From the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) Newsletter:
"Scientist in the Spotlight: Susan E. Steck, PhD, MPH, RD
Eating to Keep Inflammation at Bay
Inflammation is common to cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Some foods seem to protect us from inflammation, while others promote it. AICR's former grantee Susan Steck, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina, shares her research into how foods influence inflammation and interact with our genes.
Steck started her career in the business world, but soon realized she wanted to work in a field with more meaning: the diet-cancer link fit well. 'I always enjoyed statistical analysis, number crunching and I had a personal interest in nutrition, knowing that things I had changed in my own diet had changed my health in a positive way,' said Steck. 'And applying epidemiology to cancer [risk] was a way I could contribute.'
Indexing Foods To help better understand the inflammatory effects of diet, Steck was involved in developing an inflammatory index. One goal of the index, published in the Journal of Nutrition, is to help people find out how healthy or damaging their diet may be.
It's a challenge to assess something as complex as people's diets,' says Steck, an Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics who was also a Marilyn Gentry Fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Researchers have started by looking at single foods or components, like fat or carbohydrates. But this study is an effort to look at many components of peoples' diets and how they may be interacting to affect health.'
Steck and the research team analyzed evidence from almost 1,000 human, animal and lab studies to create a dietary inflammatory index that was linked to C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of chronic inflammation.
Tracking Inflammation Levels
During inflammation, the blood has a high level of cytokines protein molecules that activate immune cells. People who are overweight or obese, or have risk factors for heart disease usually also have high levels of CRP.
'Now scientific evidence is building to show that inflammation and high CRP levels also are related to a higher risk of colon and other cancers,' says Steck.
Because approximately two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, it's likely that most people have some degree of inflammation all the time.
A Western diet high in red meat, high-fat dairy product, refined grains and simple carbohydrates (like sugar) has been associated with higher levels of CRP, Steck points out. But diets high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains (all complex carbohydrates) are associated with lower levels of inflammation. Garlic, tea and monounsaturated fats (olive and canola oils) counted as anti-inflammatory.
Steck says she hopes the inflammation index will someday become a tool for health professionals but more research is needed on creating healthy eating patterns.
Our Nutrients + Genes
Another of Steck's research areas includes looking at how nutrient-gene interactions play a role in cancer risk. One study, for example, suggests that women with mutations in certain genes may be more susceptible to the carcinogens found in charred red meat, which may play a role in breast cancer development. She is also part of a team investigating how people who carry different versions of certain genes may get less or more cancer-protective benefits from broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables.
'We sometimes see inconsistent results between studies of diet and cancer in humans. The study of gene-diet interactions might explain why there are different results in studies across varying populations,' said Steck. 'That's one of the driving forces behind the work that I am doing.'"
Thanks to AICR for publishing this...Dr. Steck's research is fascinating!
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