Dr. Arthur Schatzkin, an epidemiologist who overturned the widely held belief that eating a diet rich in fiber could prevent the recurrence of the polyps that are a forerunner of cancer of the colon, died Jan. 20 at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 62 and was suffering from brain cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, where he spent most of his career.
Schatzkin also beefed up the institute's nutrition epidemiology branch and teamed with the AARP to conduct what was then the largest prospective study of the links between diet and health.
When Schatzkin joined the cancer institute in the 1980s, it was widely accepted that people who ate diets low in fiber were more likely to develop colorectal cancer. The bulkier stools associated with the extra fiber of a high-fiber diet, conventional wisdom said, were more likely to entrap and remove carcinogenic chemicals that entered the intestinal system through the diet.
But he wanted scientific evidence to back that belief and organized the Polyp Prevention Trial, in which 2,079 people who had already been diagnosed with polyps were randomized to follow either a low-fat, high-fiber diet calling for lots of fruits and vegetables or their usual diet. After four years, he reported in 2000, there was no difference in the number of new polyps in the two groups.
"We were surprised and a little disappointed," he later said.
The study was unable to show, however, whether a high-fiber diet could prevent the formation of polyps in patients without them or interfere with the progression of established polyps to tumors.
Schatzkin was convinced that many of the problems with studies of the effects of diet on health were the subject of bias in a patient's recall of what his diet had been years before. If the patient developed colorectal cancer, for example, and had heard that the disease was associated with a low-fiber diet, he would subconsciously think he probably had eaten less fiber than he should have.
To overcome this problem, Schatzkin teamed with AARP to form the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, which enrolled more than 500,000 people who kept ongoing records of their dietary patterns. That study has been the source of more than 100 original scientific papers and is a prized information source for a multitude of investigators worldwide.
That study eventually found that one particular kind of fiber, made from unrefined whole grains, can indeed reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
He also organized the Observing Protein and Energy Nutrition biomarker study, which developed objective measures of an individual's diet. Without such tools, he argued, researchers are unable to determine the real relationship between diet and cancer, as well as other diseases.
Arthur Gould Schatzkin was born Feb. 11, 1948, in New York and received a bachelor's degree from Yale University in 1969. He gained a medical degree from the State University of New York Downstate College of Medicine in 1976 and later a doctorate in public health from Columbia University. He was on the faculty of Boston University before joining the cancer institute.
Schatzkin is survived by his wife, the former Tamara Harris; a son; a daughter; a sister; and a brother.