, with no mention of Hippocrates.
Let your food be your medicine – Hippocrates
To find the next use of this wording of the phrase “Let your food be your medicine” and an allusion to Hippocrates we have to move on to the 1940’s and another beekeeping journal in a 1941 print of Modern Beekeeping (Volume 25 – Page 259), that while not naming Hippocrates alludes to him as a man “Four hundred years before Christ…”.
The next direct attribution to Hippocrates that I can find appears to be in “The Useful Soybean: A Plus Factor in Modern Living” by Mildred Lager published in 1945, although I cannot access the full text of this. According to Wikipedia Mildred was “an early American pioneer of natural foods and health food. On October 15, 1933 (in the depths of the Great Depression), she founded a health food store named The House of Better Living at 1207 West Sixth St., Los Angeles, California.”
Let your food be your medicine and medicine be your food
The first use I have found of the full phrase “Let your food be your medicine and medicine be your food“ is in a book called “Bloodless Surgery: With Technique and Treatments” published in 1945, although this does not attribute it to Hippocrates.
The first use I can find of the full quote attributed directly to Hippocrates himself is in a 1959 book “Why?: Use Suncooked Juice Foods Daily!” by Jesse Mercer Gehman who was active in the emerging fields of alternative medicine, health reform, and naturopathy.
After 1959 this use of the quote gradually increased before taking off a few years later.
This may have been helped by the use of the full quote “Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” in 1979 by Michael Lesser, MD in his testimony before Senator McGovern to the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs of the United States Senate in its hearings on Diet related to killer diseases. Michael Lesser was one of the early proponents of Orthomolecular Medicine.
By the early 1980’s various form of the quote started to become commonly used in many situations and the origin of the quote and its attribution to Hippocrates does not seem to have been questioned until Dr Diana Cardenas’s paper in 2013.
The originator of the quote may be lost to history now, as it was likely used for the first time before it was written down. But it is fascinating to see how a quote like this spreads and how we often do not question things that sound like they are correct.
(I may update this post if I come across earlier examples, which is not unlikely).