5 Watershed Moments in the History of Nutrition and Wellness

Illustration by Daniel Downey Jr.

Illustration by Daniel Downey Jr.


Nearly every day we’re bombarded with news aiming to shape our thoughts and decisions about nutrition and wellness . . . telling us to eat this, avoid that, or move our bodies in a certain way. Rarely, however, is this information delivered in absolutes, revelations so undeniable they demand our attention, happily confirming what we’re doing right . . . or compelling us to change our habits if we’ve been missing the mark.  

Viver Health Your Guide to a Plant-based Diet photo.jpg

Your Guide to a Plant-based Diet: 5 Simple Steps to Reduce Your Risk for Chronic Disease

When this does happen, it’s called a watershed moment – defined as “a point in time that marks an important, often historical change.” In the realm of nutrition and wellness, these events are decidedly few and far between. But when they come along, it’s often in the form of an eye-popping new scientific study or extraordinary legal development. Here are 5 watershed moments in the history of nutrition and wellness that, uh, take the cake.  

1. Weight loss can reverse a crash course toward diabetes  

With nearly 1 in 10 Americans suffering from diabetes – a scourge that exploded by nearly 8-fold in the U.S. between 1958 and 2015 – scientists have long known that prevention is a much better approach than treatment, which can’t offset all devastating complications such as heart disease, blindness or amputations. But is diabetes actually preventable in those experiencing early blood sugar control problems? Yes, and weight loss is key, according to major 2002 research in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. In the study – which at least partially inspired a Time magazine cover story in 2003 on diabetes in America – scientists learned that patients with prediabetes who exercised moderately and lost weight were far less likely to go on to develop the disease than peers who took the blood sugar-controlling medication metformin or had no intervention. 

2. Smoking can kill   

After decades of denial by the tobacco industry that smoking causes lung cancer, a federal judge in 2006 ordered Philip Morris and other tobacco companies to ‘fess up to the truth. The 1,683-page legal opinion slammed the firms for fraudulently denying the health risks linked to smoking and for hawking their products to children. Tobacco companies were ordered to take several actions, including stop claiming low-tar cigarettes reduced the risk of lung cancer.

3. Processed meats can cause cancer  

While eating the occasional hot dog, ham sandwich or side of bacon is OK, the World Health Organization’s cancer agency famously deemed these processed meats as carcinogens in 2015. Nearly two dozen experts from 10 countries reviewed more than 800 studies to reach their consensus, which found that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day – the equivalent of about 4 strips of bacon or 1 hot dog – upped the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

4. High-sugar diets actually raise cholesterol  

Dietary fat had long been blamed for high cholesterol levels – a major risk factor for heart disease – so scientists’ 2010 findings that high-sugar diets are also a culprit was particularly astonishing. Analyzing data on more than 6,000 adults over 7 years, researchers learned that those who consumed the most added sugar had the lowest HDL, or “good” cholesterol levels, along with the highest blood triglyceride levels.  

5. Exercise alone can’t help us lose weight  

Physical activity is unquestionably valuable for many reasons – including its ability to lower heart disease, cancer, and diabetes risks and improve our mood – but it can’t promote weight loss all on its own, 2015 research revealed. Cutting calories is far more integral to pound-shedding efforts than just moving more, blasting a commonly held belief. “There is only one effective way to lose weight – eat fewer calories,” study authors wrote in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Maureen Salamon is a widely published health and medical writer who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN.com, HealthDay, The Dallas Morning News and other major publications.