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Steve Jobs lived more than 30 years after developing pancreatic cancer thanks to his vegan diet.
That’s the preposterous claim made by Dr. John McDougall in a lecture that has been viewed by more than 52,500 people on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81xnvgOlHaY and widely touted in the vegan community as a scientifically sound example of veganthink.
McDougall speculates that Jobs first developed cancer in his twenties, which might well be the case given that most cancers develop years before diagnosis. But by that line of thinking, anyone diagnosed with cancer who has made it to mid life could be living thirty years past the initial cancer cell divide. Most of those people will have been on Standard American Diets, high in sugar, starch, factory-farmed animal products and all American junk food. Somehow McDougall holds that animal products caused those cancers but Jobs’s nearly lifelong obsession with veganism could only have prolonged his life!
So why did Jobs develop cancer despite what McDougall himself concedes was a “strict vegan diet” with few lapses over his lifetime? McDougall’s position — and he’s sticking to it! — is vegan diets prevent and cure cancer. Therefore, it must have been bad luck — the equivalent of “being struck by lightning” or “hit by a car” — that caused Jobs’s cancer and fueled its progression.
How else to explain the fact that Steve Wozniak (an overweight fast-food junkie), Bill Gates and other computer pioneers are alive despite similar exposure to carcinogenic lead and cadmium from soldering computer parts, long-term bombardment from radiation and EMFs, and other lifestyle risk factors that would have put all of them at increased risk for cancer? The reason those things caused cancer in Jobs but not the others must have been luck of the draw because Jobs’s vegan diet “could only have helped him.”
None of us, of course, can say for certain what caused the pancreatic cancer that led to Steve Jobs’s death, or what, if anything could have saved him. Dietary, lifestyle, environmental and genetic factors all must have come into play. But McDougall’s failure to even consider the role that Jobs’s vegan diet — and frequent fruitarianism — may have played in his death is unhelpful at best and irresponsible at worst.
Shortly after Jobs’s death on October 5, 2011, I read the Walter Isaacson biography Steve Jobs and posted two “iVegetarian” blogs at this website in which I thoroughly documented a longstanding pattern of food fanaticism, eating disorders and mood swings dating back to Jobs’s teenage years.
On the plus side, his diet seems to have been organic and high quality, and at no point, did he appear to have been a junk-food vegan who indulged in all-American junk foods such as soda, chocolate, cookies and crackers.
On the con side, Jobs was a picky eater who moved in and out of fruitarian phases for most of his life, but consistently favored a lot of fruit and fruit juice. The refrigerators at Apple were always well stocked with Odwalla juices, and numerous sources over the years reported him ordering juices frequently at restaurants. Indeed, this was the most consistent part of his diet over his life time.
Fruits and fruit juices are not only high on the glycemic index, but loaded with fructose. In all but small quantities, they greatly stress the liver and pancreas, contribute to diabetes and many other blood sugar disorders, and have been linked to pancreatic cancer. Jobs suffered from a type of pancreatic cancer known as islet cell carcinoma, which originates in the insulin-secreting beta cells.
That the fructose in Jobs’s fruit heavy diet likely contributed to this cancer is supported by research published in the November 2007 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which concluded there was “evidence for a greater pancreatic cancer risk with a high intake of fruit and juices but not with a high intake of sodas.” In other words, the “healthy” juices regularly drunk by Jobs may have been been even worse than the soft drinks he seems to have rejected.
More recently, in the August 2010 issue of Cancer Research, Dr. Anthony Healy of the Jonsson Cancer Center and Director of the Pituitary Tumor and Neuroendocrine Program at UCLA, proposed that aberrant fructose metabolism—and not just aberrant glucose metabolism—might be involved in the pathogenesis of pancreatic cancer. Seems fructose provides the raw material cancer cells prefer to use to make the DNA they need to divide and proliferate.
Although the UCLA findings are preliminary, based on cell lines, and more suggestive than bulletproof at this stage, the Reuters headline “Cancer Cells Slurp Up Fructose” is fair warning to any of us addicted to fruit and fruit juices. Although the work is widely cited in recommendations to step back on the amount of high fructose corn syrup in modern diets, it suggests the dangers of fruit juice as well.
McDougall read the Isaacson biography and based a lot of his speculation on it. Yet he somehow missed — or chose to ignore — the fact that Jobs’s brand of veganism included massive amounts of fruit juice, with its dangerous load of fructose. Instead, McDougall sees the main flaw in Jobs’s “mostly excellent” diet as eating meat analogue products high in carcinogenic soy protein isolate. In fact, as I discuss extensively in Chapter 16 of The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food, soy protein isolate and other soy protein products are well-established risk factors for the exocrine type of pancreatic cancer that killed actors Michael Landon, Patrick Swayze and astronaut Sally Ride, but not for the much rarer endocrine type that killed Jobs.
Furthermore, we have little evidence that Jobs ate much soy over his lifetime. In a book full of food references, Isaacson does not mention soy even once. Certainly, the Apple culture was soy friendly with soy milk readily available in vending machines and at coffee stations and with soy meats served up at company cafeterias, but we have no good evidence yet that Jobs favored it. Indeed, it is very likely he rejected it because of his longstanding fascination with the book The Mucusless Diet Healing System by Arnold Ehret (1866-1922). Ehret’s peculiar brand of VeganThink held the human body is an “air-gas engine” that runs well only on fruits, starchless vegetables and edible green leaves. Soy and other legumes, according to this way of thinking, were to be disdained as mucus-producing forbidden foods. Ehret — whose own “air-gas engine” sputtered, stalled and died at age 56, the same age as Jobs — not only condemned protein and fat as “unnatural” but said they could not be used by the body.
Inspired by Ehret’s theories, Jobs appears to have eaten a diet low in both fat and protein for most of his life. And what did he eat instead? Carbs high in fructose, the very type of carbs linked to blood sugar problems and pancreatic cancer.
McDougall also has a strong opinion about Jobs’s earlier trials with painful kidney stones, which he declares were not kidney stones at all, but misdiagnosis of a diseased pancreas. How so? Those organs are located close together in the body, thus easily confused by doctors less wise than himself. His main reason though is kidney stones simply cannot occur to anyone on a vegan diet. As per the VeganThink theory of kidney stone development, the acid load from animal proteins causes loss of bone, leading to dissolved calcium in the blood, overwhelm in the urinary tract, and build up of kidney stones. Jobs did not eat animal products, could not have had acid buildup, therefore could not have developed kidney stones.
A more likely scenario is Jobs’s kidney stones were the predictable result of his high fructose diet. Sugar — including fructose, the fruit sugar vegans believe is super healthy — upsets mineral balance in the body, interferes with calcium and magnesium absorption and can lead to a host of health problems, including kidney stones. Indeed there is so much research linking high consumption of fruit juices by children to higher incidence of kidney stone development in youngsters as early as kindergarten age that the issue has been covered in the New York Times.
VeganThink further fails to recognize how often kidney stones develop from oxalates, which are indigestible compounds found only in plant foods. Oxalates are especially high in vegan staples such as spinach and other dark leafy greens, parsley, beets, carrots, strawberries, nuts, peanuts, soy and chocolate. Isaacson says nothing about Jobs eating nuts, peanuts, soy or chocolate, but a great deal about his love affair with fruits, veggies, salads and juices.
Where else does McDougall go astray? Interpreting reports of Jobs’s skin and eyes turning yellow and orange in his twenties as proof of the obstruction of the bile ducts and the early onset of the deadly pancreatic cancer that veganism somehow kept at bay for an astounding 30 years. The obvious reason — widely acknowledged even in the vegan literature — is excessive carrot juice, which Jobs was well known to have consumed.
In sum, McDougall’s lecture adds up to a whole lot of speculation, assumptions and questionable claims, including the entirely wrongheaded idea that it is the nature of cancer cells to divide and tumors to grow in such an orderly, predictable way that disease progression can be calculated using multiplication tables. Though even his simple math doesn’t compute, most of the YouTube “commentators” have chosen instead to carp on McDougall’s pseudo-French pronunciation of the word centimeters as “sahntomeeters.” I would guess some doctors somewhere say it that way, but this only adds to an overall impression of a pseudo-intellectual dishing out pseudo science.
McDougall starts out by saying he “likes the challenge of learning new things.” He ends by saying that noone — noone — has yet or ever will disprove his theory. VeganThink!
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Thanks to Sylvia Onusic, PhD, for reading and commenting on this article.