Diet and Cancer – Understanding and Communicating Risk

Diet and Cancer – Understanding and Communicating Risk

March 7, 2018
Shari Steinbach

By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, RDBA Contributing Editor

Supermarket dietitians are often challenged with customers longing to identify good foods and bad foods, especially when those “bad foods” are linked to causing cancer, a scary disease that claims a half million Americans per year. Consider the recent article connecting processed foods to cancer. The first line of the article read - If you worry about ever getting cancer, you might want to pass on the processed foods at your supermarket. What person doesn’t worry about someday getting cancer? Food scares such as this cause confusion and mistrust, and retail RDNs may find themselves on the front lines trying to communicate the potential role that diet plays with disease. While there are no easy answers, here are some considerations regarding consumer messaging:

  • Encourage shoppers to read beyond the headline. If we look at the article demonizing processed foods you’ll note that they are talking about specific products that lack total nutritional value. An overconsumption of these foods high in sugar, fat, sodium and calories are also linked to an increased risk for obesity, and other chronic diseases. This study is not proving that highly processed foods cause cancer, only that an association exists.
  • Help consumers understand they must look at their total diet over time, along with other lifestyle habits when it comes to cancer risk. Dominik D. Alexander, Ph.D, MSPH, Principal Epidemiologist at the EpidStat Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan, studies the diet connection to cancer. He states that when looking at cancer causation, we need to remember that each individual has a “causal pie”. The slices of this “pie” are the lifestyle factors that may contribute to causing cancer. Factors can include the environment, smoking and diet. Understanding the causation determinants for cancer is difficult. For example, is processed meat unhealthy, or is the processed meat consumer unhealthy? 
  • Partner with your pharmacy to address cancer prevention messaging. For example, promote smoking cessation programs and products while building a bridge to nutrient-rich choices in the food aisles.
  • Meet customers where they are they are. Discuss dietary changes that promote overall health, such as simple tips and recipes to add more disease-fighting fruits and vegetables to meals. 

It’s only a matter of time before the next food scare. Be prepared to help consumers read past the attention-grabbing headline to see how the research fits into the context of the total body of evidence. Then use your skills to provide realistic solutions that help shoppers make healthier meals and positive lifestyle choices.