Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

Diet, cancer, and blame

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I read these articles backwards. Starting with Dr Joel Fuhrman’s The Nutrition and Cancer Myth? in the Huffington Post and then reading the article An Apple a Day, and Other Myths in the New York Times, which it was written in response to.

To summarize: the NYT article was covering the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. The article reports that nutrition research has proven to be much less cut-and-dry than had been hoped and that there has been little evidence to date to support any specific connections between diet and cancer prevention (or cause). The HP article suggests that the former article was biased and based on “mainstream” science. Fuhrman argues that there are connections between diet and cancer.

Let’s talk a little bit about bias. The free dictionary defines bias as: A preference or an inclination, especially one that inhibits impartial judgement. Fuhrman accuses George Johnson of bias in his article. Johnson is a writer and science journalist for the NYT. I’m not sure what leads Fuhrman to accuse him of bias other than the fact that his article threatens his book sales. As a journalist, impartiality is essential to Johnson’s writing. Fuhrman, on the other hand has a vested interest in having people believe that cancer can be prevented through diet as the author of books such as Super Immunity and Disease Proof Your Child and the creator of the “nutritarian” diet.

Maybe it’s just my interpretation, but I didn’t read Johnson’s article as telling us to eat whatever we please because it won’t have any impact on whether or not we develop cancer. To me, it said that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much for our dietary choices if we develop cancer because nutrition may not have a huge (or even a small) role in cancer development. Cancer has myriad causes and victim blaming does little to advance our knowledge. To his credit, Fuhrman does acknowledge that there are a number of causes of cancer, some of which are outside of our control. However, he continues to cling to the notion that diet can play a large role in cancer prevention and treatment. Understandably, he has a vested interest in people believing this assertion.

Fuhrman cites a number of observational epidemiological studies to support his claim that diet can affect cancer development/prevention. Obviously, we can’t determine causality from these types of studies and, in the comparisons of developed and developing countries there are many factors other than diet which may result in varying rates of breast cancer. Fuhrman uses a small study of the consumption of flax muffins by women with breast cancer as support for the assertion that diet can prevent cancer. Of course there were only 32 women in the study, they were all post-menopausal, and they all were diagnosed with breast cancer. So, really, while interesting that the women eating the flax muffins saw greater cancer cell death than the women eating the muffins without flax (of import is that both groups saw cell death) it’s not translatable to the general population and says nothing about diet and cancer prevention.

Diet may prove to play a role in cancer prevention. However, the evidence does not yet support this. Don’t let nutritionologists scare you into believing that you are in control of cancer prevention and you can only do so by buying their book(s) and ascribing to their diet.

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Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

4 thoughts on “Diet, cancer, and blame

  1. Diana – What’s your take on the “Whole30” diet? It seems like yet another “gimmick” diet it to me but wondered what your opinion was.

    Thanks.

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    • Thanks for bringing this diet to my attention Chris. I’d never actually heard of it before. I just took a look through their website and read their “rules”. This is not the sort of plan I would support. The biggest red flag is that it’s a “diet” i.e. it has a beginning, and therefore, an end. It is also extremely restrictive. While food elimination is fine to determine allergies and intolerances, it’s not necessary (nor advisable) for most people to eliminate entire food groups. At worst, this diet could lead to nutrient deficiencies and disordered eating. At best, it might give some short-term weight loss. I don’t think that anybody should have “forbidden” foods and I think that any changes people make to their diets (for weight loss, energy, whatever reason) need to be sustainable. I think your instinct is correct; it’s just another “gimmick” diet created to make the peddlers money.

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      • I think you need to spend some time reading his entire book before criticizing it. There is no beginning and end to Dr. Fuhrman’s approach to eating. The word “diet” is used like Mediterranean diet (i.e. it’s a way of eating for life). After the first six weeks, nothing is “off limits” but it is put in it’s place – no more than 10% of your calories.

        Your assertion that it leads to nutrient deficiencies is ill-informed. When I run my daily food intake through cron-o-meter or other nutrient calculator, I far exceed the recommendations for protein (everyone’s perennial worry) and micronutrients (with the exception of B12 of course).

        It is also not a short term thing for weight loss. My husband and I count ourselves among the proud Nutritarians who have maintained this way of eating for more than six years now. Proof that it is sustainable. My husband’s debilitating asthma and allergies are gone. My migraines are gone. My adult acne is gone. Our weight has stabilized at our lean high school weights without effort. My cholesterol, which had been creeping up, has stabilized at a very low level. Both of us have blood pressure around 110/70. We perform better at our chosen sports with less training. We are not alone in seeing incredible health benefits.

        Beyond buying the book to truly understand the recommended way of eating and the science behind it, I have not paid Dr. F a dime. Before you call something a gimmick, I encourage you to do additional research.

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      • That’s wonderful that you’ve had success with this diet. That doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone and I stand by my belief that on-size-fits-all prescriptive diets are not suitable for most people in the long-term.

        I think that you also misread my post when I suggested that “at worst” followers of the diet might experience nutrient deficiencies. I certainly wouldn’t consider protein to be a nutrient of concern.

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