Does Eating Plant Protein Help You Live Longer?

Are Whole Grains Heart Healthy?

protein and heart disease nuts and seedsThe diet wars continue. Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues are still trying to convince you that you can eat all the red meat you want. It is those deadly whole grains, beans, and fruits you need to avoid.

However, as the benefits of primarily plant-based diets continue to accumulate, it is becoming harder for them to maintain these preposterous claims.

For example, several recent studies have shown that replacing animal protein with plant protein in your diet results in better health.

  • The Iowa Women’s Health Study found that plant protein substitution for animal protein is associated with reduced risk of dying from heart disease.
  • The Nurse’s Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study found that greater plant protein intake was associated with reduced risk of dying from heart disease and reduced risk of dying from all causes.
  • The Japan Public Health Center-Based Prospective Cohort Study found a reduced risk of dying from heart disease, cancer, and all causes with substitution of plant protein for red meat protein.

These were all very large studies in which populations were followed for long periods of time. You might be thinking that with such overwhelming evidence no further studies are needed.

However, these studies did not examine which plant protein sources were most beneficial and which animal protein sources were most detrimental. The study (J. Huang et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, published online July 13, 2020) I describe in today’s “Health Tips From The Professor” was designed to answer that question.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical Study416,104 participants from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study were enrolled in this study in 1995 and 1996 and were followed for 16 years. At the time of enrollment, the participants filled out a comprehensive Diet History Questionnaire. The participants also completed questionnaires about their health, lifestyle, and socio-economic status.

Deaths were obtained from the Social Security Death Master File. Causes of death were obtained from the National Death Index Plus.

The basic characteristics of the study population were:

  • Gender: 57% men, 43% women.
  • Racial identification: 90% non-Hispanic white.
  • Average age 61 (range 50-71).
  • Average BMI = 27 (in the overweight range).
  • Participants were excluded from the study if they had pre-existing cancer, heart disease, stroke, or end-stage kidney disease.

In terms of protein intake:

  • Average protein intake was 15.3% of calories.
  • Plant protein contributed 40% (range 27% – 57%) to the total protein intake.
  • Animal protein contributed 60% (range = 43% to 63%) of the total protein intake.

The major sources of animal protein in the diet were:

  • Dairy products = 31.6%
  • White meat (poultry, fish, and processed white meat) = 31.3%
  • Red meat (both fresh and processed) = 30.6%
  • Eggs = 4.0%

The major sources of plant protein in the diet were:

  • Grains (bread, cereal, and pasta) = 45.8%
  • Beans and legumes = 8.0%
  • Nuts and seeds = 4.5%
  • Other plant protein (including plant protein from supplements) = 41.7%

All these protein intake figures are normal for the American diet.

I should note that beans, nuts, and seeds are among the best sources of plant protein. However, they are only a minor part of the typical American diet, so they contribute relatively little to our plant protein intake.

Does Eating Plant Protein Help You Live Longer?

In terms of overall protein intake, this study mirrored previous studies.

  • There was an inverse association between plant protein intake and premature death from heart disease, stroke, and all causes. Put another way, the more plant protein people in this study ate, the lower was their risk of premature death.

To quantify the effect, the investigators asked what happened when 3% of calories came from plant protein instead of animal protein. I recognize, however, that 3% of calories is a rather abstract concept, so let me break it down for you so you can apply it to your lives.

  • For participants in this study, protein was 15% of their total calories. That means when the investigators were talking about shifting 3% of total calories from animal protein to plant protein, they were talking about 20% of the protein in the diet coming from plant protein rather animal protein.
  • Based on the average caloric intake of participants in this study, that corresponds to 15 grams of protein for men and 12 grams of protein for women.

With that in mind, let’s look at the results:

  • Changing just 3% of calories from animal protein to plant protein:
  • Lowered the risk of premature death from all causes by 10% for both men and women.
  • Lowered the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 11% for men and 12% for women.
  • Lowered the risk of premature death from stroke by 22% for men and 19% for women.

These findings are consistent with previous studies. By now, it should be apparent that primarily plant-based diets are best for your overall health. Primarily plant-based diets also appear to reduce your risk of dying prematurely from heart disease and from all other diseases combined.

The authors concluded: “This large cohort investigation showed small but significant associations between higher intake of plant protein and lower overall and cardiovascular mortality…Findings from this and previous studies provide evidence that dietary modifications in choice of protein sources may promote health and longevity.”

However, this part of the study merely confirms what other studies have shown. What makes this study unique is that it identifies which animal proteins are worst for us and which plant proteins are best for us.

Which Animal Proteins Are Least Heart Healthy?

Animal Protein FoodsLet’s start with the animal proteins (Note: To simplify a complex set of data, I am going to average the results for men and women).

  • Changing 3% of calories from egg protein to plant protein:
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from all causes by 23%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 27%.
    • To put this into perspective, 3% of calories from egg protein corresponds to around 2.5 eggs/day. So, talking about replacing 3% of calories of egg protein creates a false narrative. The average egg consumption in this study was 0.5 eggs/day and very few participants consumed even 2 eggs every day. If we make a more reasonable comparison, replacing one egg/day with an equivalent amount of plant protein:
      • Lowers the risk of premature death from all causes by 9%.
      • Lowers the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 11%.
  • Changing 3% of calories from red meat protein to plant protein:
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from all causes by 14%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 12%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from stroke by 21%.
    • To put this into perspective, 3% of calories from red meat protein corresponds to around 2 ounces/day.
  • Changing 3% of calories from dairy protein to plant protein:
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from all causes by 8%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 11%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from stroke by 21%.
    • To put this into perspective, 3% of calories from dairy protein corresponds to around 1.7 8-ounce glasses of milk, 2 ounces of cheese, or 1 cup of yogurt (most yogurt “cups” sold commercially are less than an 8-ounce cup).
  • Changing 3% of calories from white meat protein to plant protein had no effect on premature death from any disease in this study. I will discuss the reasons for that below.

Are Whole Grains Heart Healthy?

Whole GrainsNow, let’s look at the flip side. What happens when you replace 3% of calories from red meat protein with various kinds of plant protein?

  • Changing 3% of calories from red meat protein to plant protein from whole grains:
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from all causes by 28%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 32%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from stroke by 32%.
    • To put this into perspective, 3% of calories from whole grain protein corresponds to around 2.5 slices of whole grain bread, 2 cups of oatmeal, or 2.5 cups of brown rice or whole grain pasta – or any combination of them during the day.
  • The results were similar for replacing egg protein with whole grain protein.
  • Changing 3% of calories from red meat protein or egg protein to other types of plant protein had no effect on premature death from any disease. The reasons for that will be discussed below.

The authors concluded “…this investigation showed prominent inverse associations between overall and cardiovascular mortality and the replacement of egg protein and red meat protein with plant protein, particularly for plant protein derived from bread, cereal, and pasta…”

Why Do Animal Proteins Increase Your Risk Of Premature Death?

Let me take a deep dive into the data. If you like, you can skip to “What Does This Study Mean For You?”

To help you gain a better understanding of these results, I will answer two questions for you:

  • Mechanism: What is/are the metabolic explanation(s) for these results?
  • Perspective: How can you apply this information to your own life?

Reminder: This section is for those of you who want the details. I will give the Cliff Notes summary in the section “What Does This Study Mean For You”.

EggsEggs

Mechanism:

  • The bad effect of eggs on cardiovascular mortality and all-cause mortality is thought to be almost exclusively due to their high cholesterol content.
  • On the flip side, eggs are an excellent source of low-fat animal protein and provide nutrients like choline and carotenoids that are often insufficient in the American diet.

Perspective:

  • Our bodies have a beautifully designed system for regulating blood cholesterol levels. This means under ideal conditions dietary cholesterol has very little effect on blood cholesterol levels. However, as I have pointed out in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, conditions are often far from ideal.
  • Diet context matters. Obesity, saturated fat, and sugar all interfere with our ability to regulate blood cholesterol levels. People consuming the typical American diet, like the ones in this study, have more difficulty regulating their blood cholesterol levels and are more likely to be adversely affected by dietary cholesterol from eggs and other high-cholesterol foods.
    • Previous studies suggest that adding eggs to the typical American diet may increase risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.
    • In contrast, adding eggs to a primarily plant-based diet, such as found in China and Japan, appears to decrease risk of heart disease and premature death.

Red Meatfatty steak

Mechanisms: The mechanism(s) associated with the bad effects of red meat are less clear. Here are the potential mechanisms discussed by the authors of this study.

  • Red meat is high in cholesterol. While many experts have downplayed the importance of dietary cholesterol in recent years, it still may be of concern in the context of the typical American diet because of our body’s inability to regulate cholesterol metabolism normally.
  • Red meat is high in saturated fat. While some experts have downplayed the importance of reducing saturated fat intake, I pointed out in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” that it depends on what the saturated fat is replaced with.
    • When saturated fats are replaced with sugar and refined carbohydrates in the typical American diet, reducing saturated fat is of no benefit.
    • When saturated fats are replaced with polyunsaturated fats in the context of a primarily plant-based diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, reducing saturated fats leads to a substantial reduction in the risk of heart disease and premature death.
  • Red meat also contains heme iron which is associated with 57% increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Diets high in red meat result in populations of gut bacteria that are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. This is most likely because red meat is displacing plant foods that support the growth of healthy bacteria.
  • As discussed in a recent issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, the gut bacteria associated with red meat consumption convert the L-carnitine in red meat to a metabolite called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) which appears to significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Finally, a recent study suggests that foods high in sulfur-containing amino acids significantly increase risk of cardiovascular disease. However, this mechanism is not specific for red meat. White meat, beans, and legumes are also high in sulfur-containing amino acids.

Perspective:

  • While the exact mechanism(s) is/are uncertain, there is substantial evidence from multiple studies that red meat consumption increases the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease and from all causes.
  • Grass fed beef is not a “get out of jail free card”. Grass fed beef is modestly lower in cholesterol and saturated fat. However, those are only two of six potential mechanisms for the link between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease.
  • However, those of you who, like me, enjoy red meat should not consider this to be an absolute “red meat should never touch your lips” edict. As I have discussed in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, the health effects of red meat are a matter of quantity and diet context.
    • If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not a healthy choice.
    • However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat may be a healthier choice.

dairy products and heart diseaseDairy: I have reported on the health risks and benefits of dairy foods in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, so I will just give you a brief summary here.

Perspective:

  • Eating dairy foods, even high-fat dairy foods, has relatively little effect on cardiovascular disease risk in the context of the typical high-fat, high-sugar American diet.
  • Eating dairy foods, even high-fat dairy foods, in the context of a healthy plant-based diet appears to lower cardiovascular disease risk.
  • As this study suggests, moving towards a more plant-based diet by substituting some plant protein for dairy protein in the diet will also decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease

White Meat: This and previous studies suggest that white meat is less likely than red meat to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. I have discussed the differences between red and white meat in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”. However, I can summarize the differences best here by going back to the mechanisms associated with the link between red meat and cardiovascular diseases and highlight those that do not apply to white meat.

Mechanisms:

  • Saturated fat. Many fish are much lower in saturated fat and are excellent sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Chicken and turkey breast with the skin removed are also much lower in saturated fat than red meat.
  • Heme iron. Chicken breast is lower in heme iron than red meats.
  • TMAO. White meats contain 10-50 times less L-carnitine than red meats. Since L-carnitine is the precursor of TMAO, they are much less likely to cause TMAO production.

Why Do Plant Proteins Decrease Your Risk Of Premature Death?

Whole Grains: Whole grains have been much maligned in recent years. They have been lumped in with sugar and refined grains and have been added to everyone’s “naughty list”.

  • If you are following a low-carb diet, you are told to avoid all grains.
  • If you are following a Paleo diet, you are told our paleo ancestors ate no grains.
  • If you are trying to avoid lectins…you get the point.

That’s unfortunate, because whole grains are very healthy. In a recent issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared a study showing that whole grain consumption reduced the risk of premature death from heart disease, cancer, and all causes. The current study shows essentially the same thing.

The only question is why whole grains are uniquely effective at decreasing premature death from cardiovascular disease and all causes in this study. Why aren’t all plant proteins equally effective? I will share both a suggested mechanism and perspective.

Mechanism:

  • In a recent issue of “Health Tips From The Professor” I reported a study showing that grains and a few other foods contain a unique type of fiber called resistant starch that suppress growth of the gut bacteria which convert L-carnitine to TMAO. This may be why whole grains are uniquely effective at reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.
  • Some refined grains are also good sources of resistant starch. However, I don’t recommend them because they lack the antioxidants, vitamins, phytonutrients, and insoluble fiber found in whole grains.

Perspective:  

The fact no other plant protein source significantly reduced heart disease risk in this study is most likely an artifact of the study.

  • The study asked what happens when you change 15 grams of the protein in your diet from red meat protein to different kinds of plant protein. That question was easy to answer for grains because they are a major source of protein in the American diet. However, Americans don’t get enough protein from other high protein plant foods like beans and legumes or nuts and seeds to provide a statistically valid answer to that question.
  • However, all plant foods have their own health benefits. They are excellent sources of antioxidants and phytonutrients that provide heart health benefits.
  • In addition, each plant food provides a different blend of fibers and supports different populations of gut bacteria with different health benefits. For example, fiber from fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of cancer.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

dairy products and heart disease questionsA recent study has shown that changing as little as 20% of the protein in our diet from animal protein to plant protein significantly reduces our risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease, stroke, and from all causes.

The effect of replacing 2 ounces of red meat, 1 egg, or 2 servings of dairy with an equivalent amount of plant protein was equally beneficial.

Previous studies show that diet context is important. A small amounts of animal protein in the context of a whole food, primarily plant-based diet is much less likely to cause harm and may provide benefit. For example:

  • Eggs are high in cholesterol but are also excellent sources of low-fat protein and nutrients that may be missing in a plant-based diet.
    • Previous studies suggest that adding eggs to the typical American diet may increase risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.
    • In contrast, adding eggs to a primarily plant-based diet, such as found in China and Japan, appears to decrease risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.
  • Dairy foods are high in saturated fat but are excellent sources of calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients that may be missing in a plant-based diet.
    • Eating dairy foods, even high-fat dairy foods, has relatively little effect on cardiovascular disease risk in the context of the typical high-fat, high-sugar American diet.
    • Eating dairy foods, even high-fat dairy foods, in the context of a healthy plant-based diet appears to lower cardiovascular disease risk.
  • Red meat has multiple suggested mechanisms for it increasing the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. However, diet context still matters.
    • If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not a healthy choice.
    • However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat may be a healthier choice.
    • Grass fed beef should not be considered a “get out of jail free card”. Grass fed beef is modestly lower in cholesterol and saturated fat. However, those are only two of six potential mechanisms for the link between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease.
  • White meat does not appear to affect your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
  • Whole grains significantly decreased the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease and death from all causes. This may be because whole grains contain a unique type of fiber called resistant starch that suppresses the growth of the gut bacteria which convert L-carnitine to a heart-damaging compound called TMAO.
    • Notice that I specified “whole grain”. While some refined grains are also a good source of resistant starch, they lack the other heart healthy nutrients and phytonutrients found in whole grains.
      • Wonder Bread, Frosted Flakes, Honey Bunches of Oats, and white-flour pasta are not on my approved list. I agree with low-carb enthusiasts about eliminating them from our diets.
      • You should also be aware that “whole grain” on the label means nothing. You want to choose foods that say “100% whole grain”.
    • Finally, this study only focused on plant protein sources. It is important to remember that other plant foods are an excellent source of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber. Each plant food provides unique heart health benefits.

The Bottom Line

A recent study has shown that changing as little as 20% of the protein in our diet from animal protein to plant protein significantly reduces our risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease, stroke, and from all causes.

The effect of replacing 2 ounces of red meat, 1 egg, or 2 servings of dairy with an equivalent amount of plant protein was equally beneficial. White meat did not affect the risk of cardiovascular disease or premature death.

  • Grass fed beef should not be considered a “get out of jail free card”. Grass fed beef is modestly lower in cholesterol and saturated fat. However, those are only two of six potential mechanisms for the link between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease.
  • Diet context is important. Small amounts of animal protein in the context of a whole food, primarily plant-based diet appear to be much healthier for us than large amounts of animal protein in the context of the high-fat, high-sugar American diet.

On the flip side of the equation, whole grains significantly decreased the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease and death from all causes. This has also been seen in other recent studies.

  • Notice that I specified “whole grain”. Wonder Bread, Frosted Flakes, Honey Bunches of Oats, and white-flour pasta are not on the list.
  • You should also be aware that “whole grain” on the label means nothing. You want to choose foods that say “100% whole grain”.
  • Finally, this study only focused on plant protein sources. It is important to remember that other plant foods are an excellent source of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber. Each plant food provides unique heart health benefits.

For more details, read the article above, especially the “What Does This Study Mean For You?” section.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Should I Avoid Whole Grains?

Will Whole Grains Kill Me?

Whole GrainsIt seems like just yesterday that health experts all agreed that whole grains were good for us. After all:

  • They are a good source of fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, and the minerals magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese, and selenium.
  • Their fiber fills you up, so you are less likely to overeat. This helps with weight control.
  • Their fiber also supports the growth of friendly bacteria in your gut.

In fact, the USDA still recommends that half of the grains we eat should be whole grains. And, outside experts, not influenced by the food industry, feel this recommendation is too low. They feel most of the grains we eat should be whole grains. Foods made from refined grains should be considered as only occasional treats.

Then the low-carb craze came along. Diets like Paleo and Keto were telling you to avoid all grains, even whole grains. Even worse, Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues were telling you whole grains contained something called lectins that were bad for you. Suddenly, whole grains went from being heroes to being villains.

You are probably asking, “Should I avoid whole grains?” What is the truth? Perhaps the best way to resolve this debate is to ask, how healthy are people who consume whole grains for many years? This week I share a recent study (G Zong et al, Circulation, 133: 2370-2380, 2016) that answers that very question.

How Was The Study Done?

This study was a meta-analysis of 14 clinical trials that:

  • Enrolled a total of 786,076 participants.
  • Obtained a detailed diet history at baseline.
  • Followed the participants for an average of 15 years (range = 6-28 years).
  • Determined the effect of whole grain consumption on the risk of death from heart disease, cancer, and all causes.

Will Whole Grains Kill Me?

deadDr. Strangelove and his colleagues are claiming that whole grains cause inflammation, which increases your risk of heart disease and cancer. Heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in this country. In fact, according to the CDC, heart disease and cancer accounted for 44% of all deaths in the US in 2017.

Therefore, if Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues were correct, consumption of whole grains should increase the risk of deaths due to heart disease and cancer – and increase the risk of death due to all causes.

That is not what this study showed.

When the highest whole grain intake (5 servings/day) was compared with the lowest whole grain intake (0 servings/day), whole grain consumption reduced the risk of death from:

  • Heart disease by 18%.
  • Cancer by 12%.
  • All causes by 16%.

Furthermore, the effect of whole grains on mortality showed an inverse dose response. Simply put, the more thumbs upwhole grains people consumed, the lower the risk of deaths from heart disease, cancer, and all causes.

However, the dose response was not linear. Simply going from 0 servings of whole grains to one serving of whole grains reduced the risk of death from.

  • Heart disease by 9%.
  • Cancer by 5%.
  • All causes by 7%.

The authors concluded: “Whole grain consumption was inversely associated with mortality in a dose-response manner, and the association with cardiovascular mortality was particularly strong and robust. These observations endorse current dietary guidelines that recommend increasing whole grain intake to replace refined grains to facilitate long-term health and to help prevent premature death.”

The authors went on to say: “Low-carbohydrate diets that ignore the health benefits of whole grain foods should be adopted with caution because they have been linked to higher cardiovascular risk and mortality.”

Should I Avoid Whole Grains?

Question MarkAs for the original question, “Should I avoid whole grains?”, the answer appears to be a clear, “No”.

The strengths of this study include the large number of participants (786,076) and the demonstration of a clear dose-response relationship between whole grain intake and reduced mortality.

This study is also consistent with several other studies that show whole grain consumption is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer – and appears to lead to a longer, healthier life.

In short, it appears that Dr. Strangelove and the low-carb enthusiasts are wrong. Whole grains aren’t something to avoid. They reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. And they reduce the risk of premature death. We should be eating more whole grains, not less.

However, the authors did point out that this study has some weaknesses:

  • It is an association study, which does not prove cause and effect.
  • Study participants who consumed more whole grains also tended to consume more fruits and vegetables – and less red meat, sodas, and highly processed foods.

However, I would argue the second point is a strength, not a weakness. We need to give up the idea that certain foods or food groups are “heroes” or “villains”. We know that primarily plant-based diets like the Mediterranean and DASH diets are incredibly healthy. Does it really matter how much of those health benefits come from whole grains and how much comes from fruits and vegetables?

The Bottom Line

Dr. Strangelove and low-carb enthusiasts have been telling us we should avoid all grains, including whole grains. Is that good advice?

If Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues were correct, consumption of whole grains should increase the risk of deaths due to the top two killer diseases, heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, because heart disease and cancer account for 44% of all deaths in this country, whole grain consumption should also increase the risk of death due to all causes.

A recent study showed the exact opposite. The study showed:

When the highest whole grain intake (5 servings/day) was compared with the lowest whole grain intake (0 servings/day), whole grain consumption reduced the risk of death from:

  • Heart disease by 18%.
  • Cancer by 12%.
  • All causes by 16%.

Furthermore, the effect of whole grains on mortality showed an inverse dose response. Simply put, the more whole grains people consumed, the lower the risk of deaths from heart disease, cancer, and all causes.

However, the dose response was not linear. Simply going from 0 servings of whole grains to one serving of whole grains reduced the risk of death from.

  • Heart disease by 9%.
  • Cancer by 5%.
  • All causes by 7%.

The authors concluded: “Whole grain consumption was inversely associated with mortality in a dose-response manner, and the association with cardiovascular mortality was particularly strong and robust. These observations endorse current dietary guidelines that recommend increasing whole grain intake to replace refined grains to facilitate long-term health and to help prevent premature death.”

The authors went on to say: “Low-carbohydrate diets that ignore the health benefits of whole grain foods should be adopted with caution because they have been linked to higher cardiovascular risk and mortality.”

For more details read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

What Is Nutritionism?

In Defense Of FoodRecently, I have been reading Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food”. Yes, I know the book has been around for a long time. Normally I read the scientific literature rather than popular health books. However, in the past few weeks I have had a lot more time to read books, so I decided to read this one.

Some of the things he says are “off the wall”. As he readily admits, he isn’t a scientist or a medical doctor. However, a lot of what he says is “right on”. He echoes many of the things I have been talking about for years. But he does a masterful job of pulling everything together into a framework he calls “nutritionism”.

If you have a chance, I highly recommend that you read his book.

I will briefly summarize his discussion of nutritionism below. I will also share some scientific support for what he is saying. Finally, I will close by sharing what the Bible says on the subject.

What Is Nutritionism?

Low Fat LabelSimply put, nutritionism is the belief that we can understand food solely in terms of its nutritional and chemical constituents and our requirements for them. I use the term “belief” purposely. As Michael Pollan puts it: “As the ‘-ism’ suggests, nutritionism is not a scientific subject, but an ideology.”

What Michael Pollan is referring to is taking food constituents like saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics and labeling them as either “good” or “bad”.

As he points out, that leads to debacles like the creation of margarine as a substitute for butter. Of course, everyone reading this article knows that we subsequently found out that the trans fat in margarine was worse for us than the saturated fat in butter. He offers many other examples like this.

He also points out that the nutritionism concept has given free rein to the food industry to replace whole foods with processed foods that are cholesterol-free, sugar-free, low-fat, low-carb, or high in fiber, omega-3s, etc. He says that these foods are seldom healthier than the foods they replace. I agree.

Finally, he points out that the scientific support for the classification of individual ingredients or foods as “good” or “bad” is weak. That’s because when scientists design a study that removes a chemical constituent or a food from the diet, they have to replace it with something. And what they replace it with determines the outcome of the study. I give some examples of this in the next section.

The essence of Michael Pollan’s message is:

  • The effect of an individual nutrient or chemical constituent on your health depends on the food it is found in. Forget the fancy nutrition labels. Whole foods are almost always healthier than processed foods.
  • The effect of a food or food constituent on your health also depends on your overall diet. We should be thinking about healthy diets rather than the latest “magical” or “forbidden” food.

I will discuss these points below.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

Question MarkNow, let’s get to the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” If we are talking about whole foods, the short answer is “None”. As I said in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”.

For example, if we are talking about plant foods, each plant food group:

  • Has a unique blend of vitamins and minerals.
  • Has a unique blend of phytonutrients.
  • Has a unique blend of fiber.
  • Supports the growth of a unique combination of beneficial gut bacteria.
  • Dr Strangelove and his friends are telling you to eliminate whole grains, fruits, and legumes (beans) from your diet. Recent studies suggest that might not be a good idea. Here is one example.

If we are talking about animal foods, each animal food group:

  • Has a unique blend of vitamins and minerals.
  • May have unique components that are important for our health. [Note: This is an active area of research. Theories have been proposed for which components in animal foods may be important for our health, but they have not been confirmed.]
  • Vegan purists will tell you that you have no need for meat and dairy foods. Recent studies suggest otherwise. Here is one example.

With that as background, let’s turn our attention to nutritionism and look at some of science behind claims that certain food components are either good for us or bad for us.

Saturated Fat. Saturated fat is the poster child for nutritionism.lowfat

First, we were told by the American Heart Association and other health organizations that saturated fat was bad for us. Recently Dr. Strangelove and his friends are telling us that saturated fat is good for us. Instead of limiting saturated fat, we should be limiting carbs by cutting out fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Both cite clinical studies to support their claims. How can this be?

Perhaps a little history is in order. When the American Heart Association recommended that we decrease intake of saturated fat, they were envisioning that we would replace it with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat in the context of a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. That never happened.

Big Food quickly realized that if the American public were to follow the AHA guidelines, it would be disastrous for their bottom line. So, they sprang into action. They mixed sugar, white flour, and a witch’s brew of chemicals to create highly processed, low fat “foods”. Then they told the American public, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to give up your favorite foods. We have created low fat alternatives.”

This is the essence of what Michael Pollan refers to as nutritionism. By marketing their fake foods as low fat Big Food created the halo of health. In fact, Big Food’s fake foods were less healthy than the foods they replaced. Americans got fatter and sicker.

Now let’s look at the conflicting claims that saturated fat is bad for us or good for us. How can clinical studies disagree on such an important question? The answer is simple. It depends on what you replace it with. You need to consider saturated fat intake in the context of the overall diet.

I discussed this in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, but let me summarize it briefly here. The American Heart Association tells us that replacing half of the saturated fat in a typical American diet with:

  • Trans fats, increases heart disease risk by 5%.
  • Refined carbohydrates and sugars (the kind of carbohydrates in the typical American Diet), slightly increases heart disease risk.
  • Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits & vegetables), decreases heart disease risk by 9%.
  • Monounsaturated fats (olive oil & peanut oil), decreases heart disease risk by 15%.
  • Polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils and fish oil), decreases heart disease risk by 25%.
  • Unsaturated fats in the context of a Mediterranean diet, decreases heart disease risk by 45%.

My advice: Saturated fat is neither good for you nor bad for you. A little bit of saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet is fine. A lot of saturated fat in the context of an unhealthy diet is problematic.

fatty steakRed Meat. Is red meat bad for you? Like saturated fat, it depends on the amount of red meat and the overall diet. I covered this in detail in “Slaying The Food Myths”, but let me summarize briefly here:

According to the World Health Organization, red meat is a probable carcinogen. If we look at the postulated mechanisms by which it causes cancer, they can be mostly neutralized by components of various plant foods.

My advice: An 8-ounce steak with fries and a soda is probably bad for you. Three ounces of that same steak in a green salad or stir fry may be good for you.

I should make one other point while I am on the topic. Dr. Strangelove and his friends have been telling you that grass-fed beef is better for you than conventionally raised beef. Once again, that is nutritionism.  Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and high in omega-3s than conventionally raised beef. That may be better for your heart, but it has no effect on the cancer-causing potential of red meat. It doesn’t give the license to eat 8-ounce steaks on a regular basis. You still want to aim for 3-ounces of that grass-fed beef in a green salad or stir fry. 

High-Fructose Corn Syrup. This one seems to be on everyone’s “naughty list”. You are being told to read labels, and if the food has high-fructose corn syrup on the label, put it back on the shelf. But is that good advice?

It turns out that all the studies on the bad effects of high-fructose corn syrup have been done with sodas and highly processed foods. This should be your first clue.

Of course, as soon as high-fructose corn syrup gained its “bad” reputation, Big Food started replacing it with Sugar Comparisons“heathier” sugars. Does that make those foods healthier?

The answer is a clear “No”. Both chemically and biologically, high-fructose corn syrup is identical to sucrose (table sugar), honey, molasses, maple syrup, coconut sugar, date sugar, or grape juice concentrate. Agave sugar is even higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. This is your second clue.

Substituting these sugars for high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t turn sodas and processed foods into health foods. This is nutritionism at its worst.

My advice: Forget reading the label. Forget trying to avoid foods with high-fructose corn syrup. Avoid sodas and processed foods instead.

Sugar. Once the public started to realize that natural sugars in processed foods were just as bad for us as high-fructose corn syrup, sugars became “bad”. We were told to avoid all foods containing sugar in any form. In fact, we were told we needed to become “label detectives” and recognize all the deceptive ways that sugar could be hidden on the label.

Apple With Nutrition LabelI have discussed this in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.

Let me just summarize that article with one quote, “It’s not the sugar. It’s the food. There is the same amount and same types of sugar in an 8-ounce soda and a medium apple. Sodas are bad for you, and apples are good for you.” If you are wondering why that is, I have covered it in another issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”.

Before leaving this subject, I should mention that nutritionism has risen its ugly head here as well. Big Food has struck again. They have replaced sugar with a variety of artificial sweeteners.

Once again, nutritionism has failed. Those artificially sweetened sodas and processed foods are no healthier and no more likely to help you keep the weight off than the sugar-sweetened foods they replace. I have covered the science behind that statement in several previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Here is one example.

My advice: Forget about sugar phobia. You don’t need to become a label detective. Just avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sweet processed foods. Get your sugar in its natural form in fruits and other whole foods.

low carb dietCarbs. Dr. Strangelove and his friends are now telling you that you need to avoid all carbs. That is pure nutritionism. Carbs are neither good nor bad. It depends on the type of carb and what you replace it with.

Once again, clinical studies have given conflicting outcomes. Each side of the carbohydrate debate can provide clinical studies to support their position. How can that be? The answer is simple. It depends on what assumptions went into the design of the clinical studies. I have written several articles on this topic in “Health Tips From the Professor”, but let me give you one example here.

In this example, I looked at two major studies. The PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology) study included data from 135,000 participants in 18 countries. In this study, the death rate decreased as the % carbohydrate in the diet decreased. The low-carb enthusiasts were doing a victory dance.

However, it was followed by a second, even larger study. The ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities) study included 432,000 participants from even more countries. In this study, the death rate decreased as the % carbohydrate decreased to about 40%. Then a curious thing happened. As the % carbohydrate in the diet decreased further, the death rate increased.

How can you explain this discrepancy? When you examine the PURE study:

  • The % carbohydrate only ranged from 70% to 40%.
  • The data for the PURE study was obtained primarily with third world countries. That is an important distinction because:
    • In those countries, it is primarily the well to do that can afford sodas, processed foods, and meat.
    • The poor subsist on what they can grow and inexpensive staples like beans and rice.
  • Simply put, in the PURE study, the type of carbohydrate changed as well as the amount of carbohydrate.
    • At the highest carbohydrate intakes, a significant percentage of the carbohydrate came from sugar and refined grains.
    • At the lowest carbohydrate intakes, most of the carbohydrate intake came from beans, whole grains, and whatever fruits and vegetables they could grow.

When you examine the ARIC study:how much carbohydrates should we eat aric

  • The % carbohydrate ranged from 70% to 20%.
  • The ARIC study added in data from the US and European countries. That is an important distinction because:
    • Low carb diets like Atkins and Keto are popular in these countries. And those are the diets that fall into the 20-40% carbohydrate range.
    • Most people can afford diets that contain a lot of meat in those countries.
  • Simply put, at the lower end of the scale in the ARIC study, people were eating diets rich in meats and saturated fats and eliminating healthy carbohydrate-containing foods like fruits, whole grains and legumes.

My advice: The lesson here is to avoid simplistic nutritionism thinking and focus on diets rather than on foods. When you do that it is clear that carbs aren’t bad for you, it’s unhealthy carbs that are bad for you.

Which Foods Should I Avoid? By now the answer to the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” is clear. Avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods (The term processed foods includes convenience foods, junk foods, and most sweets).

What Does This Mean To You?

Questioning ManNow that we are clear on which foods you should avoid, let’s look at the flip side of the coin. Let’s ask, “Which foods should you include in your diet?

As I said at the beginning of this article, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”. We should consider whole foods from all 5 food groups as healthy.

Of course, each of us is different. We all have foods in some food groups that don’t treat us well. Some of us do better with saturated fats or carbs than others. We need to explore and find the foods and diets that work best for us.

However, whenever we assume one diet is best for everyone, we have crossed the line into nutritionism.

What Does The Bible Say?

Let me start this section by saying that I rely on the Bible for spiritual guidance rather than nutritional guidance. However, as part of our church’s Bible reading plan, I was reading 1 Timothy. A passage from 1 Timothy 4:1-5 leapt out at me. It reinforces the theme of Michael Pollan’s book and seems uniquely applicable to the times we live in.

“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They…order people to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

Interesting.

The Bottom Line

In this article, I have discussed the concept of “nutritionism” introduced in Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense Of Food”. He defines nutritionism as the belief that we can understand food solely in terms of its nutritional and chemical constituents and our requirements for them.

What Michael Pollan is referring to is taking food constituents like saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics and labeling them as either “good” or “bad”. He points out that when we accept these simplistic labels, we often end up creating foods and diets that are less healthy than the ones we were trying to replace.

At the beginning of the article, I asked the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” I then looked at several foods or food groups we have told to avoid, including saturated fats, red meat, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and carbs. When you look at the science behind these recommendations from the lens of nutritionism, you come to two conclusions:

  • We should avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods (The term processed foods includes convenience foods, junk foods, and most sweets).
  • Whole foods from all 5 food groups should be considered as healthy.

Of course, each of us is different. We all have foods in some food groups that don’t treat us well. Some of us do better with saturated fats or carbs than others. We need to explore and find the foods and diets that work best for us.

However, whenever we assume one diet is best for everyone, we have crossed the line into nutritionism.

For more details and a bible verse that supports the theme of Michael Pollan’s book and seems uniquely applicable to the times we live in, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Preparing For The New Normal

Can Supplements Strengthen My Immune System?

COVID-19The United States and the rest of the world are facing the biggest challenge of our lifetimes. COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of people and decimated economies around the world.

As of the publication date of this article we have no vaccine and only one treatment option that appears to be about 30% effective in a preliminary clinical trial. People are scared.

The question I get asked most often is: “Can supplements protect me from COVID-19”. That’s not a question I can answer with confidence. The few studies we have are small and preliminary. Plus, there is too much we still do not know about COVID-19.

However, there are studies about how diet and supplements affect the immune system. I can answer the question, “Can Supplements Strengthen My Immune System”, with confidence. That will be the focus of this article.

However, before covering that, let me take an objective look at what our “New Normal” will be like and how we can prepare for it.

Preparing For The New Normal

ProfessorAs a scientist I am appalled by the divisive and hyper-partisan arguments about how we should be handling the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a time when our country should be united against a common enemy. Instead I see myths and lies propagated on both sides of this important issue.

The press only magnifies the problem by repeating the myths without fact checking. Whether they are on the left or the right, the media only repeats myths that fit their narrative. As a result, people like you are confused and scared.

Let me try to give you a more objective and scientific view of what the “New Normal” will look like, and how we can prepare for it.

Let’s start with one of the biggest arguments over the past few weeks – when should we reopen our country. This argument is based on the myth that if we wait long enough, the virus will be gone, and life can return to normal.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality viruses don’t work that way. They continue to circulate through the population at low levels. Whenever we emerge from our homes and resume our daily lives, the virus will be lurking. There will be flare-ups. There will be hot spots. There will be deaths. And the press will report every one.

So, the question should not be when we emerge. It should be how we emerge. We should emerge cautiously. We should continue to take appropriate precautions. These precautions will become our “New Normal” until we have an effective vaccine. By now, you probably have the CDC precautions memorized, but let me repeat them here:

  • If you are sick, stay home until you recover. If your symptoms worsen, contact your doctor right away.
  • If you are exposed, get tested right away and self-quarantine for 14 days if you test positive.
  • When you go out, wear a face mask and practice social distancing. When you get home, wash your hands in soap and water for 20”.
  • For now, we will need to avoid the customary handshake (and if you are from the South like me, the customary hug).
  • If you are very old or very sick, you should stay home as much as possible. If you have a loved one in this category, you should do everything in your power to protect them from exposure.
  • The guideline that is hardest to project into the future is the one on crowd size. It is hard to predict what the CDC will recommend about crowd size as part of our “New Normal” a few months from now. However, because this virus is extremely contagious, it may be risky to attend any gatherings where there are large, tightly packed crowds for the foreseeable future. This could include some of our favorite things – like movies, live theater, night clubs, and sporting events.Myth Versus Facts

Finally, there is another big myth, namely that the virus will simply disappear once we have a vaccine. Vaccines reduce your risk of exposure because fewer people are carriers of the virus. However, coronaviruses never disappear. They continue to circulate in the population for decades.

Even after we have a vaccine, people will still get sick from COVID-19. People will still die from COVID-19. The difference is that we will no longer hear about COVID-19 cases and deaths on the nightly news. Those cases and deaths will just become part of the statistics that the CDC collects on flu-like illnesses each year – and everyone ignores.

Now that I have discussed what the “New Normal” will look like and summarized the CDC guidelines for reducing your exposure to COVID-19 as the lockdown eases, let me add another guideline of my own:

  • Keep your immune system as strong as possible.

Why Is Keeping Your Immune System Strong Important?

strong immune systemIt is no secret that the media likes to focus on bad news. It is the bad news that draws people in and keeps them coming back for more.

Pandemics are no different. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the Spanish flu, SARS, MERS, or COVID-19. We focus on cases and deaths – the bad news. We ignore the good news – there are millions of people who were infected and had no symptoms.

However, if you have been listening closely to what the experts have been saying rather than relying on the media for your information, the good news is obvious.

  • 80-85% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have mild or moderate symptoms. Their symptoms are no worse than they experience with the seasonal flu.
  • Preliminary antibody tests suggest that the number of people infected with COVID-19 who experience no symptoms may be 10 to 40 times higher than reported cases.
  • The experts say that the difference is a strong immune system. They tell us that it is people with weakened immune systems that suffer and die from COVID-19.

So, how do you keep your immune system strong? Let’s start by looking at the role of supplementation.

Can Supplements Strengthen My Immune System?

MultivitaminsThose of you who follow me know that I consider supplementation as just one aspect of a holistic approach to health. However, I am starting with supplements because the question I am often asked these days is: “Can supplements protect me from COVID-19”.

As I said at the beginning of this article, that is not a question I can answer with confidence. Instead, the question you should be asking is, “Can Supplements Strengthen My Immune System?”

As I mentioned above, the experts are telling us that it is people with weakened immune systems who suffer and die from COVID-19. That means it is important to keep our immune system as strong as possible.

How do we do that? Here is what an international group of experts said in a recent review (PC Calder et al, Nutrients, 12, 1181-1200, 2020).

1) “A wealth of mechanistic and clinical data show that vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and folate; trace elements zinc, iron, selenium, magnesium, and copper; and omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA play important and complementary roles in supporting the immune system.”

2) “Inadequate intake and status of these nutrients are widespread, leading to a decrease in resistance to infections, and an increase in disease burden.”

They then made the following recommendations:

1) Supplementation with the above micronutrients and omega-3 fatty acids is a safe, effective, and low-cost strategy to help support optimal immune function.

    • They recommended 100% of the RDA for vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and folate and minerals zinc, iron, selenium, magnesium, and copper in addition to the consumption of a well-balanced diet.
    • They recommended 250 mg/day of EPA + DHA.

2) Supplementation above the RDA for vitamins C and D is warranted.

    • They recommend 200 mg/day of vitamin C for healthy individuals and 1-2 g/day for individuals who are sick.
    • They recommend 2000 IU/day (50 ug/day) for vitamin D.

3) Public health officials are encouraged to include nutritional strategies in their recommendations to improve public health.

Their recommendations could be met by a multivitamin that provides all the micronutrients they recommend, an omega-3 supplement, and extra vitamins C and D.

What Else Should I Do To Strengthen My Immune System?

healthy foodsAs I said above, supplementation is only one part of a holistic approach to a strong immune system. Here are the other components of a holistic approach:

1) It starts with a healthy diet.

    • Eat foods from all 5 food groups.
    • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. They provide antioxidants and phytonutrients that are important for our immune system.
    • Eat plenty of high fiber foods. Include whole grains and beans in addition to fruits and vegetables. That’s because the friendly gut bacteria that strengthen our immune system need a variety of fibers from different food sources to feed on.
    • Eat oily fish on a regular basis.
    • Avoid sodas, sugary foods, and highly processed foods.
    • Avoid high fat diets

2) Get adequate sleep. For most of us, that means 7-8 hours of sleep a night.

3) Maintain a healthy weight.

4) Get adequate exercise. Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week.

5) Manage stress and anxiety in healthy ways. Yes, that means if you let the news about COVID-19 cause anxiety, you are weakening your immune system. You may want to turn off the news and try prayer, meditation, yoga, or whatever relieves stress for you.

The Bottom Line

In this article, I summarized the “New Normal” we face as we emerge from lockdown and how to navigate the new normal as safely as possible. If I were to summarize this article in a few short sentences, this is what I would say:

Until we have an effective vaccine the “New Normal” is a world in which a dangerous virus is lurking in the community, waiting to strike the unprepared.

Forget all the angry rhetoric about when we should emerge from lockdown. The important question is not when we emerge. It is how we emerge.

We don’t need to stay huddled in our homes, fearful to leave, unless we are very old or very sick.

We do need to take appropriate precautions when we leave home based on the recommendations of the CDC. None of us are invincible as far as this virus is concerned. More importantly, if we bring the virus home, we may kill the very people we love the most. We need to follow the guidelines.

We should also make sure that our immune system is as strong as possible through a holistic combination of diet, supplementation, adequate sleep, exercise, weight management, and stress reduction.

For more information on CDC COVID-19 Guidelines, click here.

For more details about preparing for the new normal and diet & supplementation recommendations, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Diet And Cancer Risk

What Can You Do To Reduce Your Risk Of Cancer?

Magic WandIt seems like everyone has a magic pill, essential oil, food, or diet that prevents cancer. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that all the claims can’t be true. No wonder you are confused. You want to know:

  • Which of these claims are true?
  • What can you do to reduce your risk of cancer?

These aren’t trivial questions.

  • Cancer is the second leading cause of death in this country, and some experts predict it will surpass heart disease as the leading cause of death in the near future.
  • While cancer treatments have become much more effective in the past few decades, these treatment successes are often associated with severe side-effects, enormous expense, or both.

That is why I was intrigued by a recent study (FF Zhang et al, JNCI Cancer Spectrum (2019) 3(2): pkz034) on diet and cancer that came from the prestigious Friedman School of Nutrition and Public Policy at Tufts University. This study asked two important questions:

  • How many newly diagnosed cancer cases could have been prevented by changes in the American diet? This is something the authors referred to as the “preventable cancer burden associated with poor diet”.
  • Which foods increased or decreased the risk of cancer? This, of course, is the most useful information for you and me.

Diet And Cancer Risk

Diet And CancerThis study estimated that 80,110 new cancer cases among US adults 20 and older could be primarily attributed to poor diet. While poor diet contributes to many more cancers, the authors of this study felt 80,110 represented the number of cancer cases that were clearly preventable by some simple dietary changes.

While all cancers were affected by diet to some degree, the cancers most affected by poor diet were:

  • Colon cancer (65% of cases)
  • Mouth and throat cancer (18% of cases)
  • Endometrial cancer (4.0% of cases)
  • Breast cancer (3.8% of cases)

When the diet was broken down into individual food groups:

  • Low intake of whole grains was associated with the largest number of preventable cancer cases (35% of cases). This was followed by.
  • Low intake of dairy foods (22% of cases).
  • High intake of processed meats (18% of cases).
  • Low intake of vegetables (16% of cases).
  • Low intake of fruits (10% of cases).
  • High intake of red meat (7.1% of cases).
  • High intake of sugar sweetened beverages (4.0% of cases).

Of the diet-associated cancer cases, the scientists who lead the study estimated that 84% of them represented a direct effect of diet on cancer risk. The dietary factors most likely to directly increase the risk of cancer were:

  • Low intake of whole grains.
  • Low intake of dairy foods.
  • High intake of processed meats.

The scientists estimated that 16% of diet-associated cancer cases were “mediated by obesity”. In layman’s terms, this means that diet increased the risk of obesity and obesity increased the risk of cancer. The dietary factors most likely to increase the risk of obesity-mediated cancers were:

  • High intake of sugar sweetened beverages.
  • Low intake of fruits.

The authors concluded: “More than 80,000 new cancer cases [per year] are estimated to be associated with suboptimal diet among US adults…Our findings underscore the need for reducing cancer burden in the United States by improving the intake of key food groups and nutrients of Americans.”

What Does This Mean For You?

Questioning ManThese findings aren’t novel. Many previous studies have come to the same conclusions. However, many people find these recommendations to be confusing. Should they increase their intake of certain foods? Should they follow some sort of magic diet?

Perhaps we need to get away from the magic food concept. We need to understand that every time we increase one food in our diet, we exclude other foods. We need to step back and look at the overall diet.

Let me break down the recommendations from this study into three categories: foods we should eliminate from our diet, foods we should include in our diet, and foods we should balance in our diet.

Foods we should eliminate from our diet:

  • Sugar Sweetened Beverages. They provide no nutritional benefit, and the sugar in most beverages rushes into our bloodstream and overwhelms our body’s ability to utilize it in a healthy way. This leads to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other health issues.
    • Public enemy number one is sodas. However, this category also includes fruit juices, sweetened teas and energy drinks, and sugary processed foods.
    • This category also includes diet sodas. For reasons we don’t completely understand, diet sodas appear to be just as likely to lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease as sugar sweetened sodas. I have discussed the proposed explanations of this phenomenon in a recent issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”.
    • Sugar, however, is not the enemy. Sugar found naturally in fruits and other whole foods enters the bloodstream slowly and is metabolized in healthy ways by the body. I have discussed this in another issue  of “Health Tips From the Professor”. This is what I mean by restoring balance in our diet. Decreasing the sugar intake from sugar sweetened beverages and increasing sugar intake from fruits is associated with a decreased risk of obesity and obesity-related cancers.
  • Processed Meats. The evidence is overwhelming at this point that processed meats directly increase the risk of cancer.
    • If you have trouble completely eliminating processed meats from your diet, my advice is to minimize them and consume them only in the context of an overall healthy diet. Personally, I still consume bacon occasionally as flavoring for a healthy green salad.

Whole GrainsFoods we should include in our diet. I put these in a separate category because Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues have been telling us to eliminate them from our diet, and many Americans are following those recommendations:

  • Whole grains. We can think of whole grains as the underserving victim of the low-carb craze. The low-carb craze is on the mark when it comes to eliminating added sugars and refined grains from the diet. However, eliminating whole grains from the diet may be doing more harm than good. In fact, this and other studies suggest that whole grains are the most effective foods for reducing cancer risk. Why is that?
    • If we assume whole grains are just a good source of fiber and a few vitamins and minerals, it is hard to grasp their importance. We could easily get those nutrients elsewhere.
    • However, we are beginning to realize that whole grains play a unique role in supporting certain species of gut bacteria that are very beneficial to our health. In short, whole grains may be essential for a healthy gut.
  • Dairy Foods. This is another food that has been treated as a villain by Dr. Strangelove and his many colleagues. However, for reasons we don’t completely understand, dairy foods appear to decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Foods we should balance in our diet.

  • Red Meat. Diets high in red meat are consistently associated with a slight increase in cancer risk. The World Health Organization lists red meat as a probable carcinogen, but that has proven to be controversial.
    • Much of the research has centered on why red meat causes cancer. Several mechanisms have been proposed, but none of them have been proven.
    • In contrast, very little consideration has been given to what red meat is displacing from the diet. Diets high in red meat are often low in whole grains, fruits and/or vegetables.
    • Perhaps instead of eliminating red meat from our diets we should be talking about balancing red meat in our diets by consuming less red meat and more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

What Can You Do To Reduce Cancer Risk?

American Cancer SocietyYou may have been thinking that 80,110 cases/year represents a small percentage of new cancer cases. That’s because diet is only one component of a holistic cancer prevention strategy. Here is what the American Cancer Society recommends for reducing cancer risk:

  • Avoid tobacco.
  • Limit sun exposure.
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods (Their recommendations are in line with this study).
  • Be physically active.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Get vaccinated against HPV.
  • Get regular medical checkups.

Doing any of these things will reduce your cancer risk. But the more of these you can incorporate into your lifestyle, the lower your risk.

The Bottom Line

A recent study looked at diet and cancer risk. The authors reported that 80,110 new cancer cases among US adults 20 and older could be primarily attributed to poor diet.

When the diet was broken down into individual food groups:

  • Low intake of whole grains was associated with the largest number of preventable cancer cases. This was followed in descending order by.
  • Low intake of dairy foods.
  • High intake of processed meats.
  • Low intake of vegetables.
  • Low intake of fruits.
  • High intake of red meat.
  • High intake of sugar sweetened beverages.

The authors concluded: “More than 80,000 new cancer cases [per year] are estimated to be associated with suboptimal diet among US adults…Our findings underscore the need for reducing cancer burden in the United States by improving the intake of key food groups and nutrients of Americans.”

For more details, read the article above. For example, I discuss which foods we should eliminate, which foods we should eat more of, and which foods we should balance in our diet. To add a more holistic perspective, I also discuss the American Cancer Society’s recommendations for reducing cancer risk.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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