Everything You Know is Wrong-Maybe Not

by Lynn Hoffman on August 26, 2015

Headlines can lead to confusion. Here’s a prime example:

Some of you may have seen this headline in the New York Times on April 23. It’s based on the proceedings at the American Association for Cancer Research meetings in San Diego.

An Apple a Day, and Other Myths

The story opens with this powerhouse observation:

“A trip to almost any bookstore or a cruise around the Internet might leave the impression that avoiding cancer is mostly a matter of watching what you eat. One source after another promotes the protective powers of “superfoods,” rich in antioxidants and other phytochemicals, or advises readers to emulate the diets of Chinese peasants or Paleolithic cave dwellers.

But there is a yawning divide between this nutritional folklore and science. During the last two decades the connection between the foods we eat and the cellular anarchy called cancer has been unraveling string by string.”

This is strong stuff and it’s pretty persuasive. After all, we are bombarded with claims about food and health and the general theme of them is that if something is really tasty, it probably is bad for you. These claims are pretty disruptive of the diets that many of us have come to enjoy and they’re often delivered with an arch sense of the moral superiority of the new diet dictators. Even if you believe every assertion: ( red meat is bad, kale is good, fat is bad, no, trans-fat is worse) it’s hard not to roll your eyes at some of the new nutritional orthodoxy.

So there was for me and I suspect, many others a wonderful sense of ‘gotcha’ in that headline and the opening paragraphs of the article. Nah nanny boo-boo, Food Police: pass me a croissant. But toward the end of the Times piece, there’s a small qualification. It turns out that there’s really:

a tug of war of contradictory reports. (As the San Diego meeting was winding up, a new paper on high-fat diets and breast cancer suggested there might be a connection after all.)

the author also admits that even in “the most rigorous studies, it is hard to adjust for what epidemiologists call confounding factors:” People who eat more fruits and vegeteables and less red meat are more likely to be healthier in lots of other ways so it’s hard to untangle one aspect of a lifestyle and from the complex whole of a person’s habits.

If you take the time to read to the end of the piece, the author allows two things about diet and cancer:

The article ends with two paragraphs describing the lush dinners that characterize the meeting: “guests partook of a sumptuous buffet that included, among other fare, thick slabs of roast beef, a variety of rich cheeses and generous servings of wine. Afterward came the cancer research association’s grand celebration known for its dessert buffet.”

If you read quickly it’s easy to leave with the impression that some researcher’s downing a piece of prime rib and a chunk of gorgonzola is a reflection on. . . what? On the relationship between diet and cancer? Well, that’s quite a leap isn’t it?

In response to the Times piece, a more carefully thought-out if somewhat stuffier piece appeared on the AICR’s own website. It called out some of the details of what studies have shown so far.

So what’s should a sane, non-dogmatic person do? Here are some suggestions:

http://blog.aicr.org/2014/04/22/fact-check-for-cancer-risk-diet-matters/#sthash.RDsSLOMW.dpuf

Lynn Hoffman teaches Culinary Arts at Drexel University. He is the author of the wry and witty memoir Radiation Days to be published May 6th.

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