why an organic apple a day won’t keep cancer away

A clean, healthy diet and an exercise regimen will add years to your life. But there’s no evidence that it will prevent a cancer diagnosis.
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According to a study of 70,000 adults, eating organic foods protects you from cancer. If you’re a well-off French woman. And it would lower incidences by just 0.5% over your entire lifetime. Now, since the majority of people on Earth are not upper income French women, this study doesn’t mean anything at all for them and may actually be a fluke. A similar study on women in the UK found that an organic diet provided absolutely no decrease in cancer risk, backing up other large studies showing the same thing.

In short, if you avoid smoking and overindulgence in alcohol, there’s not much else you can do with your diet. It seems like a dispiriting message, but it’s an important one to absorb. Despite the constant warnings about bacon or coffee, and encouragements to eat a certain way, we’re talking about influencing your odds by a fraction of a percent and only for certain cancers of the digestive tract, even if all the cited studies were absolutely correct in every way. Your genetics, age, and environment simply play a much bigger role than anything on your plate.

Cancers have been with us since the dawn of multicellular life, and as we’re living longer and longer, it has more chances to kill us. Meanwhile, our efforts against it depend on the type of cancer but research is yielding real promise of revolutionary treatments, even in the face of some setbacks. Thinking that just eating a certain way, exercising, and putting on sunscreen will protect us gives us a sense of control, a sense that is often misguided and does little but prompt us to ask how could this have happened after decades of clean living if we get diagnosed with this nasty, omnipresent disease.

While it’s important to get exercise, eat well, and protect ourselves from obvious carcinogens in general, the downside of assuming you’re in total control of your health is blaming yourself when you find out you can’t protect yourself from everything. Alternative medicine often exploits this mentality when they treatments predictably don’t work, which is why alt med practitioners are so eager to team up with doctors practicing evidence-based medicine, using actual science to cover up the ineffectiveness of their placebos and snake oils so they don’t have to blame the patients for failing to get better after multiple rounds of quackery.

Likewise, the results of all these studies don’t mean that organic product are a total sham and we have nothing to learn from different methods of growing what we eat, especially in light of a new study indicating a strong link between pesticide overuse and antibiotic resistance. We need to produce healthier, more sustainable food. And while keeping ourselves in shape and having a healthy diet will make it easier to survive a diagnosis and ultimately extend our lifespans, we can’t pretend it will let us avoid cancer altogether, and be ready to keep investing in therapies meant to pummel cancer cells into remission.

See: Baudry, J., et al., Association of Frequency of Organic Food Consumption With Cancer Risk, JAMA Intern Med. (2018) DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.4357

# health // cancer / medical research / organic food

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