Identifying specific foods (or components of them) that can increase the risk of, or even cause, certain diseases, is notoriously difficult. There are many problems associated with trying to tease out the links between diet and disease. For example, most diet and breast cancer risk studies have been conducted in industrialised countries (North America, Europe and Japan). Comparing the diets between industrialised and developing countries rather than within them could offer more insight as the diets between these countries tend to vary more. This may permit a better comparison, for example, of a plant-based diet versus an animal food-based diet or a soya versus non-soya diet.
Another problem is that self-reported diets (food diaries and food frequency questionnaires) are often assessed with considerable measurement error. Furthermore, most studies tend to focus on the diet consumed as an adult, whereas strong evidence suggests dietary influences before adulthood can affect breast cancer risk later in life. For example, research shows that a high soya intake during adolescence can reduce the risk of breast cancer later in life. The average follow-up time may be too short to determine significant conclusions. The effect of diet on different sub-types of cancer such as: oestrogen receptor-positive, progesterone receptor-positive, genetic (due to faulty genes), epigenetic (not due to genes) warrants further investigation. For example, salad vegetables have been shown to lower the risk of HER-2 positive breast cancer. The positive effect of some foods may be masked by the negative effects of others. For example, in the Shanghai Study the authors suggest that the potential positive effect of vegetables and soya foods may have been countered by the negative effects of fish in the diet. Furthermore, the effects of specific diets (such as macrobiotic, organic, wholefood, raw food or vegan) have not been sufficiently studied.
The supposed health benefits of meat and dairy foods have been vigorously promoted by the meat and dairy industries for decades. For example, the idea that meat is essential for iron and protein is deep-rooted and is often used to pressure would-be veggies back to the butchers. The reality is that we do not need saturated animal fat, animal protein or cholesterol. We do not need the trans fatty acids in processed foods. We do not need the amount of salt and sugar we consume. We do however need to move towards a plant-based, wholegrain diet containing a wide range of fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses, nuts and seeds for the nutrients that will promote a long and healthy life.
These, of course, are the same foods which contain protection against disease in the form of antioxidants and fibre. What is killing the Western world are the degenerative diseases associated with affluence. It is clear that the same diet that is good for preventing breast cancer is also good for preventing heart disease, obesity, diabetes and so on.
The milk debate deserves a special mention here as the notion that cow's milk is a natural and healthy drink for humans is so deeply entrenched in the British psyche, yet the evidence suggests milk may be doing us more harm than good. Of course we need calcium for our bones and teeth
(and blood clotting, muscle function and regulating heart rhythm). But despite the dairy industry's powerful marketing machine, more and more people are beginning to wonder if cow's milk really is the best source of calcium. It certainly is not for most of the world's people. Claims that dairy is best carry strong overtones of cultural imperialism and simply ignore the 70 per cent of the global population who obtain their calcium from other sources - people such as the Japanese who traditionally have consumed no dairy yet have far better health than British people and live considerably longer.
Milk has been part of the human diet for less than 6,000 years; this is very recent in evolutionary terms. It is not just that most people don't drink it; they cannot because their bodies will not tolerate it. Up to 100 per cent of some ethnic groups are lactose intolerant. In global terms lactose intolerance is very common, occurring in around 90-100 per cent of Asians, 65-70 per cent of Africans, but just 10 per cent of Caucasians (Robbins, 2001). This suggests that the health claims made for milk owe more to marketing than science.
The dairy industry has spent many years and many millions of pounds promoting the notion that cow's milk is good for us through expensive advertising campaigns such as the 'White Stuff'. Now, because of an increasing body of evidence, there are signs of a growing realisation that milk is neither natural nor healthy. In fact, research is moving in the opposite direction now, showing that the more dairy and animal protein that is consumed, the higher the incidence of osteoporosis and other diseases.
The rate at which some cancers are increasing is a huge matter of concern. When Professor Jane Plant wrote the first edition of Your Life in Your Hands in 2000, one in 10 UK women were affected by the disease. Now, in 2007, one in nine women are expected to develop breast cancer at some point in their lives! Since 1971, the incidence of breast cancer in the UK has increased by 80 per cent. These figures should be shouted from the rooftops! An increasing number of researchers are in no doubt that cow's milk and dairy foods are responsible.
A point that is consistently overlooked is that two-thirds of the UK's milk comes from pregnant cows and as every mum knows, hormone levels during pregnancy can rise dramatically. This is no laughing matter as breast, prostate, ovarian and colorectal cancer are all implicated. These cancers and the so-called diseases of affluence, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and even osteoporosis, occur increasingly in the countries that consume the most dairy products. It is not rocket science… cow's milk and dairy products cause disease.
The conclusions of this report are drawn from a huge body of research from academic institutions all around the world. While the majority of this work was performed in an academic environment (involving clinical trials or statistical analysis), some is of a more personal nature. Professor Jane Plant's spirit and courage in overcoming breast cancer through the elimination of all dairy could not fail to inspire the increasing number of women who are affected by this disease. Plant did not set out to promote one type of diet above another but as a scientist (geochemist) she took an analytical approach to the problem of breast cancer and ultimately found the solution: a dairy-free diet.
In summary, this report provides a compelling argument that the consumption of animal-based foods is linked to the development of breast cancer. The combined findings of over 50 scientific papers from reputable peer-reviewed journals such as the British Medical Journal and the Lancet leave no doubt that diet is linked to breast cancer risk. Taken in their entirety, they indicate a causative role for red meat, animal fat and dairy foods. This report provides a vital source of information for health professionals, enabling them to make better-informed choices in recommending dietary changes to breast cancer patients and women considered to be at risk of this disease.
The official approach to the causes of breast cancer (and other so-called diseases of affluence) remains extremely equivocal and dietary advice seems to be based far more on not upsetting particular vested interests than improving the public's health. As a consequence, the incidence of these diseases continues to rise remorselessly because public health policy is aimed, almost exclusively, at treatment rather than prevention.
Only when prevention becomes the priority will the avoidance of animal products be seen as central to improving public health. The World Health Organisation believes that the only way we can improve our health is through informed opinion and active co-operation. We agree! As a science-based health charity, Viva!Health provides unbiased information on which people can make informed choices. We monitor and interpret scientific research on diet and health and communicate those findings to the public, health professionals, schools and food manufacturers. Importantly, we have no commercial or vested interests and offer a vital - and what sometimes feels like a solitary - source of accurate and unbiased information.
So it is up to individual members of the public and independent-minded health professionals to find out what they can about diet and heath. Meanwhile, government health policy continues unchanged, like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.
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A Fighting Chance: a Guide to Healthy Eating to Help Prevent and Overcome Breast Cancer. £1.90 (plus p&p) available from Viva!
This easy-to-read colourful guide summarises the key findings of our scientific report on breast cancer and provides vital information on which foods can help fight cancer. Also includes a seven-day meal plan with inspiring healthy recipes including our ever-popular Tortilla Wraps with Mango Salsa, Quinoa Superbowl Salad and the fabulous Summer Berry Compote.
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Viva!Health is a science-based health and nutrition charity which monitors and interprets the growing body of research linking diet and health. Viva!Health helps the public, health professionals and the food industry make informed choices about diet by providing accurate information and advice about healthy eating. Viva!Health also runs health and education campaigns, presents school talks, cookery demonstrations, produces a magazine, Viva!Life!, and a wide variety of materials, runs the Vegan Recipe Club and answers nutritional queries from the public. The majority of diseases that kill most of us prematurely can be prevented by consuming a plant-based diet - Viva!Health explains why and provides information and advice about healthy eating.