House Calls: Miracle foods aren’t always as they appear
Cancer, acne, chronic cough, angina pectoris, myopia, hangover. These are among the diseases and health conditions that some people claim can be cured by eating or juicing “super foods.”
Since my diagnosis with cancer, I have been told more than once that I should try this or that “super food” to cure my cancer. Carrots, noni juice, pomegranates, blueberries and others have been suggested.
Of course carrots are a healthy food choice – a single serving contains 25 calories, 6 grams of carbs, 2 grams of fiber and around 200 percent of your daily requirement of beta-carotene, which our bodies convert to vitamin A.
Drinking a glass of carrot juice will certainly help you rehydrate if you have a hangover, and the vitamin A will help keep your eyes healthy, but expecting a miraculous cure from consuming one food is unrealistic.
It also is possible to have too much of a good thing – for example eating large amounts of carrots for a long time can give your skin a temporary orange tint.
Claims about miracle foods often have some basis in promising scientific research, but media reports and marketing often exaggerate the potential benefits.
Research on a particular food usually focuses on naturally occurring chemicals in that food. The chemicals are isolated and then tested for health benefits in a laboratory. The research may be looking to see if the plant-derived substances are useful to fight cancer, to kill bacteria, or to do something else. When such tests show that one or many substances have significant useful activity, it is still a long way from proving that eating it will have the same effect in your body.
Extract from pomegranate seeds may kill cancer cells in a lab, but after I eat it, the active chemicals in it may not be absorbed into my bloodstream without being metabolized or changed. Even when absorbed, there remains the problem of those substances being transported to the area where they are most needed and in high enough concentrations to be effective.
Research has demonstrated that there are many naturally occurring chemicals in foods and plants that have anti-cancer or other properties good for our health. However, eating large amounts of one food will not cure my cancer, in spite of the claims in an email forwarded to me by a friend or relative.
Researchers also look at the benefits of certain foods for specific segments of the population. For instance, some people may reduce their risk of breast or prostate cancer by taking supplements of folic acid – a B vitamin – but for other people with a different genetic makeup, consuming high amounts of folic acid may increase their cancer risk. Coffee contains antioxidants and in moderate amounts has an antidepressant effect on some people, but for others it may increase blood pressure, affect blood sugar or aggravate a stomach problem.
You may have seen claims that bananas cure headaches, hangovers and depression. In fact, for some people eating bananas triggers migraines. Bananas can also interfere with a class of antidepressant medications called monoamine oxidase inhibitors. However, eating bananas does reduce muscle cramps caused by low potassium levels and can help relieve diarrhea.
Pomegranates, blueberries and other fruits and vegetables provide us with antioxidants – substances that may reduce our risk of cancer and heart disease. Some plant-based foods are higher in fiber – which reduces the risk of colon cancer – than others. Many foods (tomatoes for example) and some spices (including turmeric and cinnamon) have been shown to contain cancer-fighting chemicals. However, no single food has been shown in rigorous studies to cure cancer, reverse heart disease or give you endless energy.
Exercising and eating a balanced diet with at least 5 daily servings of fruits and/or vegetables can reduce risks for stroke, heart disease, some cancers and other ailments. It would be nice if there were a single food that would do everything – believe me, I would be stuffing myself with it if there were – but so far that is not the case.
Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your comments and column suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.