Folic Acid and Cancer

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Drugs and Health, Supplements and Health

Does Folic Acid Increase Cancer Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

folic acid and cancerYou’ve seen the headlines. “Folic Acid Supplements May Increase Colon Cancer Risk in People Over 50” and “Folic Acid Supplements May Increase Prostate Cancer Risk in Men”. And I’ve seen articles telling people over 50 that they should take their multivitamin tablets every other day to avoid getting too much folic acid.

I’ve even heard of doctors telling their patients to avoid any supplements containing folic acid. So what’s the truth?  Is there a cause and effect relationship between folic acid and cancer?

Why Do People Say Folic Acid Increases Colon Cancer Risk?

Perhaps a bit of historical perspective is in order. A number of population studies had suggested that high intakes of folic acid might protect against cancer, especially colon cancer, so several placebo controlled clinical studies were initiated to test that hypothesis. Those studies had mixed results, with some suggesting that folic acid might be protective and others suggesting that it had no effect. None of those studies suggested that folic acid supplementation increased the risk of any kind of cancer.

In 1998 mandatory folic acid fortification of grain products was introduced. In addition, the number of Americans taking supplements with folic has increased dramatically in recent years. As a consequence total intake of folates (folic acid from fortified foods and supplements plus folates naturally found in foods) has increased significantly. By one estimate blood levels of folates have increased 2.5-fold between 1994 (before fortification) and 2000 (after fortification).

So it was just natural to ask if this increase in folate intake might have unintended consequences. And one clinical study seemed to suggest that it might (JAMA, 297: 2351-2359, 2007)

That study looked at colorectal adenomas and reported high folate intake was associated with an increased risk of more advanced adenomas. [It is important to note that adenomas are benign tumors. They are thought to be precursors to colorectal cancer but they are not actually cancerous].

Some experts immediately started warning about getting too much folic acid in the diet – with some going so far as to warn that people over 50 should only take a multivitamin every other day.

And several papers were published speculating on how differences between the way that folic acid and the other folates were utilized by the body could cause folic acid to increase the risk of colorectal cancer while naturally occurring folates decreased the risk.

Let me put this into perspective. Any good scientist knows not to trust a single clinical study. Individual clinical studies can provide misleading results. Sometimes it is possible to pinpoint the cause. For example, the study may have been poorly designed, may have included a non-representative population group, or the statistical analysis may have been incorrect. But, sometimes we never know why an individual clinical study came to the wrong conclusion.

folic acid and colon cancerThat is why good scientists generally say that more studies are needed and base their recommendation on the preponderance of many studies rather than a single study.

The problem was that all of this hype and hypothesizing about folic acid increasing the risk of colon cancer was based on a single study, and that study didn’t actually look at colorectal cancer. A Norwegian study four years later found no evidence for increased colorectal cancer at folic acid intakes of up to 800 ug/day (AJCN, 94: 1053-1062, 2011) – but it was largely ignored.

The background is similar for the claims that folic acid may increase prostate cancer risk. When a small meta-analysis that included some, but not all, published clinical studies suggested an increased risk of prostate cancer, some experts went as far as to suggest that men should completely avoid supplements with folic acid.

The problem is that even meta-analyses can be misleading if they only examine a small sub-set of clinical studies because they can be unduly influenced by a single misleading clinical study.

Does Folic Acid Increase Colon Cancer Risk?

Should We Avoid Supplemental Folate?

The American Cancer Society decided to resolve the uncertainty about folic acid intake and colon cancer risk once and for all (V.L. Stevens et al, Gastroenterology, 141: 98-105, 2011). They designed the study to answer two very important questions:

1) Has the increased folate intake by Americans over the past several years actually increased their risk for colorectal cancer?

2) Does the chemical form (folic acid versus folate) influence its effect on colorectal cancer risk?

And this study had two very important firsts:

1) This was the very first study to investigate the association between folate intake and colorectal cancer entirely in the post-fortification period.

2) This was also the very first study to separate out the effects of folate and folic acid on colorectal cancer risk.

And it was a very large study. They followed 43,512 men and 56,011 women aged 50-74 for 8 years between 1999 and 2007.

Folate intakes from food ranged from 175 ug/day to 354 ug/day while folic acid intakes from food fortification, supplements and multivitamins ranged from 71 ug/day to 660 ug/day. Total folate (both naturally occurring folates and folic acid) intakes ranged from 246 ug/day to over 1014 ug/day.

When they analyzed the data they found that high intakes of neither folic acid nor natural folates were associated with any increased risk of colorectal cancer. In fact, they found high intake of total folates was associated with a significant decreased risk of colorectal cancer.

Does Folic Acid Increase Cancer Risk?

folates help prevent cancerWhat about prostate cancer and other types of cancer? Could folic acid increase the risk of other cancers? To resolve this issue once and for all, a group from Oxford University (Clarke et al, The Lancet, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)62001-7) did a meta-analysis of every study published through 2010 that compared folic acid supplementation to a placebo, lasted at least 1 year, included at least 500 people and recorded cancer incidence – some 13 studies with over 50,000 participants.

The results were clear cut. As for folic acid and cancer, supplementation did not increase the overall cancer risk, and when the incidence of individual cancers was analyzed, folic acid supplementation did not increase the risk of developing colon cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer or any other site-specific cancer.

To put this in perspective the average dose of folic acid used in these clinical studies was 2 mg/day, which is 5 times the RDA and 5 times the dose in most supplements. And one of the clinical trials used 40 mg/day, which is 100 times the dose in most supplements.

 

The Bottom Line

Forget the warnings and the hype. You can be confident that folic acid does not increase the risk of colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, or any other kind of cancer.

  • The American Cancer Society recently performed a very large clinical study looking at the effect of folic acid intake from supplements and folate intake from foods on colon cancer risk. That study found that high intakes of neither folic acid nor natural folates were associated with any increased risk of colorectal cancer. And, they found high intake of total folates was associated with a significant decreased risk of colorectal cancer.
  • The authors of that study concluded: “The findings of this study add to the epidemiological evidence that high folate intake reduces colorectal cancer risk.” “More importantly, no increased risk of colorectal cancer was found, suggesting that the high levels of this vitamin consumed by significant numbers of Americans should not lead to higher incidence rates of this cancer in the population.”
  • A second meta-analysis of every clinical study looking at folic acid intake and cancer risk through 2010. The results of that study were clear cut. Folic acid supplementation did not increase the overall cancer risk, and when the incidence of individual cancers was analyzed, folic acid supplementation did not increase the risk of developing colon cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer or any other site-specific cancer

Like any good scientist I am aware that future studies could change our understanding, but for now I am confident in saying that there is no credible evidence that folic acid supplementation increases your risk of any kind of cancer. If the science changes, I will be the first to let you know.

But it will be really interesting to see how long it takes all those web sites, blogs and so-called “experts” to acknowledge that the science has changed and they should stop issuing false warnings about folic acid supplementation.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

What Is The Planetary Diet?

Posted May 21, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Earth Day has come and gone, but you are still committed to saving the planet. You save energy. You recycle. You drive an electric car. But is your diet destroying the planet?

This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) serves as a dire warning of what will happen if we don’t change our ways. I touched on this report briefly in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor,” What Is The Flexitarian Diet , but this topic is important enough that it deserves an issue all its own.

The commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.” It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

How Was The Study Done?

The study (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) was the report of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. This Commission convened 30 of the top experts from across the globe to prepare a science-based evaluation of the effect of diet on both health and sustainable food production through the year 2050. The Commission included world class experts on healthy diets, agricultural methods, climate change, and earth sciences. The Commission reviewed 356 published studies in preparing their report.

 

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

When they looked at the effect of food production on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • “Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change.” Specifically, the commission reported:
  • Agriculture occupies 40% of global land (58% of that is for pasture use).
  • Food production is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use.
  • Conversion of natural ecosystems to croplands and pastures is the largest factor causing species to be threatened with extinction. Specifically, 80% of extinction threats to mammals and bird species are due to agricultural practices.
  • Overuse and misuse of nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers causes eutrophication. In case you are wondering, eutrophication is defined as the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (such as phosphates from commercial fertilizer) that stimulate the growth of algae and other aquatic plant life, usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen. This creates dead zones in lakes and coastal regions where fish and other marine organisms cannot survive.
  • About 60% of world fish stocks are fully fished and more than 30% are overfished. Because of this, catch by global marine fisheries has been declining since 1996.
  • “Reaching the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming…is not possible by only decarbonizing the global energy systems. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement.”
  • The world’s population is expected to increase to 10 billion by 2050. The current system of food production is unsustainable.

When they looked at the effect of the foods we eat on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • Beef and lamb are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and land use.
  • The concern about land use is obvious because of the large amount of pasture land required to raise cattle and sheep.
  • The concern about greenhouse gas emissions is because cattle and sheep are ruminants. They not only breathe out CO2, but they also release methane into the atmosphere from fermentation in their rumens of the food they eat. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and it persists in the atmosphere 25 times longer than CO2. The single most important thing we can do as individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to eat less beef and lamb. [Note: grass fed cattle produce more greenhouse gas emissions than cattle raised on corn because they require 3 years to bring to market rather than 2 years.]
  • In terms of energy use beef, lamb, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs all require much more energy to produce than any of the plant foods.
  • In terms of eutrophication, beef, lamb, and pork, all cause much more eutrophication than any plant food. Dairy and eggs cause more eutrophication than any plant food except fruits.
  • In contrast, plant crops reduce greenhouse gas emissions by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

 

What Is The Planetary Diet?

In the words of the Commission: “[The Planetary Diet] largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils. It includes a low to moderate amount of seafood, poultry, and eggs. It includes no or a very low amount of red meat, processed meat, sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.”

When described in that fashion it sounds very much like other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable. Here is a more detailed description of the diet:

  • It starts with a vegetarian diet. Vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, soy foods, and whole grains are the foundation of the diet.
  • It allows the option of adding one serving of dairy a day (It turns out that cows produce much less greenhouse emissions per serving of dairy than per serving of beef. That’s because cows take several years to mature before they can be converted to meat, and they are emitting greenhouse gases the entire time).
  • It allows the option of adding one 3 oz serving of fish or poultry or one egg per day.
  • It allows the option of swapping seafood, poultry, or egg for a 3 oz serving of red meat no more than once a week. If you want a 12 oz steak, that would be no more than once a month.

This is obviously very different from the way most Americans currently eat. According to the Commission:

  • “This would require greater than 50% reduction in consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and greater than 100% increase in the consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.”
  • “In addition to the benefits for the environment, “dietary changes from current diets to healthy diets are likely to substantially benefit human health, averting about 10.8-11.6 million deaths per year globally.”

What Else Did The Commission Recommend?

In addition to changes in our diets, the Commission also recommended several changes in the way food is produced. Here are a few of them.

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fuel used to transport food to market.
  • Reduce food losses and waste by at least 50%.
  • Make radical improvements in the efficiency of fertilizer and water use. In terms of fertilizer, the change would be two-fold:
    • In developed countries, reduce fertilizer use and put in place systems to capture runoff and recycle the phosphorous.
    • In third world countries, make fertilizer more available so that crop yields can be increased, something the Commission refer to as eliminating the “yield gap” between third world and developed countries.
  • Stop the expansion of new agricultural land use into natural ecosystems and put in place policies aimed at restoring and re-foresting degraded land.
  • Manage the world’s oceans effectively to ensure that fish stocks are used responsibly and global aquaculture (fish farm) production is expanded sustainability.

What we can do: While most of these are government level policies, we can contribute to the first three by reducing personal food waste and purchasing organic produce locally whenever possible.

What Does This Mean For You?

If you are a vegan, you are probably asking why the Commission did not recommend a completely plant-based diet. The answer is that a vegan diet is perfect for the health of our planet. However, the Commission wanted to make a diet that was as consumer-friendly as possible and still meet their goals of a healthy, environmentally friendly, and sustainable diet.

If you are eating a typical American diet or one of the fad diets that encourage meat consumption, you are probably wondering how you can ever make such drastic changes to your diet. The answer is “one step at a time.”  If you have read my books “Slaying The Food Myths” or “Slaying the Supplement Myths,”  you know that my wife and I did not change our diet overnight. Our diet evolved to something very close to the Planetary Diet over a period of years.

The Commission also purposely designed the Planetary Diet so that you “never have to say never” to your favorite foods. Three ounces of red meat a week does not sound like much, but it allows you a juicy steak once a month.

Sometimes you just need to develop a new mindset. As I shared in my books, my father prided himself on grilling the perfect steak. I love steaks, but I decided to set a few parameters. I don’t waste my red meat calories on anything besides filet mignon at a fine restaurant. It must be a special occasion, and someone else must be buying. That limits it to 2-3 times a year. I still get to enjoy good steak, and I stay well within the parameters of the Planetary diet.

Develop your strategy for enjoying some of your favorite foods within the parameters of the Planetary Diet and have fun with it.

The Bottom Line

 

Is your diet destroying the planet? This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report serves as a dire warning of what will happen to us and our planet if we don’t change our ways.

The Commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The Commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.”  It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

The Planetary Diet is similar to other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable (for details, read the article above).

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

For more details read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

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