Nutrients That Stop Cancer could Also Fuel Cancer

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

New research shows that too much focus on a single nutrient for cancer prevention can tip the scales and instead fuel cancer cells. Scientists seeking to understand why some people develop cancer when others do not have discovered that too much of a single nutrient in healthy foods or supplements can promote rather than prevent cancer.

Agricultural Research Service chemist Thomas Wang, who specializes in cancer prevention research, says that there are “layers” of factors that contribute to cancer development. Studies conducted by Wang revealed that prostate cancer cells grew slower in mice given resveratrol, but over a period of time resveratrol promoted blood vessel growth that fed cancer tumors. “This showed that the concentration of the plant compound is important, but so is length of exposure,” says Wang. The study was published in the journal Carcinogenesis in 2008.


Dr. Wang says that genetics play a role in explaining why healthy food and supplements can be a double edged sword that actually promotes cancer. "People have their own individual genotypes that are dictated by their ethnicity, gender, and inherited traits,” says Wang.

For now scientists say it's best to play it safe by not focusing on any one nutrient in hopes of preventing cancer. Dietary Guidelines for Americans has always recommended eating a variety of food to maintain a healthy nutritional balance and for disease prevention.

Dr. Wang points out that "concentration, timing, and interactions with other compounds" are factors to consider when it comes to cancer protection through nutrition. Exposing the body repeatedly to one particular nutrient can result in the type of prolonged exposure seen by scientists that makes cancer cells grow. Eating good foods and providing the body with supplements may reduce cancer risk. Conversely, too much of the same nutrient that might initially stop cancer could ultimately fuel cancer cells by upsetting balance in the body.

Agricultural Research Service