The role diet plays in a person’s cancer risk has been the subject of debate for many years, as people seek that one “super” food that might prevent cancer.
“The reality is that there’s not one ‘magic bullet’ food or nutrient that will prevent cancer,” says Carrie Daniel-MacDougall, Ph.D., assistant professor in Epidemiology at MD Anderson. “Nearly every large clinical trial testing a vitamin or supplement has been disappointing. Nutrition is a science. We have to remember to think critically and not just follow popular trends.”
As a nutritional epidemiologist, Daniel’s research has traditionally focused on the role diet plays in cancer development and prevention.
“The problem with cancer is that it’s not one disease,” Daniel says. “What we find for one type of cancer may not translate to another.”
Cancer risk lowered by small changes in habits
With the staggering public health problem of obesity now ranked as the primary cause of cancer in non-smokers, she believes we can learn more from a broader approach targeting obesity and related conditions, like diabetes and hypertension, that are also linked to some cancers.
“Epidemiology has been integral in providing research to support the promise that cancer risk can be lowered by making small, positive changes to everyday habits,” she says. “We need to continue to build the scientific and mechanistic evidence for obesity and cancer, while searching for links to modifiable risk factors, like diet and physical activity.”
Daniel was the lead investigator on the largest prospective analysis to date of the relationship between fiber intake and renal cell carcinoma, the most common type of kidney cancer. In this study, she showed that high dietary fiber intake from fiber-rich plant foods — like beans or legumes, whole grains and cruciferous vegetables — was associated with a 20% reduction in the risk of developing kidney cancer. The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, followed the dietary and lifestyle habits of 500,000 healthy men and women between the ages of 50 and 71 over 10 years for cancer incidence or development.
This type of research is a step toward educating people on choosing the right foods to help fight the internal mechanisms that may contribute to obesity and cancer.
Daniel is also studying the vast gut microbiome. “We know that many different bacteria live within the digestive tract and affect a person’s health. I’m interested in how these bacteria are shaped by dietary habits and influence the risk of developing obesity and cancer.”
The facts are daunting
More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese with medical costs of $147 billion in 2008 alone.
Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity-related conditions — heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer — cause deaths that might have been prevented.
At MD Anderson, the condition, increasingly referred to as a disease itself, is being addressed on several fronts by behavioral scientists, epidemiologists and clinical cancer prevention experts.