Junkfood Science: Western way of life — is it really so bad?

January 15, 2007

Western way of life — is it really so bad?

Does the rest of the world really believe that Americans eat only “junk”?

It certainly seems so, by the looks of a recent study from France. Perhaps, this shouldn’t be a surprise since many Americans seem to believe the myth, too. But the lengths being taken to try and convince us of the dangers of a modern,“Western diet” (high in calories and rich in processed foods) were remarkably demonstrated in this recent headlining study. You remember the headlines:

Western diet pattern linked to colorectal cancer risk!

Epidemiologists from the Institute Gustave Roussy set out to find associations between colorectal cancer and adenomas (polyps) and our diets. This was another data dredge through the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort that has been used for other such studies, for instance the one published this month claiming to find that physical activity prevents breast cancer, as was debunked here.

For this latest study, the researchers used data from 73,034 self-administered questionnaires gathered during 1993-1995 from French women who had health insurance through the national teachers’ plan. The women were asked how much and how often they ate 208 different food items, their body measurements, lifestyles, hormone treatments, reproductive histories and health histories, including colonoscopies.

The researchers used 172 cases of colorectal cancer confirmed through June, 2000, when the women were 55 to 80 years old; and 516 cases of confirmed adenomatous polyps from those reported between 1993 - 1997. These are your trojan numbers.

Considerably higher numbers had been reported but to arrive at those used for this study, the researchers eliminated women with a history of inflammatory bowel disease, a well-recognized high risk factor for colorectal cancer, with incidences at least 3 times higher than the general population. They also excluded women with personal or family histories for colorectal cancers. So they set out to look for dietary correlations among the small subset of women without these key risk factors.

They arbitrarily assigned the various foods to four different dietary patterns as they defined:

· A “Healthy” diet included higher amounts of raw and cooked vegetables, legumes, fruits, yogurt, grains, sea products and olive oil, and less sweets.

· The “Western” diet consisted of high consumption of pizza, pies, sandwiches, sweets, cakes, cheese, pasta, rice, breads, processed meats and butter, with potatoes being the only vegetable eaten alot. [See what I mean? Do they actually think that’s all Westerners eat?]

· “Meat Eaters,” who the researchers similarly saw as having undesirable dietary habits, also included only potatoes for a vegetable and lots of coffee, meats and poultry; margarine instead of butter; and low consumption of cereals, fruits, cheese or yogurt.

· And “Drinkers” subsisted, it seems, on coffee, alcohol, snacks, sandwiches and processed meats.

As hard as they tried to stack the deck against “bad” diets, they found: “no clear association between colorectal cancer risk and the healthy,Western or drinker patterns.

The exact opposite of the headlines and news reports which told consumers the researchers had concluded: “‘Dietary patterns that reflect a Western way of life are associated with a higher risk of colorectal tumours.”

For polyps, the researchers stated: “No clear relationship was observed between dietary patterns and risk of adenomas for women less than 51 years.”

And among women 52 years and older, they didn’t tabulate the findings but reported only untenable correlations (relative risks so low they could be random chance or statistic error) between even the most extremes of dietary patterns and adenomas.

But it’s those inconsequential relative risk numbers — 58% for colorectal cancer in older women and 39% for adenomas in the younger women — between highest and lowest consumptions of a Western diet that are being used to claim a connection with an increased risk for colorectal cancer.

A few facts will moderate the fears raised in this study, besides the untenable relative risks for these types of statistical derivations. Finding adenomatous polyps in older women is not unusual, but most do not progress to colorectal cancer. According to Dr. Carole Burke, M.D. of the Cleveland Clinic, 40% of people over age 50 have polyps but only 2% of them will ever progress to colorectal cancer.

And, while the researchers concluded their “findings are consistent with a deleterious effect of patterns associated with a Western way of life,” in this study, the Western diet pattern was “significantly associated with higher levels of exercise, higher levels of education... and lower body masses” (despite eating higher calorie diets — an average of 348 calories more per day) than the Healthy dieters.

But reporting that just wouldn’t do.

The “toxic environment” of Western diets is also to blame for the obesity epidemic, we’re to believe.

© Sandy Szwarc 2007

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