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Monday 3 June 2013

Cancer, diets and other urban myths

I have become involved in a debate about the influence of the media on our relationship with food.  Let's get a couple of things straight.  

I don't believe that you can cure cancer via what you eat.  I do think a healthy nutritional intake can help in treatment and can lower your risk factor for developing cancer but what you eat does NOT give you cancer.

I don't believe that the media "causes" eating disorders.  I do think that media influences can lead to behaviours that lead genetically pre-disposed people to develop an eating disorder:  dieting, overtraining, illness, "healthy eating leading to cutting out essential food groups to name but a few.

However I DO believe that we have a very unhealthy relationship with food, that urban myths abound and that the general population don't understand basic nutrition.  For example, I was sent a cutting that said if I had eaten more lettuce, I wouldn't have developed breast cancer.  I am a great eater of lettuce.  I love lettuce.  If I ate much more lettuce in my life, I would have turned into a rabbit.  Eating lettuce does NOT prevent breast cancer.  That is way too simplistic.

Other urban myths that I have come across in the last week include: 
  1. eating a piece of chocolate biscuit cake will make you put on weight.  NO, IT WON'T.  If all you ate was chocolate biscuit cake for the next 3 months, you would likely be admitted to hospital for malnutrition.  
  2. Eating fat is bad for you:  No it isn't.  You NEED fat as an essential part of your daily intake.  70g of it, if you are an average (5ft 4) woman. I understood from Professor Treasure that fat runs the brain (simplistically put, but you get the idea).  By the way, this does not mean that brainy people eat more fat.
  3. Superfoods prevent cancer.  No they don't.  They may lower your risk of all sorts of diseases but they don't prevent them.  Risk factors for cancer do not include not eating enough hazelnuts as a child.
  4. Sugar causes cancer.  NO IT DOESN'T.  This does not mean you should mainline sugar but it also does not mean that you should cut it out of your diet entirely.
I found the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of the MacMillan site both depressing and sad.  Do people really think that, if eating organic food prevented or cured cancer, it wouldn't be part of the treatment regime across the world?  

I do believe that the media is responsible for some serious misunderstandings about nutrition.  I do believe that diets don't work.  I do believe that urban myths about eating and food are peddled by the media.  I do believe that this can lead to unhealthy relationships with food and can damage people's health in a myriad of ways.

I don't believe that the media causes eating disorders anymore than I believe that what you eat causes cancer.

A perfect storm of genetics, biology and environmental factors lead some people to become ill and some not.  I say this as the daughter of a man who smoked 80 Rothmans a day for 50 years and is still going strong(ish) aged 80.

I also believe that my generation has a terribly unhealthy relationship with food and our children even more so.  The key is to stay fit, eat and drink in moderation and stop punishing yourselves for eating chocolate biscuit cake every now and again.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I know this isn't QUITE what you mean, but organic food absolutely DOES prevent cancer - in the migrant farmworkers and ESPECIALLY their children - who harvest our produce (here in the US for starvation wages). We are exposed to a vile number of carcinogens in our food supply, and it is exponentially worse for the workers. It also prevents carcinogens from contaminating groundwater and causing cancers in amphibians.

    But that's not quite the same thing as what you are saying, I realize. The thing is, I think our constant exposure to a variety of carcinogens in our water, air, food, clothing, storage containers, building materials, et cetera, ad nauseum IS increasing the overall rate of cancer, and causing cancers earlier. This would be because there is now an increased chance that more people with lower native propensity towards cancer, will encounter sufficient quantities of carcinogens to trigger a pathogenic process.

    Likewise, the toxic environment we've created around food, eating and dieting (not to mention body-shaming and cultivating insecurity) create more opportunities for more individuals with the propensity to develop ED, to be exposed to environmental triggers. They're exposed earlier - before they have a chance to develop cognitive or behavioral defenses that might ameliorate the triggers. They experience MORE exposure, so that not just people with strong propensity, but those with moderate propensity will wind up in that perfect storm of genetics, biology, and environment.