A trip down the grocery store aisle 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 protective chemicals, or advises consumers to emulate the diets of islanders or cave men.
But there is a growing divide between this nutritional folklore and science. During the last two decades the connection between the foods we eat and the cellular cause of cancer has been unraveling string by string.
This past month at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cancer Research the latest results about diet and cancer were relegated to a single poster session and a few scattered presentations. There were new hints that coffee may lower the risk of some cancers and more about the possible benefits of vitamin D. Beyond that there wasn’t much to say when science got involved.
In the opening session a Harvard epidemiologist who has spent many years studying cancer and nutrition, sounded almost remorseful as he gave a status report. Whatever is true for other diseases, when it comes to cancer there was little evidence that fruits and vegetables are protective or that fatty foods are bad.
About all that can be said with any assurance is that controlling obesity is important to prevent cancer, as it also is for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke and other diseases. But unless a person is seriously malnourished, the influence of specific foods is very weak but you wouldn’t know that when you walk down the grocery store aisle.