We’ve all heard the cancer prevention advice: eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, avoid grilled meat, lose weight, don’t smoke. But then again, we’ve also heard opposing voices telling us that fruits won’t ward off the “big C”; meat is just fine, a few extra pounds won’t hurt, and so on. No wonder a recent study in Great Britain found that a huge segment of the population simply ignores cancer-prevention advice, finding it too fickle.
The study, sponsored by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) determined that more than half of the 2,400 subjects believed that scientists always change their minds. More than a quarter said they don’t pay one bit of attention to recommendations regarding cancer prevention because of the ever-changing nature of those recommendations. The respondents over age 55 were the most cynical, with more than 60-percent concurring that scientific opinion shifts continually. Apparently, many people believe that the movie Sleeper is a documentary portraying how Woody Allen, the owner of the Happy Carrot Health Food Store, wakes up 200 years in the future only to find that cigarettes and fatty foods are now considered healthy.
According to Richard Evans, director of research for the WCRF, “The fact is that WCRF and other cancer charities agree on the best ways of reducing cancer risk and this advice has stayed broadly the same for quite a long time. A decade ago, we were recommending that people eat a plant-based diet, be physically active, and maintain a healthy weight and this is still the case today.”
He blames the lack of public faith in cancer-prevention advice on information overload. “With the large number of new studies being published, it is perhaps not surprising that people get the impression cancer prevention advice is always changing,” Evan says. “But these single studies are usually only a single piece in a jigsaw and on their own are not strong enough evidence to make conclusions.” As Evans and others point out, this creates a dangerous situation, where people make unhealthy choices based on an aberrant study that happens to make a media splash.
While it is true that the majority of stories in the news do emphasize the importance of eating fresh vegetables and fruits, avoiding meat, and exercising, plenty of contradictory tidbits do make it to prime-time media. (Ahh! That old media splash.) For instance, an Associated Press article from July 17, 2007, announced that a low-fat diet rich in vegetables and fruits won’t prevent the recurrence of breast cancer. The average harried reader might skim the article and assume, without digging deeper, that vegetables and fruits don’t help prevent any type of cancer — a broad leap to be sure, but one readers might make. Adding to the confusion would be a study published a few months later in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute finding that consuming fruits and vegetables has very little value in preventing colon cancer. Based on those two studies, you can pretty much write off fruits and vegetables. But wait — by December of 2008, another study in The Journal of Oncology completely turned around the results of the first study, finding that eating lots of fruits and veggies cuts the recurrence rate of breast cancer by one-third.
Now let’s also look at the contradictory news reporting on meat and cancer. In 2005, a European study involving half a million people got lots of press when it found that eating meat led to a 35-percent increased chance of getting colon cancer. But then two years later, in 2007, a study in Japan found no link at all between meat eating and colon cancer — and any story letting beef off the hook gets press because of the lobbying power of the meat industry. Meanwhile, a 2007 well-publicized study found that women who consumed lots of meat had a 60-percent increased risk of breast cancer, while Reuters just carried splashy news of a large study that found no link at all between meat intake and breast cancer. Even as I write this, I’m getting confused, and this is my field. What chance does the casual reader have?
The thing is that few people have the time or inclination to do the research necessary to find out where the weight of evidence lies — and the evidence is that an overwhelming majority of the research supports the idea that fruits, vegetables, and low-meat intake (at least cut back on grilled and processed meats) is essential for cancer prevention. People don’t have the resources to analyze the studies to see who sponsored them, how they were structured, or what the variables were based on (for instance, local organic vegetables versus pesticide-laden produce imported from Mexico — or organic grass-fed beef versus hormone injected, antibiotic laced, corn fattened beef). And so the isolated juicy stories featured on the news promoting contradictory findings may seem of equal weight to the general audience as the many, many studies that simply confirm earlier findings and so don’t get airplay.
As Dr. Jeff Niederdeppe of the University of Wisconsin says, “Cancer is a difficult thing to talk about in the space of a single news story. Science values repetition, while the media values novelty. Those two concepts naturally butt heads, which can confuse people.”
Dr. Niederdeppe knows: he headed a study of 6000 Americans analyzing attitudes towards cancer prevention. He found that 71 percent of the subjects felt confused about which recommendations to follow regarding cancer prevention. Nearly half believed that “everything causes cancer,” and more than a quarter felt that there really wasn’t anything they could do to lower their chances of getting cancer. Unfortunately, those with fatalistic views were less likely to follow healthy diets or lifestyle regimens, and therefore, more likely to get cancer.
Bottom line? There’s an avalanche of proof that minimizing meat (and grilled and processed meat in particular) and maximizing your intake of fresh, organic foods rich in antioxidants helps lower cancer risk, as does keeping weight down, quitting smoking, exercising, and so on. If you come across studies that take a different view, do your research and consider all the evidence — including what your own body tells you and what natural practitioners have been saying for centuries.