All Roads Lead to Nutrition


Jack Challem, The Nutrition Reporter ™, is a personal nutrition coach and bestselling author based in Tucson, Arizona. He is one of America's most trusted nutrition and health writers, with 30 years of experience writing about research and clinical experience on nutrition, vitamins, minerals, and herbs. He is the author of The Food-Mood Solution, Feed Your Genes Right, The Inflammation Syndrome, and the lead author of Syndrome X: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Insulin Resistance. Jack is also the series editor for the 50-volume User's Guide series of health paperback books (Basic Health Publications). He writes The Nutrition Reporter™ newsletter and contributes regularly to many magazines, including Alternative Medicine, Better Nutrition, Body & Soul, Experience Life, Let's Live, and Modern Maturity. Jack's scientific articles have appeared in Free Radical Biology & Medicine, Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, Medical Hypotheses, and other journals. In addition, he is a columnist for Alternative & Complementary Therapies. Jack is a frequent speaker at nutritional medicine conferences and to consumer health groups.

Feed Your Genes Right: Eat to Turn Off Disease-Causing Genes and Slow Down Aging. Combining a thorough explanation of nutritional supplements with healthy food recommendations, Feed Your Genes Right is a straightforward guide to healing modern illnesses--sometimes even before they strike. Author Jack Challem (Syndrome X) does a fine job with presenting complex health information in simple terms, and the mix of research, individual stories and personal touches result in a book as informative as most textbooks while being far more readable.

Questions and Answers

by Trung Nguyen

How did you end up as a nutrition researcher and reporter? Was it something that you knew you wanted to do?

I "wanted" to be a writer since I was about 15 years old, but I had doubts whether I could make a living as one. Several events helped push me in what became my life's direction. When I was 15, my older brother died from cancer. The lasting effect on me was the feeling that no one should die in this way -- that is, from the pain of the disease, compounded by the pain of conventional medical treatment. Several years later, in college, a biology professor made some offhand remarks in class about "suppressed" treatments for heart disease and cancer. This was in 1969 while the war was raging in Vietnam, and the President had lied to expand the war. It was entirely plausible at the time that legitimate treatments were being suppressed because of medical politics. It turned out that medical politics are every bit as intense as the politics of Washington, D.C. In the 1970s, I worked for a vitamin supplement company for several years, and in this capacity I met many of the editors and publishers of health magazines, and I started writing for them. As I looked into nutritional therapies, I found that they made sense. Throughout all of this, my journey has been both personal and professional, and at 58 I am in far better health than when I was in my twenties.

In terms of research, easy public access to the Medline (PubMed) database in the 1990s made research easier for everyone. At one time, I had to go to my local medical school library to access Medline, or I had to interview doctors or read books. Now Medline available to anyone with a computer. There is so much research on nutritional therapies that it's hard to keep up with it all. And this is part of the enormous database of medical research in general. Medline ( contains 16 million abstracts, many of them with links to free full-text articles.

In your work, what are some trends in nutrition that you are seeing that are exciting?

One of my biochemistry reference books sums it up this way: nutrition and biochemistry are two views of the same subject. Nutrition is what we consume, and biochemistry describes the mechanics of what happens to those nutrients inside our bodies. All roads in biology lead to nutrition. All organisms compete for nutrients, regardless of whether they are bacteria or human beings or somewhere in between. Everything that we are, at least physically, is based on nutrition. Even our genes depend on nutrition for the synthesis of new genes (in which our genome is replicated before cell division), repair of genes, and regulation of many gene activities. Much of this activity occurs through a process called methylation, which depends on several of the B-complex vitamins. On this note, it's important to remember the nutritional basis of our genetics as we do more research on genetics.

Conventional physicians have tended to have a double-think approach to nutrition. On one hand, they acknowledge the role of diet in some diseases, such as coronary artery disease. On the other hand, they tend to be dismissive of patients who want to use some type of nutritional therapy. The term double-think, coined by George Orwell in his book "1984" means holding simultaneous, contradictory views. But again, in biology and biochemistry, all roads point back to nutrition. It should be a no-brainer of an idea, but doctors and patients keep getting seduced by the idea of a silver bullet medication -- a pharmaceutical fountain of youth, so to speak -- that can reverse all the unhealthy things we've done during our lifetimes.

Let's look at degenerative diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's, arthritis, heart disease and others. The pharmaceutical industry is beginning to claim that most of these diseases are solely genetic in nature. What is your view on this?

Genes are very plastic -- that's one of the current lines of thinking in genetics. Genes adapt to changes in our biological environments. The genetic component of most diseases is small, although there are some big exceptions, such as sickle cell anemia and hemochromatosis -- but, again, those are the exceptions. In the United States, two of every three people are now overweight and about one of every three has some form of prediabetes. Did these genes suddenly appear? Of course not. The alarming prevalence of these disorders is largely related to the fact that we're altering how our genes behave -- we've altering their behavior in a giant experiment, involving billions of people, by feeding them ersatz foods.

To explain a little more, Watson and Crick's idea, from 1953, that each gene codes for a single protein, is quaint but antiquated. Individual genes code for multiple proteins, and it's networks of genes (rather than individual genes) that usually impact our health.

Genes tend to get damaged by free radicals and by errors in replication, and the damage accumulates with time, and time results in aging. So the older we get, the more genetic damage we have; at the same time, our over biochemistry degrades and becomes less efficient. And it's not just our hard-wired genes. There is the "epigenome," the study of epigenetics, which looks at how nutrients and other factors in the environment influence gene expression. For example, folic acid, through the process of methylation, suppresses the activity of many cancer-causing genes. Epigenetics doesn't change the hard-wiring of our genes; rather, it changes our genetic software, and the effects can be passed from one generation to another. This multigenerational effect, I think, explains why the prevalence of overweight is now increasing from one generation to the next. I think epigenetics is the real future of genetics, but it's extraordinarily complex, in part because of all the possible variables.

The pharmaceutical industry has been on a feeding frenzy, pushing its drugs to both doctors and consumers. I'm sure many of the researchers in the drug business read the same scientific papers that I do. Once again, everything points to nutrition. People don't develop high cholesterol because of a Lipitor deficiency. In most cases, elevated cholesterol is related to consuming too many sugars and refined carbohydrates and not exercising enough. Taking a statin drug or most other drugs is the equivalent of throwing a wrench into delicate machinery. I think the pharmaceutical industry is actually desperate. The researchers know that drugs aren't the solution. Nutrients are.

What role does nutrition play in the development of degenerative diseases and even to mental conditions such as depression and bipolar?

It's important, once again, to think of nutrition as the basis of our biochemistry. Most degenerative diseases are age-related diseases. Our biochemistry and biology degrades after about age 27, maybe a little before that. The change is related to our not being about to maintain our biological repair processes. Most degenerative diseases can be prevented -- or their risk reduced -- through good nutrition and supplements. And once these diseases appear, they can either be reversed or their symptoms greatly reduced through nutrition and supplements. The situation is a little like using good materials or poor quality materials to build a house. Two-by-six frame construction is better than two-by-four frame construction. We can build better health with nutrition or, unfortunately, worse health with junk foods.

Our brain chemistry is even more sensitive to changes in nutrition. People's moods change rapidly when blood sugar is low. Some people do inherited genetic weaknesses in serotonin transporters, which can affect mood. But I think most of these behavior issues are related to poor eating habits that set the stage for blood-sugar swings and low neuronutrient levels. Neuronutrients are the building blocks of our neurotransmitters, and these building blocks consist of vitamins and amino acids. Essential fatty acids, particularly the omega-3s, are also crucial for normal brain chemistry.

You've written that, "When I was 15, my older brother died from cancer. The lasting effect on me was the feeling that no one should die in this way -- that is, from the pain of the disease, compounded by the pain of conventional medical treatment. Several years later, in college, a biology professor made some offhand remarks in class about suppressed treatments for heart disease and cancer."

A. Do you remember what offhand remarks your biology professor made about "suppressed" treatments and what you took them to mean at the time?

The professor specifically referred to "suppressed cures for heart disease and cancer." After class I asked him for more information, and he told me about vitamin E for the heart and laetrile for cancer. Despite the controversies, the scientific and medical evidence in favor of vitamin E supplements for the heart is overwhelming. I was a fan of laetrile for a few years, but a study by laetrile advocates in the 1970s found that vitamin A led to better remissions compared with laetrile. At the time I thought: why bother going to Mexico for laetrile when vitamin A supplements are widely available. Today, there are many alternative and complementary options, including intravenous vitamin C and a variety of oral supplements.

B. What modalities did your brother receive for his cancer?

Major abdominal surgery followed by radiation. The radiation was awful. Some day, people will look back at the treatment of cancer in the 20th century and early 21st century and they'll be aghast at the procedures. Conventional medicine's approach to cancer is not much better than it was in Medieval times. It's hard to tell, much of the time, whether the cancer or the treatment inflicts more pain.

C. In your opinion, did the cancer kill your brother first or the conventional treatment used to treat the cancer killed him?

It was both. The cancer had metastasized and and would have killed him eventually, but the radiation added a huge dose of pain.

History has shown that medical practice lags scientific evidence by several decades (e.g. Scurvy was not accepted by the medical community as a vitamin C deficiency for 62 years after researchers proved it). Do you think that some of the "alternative" or "underground" or "natural" treatments for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other degenerative diseases will be accepted by allopathic medicine?

I agree that many "alternative" treatments take decades to gain acceptance. Acupuncture has gained widespread acceptance in the U.S. after about 20 to 30 years. When there is a drug company or a surgical supply company behind a new procedure, it can get accepted very quickly, as in the case of balloon angioplasty. Part of the problem is that medicine is just that -- the practice of medicine and surgery, not nutritional and natural therapies. Underlying medicine is the idea that mankind can conquer nature. That's as stupid as denying gravity. We have to work in ways that are consistent with our biology. Nutrition and vitamin therapy are pretty alien concepts for conventional physicians.

I guess your question really boils down to whether it matters whether allopathic medicine accepts alternative and complementary therapies. If allopathic medicine some day really embraces alternative and complementary therapies, then it will no longer be allopathic medicine. It will have evolved to a higher plane. Look at it this way: Modern medicine has done a great job of convincing most people that it's a "one-party system," to put it in political terms. Whoever doesn't agree with conventional medicine is essentially on the fringe. I once knew a doctor -- he died at a ripe old age -- who captured it when he said "Medicine is America's fastest growing failing business." For now, I certainly wouldn't "beg" allopathis medicine to accept alternative therapies. I'd just bypass the tunnel vision of allopathic medicine and try other modalities. With a little luck, allopathic medicine will eventually become obsolete and die off, at least in the treatment of chronic diseases. We certainly will always need emergency rooms.

Years ago I interviewed a physician-professor with a strong interest in ancient diseases, and he invited me to sit in on his biochemistry class. It happened to be right after mid-term exams, and the med students came into class worried about failing the class and flunking out of med school. Apparently most of them did really poorly on the biochem exam. The professor came in and started class by reassuring them that it didn't really matter -- that they would eventually pass and graduate. I was dumbfounded. Biochemistry and nutrition are two views of the same subject. It defies the imagination that people could graduate from med school without understanding the real-world implications of the Krebs cycle or methylation or other key biochemical processes. Do we want to get on our knees and hope that this type of allopathic medicine someday accepts orthomolecular concepts or alternative therapies? I'd rather see allopathic medicine swept away and replaced with something more natural and humanistic. It would be far better for patients, and for doctors themselves.

You've corresponded and collaborated with many people in the health community in your work. What is the general consensus among them on the view that the pharmaceutical industry and American Medical Association (AMA) are suppressing effective, natural treatments for many illnesses and diseases? And what are they doing about it?

I can't really speak for other people other than to stay that they are often frustrated by the resistance of conventional medicine to nutritional therapies and that they are sometimes attacked for using nutritional therapies. The politics of medicine are every bit as intense as they are in Washington, D.C. People compete for money, often in terms of grants and other types of funding, and for power. There are petty jealousies that govern what gets funding. Just think back a few years at how hostile the National Institutes of Health was to giving a fraction of its multi-billion-dollar budget to researching supplements. People in medicine often like to convey the idea that science is oh-so-objective and that the most sound answers will rise to the top. They rarely rise to the top because they would end the careers of so many people.

I'll give you an example. In the 1950s, Andrew Ivy, M.D., was the head of the medical school at the University of Illinois. He was collaborating with researchers who have developed an early form of immunotherapy. It worked. I met some of the patients, and I was lucky enough to meet and talk with Ivy in the 1970s. At the time, Ivy was the most cited reference in medicine, period. He had been a physician advisor to the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis after World War 2. Here was a doctor with impeccable credentials. In our conversation, he told me that a high official at the AMA and at a major drug company offered him millions for the formula for his anti-cancer compound. (I'm refraining from naming the specific individuals and company.) Ivy said he didn't have a specific formula yet, in terms of what was the specific active compound in what he produced, and he added that no one should own the formula, that it belonged to all people. That's what you would expect to hear from someone of his calibre. Ivy was told that, as a result of his refusal to take money, he would never get the anti-cancer compound, called Krebiozen, in wide use.

In the late 1950s or early 1960s, Ivy was brought to court in Chicago by the FDA and AMA. His reputation was now in ruin. But during the trial, it became clear that the two AMA star witnesses against Ivy had perjured themselves. Ivy was acquitted, but the damage was done. He spent the last 10 or 15 years of his life working in a small laboratory above a store front in downtown Chicago, trying to further research the compound. He also kept treating patients, successfully, I might add. Herbert Baily wrote a book called "A Matter of Life and Death" that describes the whole history of what happened with Dr. Ivy and Krebiozen. The book is long out of print, but it's one of the few documents that has kept this whole episode from being lost to history.

Now, I should add, that not everyone in the FDA or AMA or other organizations is as sinister as those who attacked Ivy. Sometimes they're well-meaning but ignorant, or they have a near-religious fervor that conventional medicine is best. Often people don't want to entertain ideas that challenge their own work. Linus Pauling once said, "If a doctor isn't up on something, he's down on it." That is so true.

Here is a hypothetical situation. A person close to you was diagnosed with cancer or heart disease. Their medical doctor (MD) has recommended drugs and surgery. This person comes to you for a second opinion. Without getting into any specific modalities or treatment methods, what advice would you give this person?

It's not hypothetical, actually. I've been in this position over the past year with a family member and someone who had been referred to me for advice. Both had been diagnosed with cancer. The conventional cancer system has learned something about public relations. In essence, they put a kinder face on the same old ugly therapies, particularly radiation and chemo. But it's still a medical full-court press, with a huge amount of pressure on patients to go through debilitating cancer therapies. Granted, surgery is almost always necessary to de-bulk tumors, and even alternative docs usually recommend this. But that's just the first step. Patients are pushed down the path of chemo and radiation and are not offered any alternatives. Sometimes the docs just aren't aware of any alternatives, or they've read that they don't work. Sometimes it's the financial pressure placed on doctors by hospitals to bring patients into the medical assembly line, so to speak. Cancer is big money. Everyone says they want a cure for cancer, but the truth is that a cure for cancer would put a lot of companies, businesses, and doctors out of business.

Any parting words for our readers?

I think it's important to always remember that nutrients form the chemical foundation of our bodies, so what we eat is of utmost importance. I recommend that people eat mostly fresh foods and minimize anything that comes in boxes, cans, bottles, jars, and bags, because these foods have undergone processing -- i.e., industrial manipulation to reduce their nutritional value. Physical activity is important. Managing stress is important. Many people need to stop making excuses for not doing healthier things. I think each of us has a remarkable ability to heal ourselves, given the right information.

We are also genetic and biochemical individuals -- this is Roger Williams' 1956 concept of biochemical individuality -- meaning that we all need the same nutrients, but we need them in individualized amounts. For example, some of us need higher amounts of some vitamins and smaller amounts of carbohydrates because of hard-wired genetic predispositions.

Having said that, it's also important to use good nutrition and good health to enjoy life in general. To me, that means exploring the arts -- viewing (if not creating) painting, sculpture, literature, music, theatre, and other wonderful things that broaden us as human beings. I've certainly met people who are obsessed with nutrition or exercise -- sometimes it's an expression of perfectionism or obsessive-compulsive behavior. Good health should be a stepping stone to a good life.

Thank-you very much for taking the time from your busy schedule to do this interview.

Feed Your Genes Right: Eat to Turn Off Disease-Causing Genes and Slow Down Aging

Combining a thorough explanation of nutritional supplements with healthy food recommendations, Feed Your Genes Right is a straightforward guide to healing modern illnesses--sometimes even before they strike. Author Jack Challem (Syndrome X) does a fine job with presenting complex health information in simple terms, and the mix of research, individual stories and personal touches result in a book as informative as most textbooks while being far more readable.

Supplements are accessible in two separate ways (in addition to an excellent index): by the supplement name, and by disease. One section explains each supplement in fine detail, including how they are available and what conditions particularly benefit from them; a later section lists medical conditions alphabetically--including everything from sickle cell anemia to wrinkles to cancer--and suggests dietary and supplemental recommendations, including specific reference to the research that makes the recommendation.

Many of the diet-related advice will sound familiar: there is nothing too earth-shattering about eating nutritionally-dense foods along plenty of water, fruit and vegetables, and getting a good mix of lean proteins and healthy fats. Challem makes a clear case for eating organically when possible, and also avoiding trans fats, referencing a number of studies that zoom in on specific nutrient loss or potential cancer-causing agents. A short recipe section provides new inspiration for following these guidelines, with interesting options like roasted carrots and black rice pudding with coconut milk.

While probably of more use to those looking to prevent chronic health issues rather than to cure acute illness, the book offers fine assistance to anyone investigating the use of supplements past the addition of a one-a-day tablet. --Jill Lightner --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Offering an unusual mix of hard science, commonsense nutritional advice and even a handful of recipes, this book counsels readers to take control of their bodies (and, more specifically, their genes) by being knowledgeable about what to feed them. "Nutrients provide the building blocks of genes, and they turn many genes on and off," Challem notes. Therefore, what you eat determines not only your energy level and your belt size, but also your risk of DNA damage and disease. Challem, coauthor of Syndrome X, packs his volume with information on specific genetic conditions and advice on how to avoid or ameliorate them, as well as general tips for healthy living. The text is well organized but full of arduous terminology, particularly the latter half, which details specific diseases and their genotypes. At one point, for example, Challem notes that "people with an inefficient APOE E4 variation of the apoliprotein gene, which is relatively common in some parts of Scandinavia, tend to have higher blood-cholesterol levels and are more likely to suffer a heart attack." Though Challem stuffs his book with facts and makes frequent references to clinical studies, readers may be skeptical of some of his claims. (He asserts, for example, that many of the biochemical problems associated with Down Syndrome "can be circumvented through high-dose vitamin and mineral supplements and thyroid medications, leading to improved intelligence and appearance.") Not all readers will embrace Challem's prescriptions, or his sometimes technical writing, but those interested in the science of healthy living, particularly the nuts and bolts of the body's inner-workings, will find this a fascinating read.

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