Medical myths abound

November 23, 1998|By Henry I. Miller

ACTORS who play doctors on TV are sometimes mistaken for the real thing. In a bizarre turnabout, Dr. Bob Arnot, a real physician and NBC-TV's chief health correspondent, has written book worthy of someone without medical training. "The Breast Cancer Prevention Diet" is so fraught with unscientific, speculative and misleading advice that it might actually be harmful to women's health.

A study by the National Health Council found that adults cite television as their "principal source of health information" and often look to doctors in the media as reliable sources, so the

deficiencies of Dr. Arnot's book are particularly distressing. He claims, for example, that certain foods can prevent breast cancer, but most studies have found little if any relationship between diet and breast cancer when the effects of obesity are eliminated.

Dr. Arnot encourages the consumption of soy and flaxseed, which supposedly work by competing with estrogen for receptors on breast cells. While it is true that certain foods do appear to block estrogens, which have a role in many breast cancers, it is far from certain that this effect reduces cancer in humans. Dr. Arnot's statement that intake of such foods "can save your life" is a gross overstatement of the scientific evidence.

Dr. Arnot characterizes foods as being, in effect, drugs without side effects. But the unconventional choices and amounts of foods in his suggested diet may instead be tantamount to ingesting drugs without adequate testing.

zTC By diverting women from important actions and diagnostic procedures that are known to be lifesaving, Dr. Arnot distorts the valuable message that women should take control of their breast cancer risk.

Some known risk factors -- genetics, a history of benign breast disease, onset of menses before age 12, menopause after age 50 -- are beyond an individual's control. But others, such as minimal exercise, postmenopausal estrogen replacement and postmenopausal obesity, can be controlled.

Diet is not wholly irrelevant, however. A substantial body of evidence associates low intake of fruits and vegetables with increased risk of cancer. It would be wise for all people, therefore, to make an effort to include fruits and vegetables in their daily diets. But the current scientific evidence does not warrant the kinds of drastic dietary changes advocated by Dr. Arnot.

Dr. Henry I. Miller, a director of the American Council on Science and Health, wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 11/23/98

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