Monday, July 7, 2008

Low-carb and cancer

It's very interesting to me the role nutrition (as well as other environmental influences: sunshine, pollution, electromagnetic radiation, chemicals, etc.) plays in the prevention/development of cancer. While I agree there is a genetic component, I'm not convinced that you are doomed to get breast cancer, for example, even if your mother, sister and aunt were all cancer victims. The possibility of having a "cancer gene" doesn't mean you're going to get cancer. I don't quite get the idea of genetic testing to find out if you are a carrier of a so-called "cancer gene." It only dictates what could possibility be one outcome if you don't take care of yourself. In the meantime, you are stressed and worried about when you'll get cancer and that's not a life I'd want to live.

I took a course back in college called "Nutrition and Cancer." The class detailed the process of how cancer cells grow, what fuels their development, and how diet can influence its course. What struck me immediately was the role insulin played to feed cancer cells. Cancer cells have insulin receptors so they can consume glucose. Many cancer cells need glucose to grow. By this logic, wouldn't one conclude that you can slow or halt the progression of cancerous cells by limiting insulin production with a low-carbohydrate diet? While there are certainly other factors involved other than insulin, this is my no means a cure for all, but it would seem to me that if most cancer cells live off of glucose, you could surely slow down its growth by reducing the availability of insulin by simply eating less carbohydrates.

Insulin regulation is just one benefit of a low-carb diet. Another possible benefit is a higher proportion of saturated fat intake. Saturated fats are termed as such because each carbon atom is singly bonded with hydrogen. Its carbon skeleton is "saturated" with hydrogen atoms. This makes for a very stable structure that is not prone to going rancid easily. Coconut oil, for example, can be stored at room temperature for well over a year without exhibiting any signs of rancidity. Unsaturated fats (which includes polyunsaturates) contain at least one double bond. This double bond is less stable than a single bond and is more prone to free radical attack and thus oxidation (rancidity).

The National Institute of Health says: "A large intake of polyunsaturated fat may increase the risk for some types of cancer." Polyunsaturated fats include: soybean oil, corn oil, safflower and sunflower oils. Corn and/or soybean oil (a.k.a. "vegetable oil") are the most abundant and widely used oils, especially in processed foods (alas, my beloved mayonnaise). When you eat these polyunsaturated fats (or any fat, for that matter) they are incorporated in your body as is, a polyunsaturated fat. If they are used as a structural membrane (like a cell membrane), the cell membrane will contain those double bonds. Thus making the cell membrane more prone to free radical damage. As the cell continuously repairs itself due to onslaught of damage done by the free radicals, it has a greater chance to make an internal DNA error and, oops, a cancer cell is born. Saturated fats are not as likely to be disturbed by these free radical attacks. It would be my opinion that a high proportion of saturated fat would be protective against many forms of cancer.

There are some studies that suggest a diet high in fat may cause cancer. I wonder what these studies would find if they evaluated for various fat compositions (saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated). The National Institutes of Health already recognizes polyunsaturated fats as carcinogenic, why not examine the role of saturated fats in the prevalence of cancer?

Unfortunately, I'm very pessimistic about any diet therapy to treat or prevent cancer. While I whole-heartedly believe a dietetic therapy to be useful, the billion dollar industries, like health care and pharmaceuticals, will petition in every way against it because there is no money to be made in nutrition therapies. If cancer can be prevented, treated, or even cured, with diet, these industry giants stand to lose out on BILLIONS of dollars that they could profit on costly cancer treatments and expensive drugs both harboring dangerous side effects, general malaise, and emotional stresses on their patients.

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