An article in the New York Times last Wednesday, titled "An Apple a Day, and Other Myths," is perpetuating the misconception that diet does not affect cancer risk. This article calls potential connections between high-nutrient foods and cancer "nutritional folklore," and does a great disservice to the American people, discouraging efforts toward improving one's health and quality of life. The article irresponsibly contributes to the complacency of the American public, reinforcing the beliefs of most that they are completely powerless to protect themselves from cancer.
The author commented on the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, at which the prominent nutritional epidemiologist Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health spoke on diet and cancer. Dr. Willett did not say that diet didn't matter for cancer. He said that the research "has turned out to be more complex and challenging than any of us expected." This biased article in the New York Times is just more evidence that mainstream scientists and physicians have limited knowledge of the world's scientific literature which demonstrates the power of nutritional excellence, and have a lack of motivation to pursue this avenue of effective preventive care.
Remember it was only a few years ago that mainstream scientists argued that heart disease couldn't be prevented, and now there is clear evidence that heart disease can indeed be prevented and even reversed with superior nutrition.
The author's interpretation of Dr. Willett's talk was that "there was little evidence that fruits and vegetables are protective," which is a gross oversimplification of a complex field of study. It is true that many observational studies have yielded disappointing results; but remember that these studies observe the lifestyle habits of Americans and Europeans, most of whom eat a diet of primarily processed and commercial foods, animal products, and a small amount of vegetables. The fact is, a tiny amount of unrefined plant food offers only a tiny amount of benefit (as exemplified by results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, published in 2010).
These studies do not suggest that the anti-cancer phytochemicals in whole plant foods are worthless. They suggest that almost no one eats enough vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds for an observational study to detect dramatic benefit, especially when so many commercially processed foods are consumed. Importantly, observational studies have shown that vegan/vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists (a modern population eating a relatively healthful diet) have significantly lower cancer rates and live considerably longer than the average American.[2-5]
We already know that breast cancer rates vary from 19 to 90 per 100,000 population worldwide, and that these rates are lower in less developed countries where more vegetation and less processed and animal food is consumed.
We also know that the anti-cancer phytochemicals formed in cruciferous vegetables (isothiocyanates) are measurable in human breast tissue, and breast cancer survivors who eat cruciferous vegetables regularly are less likely to experience recurrence.
Also, if you look at interventional rather than observational studies, a different picture is painted. Scores of studies support the power of certain natural foods to prevent cancer. For example, a randomized controlled trial gave women scheduled for breast tumor biopsies flaxseed-containing muffins or placebo muffins daily for about 35 days before their surgeries; even in this short time period, there was a significant apoptosis (tumor cell death) and reduced tumor cell proliferation in the flaxseed group.
There are hundreds of studies demonstrating dramatic protection from greens, beans, onions, mushroom, berries and seeds (G-BOMBS). When a more natural plant-strong diet was utilized, such as in Dr. Dean Ornish's studies, the results were spectacular. Dr. Ornish has shown that lifestyle improvements and a relatively good diet (though not as targeted and nutritionally powerful as a Nutritarian diet) can halt the progression of prostate cancer.[9-11]
In contrast, modest improvements in diet, like the Women's Healthy Eating and Living Study, a trial in women with breast cancer, did not produce any reduction in recurrence.
We have plenty of data on which foods have the greatest potential to protect us from cancer, but the problem is that those following my Nutritarian diet-style are the only population in the Western world translating this science into a lifestyle, making it taste great and truly eating sufficient amounts of the most powerful anti-cancer foods.
Cancer initiates due to a wide variety of causes, some of which are outside of our control or already occurred during our childhood. However, the progression of cancer -- whether the cancer cells proliferate and become dangerous -- is affected by lifestyle factors, those that we can control. We have a wealth of information from cell culture and animal studies about the anti-cancer effects of plant-derived phytochemicals. The research to effectively translate this information to humans is past its early stages, showing dramatic benefits when investigated.
My book Super Immunity gives an overview of such research, however, much more research is needed. Food is a powerful tool that can promote or inhibit the progression of cancer, and future studies will make this even clearer. The indisputable fact is that nutritional science is the most powerful weapon available to win the war on cancer. This recent New York Times article displayed tremendous nutritional ignorance and as a result was misleading and hurtful to our population.
The article noted, "As epidemiologists began to follow the health of younger populations, Dr. Willett hoped that more dietary influences would yet emerge." Indeed, as I discussed in my book Disease Proof Your Child, childhood and adolescence are crucial times at which carcinogenic influences can inflict the DNA damage that promotes later life cancers.[13-16]
So I agree that moderate improvements in diet cannot be expected to wipe out cancer, especially when these improvements are made too late in life, and are not sufficiently aggressive to halt the progression of cancer initiated by the early life DNA damage. We need radical dietary improvement and the earlier in life that change is made the better. Just following a vegan diet or eating a few more vegetables is not enough.
It is necessary to combine all four critical foundational components of a Nutritarian diet, to really win the war on cancer.*
1. The diet should have a high micronutrient per calorie density.
2. The diet should not promote elevations in insulin or IGF-1. This means refined carbohydrate (white flour, sugar, etc.) and animal protein (which elevates IGF-1) has to be limited to a single-digit percentage of our calories.
3. The diet and supplemental regimen should be nutritionally comprehensive, assuring no micronutrient deficiencies.
4. Super foods with scientifically supported anti-cancer benefits should be liberally included (G-BOMBS: greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries and seeds).
As I mentioned before, there has been no population eating a true anti-cancer diet that could be observed over a long period of time to effectively evaluate the power of a diet containing a full portfolio of these super foods, without all the commercial foods and animal products that stimulate cancer-promoting hormones. The Nutritional Research Foundation is trying to change that. As the research director of the Nutritional Research Foundation we are launching a "Nutritarian Health Study," aimed to follow the health expectancy of those who follow a Nutritarian diet for 10-20 years.
*Complete review of the studies and specifics can be found in my book Super Immunity, Harper-One Publishing 2012.
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