Tomatoes reduce cancer risk. Low meat diets reduce cancer risk. Casein protein increases risk for cancer, so don’t drink milk. Soy protects against cancer so you need to drink soy milk. Deli meat causes cancer. Antioxidants are ESSENTIAL in the protection against cancer. Creatine kills your kidneys. Protein is bad for my kidneys and simple carbs make me swell up.
I could go on forever with these “facts” that I hear every day on the news, from family members, and at work. And to be honest, while it’s frustrating that these “facts” exist, I love being asked about them because I want to make sure the research is disseminated properly. While I am all for living a healthy lifestyle and agree that diet plays a significant role in health and disease prevention, misrepresenting studies in such a fashion is simply irresponsible.
Let me start by saying I LOVE SCIENCE! I love reading research and what we can learn from it. But what I HATE (more than anything) is the misinterpretation of research and when people take it and turn it into undeniable “facts”. Then, to make it worse, they spread their misperception of the results as fact.
My frustrations really started to build when hearing a family friend lecture everyone at Thanksgiving about how TOXIC store bought milk is. This idea was planted in his head by his local farming friend and he verified his new beliefs via the internet. He stated the plastic jugs and pasteurization process lead to cancer, aches and pains, and other disease. Instead, he recommends a whole milk from a local farm that bottles in glass jugs and uses low temperature pasteurization.
While this poses no health concern from a pasteurization standpoint, I can guarantee you at the rate my family drinks milk, the calories would add up fast and so would the weight gain. While sparing him the embarrassment of proving him wrong in front of everyone, I made sure my family knew my feelings after the fact.
This growing issue has escalated in the past few years with the release of numerous movies and books (primarily “Forks over Knives”). These movies and books love to make the mistake of deriving causation from correlations. For example, since culture A eats more meat than culture B and culture A has higher cancer rates then meat must cause heart disease. Unfortunately, nothing involving diseases as complex as heart disease or cancer is that easy. In the movie “Forks over Knives” they love to use an example from Norway during World War II. The general outline is this:
- Nazis occupy Norway and death from cardiovascular disease NOSE-DIVED (see chart)
- According to the movie, this means meat causes heart disease
- Reason why? Available and thus consumed levels of meat DROPPED and diets consisted mainly of vegetables
- The truth?
- Look closely at the y-axis – death rates dropped from 30 per 10,000 to 24 per 10,000. This eradication of meat in the diet saved 6 more lives per every 10,000 people. While every life is significant, this is not statistically significant and cannot be used as evidence that meat causes heart disease. Not to mention heart disease isn’t a sudden onset acute condition. It is something that starts in your teens and slowly builds to a cardiac event later in life. I highly doubt those individuals 50 years and older suddenly cured their pending heart attack or stroke from eating less meat for a year (which is substantiated by looking at the data closely)
- There is also no mention by the producers of the decreased calorie consumption or increased fish intake. Maybe lower body mass had something to do with it? Maybe the beneficial fats in the fish? The point is, we don’t know because the research is inconclusive
These movies and books also love to sift through hundreds of studies and only use the studies that support their case. For example, in the movie “Forks over Knives” a claim is made that casein protein (found in milk) causes cancer (I think they actually say it “turns cancer cells on”). It is true that the researchers discovered that rats fed 5% of their diet as casein were generally free from cancerous growths, whereas the rats fed 20% casein had much higher cancer rates. HOWEVER, what they forget to mention is that 30 rats on the high-protein diet survived for more than one year while only 12 of the low protein rats survived one year.
In other words, the survival rate for the 20% casein group was much better than for the 5% casein group. It is proposed that this is because of a protective mechanism provided by casein protein against the cancer causing agent that they were giving the rats. The rats in the high protein group had more cancer because they lived longer and were exposed to a cancer causing agent for a longer period of time. Even if someone has a peer reviewed study backing up their claim, make sure you READ the study.
While I am all for a healthy lifestyle and diets high in vegetables and fruit, I am opposed to correlations and opinions becoming facts. After watching movies like this, reading news tidbits, and listening to family members recite these facts at parties, I wonder how we are all not riddled with disease. The fact probably lies in that while we would like to know every single thing that causes these horrible diseases and every little thing that prevents them, we really don’t know much. Our genetics give us a window of susceptibility and while our environments play a role in triggering disease it’s not as easy as eating lean steak a few times per week or drinking a glass of milk every day.
The best way to maximize your health and quality of life is to exercise, maintain a healthy body weight/composition, eat a balanced, nutrient dense diet without excess calories, and reduce negative stress. Next time you hear one of these “facts” or watch a movie of this nature, think critically. Always look deeper, and if you are in doubt, ask one of us. If we don’t know the answer, we will examine the research and let you know what the science actually says.