It’s no secret that African Americans are at a disadvantage when it comes to nutrition. The consequences of living on a diet higher in saturated fats, sugar and empty calories result in obesity, hypertension, diabetes and even cancer.
The results of a study published in Nature Communications by University of Pittsburgh scientists reveals the disparities between African and African American diets. For two weeks, twenty African Americans in Pittsburgh, Pa., and twenty rural South Africans “switched diets” and there was a notable difference in the participants’ colon health.
According to the study, “Rates of colon cancer are much higher in African Americans occurring in 65 in every 100,000 persons than in rural South Africans occurring less than 5 in 100,000.”
The Americans ate a traditional African diet, high in fiber and low in fat, with lots of fruits, vegetables, beans and cornmeal, and very little meat. This is the type of food that many Africans grow at home and eat. Meanwhile, the South Africans ate fast food.
“We made them fried chicken, burgers and fries,” said Dr. Stephen J. D. O’Keefe, a gastroenterologist at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the study’s authors to The New York Times. “They loved it.”
Dr. O’Keefe knew before the study started that Africans have a lower rate of colon cancer than African Americans and wondered how much a role did diet played.
The participants received colonoscopies before the diet switches. In the African American group, some participants had some polyps removed, which are generally harmless, but over time can possibly lead to cancer. Researchers also tested the lining the colon, as well as the type of bacteria that was found in each participant’s bowels.
At the end of the diet switch, the Americans’ colon health had significantly improved. Bowel inflammation had decreased (inflammation can be associated with all sorts of conditions like colitis, inflammatory bowel syndrome, Chron’s disease, etc.) and the production of butyrate increased. Butyrate or butyric acid, help in the proliferation of cells that line the walls of the colon. Thus, a healthy colon lining protects against colon cancer. For Africans, their colon health deteriorated, some to even lower than where some African Americans had started before the experiment.
The study is too small to come to any conclusive decision about the effects of diet and cancer, however, it does support other research about the effects of a diet that largely consists of saturated fats and processed meats. The study also suggests that it may not be too late to make diet changes that could decrease one’s risk of cancer.
It is estimated that up to a third of bowel cancer cases could be avoided by eating more healthily.
However, for African Americans and Africans, their diet is associated with a lifestyle. Rural Africans do not have access to junk food, and rely on farming and foraging for their daily subsistence. Meanwhile, many Black Americans live in urban food deserts, where the communities are serviced by fast food restaurants or convenience stores and not by supermarkets with fresh vegetables and fruits.
Thus, the disparity in this research is more than just biology but a social and economic divide. As westerners, we theoretically are wealthier with access to modern conveniences, but fall short in putting those resources where it matters most.
Perhaps if a third of cancer cases can be solved before the diagnosis, we can proportionately allocate some of those billions given to pharmaceutical companies for “cancer research” to securing food access to some of our nation’s most vulnerable.
S.C. Rhyne is a blogger and novelist in New York City. Follow the author on Twitter @ReporterandGirl, Facebook at TheReporterandTheGirl and visit her website at TheReporterandTheGirl.com.