Home » Dr. Michael Greger on Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating The Most Common Diseases with Diet (Transcript)

Dr. Michael Greger on Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating The Most Common Diseases with Diet (Transcript)

This reminds me of a famous Phillip Morris cigarette ad that tried to downplay the risks by saying: “you think second-hand smoke is bad, increasing the risk of lung cancer 19%, drinking one to two glasses of milk every day may be three times as bad — 62% increased lung cancer risk, or doubling the risk frequently cooking with oil, or tripling your risk of heart disease eating non-vegetarian, or multiplying your risk six-fold eating lots of meat and dairy.” So, they conclude, let’s keep some perspective, the risk of lung cancer from second-hand smoke may be well below the risk reported for other everyday activities.

That’s like saying, “Don’t worry about getting stabbed, because getting shot is much worse.” Uh, how about neither? Two risks don’t make a right.

The heme in the ham may also play a role. Heme iron is the form of iron found in blood and muscle, and may promote cancer by catalyzing the formation of carcinogenic compounds. Cancer has been described as a ferrotoxic disease: a disease, in part, of iron toxicity.

Iron is a double-edged sword. Iron deficiency causes anemia; however, excessive iron may increase cancer risk, by acting as a pro-oxidant, generating free radicals that may play a role in a number of dreaded diseases like stroke. But, look, only the heme iron, the blood and muscle iron, not the nonheme iron that predominates in plants. Same with heart disease — only the heme iron, and same with diabetes — only the heme iron, and same with cancer.

In fact, you can actually tell how much meat someone is eating by looking at their tumors. To characterize the mechanisms underlying meat-related lung cancer development, they asked lung cancer patients how much meat they were eating and examined the gene expression patterns in their tumors, and identified a signature pattern of heme-related gene expression. Though they just looked at lung cancer, they expect these meat-related gene expression changes to occur in other cancers as well.

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The safest form of iron, then, is non-heme iron, found naturally in abundance in whole grains, beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, and seeds. How much money can be made on beans, though? So, the food industry came up with a blood-based crisp bread made out of rye, and cattle, and pig blood, one of the most concentrated sources of heme iron, about two thirds more than chicken blood. If blood-based crackers don’t sound appetizing, they do have cow blood cookies or blood filled biscuits. The filling does end up a dark-colored, chocolate flavored paste with a very pleasant taste,” dark-colored because spray-dried pig blood can have a darkening effect on the food product’s color, but the worry is not the color or taste, it’s the heme iron, which, because of its potential cancer risk, is not considered safe to add to foods for the general population.

This reminds me of nitrosamines, a class of potent carcinogens found in cigarette smoke. They are considered so toxic that carcinogens of this strength in any other consumer product designed for human consumption would be banned immediately. If that were the case, they’d have to ban meat.

One hot dog has as many nitrosamines and nitrosamides as five cigarettes. And these carcinogens are also found in fresh, unprocessed meat as well: beef, chicken, and pork. But practice Meatless Mondays and you could wake up Tuesday morning with nearly all of these carcinogens washed out of your system.

So, toxic nitrosamines should be banned immediately, but are still allowed for sale in cigarettes and meat because the carcinogens are found there naturally, just like the heme iron. Not safe enough to expose the general population to, but allowed for sale at the deli counter.

The irony is that the iron and the protein are what the industry boasts about — those are supposed to be the redeeming qualities of meat: protein and iron, but sourced from animal foods, may do more harm than good. And that’s not to mention all the other stuff like the saturated fat, industrial pollutants, and hormones that may play a role in our third leading cancer killer, breast cancer.

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Steroid hormones are unavoidable in food of animal origin, but cow milk may be of particular concern. The hormones naturally found in even organic cow’s milk may have played a role in the studies that found a relationship between milk and other dairy products and human illnesses, not just like teenagers’ acne but prostate, breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers; many chronic diseases plaguing the Western world as well as male reproductive disorders, from increased risk of early puberty all the way to endometrial cancer in older women. But hormonal levels in food could be particularly dangerous in the case of vulnerable populations, such as young children and pregnant women in which even a small hormonal intake could lead to large change in metabolism.

Look, dairy milk evolved to put a few hundred pounds onto a calf with the consequences of lifetime human exposure to growth hormone in milk have not been well studied. We know milk consumption increases IGF-1, which is linked to cancer, and we’re milking cows while they’re pregnant, leading to particularly high levels of hormones.

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