FOOD FOR THOUGHT
SEPTEMBER 17, 1996
The diet police have struck again. Elizabeth Farnsworth reports on the American Cancer Society's new dietary guidlines, which contain a lot of things we knew already and some things we didn't.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The bad news is that about one third of all cancers in the United States can be attributed to dietary factors, according to the American Cancer Society. The good news is that something can be done about it. Today the society released its recommendations which include limit consumption of meats, especially high-fat meats, limit consumption of alcohol, eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables daily, include grain products in every meal, and be moderately physically active for at least 30 minutes a day. Here to tell us more about the guidelines and how they've changed over the years is Marian Burros, who covers these matters for the "New York Times." Thanks for being with us.
MARIAN BURROS, New York Times: (New York) It's a pleasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let's talk about the recommendations. What is it that is so good about fruits and vegetables? What's the tie between them and cancer?
MS. BURROS: If they only knew, then they could pick out the individual nutrients that are in them. They don't know what it is. They think it could be things like carotinoids or phenols. They have no idea exactly what it is, and that's why they recommend fruits and vegetables, instead of supplements that may come from them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So the research that they're basing this report, these guidelines on, just shows that there's a connection between lower rates of cancer in certain areas and fruits, and eating large amounts of fruits and vegetables.
MS. BURROS: Exactly, yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, the--explain what the carotinoids and these other things are, because some people think they can get them from vitamins, and is that possible?
MS. BURROS: Well, yeah. You can get them from vitamins and you can get them from taking anti-oxidants like beta carotene, although the one study--the couple of studies that have been done with giving beta carotene to smokers turned out that the smokers had higher levels of, umm, cancer who took beta carotene than those who took the placebo. So they know it's something that hangs around beta caroteine, but they don't know what it is. So it's these elements that are found--maybe it's the fiber in the fruit. Maybe it's a combination of a lot of different things. They just don't know exactly. So it may be anti-oxidants. It may be vitamins. It may be minerals. It may be--who knows--it could be garlic but they just can't figure it out yet.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the recommendations to cut down on red meat? And they specifically to eat more fish, more, uh, foul, more chicken, and less pork, lamb, and beef. Why? What's the connection there, or is that also not known?
MS. BURROS: The connection, they feel, is that it's fairly clear compared to other things that people who eat a lot of red meat are more likely to get prostate cancer and colon cancer. And they're pretty strong on that recommendation. Again, they don't know whether it's the saturated fat in the meat, because meat is a very good source of all kinds of fat, but particularly saturated fat. They don't know whether it is the way the meat is cooked because there are certain mutagenic things that happen to meat, to the protein in the meat in the process of cooking it. They don't know whether it's, umm, overall fat in the meat. It could be a number of different things, but they do see a clear--a fairly clear connection between red meat consumption and those particular cancers. That's why they are suggesting that it's not just high-fat red meat that you cut down on but all red meat, even lean red meat.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, alcohol is confusing because the federal government came out with some recommendations in January, dietary recommendations, not specifically related to cancer, which said that a small amount of alcohol was actually good for people, but this is saying it's not if you think about cancer, right?
MS. BURROS: Yeah. But they're pretty clear about acknowledging that for certain people, men over 50 and women over 60, but even more so for men, uh, there is--there may well, indeed, be better benefits--a benefit-risk ratio may be worth drinking a couple of drinks a day to reduce cardiovascular problems. They do say that with women, it's, it's not as likely to be beneficial but if it is at all, it's for women over 60. They also say some other things that for people who are really concerned about cancer, and I suppose most of--all of us are--I've heard people say that if they had to make a choice between having a heart attack and getting cancer, they'd rather have a heart attack.
I think people feel that they can cover from heart attacks but they're not sure that they could recover from cancer. At any rate, for people who are really worried about cancer for women, for instance, who have a history of breast cancer in the family, they say that it isn't unreasonable for women not to drink at all who have that feeling and that as little as a few drinks a week may increase the risk of breast cancer. Uh, when I posed this to someone who was not involved in the actual work on this committee making these findings, he said, well, you know, you can always find other ways to reduce your risk of heart disease. You can exercise more. You can eat fruits and vegetables and whole grains and eat less fatty food. You don't have to drink alcohol to reduce your risk of heart disease. So for some people, it just may not be worth the risk.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What's new in these recommendations? There have been recommendations from the Cancer Society every couple of years. Are these tougher? Are these different?
MS. BURROS: They're much more rigorous and much more specific. The last recommendations came out in 1991, and it was the usual moderation kind of stuff. These are quite specific. And the Cancer Society is in a different position from the federal government when it issues guidelines: (a) they're only talking about cancer, they're not talking other diseases, and (b) the American Cancer Society does not have the kind of lobbying pressures on it that the federal government will have when it's doing some kinds of dietary guidelines.
The--they have to take into account--and this is not--you know--a matter of opinion. It's a matter of fact that the lobbyists will come in. The meat people will come in. The salt people will come in. The dairy people will come in and talk to staff members who are involved with the federal dietary guidelines, and so more than just science is being balanced when the federal dietary guidelines come out, and the federal dietary guidelines are also the basis for all kinds of decisions on how you do school lunch, for example. The American Cancer Institute doesn't--Society--doesn't have to worry about those things.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Marian Burros, thanks for being with us.
MS. BURROS: Thank you.