The table was laden with healthful food, sporting labels such as: "High Protein, Low Fat Noodle Pudding," "Golden Carrot Soup — lots of antioxidants!" "Veggie Chopped Liver," "Smoked Tofu Salad," "Whole Wheat Banana Nut Bread — lots of fiber."
The food got good reviews, and lots of recipes were tucked into purses and pockets.
It wasn’t a convention of macrobiotic chefs, but rather a dinner held by Gilda’s Club, a "cancer support community" named after comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989.
After dinner, participants gathered for a lecture by Pat May, a registered dietitian who works in oncology (the study of tumors) at Henry Ford Hospital. As soon as May began her talk, holding up a picture of the food pyramid, hands went up and the lecture veered toward vitamin and mineral supplements.
What should I take? Am I taking enough? What about green tea? Genistein? What are free radicals? Phytochemicals? Antioxidants?
There was a chasm between the dinner, with its labels promising cancer-fighting efficacy, and the food pyramid’s nebulous impact on cancer.
The National Cancer Institute says diet may contribute to as many as 30 percent of cancer deaths, making it second only to smoking as a contributor to cancer.
But there is a world of difference between "contributing to" and "causing" cancer. Cancer has a complex constellation of causes, including diet and environment, which interact with an individual’s genetic disposition to determine why one person gets it, while another is passed over.
Ron Citkowski, a chemist now practicing law in Birmingham, has been taking anti-cancer herbs for a while, and is convinced that some theories on nutrition and disease hold true.
For example, he explains the idea of free radicals, molecules which can react with other molecules in your body and scramble things up to cause cancerous tumors.
"Free radicals can get into your DNA and knock out one of the base pairs, causing mutations," he says. "Free radical scavengers — antioxidants — prevent a lot of this damage. When fats go rancid, that’s a free radical reaction. Vitamin C and E are antioxidants that are put into food as preservatives."
But Citkowski warns that, applied to the body, chemical reactions are less predictable. "You are dealing with complex biosystems, not petri dishes."
Studies indicate that there’s a connection between nutrition and cancer, but it’s not always what we expect. A study conducted by the National Cancer Institute and Finnish researchers found that male smokers taking beta-carotene supplements had an 18 percent increase in lung cancer.
This finding led scientists to speculate that substances other than beta-carotene are responsible for the protective effects of beta-carotene-rich foods.
This is one reason why many health professionals recommend getting phytochemicals from fruits and vegetables, not tablets.
"If you do it with food, it’s impossible to OD," says Muriel Wagner, a registered dietitian and nutrition counselor in Southfield.
Despite some controversy over which foods are good and which aren’t, cancer research is beginning to reach a consensus on nutritional guidelines.
A plant-based diet is recommended, with red meat limited to three or fewer servings per week. The diet should be high in fiber from whole grains, fruit and vegetables. Fats, sweets and alcohol should be limited.
Newer research suggests that even some unsaturated fats are harmful, and should be replaced by Omega-9 oils (such as olive oil) and Omega-3 oils (found in walnut and flax oil, and also found in fatty fish).
Can you eat to beat cancer? Wagner thinks so. "My genes spelled out: Program me for hypertension, diabetes and pancreatic cancer," she says. "And I was the world’s biggest couch potato. I changed the odds with diet and exercise."
But it wasn’t easy. "Prevention is a hard thing to sell," says Wagner. "Changing the way that we eat is one of the hardest things to do."
Researchers think our diets can interrupt the genetic mayhem that leads to cancer by constantly bathing the cells with nutrients that block tumor growth.
But food is complex: each food contains many different nutrients, and may contain still more that are unknown. And nutrients interact with one another in ways that are not understood.
For example, Pat May describes the early days of using liquid nutritional supplements for cancer patients who couldn’t tolerate food. They did well for a while, but then declined. The problem was finally attributed to a trace element, chromium, which was omitted from the supplements.
No science has flip-flopped as much as nutrition in recent years. Every study is contradicted by another study.
For example, breast cancer survivors are often told to eat lots of soy products, because soy contains a phytochemical, called genistein, that has stopped the growth of cancer cells in petri dishes. Genistein displaces the estrogens that fuel hormonal cancers.
But registered dietitian LaDonna Hinch, of the Karmanos Cancer Institute, points out that most women who have had breast cancer are taking Tamoxifen, which works the same way as genistein. For women on Tamoxifen, eating soy is superfluous at best, and harmful at worst: New research indicates that soy may also have a weak estrogenic effect.
It’s difficult to decide once and for all what the possible results of eating to beat cancer could be. But by the end of Pat May’s lecture at Gilda’s Club, people in the audience were re-evaluating some of the nutritional changes they had made in their own diets.
One woman said she drank three different soy shakes every day, and puzzled about how to cut back. "I really like them all," she sighed.
As the evening broke up, another group that had been meeting upstairs trooped in with empty pizza boxes. Hmm, any pepperoni on that?