Tuesday, October 02, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0676 - Scientific Reductionism

"This gets to the heart of reductionism in science. As long as scientists study highly isolated chemicals and food components, and take the information out of context to make sweeping assumptions about complex diet and disease relationships, confusion will result. Misleading news headlines about this or that food chemical and this or that disease will be the norm. The more impressive message about the benefits of broad dietary change will be muted as long as we focus on relatively trivial details." - T. Colin Campbell, PhD, The China Study, p.286

I am a regular subscriber to Google Alerts using keywords like colorectal cancer, cancer + survivor, and Canada + cancer. Over the past year or so, I have received hundreds, perhaps thousands of news items publishing "this or that" scientific discovery about cancer drugs and treatment, about inspiring stories of survivors and patients, and about dietary and nutritional studies. In the past few weeks, especially, I have been reading about how fruits, vegetables, and dietary fibre probably don't help cancer survivors. Here is just one study published recently by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) which claims that breast cancer survivors and cancer recurrence aren't affected, at least in terms of statistical significance, by increasing intake of fruits and vegetables. Actually, this is one of the best that I've opened up and perused recently. Most of them merely regurgitate popular press summaries in which fruits, vegetables, and fiber are listed as having minimal impact on cancer recurrence.

These studies and publications are typical of the scientific reductionism which confuses everyone about the effects of broad dietary change. The Nurses' Health Study is perhaps the most well known, especially to those affected by breast cancer.

Here's the problem in a nutshell. When the general public reads studies and notices about "this or that" nutritional element, most of us are looking for a magic bullet. We want to know what to add to our existing, unchanged diet that will cure us or make us resistant to certain diseases. Most of these studies contradict one another, so we're left confused and frustrated. We're told that fat, for instance, increases the likelihood of contracting breast cancer. Then the next moment we're told that modifying dietary fat doesn't appreciably affect the onset of breast cancer. Who to believe and why?

The problem with the "magic bullet" inclined public and the "single dietary component" studies is that they both lead us away from the incontrovertible evidence linking diet and nutrition from cross-cultural and international studies, evidence that points to the "Western" diet as implicated in virtually all of our "Western" chronic diseases, cancer included.

In the JAMA study, for instance, we are never told that all of the women studied (as in the Nurses' Health Study) were carnivorous, high animal-protein, eaters. Adding a few fruits and vegetables to a diet already high in animal protein and refined carbohydrates might not make a big difference in cancer recurrence. But what we're not told is what would happen if we adopted a whole foods, plant-based diet as is the case in places like rural China.

Let's give cancer patients and survivors more credit. If I were to tell you that instead of looking for a magic bullet, what you needed to do was remove something from your lifestyle and diet, isn't it true that you might not like the message, but you'd be willing to give it a try, no matter how impractical it might seem to some people? If I told you that western chronic diseases can mostly be prevented and sometimes even reversed by becoming more active and eating a whole foods, plant-based diet, would you consider changing your lifestyle? I would!

It's time for a change, not just in the way studies are done and reported in the media, but in our expectations for a magical cure. If we've spent an entire lifetime getting to where we are with dietary excess and extravagance, then getting off the routine is undoubtedly more important than adding a few fruits and vegetables to an already poor diet.

I can do this, and I strongly suspect that many others affected by cancer can do this.

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