Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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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.