Cancer: A Disease of Civilization?Editor
An overwhelming body of evidence points to drastic changes in diet as the primary explanation for the increase in cancer
by Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.
Even today, we find huge disparities in the incidence of cancer worldwide, with increased rates seemingly tied to the adoption of a refined diet and other harmful habits. Hungary, for instance, has a cancer death rate of 272.2 per 100,000 (men) and 138.4 per 100,000 (women). Contrast this with Mexico, where the death rate among men is 85.0 and among women 78.9 per 100,000.
“Civilization” is not only a chauvinistic term but is such an all-encompassing concept that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what aspects of it have contributed to the dramatic rise of cancer in the last century. Certainly tobacco has been a major culprit. Hungary has the highest rate of lung cancer in the world. I have visited that country four times and always came away shocked at the amount of smoking. On one trip I visited a number of famous medical facilities and never did my hosts fail to offer me cigarettes. When I met with one of the country’s highest ranking scientists, he nonchalantly chain-smoked throughout the entire meeting. After the fall of Communism, downtown Budapest became plastered with ads for American cigarettes. Philip Morris, makers of Marlboro, sponsored televised rock concerts and young women in Marlboro suits dispensed free samples of Marlboro cigarettes. Concertgoers who agreed to smoke the cigarettes received a complimentary pair of “designer Marlboro sunglasses.” There is no doubt that smoking has played a role in the rising rates of cancer.
However, an overwhelming body of evidence points to drastic changes in diet as the primary explanation for the increase in cancer. Indigenous people of regions across the globe seem protected so long as they eat the diet that their ancestors ate for millennia. But once they adopt Western dietary habits, cancer appears and then begins its inexorable climb towards the same astronomical heights as are seen in the societies they emulate.[ad name=”Rectangle Text AdSense”]
Some scholars who studied vegetarian cultures have concluded that it was the high fruit and vegetable content that kept these native peoples from getting cancer. Conversely, some researchers who focused on northern populations in which meat was prominent have advocated a meat-based diet for cancer protection. Others have ascribed the healthfulness, longevity and lack of cancer in indigenous populations to the intake of specific nutrients (such as the “laetrile” found in such abundance in apricot kernels, a staple of the Hunza diet).
But no single, simplistic answer will fit these tremendously varied cultures. In my opinion, what these diverse populations ate is much less important than what they did not eat (at least until recently): “white” foods, specifically white sugar, white flour, and salt. The addition of these foods to their diet was disastrous to their health, as it has been to ours. White sugar and white flour are especially harmful, because these “high glycemic” foods are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, where they wreak havoc with the regulation of insulin and blood sugar levels. This is a major factor in increasing rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Unfortunately, white sugar, white flour, and refined sweeteners are ubiquitous in the Western diet. They are found in sodas and other sweet drinks, breads and snack foods, beer and ice cream, you name it. But even “natural” forms of carbohydrates may not be as innocent as once thought. Whole wheat flour, potatoes, and other seemingly healthy foods also have a high glycemic index and may not be safe to consume in anything except small quantities.
Robert Atkins, MD, has been preaching against a high-carbohydrate diet for 30 years, much to the chagrin of the medical establishment. A recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine (7/7/02) vindicated the low-carbohydrate, high-protein and high-fat diet advocated by Atkins, citing a growing body of research which suggests that a diet of carbohydrate-rich foods is no guarantee of good health, let alone weight loss. In fact, as the American public has increased its consumption of carbohydrates and decreased its consumption of fatty meat, obesity rates have skyrocketed. In 1998, more than 50 percent of adults in the US were overweight. Obesity and type II diabetes among American children have also increased. At the same time, levels of physical activity have declined, further contributing to soaring rates of obesity and obesity-related illnesses in the US.
The list of diseases linked to obesity is a lengthy one. According to the American Cancer Society, obesity contributes to hypertension, lipid disorders, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and respiratory problems. And as body mass index goes up, rates of cancer also increase, by as much as 80 percent in women.
The Key to Cancer Prevention
It seems clear to me that cancer was not a major medical problem in recorded history until the last 150 years. And even today, populations that eat an indigenous diet rarely, if ever, get cancer. (Unfortunately, such populations are exceedingly scarce in this century.) However, in reviewing the evidence from these cultures as well as our own, the key issue for cancer prevention does not seem to be whether the diet is vegetarian or meat-eating, or whether it contains high quantities of fat and protein. The single most drastic change in the Western diet, which has occurred simultaneously with rising rates of cancer among those who consume it, has been the cheap availability of white flour, white sugar, and refined sweeteners such as corn syrup, as well as their inclusion in just about every food in the marketplace. The key to cancer prevention may turn out to be avoidance of the same foods that make your blood sugar run wild and that cause a plethora of other illnesses.
American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures 2001, p. 25.
Atkins RC. Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution. NY: Avon, 2002.
Taubes G. “What if it’s all been a big fat lie?”. New York Times Magazine, July 7, 2002.
Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D. is an internationally known medical writer who has written eleven books and three film documentaries, mostly on the question of cancer research and treatment. The former assistant director of public affairs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, for 25 years Moss has independently evaluated the claims of various cancer treatments, conventional and nonconventional. He currently directs The Moss Reports, which are detailed written reports on 200 varieties of cancer diagnoses. He is listed in Marquis Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who in HealthCare, etc.
Dr. Moss is the author of such groundbreaking books as Antioxidants Against Cancer, Cancer Therapy, Questioning Chemotherapy, and The Cancer Industry, as well as the award-winning PBS documentary The Cancer War. He also wrote the 1994 Yearbook article on alternative medicine for The Encyclopedia Britannica. For more information visit www.cancerdecisions.com
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