Kenneth L Abbott, MD, FACP  |  7/14/2022

Nutrition Mythbusting

For several years, the Discovery Channel hosted a popular joint American-Australian television production called Mythbusters. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman devoted each episode to exploring—and often debunking—popular ideas involving science and nature, typically in an entertaining fashion and always carrying the warning, “Don’t try this at home.”

As with practically anything involving humans, myths, misunderstandings, and outright falsehoods that have become part of “conventional wisdom” affect our thinking about cancer, its prevention, and its treatment. I have already explained why sugar is simplistically miscast as a dietary evil (Sugar, Sugar). In this article, I lay to rest several additional wrong ideas about the interaction of nutrition and cancer.

Many foods have a natural high acidity: Citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, pineapples, and grapes, to name a few. A diet that contains plenty of servings of such foods would normally be considered healthy. Not so, according to some people, who believe that a high acid/low pH environment within the body promotes cancer development, therefore we should consume foods and supplements that will shift the body’s internal environment more toward the alkaline range. The truth? Our stomach’s digestive juices are far more acidic than anything we can eat, so everything leaving the stomach to enter the lower part of the digestive system to be absorbed in the bloodstream is already and always acidic (neutralized by pancreatic and biliary secretions so as not to harm the intestines). Within the body, our kidneys tightly regulate acid-base balance, all independent of diet. Therefore, apart from any erroneous idea that an acidic diet promotes cancer, the foods we eat simply have no power to influence body chemistry this way.

Are you better off eating raw, uncooked foods in order to “preserve” nutrients? While the cooking process does change the chemical content of some foods in different ways, cooking activates other nutrients. A similar mistaken idea holds that fresh is better than frozen. While this may have validity if you eat your raw fruits and vegetables (after a proper cleaning) right off the plant, the quick-freezing techniques employed by commercial food producers actually help retain nutrients, whereas “fresh” foods that were picked several days ago frequently lose some of their nutritional content over time while being transported from farm to table.

On a related note, are organically grown fruits and vegetables safer, less hazardous to health than conventionally grown foods in which pesticides are often used? No evidence to date tells us that people who consume organic foods have different health outcomes than those who eat non-organic foods. You still want to wash everything thoroughly, of course.

We can enjoy eating and avoid much nonsense if we apply our common sense and adhere to standard nutrition guidance well based in scientific fact. Mr. Savage and Mr. Hyneman would agree, I’m sure.
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