Highlights from TED 2010, Wednesday: "We can eat to starve cancer"

Here's my round up of highlights from the first day of the TED presentations.


One of my favorite presentations of the day was by Dr. William Li, a cancer researcher from the Angiogenesis Foundation. Angiogenesis means the growth of blood vessels. Your body usually knows how to regulate the growth of blood vessels, but sometimes there are defects in blood growing and pruning. Too little angiogenesis can lead to things like wounds that won't heal, heart attack, and other diseases. Too much angiogenesis leads to other bad things such as blindness, arthritis. It's is a common denominator of many diseases. It's also the "hallmark of every type of cancer."

In autopsies of people who died in car accidents, doctors have found microscopic cancers in 40% of woman (breast) and 40% of men (prostate). Something like 70% of older people have microcancers in their thyroid. But the cancer is harmless -- "cancer without disease." If you block angiogenesis the cancer can't grow. "It's a tipping point between harmless cancer and deadly one."

Li showed a photo of a poor dog with gnarly tumor hanging off its side. The vet gave the dog three months to live. They started antiangiogenesis drugs. In a few weeks, the tumor shrank away completely. They also cured a dolphin of mouth cancer and saw a complete remission of a deadly lip cancer on a horse.

Today there 12 different antiangiogenesis drugs available for people and dogs. They are quite effective for many cancers, but not much for liver, lung, and breast cancers. The problem with these cancers is that by the time they are detected they have progressed too far for antiangiogenesis drugs to do their work.

The good news, Li says, is that "we eat to starve cancer." Lots of foods contain naturally occuring inhibitors of angiogenesis, and many are even better than drugs for blocking angiogenesis (see image above).

Angiogenesis also plays a huge role in obesity. "Adipose tissue is highly angiogenesis-dependent." You can cycle the weight of mice by inhibiting and promoting angiogenesis. "We can't create supermodel mice -- it takes them to normal weight."

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Daniel Kahneman at TED2010, Session 1, "Mindshift," Wednesday, February 10, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Daniel Kahneman, the founder of behavioral-economics talked about the differences between "experience happiness" and "memory happiness." His presentation brought to mind the 1966 Philip K. Dick novelette, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (which was the basis for the not-so-good movie, Total Recall).

Kahneman started off by listing a number of baked-in "cognitive traps" people have that make it hard to think straight about happiness. Happiness is complex and confusing. People tend to think that having happy experiences in your life and being happy about your life are one and the same, but they are actually different. When your doctor asks you, "Does it hurt when I touch you here" she is asking your "experiencing self." When she asks, "How have you been feeling lately?" your "remembering self" answers.

Your remembering self is a "story teller. What we keep from our experiences is a story." To illustrate, Kahneman showed pain-over-time charts of two colonoscopy patients who reported the intensity of the pain they were experiencing each minute during a colonoscopy. One patient experienced severe pain for 10 minutes. The other experienced the same level of pain for 10 minutes, followed by gradually decreasing pain for an addition 10 minutes. When each patient was later asked to recall the experience, the first patient said his experience was more painful, even though he experienced less pain than the second patient. "The way that stories end matter." The first patient's pain was at its peak at the very end, so it made for a worse story.

Another example: you have great experience listening to music at a live performance. A loud screetch at the end ruins the memory of the experience.

A thought experiment: say you are about to take a vacation, but before you leave, you are told that all memory of the vacation will be wiped out as soon as you get home. Would you take the same vacation or take a different one? If you think you'd take a different one, your "experiencing self" and "remembering self" are not aligned.

Research concludes that "happiness is mainly being satisfied with being with people that we like."

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Jake Shimabukuro at TED2010, Session 1, "Mindshift," Wednesday, February 10, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Ukulele Virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro got a standing ovation for his performance this morning, which included a masterful instrumental arrangement of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Quotes: "The ukulele is underdog of all instruments." "If everyone played ukulele, the world would be a better place." "What the world needs now is more ukulele." "Ukulele is the instrument of peace."

I interviewed Jake (and will post the interview soon) and he is extremely nice. If the uke made him that way we have an answer to all the world's problems.

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Michael Shermer at TED2010, Session 1, "Mindshift," Wednesday, February 10, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Michael Shermer showed a gadget a called the ADE651. It's a black box with an antenna. The manufacturer claims it can detect both bombs and drugs up to 1000 meters away. It sells for $40,000. The Iraqi government bought 800 of them. Shermer's friend James Randi says:

the ADE651 is a useless, quack, device which cannot perform any other function than separating naïve persons from their money. It's a fake, a scam, a swindle, and a blatant fraud. The manufacturers, distributors, vendors, advertisers, and retailers of the ADE651 device are criminals, liars, and thieves who will ignore this challenge because they know the device, the theory, the described principles of operation, and the technical descriptions given, are nonsense, lies, and fraudulent.

(Does that mean he doesn't like it?.)

Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, and columnist for Scientific American. He talked about patternicity -- the evolved tendency for people to find patterns, even in meaningless noise, and agenticity -- the belief in souls, spirits, gods, ghosts, government conspirators, and aliens who more advanced than us, and are either coming to save us or enslave us. Even idea that the government can rescue us is a form of agenticity.

9/11 is a conspiracy (people planned the attack in secret), but truthers think it was an inside job by the Bush administration. "But we know that can't be true because it worked."


  1. All of this awesomeness in one post, and I’m blinded to it by one simple phrase:

    “the not-so-good movie, Total Recall”

    Have you gone mad, sir?

    Quato’s gonna getcha.

  2. Paleo-tards will have a fit upon seeing soy included in that list. “But the phytoestrogens, they are vile poison! They are responsible for all your health woes! Human nutrition went downhill with the advent of agriculture!!!111”

    1. That, and herbal tea. Lavender is a minor component of herbes de Provence although apparently it is a modern marketing addition, and not traditional. I had a lavender-rubbed steak once, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

      1. Thanks for the info, and Antinous and anon also. Lavender always smells like fried onions to me. I don’t think I’ll be eating it.

    2. Apoxia,

      Lavender is pretty frequently used as a culinary herb. It is often but not always one of the herbs in the mixtures with names like ‘herbs of Provence’, etc. Try googling that and similar expressions, in both English and French.

      I used to get some kind of lavender-flavored candies pretty easily, but I’ve forgotten the name. They were white and one sucked on them, and were sometimes served instead of after-dinner mints in overpriced restaurants.

      I have a recipe for chicken in lavender sauce on my recipe site, but I gather that I’m not allowed to post it here. If you want it, post a throw-away email address here.

      Where to buy lavender leaves? I buy dried lavender at the local health food store, but I think that many people grow it, even outside of Provence.

      Good luck.

  3. The test witnessed by the NYT reporter didn’t address the general’s fundamental misconception, namely, people cannot fool themselves.

    Have his policemen do the test again, but put fake explosives on the left, and real explosives hidden inside books or such on the right. Wonder what would happen…

    Even more fun, put vases on the left and grocery bags on the right, hahaha.

    Just a thought.

  4. That food list is something to whip out whenever a “wet blanket” says “Everything good tasting causes cancer (unspoken subtext: so why bother changing your habits?)”.

    Tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, red wine – heck, add a little bread to that and I’d call that “supper” some nights!

  5. The common denominator with most of those foods are FLAVONOIDS. I’m not quite sure why tuna is in there (fatty acids, vitamin E maybe?) but otherwise the positive effects of flavonoids on health have been widely cited – just search for Dietary Flavonoids at PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez) and peruse some of the thousands of scientific papers.

    We really need to get back to eating our vegetables!

  6. epic post. love TED. hate meat. if only meat eaters could see what they are doing to themselves (being #1) and the planet, a distant second.

    1. We’re providing a diversely flavored and well-marbled all-meat meal for the small life-forms that will eventually eat us. We eat, and we are eaten.

        1. except for all those people who’ve been killed by infectious disease! damned impatient microscopic organisms. why can’t they just eat twinkies, which aren’t sentient.

  7. If you go tonight can you please write about Andrew Bird’s performance? I’m interested in the crowds reactions, if he spoke about his philosophy, and what song he performed. Thank you.

  8. Meat is wonderful, you should just eat more other stuff, too. If yer eating bacon at every meal, yer doin’ it wrong.

    I’m also a fan of “happiness is being satisfied with being with people that we like.” Take that, grumpy people!

    Lookin’ forward to the interview with the current God of the Uke. Rockstar.

  9. As a cancer survivor, i have learned how important diets are. A few good books to read if you care to delve more deeply are: Never by Sick Again which dicusses the root of all disease (cellular dysfunction) and the toxins to avoid and the nutrients to eat; and Anticancer which offers cancer specific food tips. Let’s learn how to prevent as well as treat this awful disease!

  10. Has anyone here ever heard of the anthropic principle ?


    It applies directly to this conversation. Basically, if there was some combination of common fruits and vegetables, or some handful of common foods that dramatically increased your health, you’d already know about it.

    It would not be secret or controversial. If eating blueberries and broccoli cured cancer and increased your lifespan 2x, you’d know about it. We would have known about it 10k years ago.

    Should you eat this entire list ? Yes. Is there a benefit ? Yes. But beyond the general health effects of eating fresh fruits and veggies and getting plenty of exercise, these items will have very marginal effects on your overall health.

  11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=12064344&ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum
    “The overall effect of the 10-week period without dietary fruits and vegetables was a decrease in oxidative damage to DNA, blood proteins, and plasma lipids, concomitantly with marked changes in antioxidative defence.”

    “Among survivors of early stage breast cancer, adoption of a diet that was very high in vegetables, fruit, and fiber and low in fat did not reduce additional breast cancer events or mortality during a 7.3-year follow-up period.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17635889

    “This study failed to show any effect of a low-fat, high-fiber, high-fruit and -vegetable eating pattern on adenoma recurrence even with 8 years of follow-up.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17855692

    Sure, I’d eat some of those foods, but not the ones high in carbohydrates. I’d put my money on a high-fat, ketogenic diet, with plenty of saturated fat, omega-3 fats, and very low amounts of omega-6 fats. (Omega-6 encourages metastasis; omega-3 inhibits it.) Most cancer feeds on sugar, but our bodies do quite well on ketones and fatty acids. Plenty of pasture-raised, fatty meats and bone broths for me. Oh, and sun and vitamin D. Meat doesn’t cause cancer, but grain-fed, sun-starved, cooked in vegetable oil meat, washed down with sugar might.


      1. Not that I am saying you’re completely and utterly wrong, but you might want to Google the phrase “post hoc ergo propter hoc”.

  12. Thank you Anon #29.

    I work for a major pharmco, and my two main areas are oncology and AIDS.

    There is so much healthnut claptrappery around cancer that it makes me insane.

    Yes, eating too much of certain things can contribute to your risk profile to cancer. HOWEVER, that does NOT mean that eating lots and lots of the OPPOSITE of those bad things will CURE cancer or PREVENT it.

    Classic illustration: Thin girl drinking a POM outside my local Key Food on her break…while smoking a cigarette…and explaining to the other check-out girl that the POM “helps prevent cancer.”

    There isn’t a single compound on that list of foods that hasn’t been extracted, isolated, tested, researched, etc.

    And, fwiw, antiangiogenesis drugs are not the only operative method for cancer drugs. Also recall that totally healthy people who have spartan diets still get whackadoodle cancers out of the blue (IIRC, Fred Rogers ie Mr. Rogers died of pancreatic cancer, and he was a vegetarian who swam for a few hours every single day of his life. He also didn’t smoke or drink). Granted, the plural of anecdote is NOT evidence. However, if just diet alone could prevent ALL cancers, the number of “Jesus H. Christ, how did THAT health nut get CANCER” cases would be headline news rather than an unfortunate sad story that you hear a few times a year around the water cooler.

    Then again, my respect for TED went down the toilet after they asked on Jaimie Oliver. Celebuchef=jumping the shark unless he also discovered a new star system or found a cure for the common cold or somesuch.

  13. Meat in moderation (organic if you can afford it) is fine.
    Contrary to what a lot of folks believe, there IS no real “perfect” one-size-fits-all healthy diet.

    I have friends who eat mostly vegetarian, and look/feel great, while I tried eating vegetarian twice and both times ended up with my doctor telling me to give it up (my blood protein levels were in the basement).

    It’s all about what works for you!
    (And I am printing out this list and seeing if I can eat at least one of these per meal! :-)

  14. This is not about foods curing cancer, this is about a renewed understanding of how disease comes to infect the body. We are what we eat. It was the first lesson I learned as a child. That’s why my mother wouldn’t let me stuff myself with empty calories before dinner. Why she made me take a muli-vitamin every morning. Because she understood that it’s not necessarily what these foods have in common, but what they are. They are all part of a balanced diet. I can’t help but wonder if there’s any link between this research and the research surrounding calorie restricted diets suggesting lower incidents of disease and longer life expectancy.

    1. A long term study found that people who take multivitamins actually have a higher mortality rate. So I guess the idea of taking vitamins that has been stuffed down our throat for years is not such a good idea afterall.

  15. not sure why, but i find the “happiness” topic more interesting.

    it shows that we can be very happy with few belongings, as long as we enjoy the people we are surrounded by.

    this flies in the face of consumerism, the message that big corps have been pushing since at least the 1930s. Heck they have managed to make people more likely to talk about themselves as consumers then as workers or anything similar.

    1. From http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/century_of_the_self.shtml
      “Sigmund Freud’s work into the bubbling and murky world of the subconscious changed the world. By introducing a technique to probe the unconscious mind, Freud provided useful tools for understanding the secret desires of the masses. Unwittingly, his work served as the precursor to a world full of political spin doctors, marketing moguls, and society’s belief that the pursuit of satisfaction and happiness is man’s ultimate goal.”

      Watch it here: http://tinyurl.com/y9dmv2b

  16. I believe the take home message on antiangiogenesis agents is that they work well on curing tumors implanted in rodents, but do f*#$-all when it comes to treating tumors in actual humans. Thank you to Anon (#29) and Jenonymous (#32) for the doses of sanity.

  17. I find it more interesting that there are two viewpoints regarding the Antiangiogenesis presentation : pro diet diversity & anti-meat. The pro-diversity branch seems willing to embrace vegetariansim as a valid, although non-exclusive, component. The vegetarians, oddly enough, seem sooo very willing to “bare their teeth” to those who choose to be non-exclusive. Quite revealing.

  18. This is pretty much in line with what I was reading in Linda Page’s book Healthy Healing, which I think is on the 12th edition now, but she was writing about this stuff back in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

    It’s kind of cool that what was folk wisdom and and fairly controversial stuff back in the day is sort of going mainstream now.

  19. I think preventing or treating cancer would involve more than diet as a magic bullet. It seems that eliminating a toxic lifestyle, reducing toxic substances,and striving to live in a clean environment are as important. Reducing stress and working towards emotional wellbeing also come to mind. Life in greater balance-but what do I know?

  20. I just lost my brother, age 57, and my father in 1988 to colon cancer. You bet I’ll be ‘scoped this month. One thing seems to be true in both of their situations: a stressful life event seemed to devastate their immune systems…my brother had lost his job 2 years ago…and my mother died in 1983, dad was diagnosed in 1986. Okay, so your immune system from what I’ve read is also greatly affected by what you eat…you KNOW I’ve been eating from the list of Dr. Li’s actually for years now due to my dad’s doctor’s warning to us to eat.vegetables.and.lots.of.them. It’s easy to eat from this list…heck, add a handful of parsley to every salad you eat…drink green tea with each meal…etc. etc.

  21. Eating meat in a gluttonous fashion as most American tend to do, is a cancer risk. Eating the appropriate portion of grass-fed beef or flax fed chicken is healthier (but still not necessary, OK to be vegan/vegetarian). These meats retain a healthy balance of 3-6-9 omegas that we have lost in recent years due to the corn diet of most of our meats. I really wish the government would stop subsidizing corn and start subsidizing organic farmers, ah dreams.

    Tuna and other foods high in omega 3’s are on the list to help balance out our over-consumption of omega 6’s in corn products and corn fed animals, etc. Consuming a proper balance of omegas is one of the best ways to keep angiogenisis in check.

    BTW – Dark chocolate is only good for you if it is at least 70% cacao. Any less ratio – such as in hershey special dark, Dove and other standard dark chocolate – and the harmful effects of sugars out-weigh the health effects of the cacao.

  22. @Jenonymous #32 — have you even seen the Jamie Oliver TED talk?

    Do you know what he talked about?

    I reckon he said things more important than a new star system because we might not be around to explore that if we all die of heart disease.

    Not sure working at a big pharma is anything to be proud of these days.

  23. Well, Anon, the health-food nuts sure don’t have a working drug pipeline, do they?

    If and when you develop a serious disease, you’ll be grateful that there’s something other than carrot juice and colloidal silver available.

    And yes I forced myself to watch it. Vacuous crap.

  24. There are too many factors that influence cancer to suggest that one approach will ensure your health. Genetics, stress, immune system suppression, environmental factors, etc, all play some part.

    However, diet is certainly a major factor and one we have the most individual control over. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of eating certain foods to fight cancer, as not eating those that promote cancer. Animal protein is designed to grow animals. For example, breast milk is meant to grow the species from which it comes. As we do not need this in adulthood, and certainly not from another species, ingesting this excessive animal protein may cause the growth of cancerous cells, taking them from a tiny benign state to a dangerous invading tumor. This, in addition to leaching calcium from our bones and other harmful effects, is detailed in the landmark research found in The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, amongst other sources.

    Plant protein provides all we need for cellular repair and maintenance. Thus, limiting our animal protein consumption, particularly dairy, may help to restrict the growth of cancerous cells started by other factors.


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