By using this service and related content, you agree to the use of cookies for analytics, personalised content and ads.
You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Nope, dairy won't give you cancer

Netdoctor logo Netdoctor 15/06/2017 Anthony Warner

Nope, dairy won't give you cancer © Letizia Le Fur / Getty Nope, dairy won't give you cancer Unfortunately, despite the huge advances of modern medicine, we are all still going to die. Despite staggering progress, cancer has perhaps been the most elusive of all diseases when it comes to both prevention and treatment and, in the last one-hundred years, huge declines in alternative causes of death have revealed its enormous capacity to harm.

To make matters worse, for the vast majority of cancers the chances of developing the disease increases greatly with each advancing year of life. Although there are many different lifestyle and environmental risk factors, including smoking, obesity, alcohol consumption and some dietary choices, perhaps the greatest risk of all is getting old. As life expectancy increases around the world, so do cancer rates.

The complexity, uncertainty and confusion surrounding cancer is of course deeply unsettling for anyone who crosses paths with this disease. And when there is confusion, that is where pseudoscience and quackery can find a place to proliferate, including some sort of dietary intervention might offer the long dreamed of universal cure.

Clearly this is just a flight of fancy, but for some people, especially at a point of cancer diagnosis when lives have been thrown into turmoil, it can be of great appeal. Some of the most persistent and potentially damaging myths are the commonly made links between dairy and cancer - particularly breast cancer

Dairy confusion

Doctor Clare Shaw, Consultant Dietitian at the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, who specialises in nutritional support for people undergoing cancer treatment explains: "When patients first come to us, many of them come with ideas. It is very common for breast cancer patients to bring along information from the internet or books that include advice about dairy, often asking why they haven't been told about the need to cut dairy from their diet."

The reasons for these persistent links are complex and troubling, but many relate to the work of the late Professor Jane Plant, who believed that cutting dairy from her own diet after breast cancer diagnosis helped slow the progression of her disease. She wrote a number of books and articles detailing her ideas, and it is not uncommon for patients to arrive at consultations with this information in hand. For some people, the links she outlines are compelling, and many cancer patients will remove dairy from their diets completely as they start undergoing treatment.

So what exactly did Jane Plant discover? The cornerstone of her work centred on the observation that rates of breast cancer were traditionally very low in China, a country where little dairy is consumed. Although it is true that there are statistics showing China has a lower incidence of the disease, the jumps made to a lack of dairy being the cause are unscientific at best. There are many non-dairy reasons why Chinese rates might be lower. For example, when compared with most Western nations, Chinese female populations have far lower rates of alcohol consumption and obesity and much higher rates of early pregnancy, all known risk factors for breast cancer.

Cancer is a frightening, random disease, and a longing to make sense of that randomness can lead us to believe some strange things at times.

But perhaps the main reason for the differences are cultural and socioeconomic. In the years the in which the data Jane Plant used for her studies was taken, large parts of rural China had little access to the sort of screening, diagnosis and healthcare available in the West, and also a far lower level of awareness of breast cancer. Many deaths from the disease could easily have been undiagnosed, or perhaps practical and social reasons meant that patients only saw doctors later in its development, once it had spread to other parts of the body, leading to misdiagnosis.

Jane Plant also presented a few ideas to explain how dairy consumption might cause cancer, particularly that dairy somehow acidifies the body, or that the hormone IGF-1 might be a factor. These are a long way from the medical consensus and have been thoroughly debunked elsewhere (link 1, link 2), but her belief in them reveals a desire to find cause and effect when there is none. Cancer is a frightening, random disease, and a longing to make sense of that randomness can lead us to believe some strange things at times. 

© Provided by National magazine company ltd (Hearst UK) Dairy disgust

As well as a desire to make sense of randomness, dairy is one of the most emotive foods we regularly consume. Although most of us add it to tea and coffee without the slightest thought, for some, it provokes intense disgust reactions, perhaps making it susceptible to false associations of toxicity and harm.

The psychologist and food writer Kimberley Wilson says on this: "There is definitely a disgust reaction, as well as all the connotations about mother's milk and a deep discomfort about those images and associations. Who wants to remember that at one point they once suckled on their mother's breasts? There's also a wish to deny that we are ourselves animals – I think there is a desire to disavow our more basic mammalian instincts."

The truth about dairy

To be absolutely clear, there is no evidence of any link between dairy and cancer - and no reason to give up dairy products in order to prevent or treat any form of the disease. Cancer is one of the most studied diseases in history and all serious bodies, from the World Health Organisation, Cancer Research, the World Cancer Research Fund and the NHS agree that there is no proven link. Unfortunately, for many people, especially those under the sort of life changing stress that can result from a cancer diagnosis, the compelling story of Professor Plant is more powerful than the sort of august, sensible bodies that produce reports about cancer risk.

It is worth thinking about how strange and illogical that is, especially when you consider that although a respected academic in her field, Jane Plant was a professor of geology, not oncology. Real research into cancer attracts many of the best minds in the world, and although it is fiendishly difficult and complex, it has produced much powerful and compelling information about risk. This includes epidemiological data about populations and lifestyles, investigations into mechanisms, and profound insights into the workings of cancer cells. The combined might of all that knowledge is compiled, looking at thousands of papers, carefully sifting through to produce powerful systematic reviews, feeding into reports from organisations like the World Cancer Research Fund. But when a geologist claims that it does because Chinese people don't drink milk, sadly many are drawn to this message. 

What's the harm?

When people are drawn to false beliefs, it can have serious consequences. Fad diets with needless restrictions can be harmful at the best of times, but never more so than when it comes to someone undergoing a punishing round of chemotherapy treatments. The main role of oncology dietitians is to keep patients nourished and well when their bodies are undergoing a great deal of stress, and this is often made harder by that patient's false beliefs.

Fiona Roulston is a Clinical Specialist Dietitian in Radiation Oncology at St Luke's Hospital in Dublin: "Any fad diet which cuts out large food groups such as dairy or carbohydrates can be very restrictive and difficult to follow, resulting in weight loss and nutritional deficiencies. Dairy foods are a great source of protein and are often well tolerated by patients with poor appetite or nausea, so when these are restricted unnecessarily it makes it more difficult to meet protein requirements. Dairy foods are also an excellent source of calcium. Breast cancer patients may already be at risk of osteoporosis due to chemotherapy and hormone therapies, so a dairy free diet only increases this risk. In addition, many of the oral nutritional supplement drinks that are available on prescription are milk-based, so this restricts choice of products which may be needed to meet a patient's nutritional requirements and prevent weight and muscle loss."

Beliefs often defy all logic and sense, but few could blame the patients, drawn to anything that might give them an illusion of control. It is also hard to blame the likes of Jane Plant, a victim of the disease who sought solace in misguided research and genuinely believed she was helping those in need. We all have a responsibility - the media in particular - to accurately report news and dispel myths based in pseudoscience.

Watch: 5 Mistakes To Avoid In Dairy-Free Baking (by Wochit News)

UP NEXT
UP NEXT
AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Netdoctor

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon