Nutrition, Genes, and Cancer Prevention: An Interview with Tim Radak, Dr.P.H., R.D

Nutrition Health Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Nutrition, Genes, and Cancer Prevention: An Interview with Tim Radak, Dr.P.H., R.D


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Q: How long have scientists known about the link between nutrition and ovarian, breast, and prostate cancers?

A: For many decades, the role of diet began to receive attention in the early 20th century, when food-coloring dyes were found to be carcinogenic. Studies of foods and food groups, individual nutrients, and dietary patterns followed, with an emphasis on seeking the cause of illness. For example, the first clues that foods might affect the course of breast cancer came from studies of women in Japan in the early 1960's. Compared with Western women, Japanese women were less likely to develop the disease and were more likely to survive if it occurred.

Back in the 1960's, we became aware that the environment might be playing a causative role in certain cancers. The government, in the early 1970's with the "war on cancer," led up to research requests in the late 1970's that resulted in efforts by researchers Doll and Peto to estimate how many cancer deaths resulted from diet and environment. Their landmark analysis, completed in 1981, set the stage for helping scientists and the public health community understand that a large percentage of cancer deaths were due to the environment and diet. No matter how much information we are able to report scientifically, in terms of "causes," there is also the aspect of "what are people going to do with it?" We know that eating too much can lead to obesity. It is not going to happen in a day; the same applies to other chronic diseases, of which cancer is one.

Q: How is nutrition involved in reproductive cancers?

A: In their 1981 analysis of the causes of cancer, Doll and Peto estimated that 35 percent of cancer deaths in the United States were attributable to dietary factors. The latest 'American Cancer Society estimates attribute about 33 percent of all cancer deaths to poor nutrition, physical inactivity, overweight, and obesity. We are at a stage of science where we have identified foods that suggest an increase risk for cancers and foods that help offer protection. Recent studies implicate components in dairy products might be linked to an increased risk for ovarian, breast, and prostate cancers. For ovarian cancer, galactose, a component of the milk sugar lactose, is under study as a possible culprit. In prostate cancer, both fat and a high calcium content may play a role. Dairy intake may increase levels of insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) in the body, a potent stimulus for cancer cell growth. High IGF-I levels are associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer and breast cancer.

Q: Which causes of cancer are considered to be under our control?

A. We know that total caloric and excess energy intake is related to cancer. The level of adiposity (body fat) is a factor as well. Components of a plant-based diet appear to protect against some cancers, whereas some animal products may increase risk.

Q: How do animal products contribute to the risk of reproductive cancers?

A: Some studies support an association between dietary fat (particularly saturated or animal fat) and prostate cancer. This may be a result of the meat as a source of omega-6 fatty acids, which offset the protective effects of omega-3 fatty acids. The way meat is cooked may also have an influence; grilling or frying produces harmful chemicals that are carcinogenic. Conversely, cooking a soy burger or a slice of tofu produces almost none of these chemicals. High intake of dairy foods is correlated with increased risk for prostate cancer and, in some studies, ovarian cancer. A high fat intake may raise the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

Q: How might a vegan diet (without any animal products) protect against cancer?

A: A balanced vegan diet can strengthen immunity, reduce oxidative stress, regulate blood sugar, and keep body weight stable. This diet can be a powerhouse of nutrients that may protect against cancer. …

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