Updating basic guidelines with recent developments
As a regional leader in cancer treatment, Slidell Memorial Hospital has the expertise and technology to provide state-of-the-art cancer services to our patients.
As gratifying as it is to lead the way when it comes to treatment, we would rather help patients prevent cancer from occurring in the first place. Most people know the basics of cancer prevention, for those non-hereditary cases that are preventable at any rate. The same basic recommendations have been around for years, and you’re probably familiar with most, if not all of them:
· Don’t smoke
· Maintain a healthy weight
· Eat right and exercise
· Reduce stress
· Cover up in the sun
· Get immunized
· Don’t skip regular check-ups
What you may not realize, however, is that the specific guidelines for following some of these recommendations changes over time.
It can be hard to keep up with all the cancer-related studies and discoveries out there, so we decided to take a look at the headlines and see what we might find that’s "new” to add to your cancer-prevention toolkit. This article is the first in a multi-part series that will bring you some of the latest findings in cancer prevention research.
Today’s focus is on "eating right.”
Antioxidants may not prevent cancer after all
For years, nutritionists and doctors alike have told their patients to consume lots of fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants to prevent cancer. Antioxidants include well-known nutrients -- vitamins A, C and E, as well as the mineral selenium. All are inhibitors of damaging forms of reactive oxygen in the body's tissues.
Reactive oxygen molecules include peroxide, which is produced in small amounts by certain healthy cells, particularly white cells involved in destroying invasive microbes. Eating unhealthy fats like trans-fats also increases the levels of reactive oxygen in the body.
Another name for these reactive oxygen molecules is "free radicals.” They have long been known to be capable of destroying human tissue, and at least theoretically capable of causing cancer.
Patients have always been advised to consume lots of antioxidants on the theory that these nutrients are thought to stop reactive oxygen before it can cause cancer. Those who don’t like, or can’t eat vegetables and fruits in sufficient quantity to get the recommended levels for cancer prevention, so patients are often advised to take anti-oxidant rich supplements.
According to this latest study, however, none of it seems to work. In fact, dietary supplements rich in antioxidants may do more harm than good.
In a newly published report, Dr. David Tuveson and Navdeep Chandel of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, wrote in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine that dietary antioxidants "have consistently failed to reduce the incidence of carcinoma."
Both men are well known for their expertise in the fight against cancer. Tuveson specializes in pancreatic cancer, and Chandel specializes in studying oxidative damage to cells.
The two doctors reported that antioxidants may fail to show a beneficial effect against cancer because these nutrients do not act in the mitochondria -- critical sites in cells where rogue tumor-promoting forms of oxygen are produced.
In reaction to their paper, Nutritionist Mindy Haar, director of the Department of Interdisciplinary Health Sciences at New York Institute of Technology, said:
"This is an interesting paper, but I still think it's a good idea to base your diet on a variety of fruits and vegetables," she said, underscoring the importance of dark, leafy greens and other whole foods rich in antioxidants.
Haar has been criticized in the past for not recommending supplements enough, but as she noted, supplements do not have the same properties as foods. "Foods contain a variety of phytonutrients," she said, referring to plant-based compounds that can prevent the development of a wide range of disorders, not only cancer.
Sharon Zarabi, a nutritionist at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, explained the difference by describing the effect between nutrients in foods as "synergistic,” her point being that supplements simply don’t work the same way, and since the doctors only studied supplements, there may still be benefit to consuming food-based antioxidents:
"I think that it's difficult to test supplements compared to foods that are whole," Zarabi said. "All vitamins and minerals act together in foods to prevent free radicals."
However, Zarabi did admit that antioxidants are complex compounds with the capacity to transform themselves inside cells -- sometimes changing into free radicals.
The bottom line is, if cancer prevention is your goal, there’s still not enough evidence to suggest that eating a diet rich in food-based antioxidants will hurt you, but if you are, or were planning to go out and get pill-based nutrients for this purpose, you might want to put that money towards your grocery bill instead.