What to Eat to Protect Against Kidney Cancer

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58,000 Americans are diagnosed with kidney cancer every year, and 13,000 die. And the numbers have been going up. Approximately 4 percent of cases are hereditary, but what about the other 96 percent? The only accepted risk factor has been tobacco use, but cigarette smoking has been declining.

Nitrosamines are one of the most potent carcinogens in cigarette smoke. One hot dog has as many nitrosamines and nitrosamides as five cigarettes. And these carcinogens are also found in fresh meat as well: beef, chicken and pork. So even though smoking rates have dropped, perhaps the rise in kidney cancer over the last few decades may have something to do with meat consumption. But would kidney cancer just be related to the processed meats like bacon, sausage, hot dogs and cold cuts that have nitrate and nitrite additives, or fresh meat as well?

The NIH-AARP study featured in my video Can Diet Protect Against Kidney Cancer? is the largest prospective study on diet and health ever performed--about 500,000 followed for nine years. In addition to examining nitrate and nitrite intake from processed meat, they also looked at intake from other sources such as fresh meat, eggs and dairy. Nitrite from animal sources, not just processed meats, was associated with an increased risk of kidney cancer, and total intake of nitrate and nitrite from processed meat sources was also associated with kidney cancer risk. The researchers found no associations with nitrate or nitrite intake from plant sources, but nitrates from processed meat was associated with cancer.

When meat producers advertise their bacon or lunch meat as "uncured," this means no nitrites or nitrates added. But if you look at the small print you'll see something like, "except for celery juice." That's just a sneaky way to add nitrites. Processed meat producers ferment the nitrates in celery to create nitrites, then add it to the meat; a practice even the industry admits "may be viewed as incorrect at best or deceptive at worst."

But that same fermentation of nitrates to nitrites can happen thanks to bacteria on our tongue when we eat vegetables. So why are nitrates and nitrites from vegetables on our tongue harmless, but nitrates and nitrites from vegetables in meat linked to cancer? The actual carcinogens are not nitrites, but nitrosamines and nitrosamides. In our stomach, to turn nitrites into nitros-amines, and nitros-amides we need amines and amides, which are concentrated in animal products. And vitamin C and other antioxidants in plant foods block the formation of these carcinogens in our stomach. That's why we can safely benefit from the nitrates in vegetables without the cancer risk. In fact some of the highest nitrate vegetables like arugula, kale, and collards are associated with decreased risk of kidney cancer. The more plants, it appears, the better.

Plant-based diets and fiber-rich diets are recommended to prevent cancer directly, as well as chronic conditions associated with kidney cancer, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. It's similar to sodium intake and kidney cancer. Sodium intake increases kidney disease risk, but that's not just because sodium intake increases blood pressure. It appears the salt is associated with increased cancer risk even independently of hypertension. What about plant-based diets? Turns out the protective association remains even in people who are not obese and have normal blood pressure. So overall, plant-based and fiber-rich diets appear to do both: decrease cancer risk directly and indirectly.

I briefly address kidney health in Preventing Kidney Failure Through Diet and Treating Kidney Failure Through Diet, but have a whole series of more in-depth videos dealing with various kidney issues.

More on the fascinating nitrate/nitrite story in my 17-part series about improving athletic performance with nitrate-rich vegetables such as beets and arugula. Here are a few short highlights:

More on carcinogens caused by cooking meat in videos like:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

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Introducing the Kempner Rice Diet

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought us through the Great Depression and World War II. Who knows how history would have been different had he not died in his fourth term as President from a massive stroke. In the following days and months, we learned that Roosevelt had suffered from severe high blood pressure for years. In spite of this, he was on no medications or other treatments. The reason for the lack of treatment is stark and simple: there were none. The state of the art at that time was death. Death, from so-called malignant hypertension--out-of-control high blood pressure--for which, it was thought, there was no remedy. But they were wrong. There was Dr. Walter Kempner and his rice-fruit diet.

A physician-scientist, Kempner trained with the best, fled Nazi Germany and set up shop at Duke, where he began treating malignant hypertension patients with a radical diet consisting of only white rice and fruit, with strikingly favorable results: a rapid reduction in blood pressure, rapid improvement in kidney failure, eye pressure, heart failure and other manifestations of this previously fatal illness.

He figured that if a low salt diet helped with blood pressure, a low protein diet helped with kidney function, and a low fat and cholesterol diet helped the heart, why not take it to its logical conclusion and design a no-salt, no cholesterol diet of almost pure carbohydrate. So, he designed a diet with less sodium than any low-sodium diet, less protein than any low-protein diet, and less cholesterol and fat than any other low-fat diet.

His hope was that it would just stop progression of the disease. Instead, something miraculous happened. In about two-thirds of cases, the disease reversed. There were reversals of heart failure, reversals of eye damage, and reversals of kidney failure. At the time, this was effectively a terminal disease where people just had a few months to live, but with Kempner's rice diet, they got better. In my video Kempner Rice Diet: Whipping Us Into Shape, you can see before and after pictures of the back of people's eyes. They started out swollen, bloody and leaking and then were nearly normal in a matter of months.

After being effectively cured by the diet over many months, many patients could then relax the diet to a more conventional plant-based diet and go on to live a normal, active life. The rice diet may actually drop blood pressures too low, so we have to add back other foods to bring the pressures back up to normal.

An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine described Kempner's results as "little short of miraculous." Practically speaking, there's probably no more effective diet for obese cardiac patients. The problem, though, is that most physicians lack the extraordinary persuasive powers required to keep the patient eating such a restricted diet.

When Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn presented his study results demonstrating in some cases reversal of near end-stage heart disease with a whole food plant-based diet, the Chair of Cleveland Clinic cardiology department asked, "How can we expect patients to stay on a strict diet like this when we can't even get them to quit smoking?" Just like penicillin drugs don't work at all unless we take them, plant-based diets don't work unless we actually eat them.

The answer may be that the physician must have a zealous belief in the diet and must convey that passion to the patients. For Kempner, to keep his patients on the rice diet, he "brow-beat, yelled at, and castigated them when he caught them straying." And he didn't just browbeat them; he sometimes actually beat them. It came out in a lawsuit in which a former patient sued Dr. Kempner, claiming that he had literally whipped her and other patients to motivate them to stick to the diet.

Reminds me of the famous diabetes physician back in the 1800s, Arnoldo Cantani, who knew the remedy for diabetes was not in the drugstore, but rather the kitchen. To ensure compliance, if necessary, he would lock a patient up in a room for six weeks.

Thankfully, in terms of personality, Dr. Esselstyn is the opposite of Dr. Kempner. He is polite, soft-spoken, gentle and able to keep his patients on track without whipping them. And last but not least, Esselstyn walks the talk, following the diet himself, whereas Kempner died of a heart attack (though at the age of 94). Kempner's work continues on in Durham, where they continue a relaxed version of the diet, allowing actual vegetables.

A year before Roosevelt died, Kempner had already published his miraculous results. It seems highly likely that had the rice diet been "provided to President Roosevelt a year before his death, his disease might have been controlled before his fatal stroke, and that this fatal event could have been averted."


For those unfamiliar with Dr. Esselstyn's work, check out:

Kempner was a lifestyle medicine pioneer. What's lifestyle medicine? See, for example:

For more on Kempner's work, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

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Might Turmeric Help Prevent Alzheimer’s?

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There are plenty of anti-inflammatory drugs out there that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease, but stomach, liver, and kidney toxicity precludes their widespread use. So maybe using an anti-inflammatory food like the spice, turmeric, found in curry powder, could offer the benefits without the risks? Before even considering putting it to the test, though, one might ask, "Well, do populations that eat a lot of turmeric have a lower prevalence of dementia?" And indeed, those living in rural India who do just that may actually have the lowest reported prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer's.

In rural Pennsylvania, the incidence rate of Alzheimer's disease among seniors is 19/1000. Nineteen people in a thousand over age 65 develop Alzheimer's every year in rural Pennsylvania. In rural India, using the same diagnostic criteria, that same rate is three, confirming they have among the lowest reported Alzheimer's rates in the world.

Although the lower prevalence of Alzheimer's in India is generally attributed to the turmeric consumption as a part of curry, and it is assumed that people who use turmeric regularly have a lower incidence of the disease, but let's not just assume. As highlighted in my video, Preventing Alzheimer's with Turmeric, a thousand people were tested, and those who consumed curry at least occasionally did better on simple cognitive tests than those who didn't. Those that ate curry often also had only about half the odds of showing cognitive impairment, after adjusting for a wide variety of potential confounding factors. This suggests that curry consumption may indeed be associated with better cognitive performance.

Of course it probably matters what's being curried--are we talking chicken masala, or chana masala, with chickpeas instead of chicks? It may be no coincidence that the country with among the lowest rates of Alzheimer's also has among the lowest rates of meat consumption, with a significant percentage of Indians eating meat-free and egg-free diets.

Studies have suggested for nearly 20 years now that those who eat meat--red meat or white meat--appear between two to three times more likely to become demented compared to vegetarians. And the longer one eats meat-free, the lower the associated risk of dementia, whether or not you like curry.

There's another spice that may be useful for brain health. See my video Saffron for the Treatment of Alzheimer's. What about coconut oil? See Does Coconut Oil Cure Alzheimer's? In terms of preventing cognitive decline in the first place, check out my video How to Slow Brain Aging By Two Years.

I've raised the issue of plant-based diets and dementia in Alzheimer's Disease: Grain Brain or Meathead?

For more on spices and inflammation, see Which Spices Fight Inflammation? and the follow-up, Spicing Up DNA Protection.

What about treating Alzheimer's disease with the spice turmeric? That's the topic of my video, Treating Alzheimer's with Turmeric.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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Four Brazil Nuts Once a Month…

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One of the craziest studies I read all year involved feeding people a single serving of Brazil nuts to see what it would do to the cholesterol levels of healthy volunteers. They gave ten men and women a single meal containing zero, one, four, or eight Brazil nuts, and found that the ingestion of just that single serving almost immediately improved cholesterol levels. LDL, so-called "bad" cholesterol levels in the blood, was significantly lower starting just nine hours after the ingestion of nuts, and by no insignificant amount, nearly 20 points within a day. Even drugs don't work that fast. It takes statins around four days to have a significant effect.

But that's not even the crazy part.

The researchers went back and measured their cholesterol five days later, and then 30 days later. Now keep in mind they weren't eating Brazil nuts this whole time. They just had that single serving of Brazil nuts a month before and their cholesterol was still down 30 days later. It went down and stayed down, after eating just four nuts... That's nuts!

And no, the study was not funded by the Brazil nut industry.

Interestingly, four nuts actually seemed to work faster than the eight nuts to lower bad cholesterol and boost good cholesterol. These results suggest that eating just four nuts might be enough to improve the levels of LDL and HDL for up to 30 days, and maybe longer--they didn't test past 30.

Now normally, when a study comes out in the medical literature showing some too-good-to-be-true result like this you want to wait to see the results replicated before you change your clinical practice, before you recommend something to your patients, particularly when the study is done on only ten people, and especially when the findings are literally just too incredible to be believed. But when the intervention is cheap, easy, harmless and healthy--eating four Brazil nuts a month--then, in my opinion, the burden of proof is kind of reversed. I think the reasonable default position is to do it until proven otherwise.

They concluded a single serving was sufficient "without producing liver and kidney toxicity." What they're referring to is the high selenium content of Brazil nuts--so high that four eaten every day may actually bump us up against the tolerable daily limit for selenium, but not something we have to worry about if we're just eating four once a month.

I'd be curious to hear if anyone experiences similar results. Even if the study was just a fluke, Nuts May Help Prevent Death by improving the function of our arteries (Walnuts and Artery Function) and fighting cancer (Which Nut Fights Cancer?) and inflammation (Fighting Inflammation in a Nut Shell).

Even eating nuts every day does not appear to result in expected weight gain (Nuts and Obesity: The Weight of Evidence), so enjoy!

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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Drugs vs. Lifestyle for Preventing Diabetes

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In just one decade, the number of people with diabetes has more than doubled. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, by 2050, one out of every three of us may have diabetes.

What's the big deal?

Well, the "consequences of diabetes are legion." Diabetes is the number one cause of adult-onset blindness, the number one cause of kidney failure, and the number one cause of surgical amputations.

What can we do to prevent it?

The onset of Type 2 diabetes is gradual, with most individuals progressing through a state of prediabetes, a condition now striking approximately one in three Americans, but only about one in ten even knows they have it. Since current methods of treating diabetes remain inadequate, prevention is preferable, but what works better: lifestyle changes or drugs? We didn't know until a landmark study, highlighted in my video, How to Prevent Prediabetes from Turning into Diabetes, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Thousands were randomized to get a double dose of the leading anti-diabetes drug, or diet and exercise. The drug, metformin, is probably the safest diabetes drug there is. It causes diarrhea in about half, makes one in four nauseous, about one in ten suffer from asthenia (physical weakness and fatigue), but only about 1 in 67,000 are killed by the drug every year.

And the drug worked. Compared to placebo, in terms of the percentage of people developing diabetes within the four-year study period, fewer people in the drug group developed diabetes.

But diet and exercise alone worked better. The lifestyle intervention reduced diabetes incidence by 58 percent, compared to only 31 percent with the drug. The lifestyle intervention was significantly more effective than the drug, and had fewer side-effects. More than three quarters of those on the drug reported gastrointestinal symptoms, though there was more muscle soreness reported in the lifestyle group, on account of them actually exercising.

That's what other studies have subsequently found: non-drug approaches superior to drug-based approaches for diabetes prevention. And the average 50 percent or so drop in risk was just for those instructing people to improve their diet and lifestyle, whether or not they actually did it.

In one of the most famous diabetes prevention studies, 500 people with prediabetes were randomized into a lifestyle intervention or control group. During the trial, the risk of diabetes was reduced by that same 50-60 percent, but only a fraction of the patients met the modest goals. Even in the lifestyle intervention group, only about a quarter were able to eat enough fiber, meaning whole, plant foods, and cut down on enough saturated fat, which in North America is mostly dairy, dessert, chicken and pork. But they did better than the control group, and fewer of them developed diabetes because of it. But what if you looked just at the folks that actually made the lifestyle changes? They had zero diabetes--none of them got diabetes. That's effectively a 100 percent drop in risk.

I often hear the diet and exercise intervention described as 60 percent effective. That's still nearly twice as effective as the drug, but what the other study really showed it may be more like 100 percent in people who actually do it. So is diet and exercise 100 percent effective or only 60 percent effective? On a population scale, since so many people won't actually do it, it may only be 60 percent effective. But on an individual level, if you want to know what are the chances you won't get diabetes if you change your lifestyle, then the 100 percent answer is more accurate. Lifestyle interventions only work when we do them. Kale is only healthy if it actually gets into our mouth. It's not healthy just sitting on the shelf.


How about preventing prediabetes in the first place? See Preventing Prediabetes By Eating More and my video How to Prevent Prediabetes in Children.

Some things we may want to avoid can be found in my videos Eggs and Diabetes and Fish and Diabetes.

And what if we already have the disease? See Diabetics Should Take Their Pulses and my live presentation From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Diet.

What if you don't have time for exercise? Check out Standing Up for Your Health.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and Food as Medicine.

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How to Prevent Childhood Obesity and Diabetes

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Thirty years ago, virtually all diabetes in young individuals was thought to be autoimmune Type 1 diabetes, but since the mid-90s, we started to see an increase in Type 2 diabetes among youth, particularly in the United States. Indeed, "the term adult onset diabetes has now been scrapped and replaced with 'Type 2' because children as young as eight are now developing the disease." And the effects can be just as devastating. A 15-year follow-up of children diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes found an alarming rate in young adults of blindness, amputation, kidney failure and death in young adulthood.

Why the dramatic rise in childhood diabetes? The dramatic rise in childhood diabetes is due to the dramatic rise in childhood obesity. During the past 30 years, the number of children diagnosed as being overweight has increased by more than 100 percent. Once an obese child reaches age six, it's likely they'll stay that way. And even if they don't, being overweight in our youth predicts adult disease and death regardless of adult body weight.

Being an overweight teen may predict disease risk 55 years later, including twice the risk of dying from heart attack, more cancer, gout, and arthritis. In fact being overweight as a teen "was a more powerful predictor of these risks then being overweight in adulthood." This underscores the importance of focusing on preventing childhood obesity.

How do we do it? From the official American Academy of Pediatrics clinical practice guidelines: the problem appears to be kids eating too much fat and added sugar, and not eating enough fruits and vegetables.

Doctors, at every occasion beginning soon after a child's birth, should endeavor to give sound advice regarding nutrition and growth so that obesity and its complications may be curtailed. What might sound advice sound like?

The chair of the nutrition department at Loma Linda published a review suggesting not eating meat at all might be an effective strategy. Population studies have consistently shown that vegetarians are thinner than comparable non-vegetarians.

In the largest such study to date (highlighted in my video How to Prevent Prediabetes in Children), a body mass index over 30 is considered obese, 25 to 30 overweight, and under 25 an ideal weight. The non-vegetarians were up at 28.8, showing the average meat-eater in the U.S. is significantly overweight. As one gets more and more plant-based, the average BMI drops. But even the average vegetarian in the U.S. is overweight. The only dietary group that was, on average, ideal weight were those eating strictly plant-based. It comes out to be about a 30-pound difference between average vegans and meat-eaters.

In school-aged children, the consumption of animal foods (meats, dairy, or eggs) is associated with an increased risk of being overweight, whereas plant-based equivalents like veggie burgers, veggie dogs, and veggie cold cuts were not. The whole plant foods like grains, beans, and nuts were found to be protective.

This may be because plant-based diets are low in energy density and high in starch, fiber, and water, which may increase feelings of fullness and resting energy expenditure, meaning resting metabolic rate. Eating plant-based appears to boost metabolism, such that you just burn more calories at rest. However, we're not sure how much of the benefits are due to increased consumption of plant foods versus decreased consumption of meat.

"Plant-based diets should be encouraged and promoted for optimal health. Local, national and international food policies are warranted to support social marketing messages and to reduce the social, cultural, economic and political forces that make it difficult to promote such diets." For example, although the advice to consume a plant-based diet is sound, questions arise concerning the relatively high price of produce.

We could reduce the burden of childhood obesity and prevent further spread of the disease, but we need to ensure that plant foods are affordable and accessible to children of all income levels. Getting diabetes in childhood cuts about 20 years of their life. What parent wouldn't go to the ends of the Earth to add decades to their children's lives? Fruits and vegetables may not fit on the Dollar Menu, but our kids are worth it.

We make life and death decisions at the grocery store buying food for our family. It's never too early to start our kids off on the right foot. See my video Heart Disease Starts in Childhood.

And healthy doesn't have to mean more expensive. Check out Eating Healthy on a Budget.

For some tips on getting our kids to eat their vegetables, see my videos Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School and Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home.

Once one has prediabetes, there's a way to prevent it from progressing further. See my video How to Prevent Prediabetes from Turning into Diabetes.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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How to Suppress the Aging Enzyme TOR

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Over the last decade, more than 5,000 papers have been published about TOR, an engine-of-aging enzyme inhibited by the drug rapamycin. (What is TOR? Check out my videos Why Do We Age? and Caloric Restriction vs. Animal Protein Restriction.) Rapamycin has been used experimentally to extend lifespan, but is already in use clinically to prevent the rejection of kidney transplants. Patients who received rapamycin due to renal transplantation had a peculiar "side effect," a decrease in cancer incidence. In a set of 15 patients who had biopsy proven Kaposi's sarcoma (a cancer that often affects the skin), all cutaneous sarcoma lesions disappeared in all patients within three months after starting rapamycin therapy.

TOR functions as a master regulator of cellular growth and proliferation. For example, TOR is upregulated in nearly 100% of advanced human prostate cancers (See Prevent Cancer From Going on TOR). So, reductions in cancerous lesions after rapamycin therapy make sense. TOR may also be why dairy consumption has been found to be a major dietary risk factor for prostate cancer. We used to think it was just the hormones in milk, but maybe prostate cancer initiation and progression is also promoted by cow's milk stimulation of TOR.

Our understanding of mammalian milk has changed from a simple food to a "species-specific endocrine signaling system," which activates TOR, promoting cell growth and proliferation and suppressing our body's internal housecleaning mechanisms. Normally, milk-mediated TOR stimulation is restricted only to infancy where we really need that constant signal to our cells to grow and divide. So from an evolutionary perspective, "the persistent 'abuse' of the growth-promoting signaling system of cow's milk by drinking milk over our entire life span may maintain the most important hallmark of cancer biology, sustained proliferative signaling."

TOR appears to play a role in breast cancer, too. Higher TOR expression has been noted in breast cancer tumors, associated with more aggressive disease, and lower survival rate among breast cancer patients. Altered TOR expression could explain why women hospitalized for anorexia may end up with only half the risk of breast cancer. Severe caloric restriction in humans may confer protection from invasive breast cancer by suppressing TOR activation.

We don't have to starve ourselves to suppress TOR; just reducing animal protein intake can attenuate overall TOR activity. Moreover, diets emphasizing plants, especially cruciferous vegetables, have both decreased TOR activation from animal proteins and provide natural plant-derived inhibitors of TOR found in broccoli, green tea, soy, turmeric, and grapes, along with other fruits and vegetables such as onions, strawberries, blueberries, mangoes and the skin of cucumbers.

The downregulation of TOR may be one reason why plant-based in general are associated with lower risk for many cancers. "Are we finally on the threshold of being able to fundamentally alter human aging and age-related disease?" asks researchers in the journal Nature. Only time will tell, but if the pace and direction of recent progress are any indication, the next 5,000 studies on TOR should prove very interesting indeed.

More on dairy and prostate cancer in Prostate Cancer and Organic Milk vs. Almond Milk.

This story continues in my video: Saving Lives By Treating Acne With Diet.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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How a Tick Bite Can Lead to Food Allergies

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In the beginning, Aristotle defined two forms of life on planet Earth: plants and animals. Two thousand years later, the light microscope was invented and we discovered tiny, single-celled organisms like amoebas. Then, the electron microscope was invented and we discovered bacteria. Finally, in 1969, biologists recognized fungi as a separate category, and we've had at least five kingdoms of life ever since.

In my video, Higher Quality May Mean Higher Risk, I talk about the potential downsides of consuming proteins from within our own kingdom, such as the impact our fellow animal proteins can have on boosting our liver's production of a cancer-promoting hormone called IGF-1.

In Eating Outside Our Kingdom, I talked about other potential advantages of preferably dipping into the plant and mushroom kingdoms for dinner, not only from a food safety perspective (we're more likely to get infected by animal pathogens than Dutch Elm Disease), but because of the potential for cross-reactivity between animal and human proteins. Our immune system is more likely to get confused between a chicken leg and our own legs than it is with a banana, so there may be less potential to trigger an autoimmune reaction, like degenerative brain diseases or inflammatory arthritis (See Diet & Rheumatoid Arthritis). In attacking some foreign animal meat protein, some of our own similarly composed tissues may get caught in the crossfire.

It's not just proteins. If you remember the Neu5Gc story (see Inflammatory Meat Molecule Neu5GC), sialic acid in other animals may cause inflammation in our arteries (see Nonhuman Molecules Lining Our Arteries) and help breast tumors and other human cancers to grow (see How Tumors Use Meat to Grow: Xeno-Autoantibodies). Now a new twist has been added to the story.

The reason Neu5Gc triggers inflammation is because humans lost the ability to make it two million years ago, and so when our body is exposed to it through animal products, it's treated as a foreign molecule, causing inflammation. But there's also another oligosaccharide called alpha-gal that humans, chimps, and apes lost the ability to make 20 million years ago, but is still made by a variety of animals, including many animals we eat.

Anti-gal antibodies may be involved in a number of detrimental processes that may result in allergic, autoimmune, and autoimmune-like diseases, such as auto-immune thyroid disorders. We see higher levels of anti-gal antibodies in Crohn's disease victims. These antibodies even react against about half of human breast tumors, and we can find them in atherosclerotic plaques in people's necks. However, those are all mostly speculative risks. We do know that alpha-gal is a major obstacle to transplanting pig organs into people, like kidneys, because our bodies reject alpha-gal as foreign. In fact, alpha-gal is thought to be the major target for human anti-pig antibodies.

It's interesting that if we look at those that abstain from pork for whatever reason, they have fewer swine-specific immune cells in their bloodstream. Researchers speculate that oral intake of pork could ferry swine molecules into the bloodstream via gut-infiltrating lymphocytes to prime the immune response. So we can have an allergic reaction to eating pig kidneys too, but such severe meat allergies were considered rare, until an unusual report surfaced. First described in 2009, the report included details on 24 cases of meat allergies triggered by tick bites.

Within a year, it was obvious that the cases should be counted in hundreds rather than dozens. By 2012, there were thousands of cases across a large area of the southern and eastern U.S., and new cases are now popping up in several countries around the world.

The culprit, the lone star tick, so-called because females have a white spot on their back, are famous for causing Masters' disease, a disease similar to Lyme syndrome, also known as STARI (southern tick associated rash illness). But thanks to the lone star tick steadily expanding its range (even as far as Long Island, NY), it's not necessarily just so Southern any more.

What is the relevance of tick bites to the production of allergy-causing anti-meat antibodies to alpha-gal? Good question. What we know is that if you get bitten by one of these ticks, you can develop an allergy to meat (See Alpha Gal and the Lone Star Tick). This appears to be the first example of a response to an external parasite giving rise to an important form of food allergy. We don't know the exact mechanism, but it may be because there's something in the tick saliva that's cross-reacting with alpha-gal, or because the tick is injecting you with animal allergens from its last meal.

What role may these tick-bite induced allergies play in the development of chronic hives and other allergic skin reactions in children? See Tick Bites, Meat Allergies, and Chronic Urticaria.

Here's some videos unearthing the IGF-1 story:

Neu5Gc is what opened up this whole can of worms:

I wonder if alpha gal is playing a role in the improvements in arthritis and Crohn's on plant-based diets: Dietary Treatment of Crohn's Disease and Diet & Rheumatoid Arthritis.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 - 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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Using Diet to Treat Asthma and Eczema

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I previously discussed the power of fruits and vegetables to help prevent and treat asthma and allergies. If adding a few more servings of fruits and vegetables may help asthma, what about a diet centered around plants? Twenty patients with allergic eczema were placed on a vegetarian diet. At the end of two months, their disease scores, which covered both subjective and objective signs and symptoms, were cut in half, similar to what we might see using one of our most powerful drugs. The drug works much quicker, within about two weeks, but since drugs can often include dangerous side effects the dietary option is more attractive. This was no ordinary vegetarian diet, however. This was an in-patient study using an extremely calorically-restricted diet--the subjects were practically half fasting. Therefore, we don't know which component was responsible for the therapeutic effect.

What about using a more conventional plant-based diet against a different allergic disease, asthma? In Sweden, there was an active health movement that claimed that a vegan diet could improve or cure asthma. This was a bold claim, so in order to test this, a group of orthopedic surgeons at Linköping University Hospital followed a series of patients who were treated with a vegan regimen for one year. (This study is highlighted in my video, Treating Asthma and Eczema with Plant-Based Diets.) Participants had to be willing to go completely plant-based, and they had to have physician-verified asthma of at least a year's duration that wasn't getting better or was getting worse despite the best medical therapies available.

The researchers found quite a sick group to follow. The thirty-five patients had long-established, hospital-verified bronchial asthma for an average duration of a dozen years. Of the 35 patients, 20 had been admitted to the hospital for acute asthmatic attacks during the last two years. Of these, one patient had received acute infusion therapy (emergency IV drugs) a total of 23 times during this period and another patient claimed he had been to the hospital 100 times during his disease and on every occasion had evidently required such treatments. One patient even had a cardiac arrest during an asthma attack and had been brought back to life on a ventilator. These were some pretty serious cases.

The patients were on up to eight different asthma medicines when they started, with an average of four and a half drugs, and were still not getting better. Twenty of the 35 were constantly using cortisone, which is a powerful steroid used in serious cases. These were all fairly advanced cases of the disease, more severe than the vegan practitioners were used to.

Eleven couldn't stick to the diet for a year, but of the 24 that did, 71% reported improvement at four months and 92% at one year. These were folks that had not improved at all over the previous year. Concurrently with this improvement, the patients greatly reduced their consumption of medicine. Four had completely given up their medication altogether, and only two weren't able to at least drop their dose. They went from an average of 4.5 drugs down to 1.2, and some were able to get off cortisone.

Some subjects said that their improvement was so considerable they felt like "they had a new life." One nurse had difficulty at work because most of her co-workers were smokers, but after the plant-based regimen she could withstand the secondhand smoke without getting an attack and could tolerate other asthma triggers. Others reported the same thing. Whereas previously they could only live in a clean environment and felt more or less isolated in their homes, they could now go out without getting asthmatic attacks.

The researchers didn't find only subjective improvements. They also found a significant improvement in a number of clinical variables, most importantly in measures of lung function, vital capacity, forced expiratory volume, and physical working capacity, as well as significant drops in sed rate (a marker of inflammation) and IgE (allergy associated antibodies).

The study started out with 35 patients who had suffered from serious asthma for an average of 12 years, all receiving long-term medication, with 20 using cortisone, who were "subjected to vegan food for a year," and, in almost all cases, medication was withdrawn or reduced, and asthma symptoms were significantly reduced.

Despite the improved lung function tests and lab values, the placebo effect can't be discounted since there was no blinded control group. However, the nice thing about a healthy diet is that there are only good side effects. The subjects' cholesterol significantly improved, their blood pressures got better, and they lost 18 pounds. From a medical standpoint, I say why not give it a try?

If you missed the first three videos of this 4-part series here are the links:

More on eczema and diet can be found in my videos:

There are a number of other conditions plant-based diets have been found to be effective in treating:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: KristyFaith / Flickr

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Phytates in Beans: Anti-Nutrient or Anti-Cancer?

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In my videos, Phytates in the Prevention of Cancer and Phytates for Rehabilitating Cancer Cells, I described how phytates in beans may be the reason why legumes are so successful in preventing cancer and re-educating cancer cells. What about phytates for the treatment of cancer?

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. It arises from "adenomatous polyps," meaning that colon cancer starts out as a benign little bump called a polyp and then grows into cancer that can eventually spread to other organs and kill. So the National Cancer Institute funded the Polyp Prevention Trial, highlighted in my video, Phytates for the Treatment of Cancer, to determine the effects of a high-fiber, high fruit and vegetable, low-fat diet.

Researchers found no significant associations between polyp formation and overall change in fruit and vegetable consumption. However, those with the greatest increase in bean intake only had about a third of the odds of advanced polyps popping up. It could have been the fiber in the beans, but there's lots of fiber in fruits and vegetables, too. So it may have been the phytate.

If the tumors develop from polyps, they still need to spread. Tumor growth, invasion, and metastasis are multistep processes that include cell proliferation, digestion through the surrounding tissue, and migration through barrier membranes to reach the bloodstream so the tumor can establish new proliferating colonies of cancer cells. A critical event in tumor cell invasion is the first step: the tunneling through the surrounding matrix. To do this, the cancer cells use a set of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases. This is where phytates might come in. We've known that phytates inhibit cancer cell migration in vitro, and now perhaps we know why. Phytates help block the ability of cancer cells to produce the tumor invasion enzyme in the first place (at least for human colon and breast cancer cells).

So what happens if you give phytates to breast cancer patients? Although a few case studies where phytates were given in combination with chemotherapy clearly showed encouraging data, organized, controlled, randomized clinical studies were never done--until now. Fourteen women with invasive breast cancer were divided randomly into two groups. One group got extra phytates; the other got placebo. At the end of six months, the phytate group had a better quality of life, significantly more functionality, fewer symptoms from the chemo, and did not get the drop in immune cells and platelets chemo patients normally experience.

What are the potential side effects of phytates? Less heart disease, less diabetes, and fewer kidney stones.

Because cancer development is such an extended process--it can take decades to grow--we need cancer preventive agents that we can take long-term. Phytates, which naturally occur in beans, grains, nuts, and seeds, seem to fit the bill.

In the past, there were concerns that the intake of foods high in phytates might reduce the bioavailability of dietary minerals, but recent studies demonstrate that this co-called "anti-nutrient" effect can be manifested only when large quantities of phytates are consumed in combination with a nutrient poor diet. For example, there used to be a concern that phytate consumption might lead to calcium deficiency, which then led to weakened bones, but researchers discovered that the opposite was true, that phytates actually protect against osteoporosis (See Phytates for the Prevention of Osteoporosis). In essence, phytates have many characteristics of a vitamin, contrary to the established and, unfortunately, still existing dogma among nutritionists regarding its 'anti-nutrient' role.

As one paper in the International Journal of Food Science & Technology suggests:

"Given the numerous health benefits, phytates participation in important intracellular biochemical pathways, normal physiological presence in our cells, tissues, plasma, urine, etc., the levels of which fluctuate with intake, epidemiological correlates of phytate deficiency with disease and reversal of those conditions by adequate intake, and safety - all strongly suggest for phytates inclusion as an essential nutrient, perhaps a vitamin."

The paper concludes that inclusion of phytates in our diet for prevention and therapy of various ailments, cancer in particular, is warranted.

More on preventing tumor invasion and metastasis in:

Other foods that can help stop the progression of precancerous lesions (like the adenomatous polyps) are profiled in Strawberries versus Esophageal Cancer and Black Raspberries versus Oral Cancer.

There's a substance in mushrooms that's also another "essential" nutrient candidate. See Ergothioneine: A New Vitamin?

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: The Ewan / Flickr

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