A recent article in the The New York Times questioned common prevailing recommendations for the diet that is the ultimate cancer foe. Most current books and resources on anti-cancer nutrition emphasize a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lower in animal fats and heavily processed foods. The notion of eating superfoods (like chia and flaxseed), and consuming other anti-oxidant-rich foods, especially those with varying phytochemicals has been promoted as the uber-health diet. The New York Times article suggests that much of this wisdom is based more on folklore and less on science.
At a recent meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, nutrition and diet was at the forefront of discussions attended by over 18,500 researchers, scientists and health professionals. Believe it or not, coffee was identified as having the possible impact of lowering the risk of some cancers, while levels of vitamin D were highlighted as having strong ties to cancer risk.
One speaker, Dr. Walter C. Willet, a Harvard epidemiologist and internationally accepted authority on nutrition, has spent much of his professional life looking at how nutrition impacts health, especially the risk (or not) of cancer. He acknowledged the influences of certain dietary choices with regards to diseases like heart disease and diabetes (though much more research is needed), but suggested that when it comes to cancers, we don’t know a whole lot. Specifically, he was not convinced that scientific research had clearly identified that fruits and vegetables prevent cancer and that a diet high in fatty foods increase risk. He concurred that avoiding or reducing obesity helps to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes type 2, hypertension, and stroke, but he is currently not convinced that the available research identifies specific foods that do or don’t cause cancers.
If you reflect on history, the World Cancer Research Fund published clear reports and conclusions on diet back in the 1990s, suggesting that consistent fruit and vegetable consumption might reduce various cancer risks by as much as 20 percent. Back then, a review of thousands of studies appeared to suggest that:
- Green vegetables could reduce risk of lung, stomach cancers
- Broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts might reduce risk of colon and thyroid cancer (interestingly enough we now know that hypothyroid patients shouldn’t eat Brussels sprouts and cabbage)
- Onions, garlic, tomatoes, carrots, and citrus fruits might help to lower overall risk of cancers
Go to sometime in the year 2007, and many of these conclusions appeared to now be “intuitive but unfounded.” To date, the research seems slim on whether or not singular foods can cause or prevent cancers. The prevailing idea, that colon cancer risk is directly related to red meat consumption, appears to be ambiguous at best. If red meat has an impact, it may be very marginal, not enough to warrant dramatic dietary commitments. So what do we know?
- There may be a connection between high fat diets (saturated fat specifically) and risk of breast cancers
- Eating vegetables may help to reduce the risk of estrogen-negative breast cancers
- Reducing consumption of milk and other dairy products may reduce risk of prostate cancer
- Reducing inflammation in the body may reduce risk of certain diseases
- Eating beans may help to lower LDL
- Not smoking reduces the risk of lung cancer
- Being fat may be causing more fatalities now than smoking
Let’s focus on that last one, because that is something we can change. Read Kitchen Tips for Healthier Meals to learn simple tips for portion control and healthier cooking.
Amy Hendel is a Physician Assistant and Health Coach with over 20 years of experience. Noted author, journalist and lifestyle expert, she brings extensive expertise to her monthly shareposts. Her most recent book, The 4 Habits of Healthy Families is available for purchase online, and you can watch her in action on her shows Food Rescue and What's for Lunch? Sign up for her daily health tweets or catch her daily news report at www.healthgal.com.
Published On: April 23, 2014