MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: Re: If fats increase risk for cancer, how does vitamin E-fat soluble-fight it?

Date: Tue Aug 10 21:24:08 2004
Posted By: Dian Dooley,
Area of science: Medicine
ID: 1090821754.Me

Aloha, Sharon,

     You ask a very interesting question.  But, first I need to rework 
part of it for you.  Fats do not dramatically increase the risk for 
cancer.  It just isn't as simple as that, in spite of the public health 
messages that seem to get spread all over.  As an academic nutritionist 
who teaches a lot of introductory nutrition students each semester, I am 
very uncomfortable with some of that information, too,...mainly because it 
is too simplistic and/or blatantly not correct.

     Some fat-like compounds in our food (some of the saturated fatty 
acids) seem to increase the risk for certain cancers;  some fat-like 
compounds (such as conjugated linoleic acid, which is a bunch of a 
particular fatty acid hooked together) seem actually to decrease the risk 
for certain cancers;  some fat-like compounds (some of the other saturated 
and unsaturated fatty acids) seem to have little/no effect on the 
development of cancer, especially in non-human animals.  I don't think we 
have enough information in humans to make really definitive statements 
about cancer(s) and "fat" in the diet, although people who should know 
better do that all the time.  What we do know is that excess energy 
(kilocalories) in the diet may increase the risk for cancer(s).  But, too 
few kilocalories can also increase the risk for chronic disease, even 
cancer(s).  Note that I keep writing "cancer(s)"...that is because there 
are about 100 different (but similar) kinds of diseases that we group 
together and call cancer.  These diseases are similar because they all 
include cell growth that has gone 'nuts'...cells multiplying when they 
shouldn't, eventually to become malignant tumors.  Anyway, too much fat in 
the diet can provide too many kilocalories...and people who get very heavy 
may have an increased risk for certain cancers, such as breast, 
testicular, and ovarian cancers, if they are genetically prone to them.  

     Now to your question about vitamin E and fat.  Vitamin E is a fat-
soluble vitamin (micronutrient), and your body can't absorb it well if you 
don't have enough fat in the diet.  Also, fat IS a nutrient.  Your body 
just doesn't function correctly without enough...somewhere between 50-100 
grams/day for most adults.  Vitamin E IS also an antioxidant, just like 
you mentioned.  So are other nutrients (e.g., minerals, like selenium, 
vitamins, like vitamin C or the provitamin beta-carotene).  These 
substances help our bodies fight off the damage that very reactive 
chemical substances (free radicals) can cause at the level of the cell.

     So, you see, nutrition isn't quite as simple as good/bad.  Too much 
of anything, even vitamin E, is not good;  too little of anything, even 
fat, is not good.  The amount really makes the difference.  The take-home 
message, I think, is that we need all the nutrients in the 'right' 
amounts...and almost all of those can be gotten from our food (there are 
exceptions, like getting enough iron and folate during 
pregnancy...supplements are advissed).  The best practical advice that I 
can give, as a nutritionist is to eat a wide variety of foods, in modest 
amounts...and enjoy your food!

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