I want to begin this post with a story of a cruel, but hypothetical, experiment done on monkeys.
Once upon a time there were five monkeys in a cage. They were locked in and given very poor-quality food and water. In the middle of the cage there was a ladder, and at the top of that ladder a bunch of exquisite bananas. But whenever one monkey would try to climb the ladder to reach the bananas, all the monkeys would get sprayed with high pressured freezing water. After this happened enough times, all the monkeys obviously learned the bananas were off limits. Because all of them got sprayed if one tried to get the bananas, the monkeys started holding each other accountable, always stopping that one determined son of a gun from trying to climb the ladder. Animal cruelty didn’t stop there. They now took one monkey out of the cage and replaced him with another monkey who had no idea what had been going on. Once he got in there he looked around and was like, seriously guys, don’t you know there are bananas up there, and he went for them. When he started to climb the ladder all the other monkeys got angry, start yelling and attacking him to prevent him from getting everyone punished with high pressured freezing water. Eventually the new guy learned that those bananas are off limits. The researchers kept replacing monkeys one at a time until none of the original monkeys were left in the cage. Each time the same thing happened. Eventually, none of the monkeys in the cage had experienced the negative consequences, yet still lived in fear because of how they were told their world works.
Unfortunately, I see very similar things going on in human society today, especially when it comes to nutrition. We have been told by media, research, and authoritative bodies that red meat and saturated fat is bad for health and eating it will lead to disease. The way it is presented is often very convincing, how is the average person supposed to know if it is true or not? Here is an example of how tricky this can be and why it is easy to get so confused.
At our clinic we get all kinds of mail from different companies wanting us to sell their products in our office. I was looking through one of the magazines that was sent to us out of curiosity. I was not impressed, but one article really disappointed me. It was called High Saturated-Fat Diet and Fatal Prostate Cancer. If you read my blog and follow me on social media, you know that I disagree with that. So, I decided to read the article and see how they came to that conclusion.
The article in the magazine was a very short explanation of how one study found that saturated fat caused a gene called c-MYC to express itself in ways that lead to cancer. There weren’t many details in the magazine article, so I decided to track down the whole research article. It is called, High-fat diet fuels prostate cancer progression by rewiring the metabolome and amplifying the MYC program and was published in September of 2019 in the journal Nature Communications. (1)
The first issue, right out of the gate, is that cancer has been shown not to be a genetic disease. Researchers have found that if you take the damaged DNA of cancer cells and put them into the nucleus of a cell with healthy cytoplasm then those cells, and the cells that are replicated from it, do not become cancer cells. And vice versa, if you take the healthy cytoplasm of a non-cancerous cell and transplant that into a cancerous cell that has cancerous DNA damage, the cell, and the cells that are replicated from that cell, becomes non-cancerous. (2) So perhaps the key to cancer is in the cell cytoplasm not in the nuclear DNA, which means that the expression of any gene (like c-MYC) in the DNA cannot be the cause of cancer.
The second issue comes when you look at the study itself. The study starts off by discussing how the overexpression of the c-MYC gene has been shown to be present in prostate cancer, which is has. (3) However, this is merely an observation seen in prostate cancer. It has not been shown that overexpression of this gene causes prostate cancer. Pretty big mistake here, but it gets better.
Since this gene is also present in mice, the researchers designed an experiment to see if a high fat diet of lard would induce these changes in the c-MYC gene. According to the study that is exactly what happened in these mice experiments. Then the researchers took that information and applied to it humans. They looked at the genetic data of 319 human patients with prostate cancer and found that the same changes in the c-MYC gene they saw in the mice had occurred in many of the patients with prostate cancer. They then asked them how much saturated fat they ate and found an association between the eating of saturated fat and these gene expressions.
While this sounds pretty definitive, it is nothing better than epidemiology disguised as an interventional study. The researchers did an interventional trial on mice to gather information they could use to do an observational study in human prostate cancer patients. Observational studies cannot prove causation. There are many other things that could lead to this type of gene expression in humans and assuming that is was the saturated fat that they ate based on mice studies doesn’t seem very sound. What’s more is that, as we discussed, cancer doesn’t seem to be driven by gene expression at all.
It is also worth noting that this study was funded by institutions heavily invested in the gene theory of cancer and many pharmaceutical companies dependent on the selling of chemotherapy drugs that are designed to kill cancer cells by damaging the cells “problematic” DNA.
Despite the short-comings and loose associations of the study, when this research is presented in the magazine the general population reading the magazine sees this:
My point here is that when the convoluted world of research is presented to the general public it is impossible for people to sort through all the potential issues and determine what is actually real and going to work to achieve health. In the case of this magazine, which is obvious by the picture, it is a magazine that advocates a more plant-based diet and sells many plant-based supplements that they claim have health benefits.
Sadly, this type of media causes society to be like the five monkeys in the cage at the end of the experiment. They have been inundated with “knowledge” that if you do something (go for the bananas in the monkey’s case or eat saturated fat in society’s case) that something bad will happen to you. They have been preprogrammed to think this way, and therefore never actually do what they have been programmed to fear to see if what they are told happens actually happens. I can tell you that the testimonials seen at www.meatheals.com do not make me think that saturated fat causes prostate cancer, or any disease for that matter.
What can we do? We must educate ourselves so that we are smart consumers of information. However, many people would not feel confident reading a research study and being able to determine if it proves what it claims. So, I will leave you with a few strategies to determine if a media article or research study can be trusted. The first is to look for the funding. This could be the sponsors listed at the end of a research study or the funding for the media outlet the article is written in, we cannot underestimate the influence that the media is under based on who pays their bills.
The second is to look for the word association. If this is said in a research study or media article, then the results of the study prove nothing. It gets even worse when a study starts out with an interventional study and finishes with an association study like we saw in the article discussed in this post. Very tricky.
I honestly believe our best approach to health is to educate yourself the best you can, get a knowledgeable coach or health care provider, and then try reasonable health strategies to see what works for you personally. This is how humans have survived for millions of years and is the only time-tested approach to health.
Stay healthy out there!
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