The Undeniable Link between Disease and LifestyleYoni Whitten, D.C., C.C.W.P
The Susan G. Komen Foundation recently partnered with fast food giant, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in an effort to raise money for breast cancer research and public awareness. During this campaign, certain Kentucky Fried Chicken locations will be selling the same fast food in pink buckets and donating a percentage of the profits to Susan G. Komen. Could anything be more absurd? The irony of this partnership is perhaps as sad as it is disturbing. What’s next? Selling pink cigarettes to promote awareness of lung cancer?
While there is no doubt that the public is in desperate need of education regarding cancer, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where eating more fast food could make things better, regardless of the color container that it’s served in.
Science has clearly and repeatedly demonstrated that lifestyle factors are the main determinant in the development most chronic degenerative diseases, including cancer. In 2002, the Journal of Applied Physiology reported “Overwhelming evidence from a variety of sources, links most chronic diseases seen in the world today to physical inactivity and inappropriate diet consumption.” In fact, environmental and lifestyle factors have been identified as 58-91% of causal factors for three of the most dominant health problems in modern-day America: heart disease, diabetes and most site-specific cancers [2, 13].
The slogan used by Susan G. Komen and KFC for this campaign “Join the Cause” could not have said it any better. In choosing to endorse nutrient depleted, calorie-dense and toxin-laden fast food they are perpetuating the very problem they are attempting to solve. If the ultimate goal is improved health of our society and freedom from the diseases that kill three-quarters of the people in this country, wouldn’t it make sense to avoid the things that have been shown to contribute to the problem?
Yes, the public needs to know that cancer is an absolute epidemic in this country and that it’s getting worse. We need to know that it’s the second leading cause of death and that it is responsible for 600,000 deaths per year. Most importantly, we need to begin to understand what is causing that number to go up every year and why, according to estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of cancer deaths will double between 2000 and 2020 and nearly triple by 2030 .
We need to understand that the problem with cancer is not that we fail to raise enough money each year to find some elusive, magical cure. The real problem, which is highlighted by the recent partnership between Susan G. Komen and KFC, lies in the compartmentalized way that we think about and treat cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases. An individual diagnosed with cancer is thought of in much the same way as someone struck by lightning. That is, that a random act of nature, bad genes or bad luck must be the cause of their ailment. As a society, we have become engrained with this disempowering idea that circumstances beyond our control are somehow responsible for our many health problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s time for us to get scientific and throw out this unsubstantiated hypothesis.
The clear causal link between poor lifestyle choices and disease has been well-established in the scientific literature. And for many diseases this link is common knowledge. Ask any 5th grader why smoking is bad for you and pay close attention as they rattle off a list for you of the diseases that smoking causes. Smoking is a leading cause of cancer and of death from cancer. It causes cancers of the lung, mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx, kidney, stomach, bladder, pancreas and cervix. Smoking also causes heart disease, lung disease, cataracts, stroke and leukemia. Here, our understanding of the linear causation is clear: If we choose to smoke, we will eventually get cancer, or heart disease, or leukemia, or some other terrible disease .
Other lifestyle factors such as the consumption of alcohol have direct correlations to disease as well. Over 3% of all cancer cases and cancer deaths worldwide are directly attributed to alcohol. Breast cancer in women is linked with alcohol intake. Alcohol also increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx and larynx, colon, liver, stomach and ovaries. Here too, the direct causal link is as plain as day: We understand that if we choose to drink alcohol, we are increasing our chances of causing a whole host of diseases [5-11].
This information has been so widely publicized that no one would even consider selling alcohol in a pink bottle to promote breast cancer awareness. So why fast food? Because there remains a disconnect between things such as eating real foods, breathing clean air, drinking pure water, and moving the way we were designed to move and the consequences for not doing these things. There is a virtual mountain of evidence showing the connection between our lifestyle choices and the same diseases responsible for the vast majority of deaths in this country and yet, our genes continue to be a prime scapegoat to explain many of the health problems in our society. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to cancer.
In fact, since the beginning of 2007, variations at over 100 different locations on the human genome have been linked to everything from heart disease to diabetes to cancer. There are a host of genetic tests which have been developed based on this research that claim to predict an individual’s likelihood for developing any disease you can think of somewhere down the line. Newly released research is showing that the validity of this type of testing and the science behind it is questionable at best and an extremely unstable platform from which to make any kind of aggressive treatment recommendations.
Ever since the human genome project, we’ve been bombarded with stories in the media proclaiming “new gene linked with colon cancer”… “pancreatic cancer linked to” so and so gene, etc. Well, as it turns out, nearly every single claim of a particular gene being linked to some form of cancer is, quite simply, nonsense. It is almost completely junk science. A study completed at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece analyzed hundreds of these studies which claimed to have "discovered" genes that cause cancer. What they found was that out of 240 claimed associations between genes and cancer risk, only two genes had any significant correlation whatsoever. That's less than 1 percent!  In other words, more than 99% of everything you’ve ever heard linking genes to cancer has no basis in reality whatsoever.
This new research flies in the face of conventional medical thinking where DNA and destiny go hand-in-hand; but the greatest minds in the world once believed the earth was flat too. According to lead researcher John Ioannidis “the general public should be quite cautious about jumping to the conclusion that if they have a change in one gene or another they are doomed”. The problem with these associations, according to researchers, is that the behavior of these genes is determined, not by the genes themselves, but through complex interactions with the environment. Lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, smoking and other behaviors play a huge part in the ultimate expression of those genes .
Lifestyle factors may indeed prove to be the “Holy Grail” that cancer researchers have been searching for this entire time. In early 2010, a group of scientists in Europe found an exciting new way to eradicate the health problems associated with carrying a specific “fat gene”. They found that simply by exercising for an hour a day, individuals that carried a specific “obesity gene” could offset their genetic predisposition to obesity. Prior to this study, the presence of mutations of the so-called “fat mass-and-obesity-associated gene” or FTO gene were considered important predictors of health. In fact, each one of these mutated genes within the body had been linked to an average weight increase of over 3 pounds and its presence was also associated with a higher percentage of body fat and a larger waist circumference.
In light of these findings, it’s easy to see how the term "breast cancer gene" can be misleading. Let’s be clear: there is no actual "breast cancer gene" whereby if you have the gene, you have the disease.Certain genes have been linked to an increased susceptibility for developing breast cancer, but that susceptibility does not determine the outcome. There are millions of women with the so-called “breast cancer gene” that do not have breast cancer. Why? Because like with the FTO gene, there are lifestyle factors that determine the expression of those genes and whether or not that susceptibility manifests as the actual disease.
Unlike the studies attempting to find the correlation between genes and disease, there exists a clear link between lifestyle and disease. More than 20 published cohort studies have examined the association between physical activity and risk of breast cancer, nearly all of them show clear evidence of hugelydecreased risk for breast cancer in women who were classified at the highest levels of physical activity[23- 36]. Across numerous studies, those with the highest levels of physical activity show a 50% reduction in the incidence of colon cancer. One study showed that sedentary individuals experienced a 64% higher incidence of melanomas than those exercising 5-7 times per week.
In spite of these findings, an astounding 70 percent of adults in this country fail to meet the minimum weekly physical activity requirements. We need to be promoting physical activity in light of the fact that studies have shown that “30-50% of all cases of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and many cancers were prevented by 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each day.”
More than two-thirds of the adult population in this country is overweight or obese . Studies have clearly linked increased waist circumference with an increased risk for various forms types of cancer [11, 37]. How could anyone in their right mind promote breast cancer awareness at fast food restaurants when studies have demonstrated that women who are overweight or obese have up to 250 percentincreased risk for breast cancer? 
If we are going to use food to promote health and cancer awareness let’s use the science and do it right.Researchers from the School of Public Health at the University of California Berkley reviewed 200 studies that examined the relationship between fruit and vegetable intake and various cancers including: breast, lung, cervix, pancreas, esophagus, oral cavity, stomach, bladder, colon and ovary. What they discovered was “For most cancer sites, persons with low fruit and vegetable intake experience about twice the risk of cancer compared with those with high intake, even after control for potentially confounding factors.” .
This is the information that the public really needs to hear. The average American consumes only 3.6 servings of fruits and vegetables per day and that we only arrive at that number by including French fries and fruit juices in the tally. The link between diet and disease is plain as day and yet high-calorie, nutrient depleted fast food are being used to promote cancer awareness. Our children are the sickest they have ever been and the line at the fast food restaurants never dwindles. The results of eating the way we do are in, and our way of eating is in need of a major overhaul. The World Health Organization stated in their world health report that “World-wide, the adoption of this (typical American) diet has been accompanied by a major increase in coronary heart disease, stroke, various cancers, diabetes and other chronic diseases.” [19, 20].
Helping ourselves become healthier is not difficult. In fact, it can be as easy as stepping outside. Exciting new research out of the Creighton University School of Medicine and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has revealed that vitamin D can cut our risk of cancer by an astonishing 77 percent! This includes breast cancer, colon cancer, skin cancer and other forms of cancer. This research provides strong new evidence that vitamin D is the single most effective compound in the fight against cancer, far outpacing the benefits of any cancer drug known to modern science. And vitamin D is free! It’s produced in our skin in response to exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (U.V.) light. Perhaps we should be promoting daily sun exposure considering that some estimates show as much as 85 percent of the American population is deficient in vitamin D [14, 21].
Why is it that we never hear a smoker blame their lung cancer on genes? The major killers in our society like cancer, heart disease, obesity and stroke have never been shown to be genetic disorders.These diseases, which are responsible for 75 percent of all deaths in all Western nations are “diseases of lifestyle.” [17, 18] Ridiculous, self-serving associations like the one between Kentucky Fried Chicken and Susan G. Komen are just a symptom of a much greater problem. We need to get serious about the health of our nation and start educating the public about the importance of healthy lifestyle choices.
How long will we continue to ignore the scientific evidence and blame our genes for the declining health of our society? How long will we continue to search for hidden answers for problems that we already have a solution to? It is time for us to accept responsibility for the choices we make as individuals and take control of our health collectively. We can use the information available to us and begin moving toward a solution today. That’s empowering. That’s real cancer awareness.
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