Raised as a Catholic in the metropolitan area of New Orleans, I accepted that I would be asked to forego meat every Friday during Lent.
Ever since its discovery in 1839 by Dutch chemist Gerhard Mulder, protein – specifically animal protein – has been considered the nutritional centerpiece in human diets, trumping fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
Derived from the Greek word proteios, “of prime importance,” the link between protein, good health and affluence has been culturally ingrained in Western society.
Meat has become the “soul” of most of our meals, and without it, our diets seemingly revert to pre-civilization drivel.
Under this deep-seated mindset, I viewed the absence of meat during Lent as a sacrifice worthy of lamentation.
It was not until the passing of my grandmother from colon cancer during my early teens that I began to consider the correlation between animal protein consumption and various forms of cancer.
As rudimentary as my understanding of science was, I was convinced I could decrease any predisposition for colon cancer by increasing my intake of dietary fiber, a common notion in modern medicine.
However, I dismissed the diets of vegetarians and vegans as extreme, nutritionally deficient and misguided.
But my mind was still open to any information further predicating the idea of greater health through increased consumption of plant-based foods and decreased consumption of animal-based products.
It was with this open mind that I fell upon the work of Colin Campbell, a decorated biochemist who has arguably conducted the most provocative nutritional and dietary research to date.
Although Campbell follows what could be considered a vegan diet, he has never promoted himself as either a vegetarian or a vegan, as he does not identify with the animal rights movement.
As detailed in his 2006 book “The China Study,” his mission is the improvement of human health and life.
His work, which includes 27 years of research, originated through encounters with the impoverished and malnourished children of the Philippines, and his efforts to close what was known as the “protein gap” in the developing world.
Universities and health institutions across the world made it their mission to nurse these children back to health through what was deemed the most effective manner – increasing their animal protein intake.
Undeniably, the most common affliction throughout the Philippines was liver cancer, caused by a carcinogen known as aflatoxin.
Disturbingly, it soon became clear to Campbell that the children who were affected by liver cancer were part of the best-fed families and received the most animal protein in their diets.
Campbell used this intriguing observation as the groundwork for decades of experiments using both rodent and human cell lines to determine the cause of this animal protein-cancer correlation.
Shockingly, Campbell found that when higher than necessary animal protein levels were consumed in conjunction with common carcinogens, the expression of cancer was increased exponentially.
Campbell’s book describes a diet of 10 percent protein (animal or plant) as necessary for growth, whereas Americans consume 15 to 16 percent on average.
His findings suggest that chemical carcinogens do not generally cause cancer unless we consume these higher levels of animal protein, which promote and foster tumor development.
Soy, wheat and other forms of plant protein were never shown to have this effect.
In fact, his nutritional research concisely details how the intake of animal protein contributes to the onset of diabetes, heart failure and other chronic diseases.
I am not a vegetarian, but I now choose to limit my intake of animal food products.
And, as inconvenient as Campbell’s findings seem to be, it would be intellectually dishonest for me to completely ignore their implications.
Chris Freyder is a junior majoring in biomedical sciences at Louisiana State University Baton Rouge.