Week of December 3, 2012
Contact: Alice Bender, (202) 328-7744

AICR HealthTalk
Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: What are the pros and cons of the Paleo diet?

A: The Paleo diet is based on foods presumably eaten regularly during the Paleolithic era, which includes lean meat, fish, shellfish, fruits, vegetables, roots, eggs and nuts, but not grains, dairy products, salt or refined fats and sugar. One benefit of this popular diet is the emphasis on vegetables and fruits, which provide important nutrients and protective phytochemicals. Nuts and seeds are also included and provide protein, fiber, and sometimes omega-3 fatty acids. The emphasis on meat, seafood and eggs means plenty of protein, along with iron and vitamin B-12. On the negative side, the emphasis on animal protein may lead to eating large amounts of red meat, which is linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes. But the most controversial parts of the Paleo diet are the rules that exclude added fat, all grains, beans and dairy products. These rules are not backed by research. Healthful types of oils used in moderate amounts do not promote weight gain and fit well in eating patterns linked with lower risk of heart disease and cancer. Paleo diet proponents say that whole grains contain undigestible components that have negative health effects. But whole grains are rich in fiber, which strong evidence links to reduced risk of colorectal cancer. Whole grain consumption is also linked with lower rates of heart disease and with less waist fat. And whole grains provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidant phytochemicals. Another downside to the diet is that its calcium content is below current government recommendations. Paleo proponents say this isn’t a problem for bone health because the overall diet composition actually improves calcium absorption. Bone researchers generally disagree, however. Keep in mind that many of the health benefits touted by Paleo diet proponents are theoretical and not tested in controlled studies. You don’t need to follow a Paleo diet to adopt healthy habits. Instead, try a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables and includes lean meats and plant protein like nuts and seeds, while low in processed foods and added sugars, but also contains whole grains, dairy, beans and healthful oils.

Q: Is it true that breastfeeding decreases my baby’s chances of getting sick?

A: Yes. Antibodies that fight infection pass from mother to baby during breastfeeding, and this seems to be one of the ways that breastfeeding may protect babies’ health. Current studies link breastfeeding with reduced rates of respiratory tract and digestive tract illness caused by infection, such as colds, flu and diarrhea. Studies mostly show at least four months (or ideally six months) of exclusive breastfeeding are needed to see a drop in illness rates. That refers to giving breast milk only, with no solids or other liquids except vitamins or medications. Although even very short-term breastfeeding does provide some antibodies and may be better than no breastfeeding at all for a variety of other reasons, studies so far don’t show a drop in illness among babies with less consistent breastfeeding. As a bonus for mom, six months of exclusive breastfeeding helps lose weight gained in pregnancy, and the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months (and mixed with other foods after that) to reduce a mother’s later risk of breast cancer and to reduce the child’s risk of becoming overweight or obese.

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