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Statistician links cancer to diet, discovers preventative measures

Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013

Updated: Thursday, January 31, 2013 23:01

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Distinguished professor of statistics, Raymond Carroll is part of a research effort to find links between diet and disease.

An apple a day may not keep cancer away, but a salmon might.

 Researchers from the Department of Nutrition at Texas A&M have found that 35 percent of cancer-related deaths may have been prevented if those individuals had eaten a more varied diet — items such as whole grains and cold water fish — based on research done by Raymond J. Carroll, a distinguished professor of the Department of Statistics.

 “A lot of the work that we are doing is very basic research,” said Nancy Turner, an associate professor of food and nutrition science. “We are trying to understand the underlying mechanisms that determine whether a dietary implement is going to promote or suppress the disease.”

 Carroll and his associates have been working collaboratively since 1996. Researchers like Turner conduct experiments on dietary nutrients in order to see how the nutrients affect things like the onset of colon or breast cancer. Researchers then send the data to Carroll, who interprets the data and tries to find trends that suggest whether certain diets are more prone to cancer than others.

 “There is a real link between diet and colon cancer,” Carroll said. “Their experiments convinced me. I changed my diet after their experiments and started eating a lot of fish because it’s so clear a signal it’s unbelievable.”

 Although researchers have been studying cancer for years, what they may have lacked was a more comprehensive case study. Carroll suggested increasing the sample size of the participants significantly and starting over. In a process that took 10 years, Carroll gave participants a form with questions based on their dietary habits. He then followed up with the participants 10 years later to find what, if any, cancers they had developed.

“By having a large enough sample size, they had enough statistical power to detect dietary effects,” Carroll said.

Researchers also tested animals, giving one group a diet of cornmeal and another a diet of fish, and then exposed both groups to a carcinogen. They found the animals that had consumed the fish diet had fared much better. However, this doesn’t mean that a fish diet will grant immunity.

“We’re really tying to reduce your risk of getting the disease,” Turner said. “I really don’t know at this point in time if we can prevent it, because if you’re lucky enough to live long enough, you’re still at risk for it.”

Research on the effects of diet and cancer doesn’t come cheap. According to Robert Chapkin, a professor of nutrition and food science, much of the economy in the medical field is drug driven.

“Everything is drug targeted currently in the United States,” Chapkin said. “It’s all about money. If you have drugs and you sell them to combat something long-term, you’re making billions of dollars.”

Chapkin said much of the money needed to research things such as the link between diet and cancer has been cut due to the profits that lie in investing drug research. Chapkin said drugs have side effects and after an extended period of use can be harmful, but constitute a major market for the American public and allow investors to make substantial profits. Diet and exercise however are natural and are something humans have been doing since the dawn of time, but do not necessarily fill the pockets of investors.

“We must spend more research on that to compel a population to save their own lives,” Chapkin said.

Carroll said it’s never too late to start eating healthy, but students have the advantage of being able to start early.

“I think its clear that [students] should have more whole fruits, more whole grains, more fish in their diet and lower their empty calories,” Carroll said. “These things have long-term consequences and in some sense it’s a lot easier for students to make an impact on their own probability for developing a disease.”

 

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