Gorillas’ diet may ward off cancer

Gorillas and colobus monkeys consume huge quantities of plants, which contain oestrogen-like compounds that may protect against some cancers – but if taken in excessive amounts, it may result in reproductive repercussions, according to a new study.

Phyto-oestrogens are plant chemicals that function like the female sex hormone. In foods like soy and red clover they may protect us from oestrogen-dependent cancers – a group that includes breast and colorectal cancers, New Scientist reported.

Quite often, the potential health effects of phyto-oestrogens are studied, but nobody has looked at if humans are the only primates with a taste for plants containing the chemicals, said Michael Wasserman of McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

If other primates eat them, it might indicate that we have evolved to cope with them in small doses.

However, Katharine Milton of the University of California, Berkeley insisted that the sex hormone mimics could have a downside.

“Oestrogens are potent chemicals; if you’re taking them in excessive amounts, this can interfere with your reproductive physiology,” Milton said.

Wasserman, Milton and colleagues examined the diets of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei) and red colobus monkeys (Procolobus rufomitratus) in a national park in Uganda.

They discovered that 10.6 per cent of plants in the colobus diet and 8.8 per cent of those in the gorilla diet consituted phyto-oestrogens.

The study has been published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.