I would say I live a pretty healthy lifestyle. I work out 4-5 times a week, try to limit my sugar intake, and whenever possible select fruits and veggies, lean protein, and whole grains over processed foods. I am sure there are plenty of ways I could improve my diet and lose that last 5 pounds, but overall I practice moderation, and I thought this was serving me well. Then I watched the documentary Forks Over Knives and I feel betrayed by everything I’ve been taught about eating and health.
Here is the quick and dirty:
The documentary is mostly based on the work of two researchers, Drs. Colin Campbell (PhD, Cornell) and Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. (MD, Cleveland Clinic). For the past six decades this cardiologist and nutritional scientist have researched the connection between what we eat and health, specifically cardiovascular health and cancer. Their findings are astonishing.
Both doctors were raised on dairy farms and believed in conventional nutritional teachings — protein, especially animal protein, was crucial to the health and wellness of the body. But as their careers and researched progressed, both realized (independently) that the over-consumption of animal proteins was the main cause of both heart disease and cancer. Yes, that’s right CANCER!
While both doctors’ research was compelling, I found Dr. Campbell’s on cancer life-changing.
Basically the man argues that he has discovered how to turn off cancer! Now, he admits we can’t cure all cancer, it is still genetic and we all have cancer in our bodies (abnormal cells), but our diets are igniting potential cancerous cells. While researching nutrition in the Philippines, Dr. Campbell discovered an Indian study that experimented with the rate of cancer in rats when fed varying percentages of an animal-based protein diet. The results were simple — when fed a diet of more than 20% animal protein the rats had evidence of liver cancer, those that were fed a diet of 5% animal protein didn’t. This sparked Dr. Campbell’s interest and he spent the next four decades researching in conjunction with Chinese scientists in China to find out if this correlation between animal proteins and cancer was also true in humans (side-note “the China Study” is a fascinating historical endeavor of its own, you can read more here). Guess what? It was. Communities in China that ate more animal-based proteins had higher rates of cancer.
Dr. Esselstyn’s findings were similar, diets of 5% or less animal protein could prevent and even reverse cardiovascular disease! So why didn’t I know this and why are we told that lean animal protein is healthy? Not to mention, my go-to, lose-weight diet is high protein, low carb! I feel misinformed!
Basically the reason this simple panacea isn’t common knowledge is because of, what else, politics. Livestock and dairy are big business in the U.S. and have been for quite some time. And the interests of these groups have been driving policy and guidelines and funding research that supports their claims. As a historian, I also think there is an interesting cultural component to the consumption of meat. The ability to eat meat has long signaled wealth and prosperity in societies.
While I was angry about what I’ve been taught, I was also relieved at how easy the solution is. Both doctors say that if you want to drastically, I mean drastically, lower your cancer risk (along with a host of other health problems), all you need to do is eat a plant-based, whole food diet where 5% (or less) of your daily calories comes from animal-based proteins, meaning you should drastically limit or eliminate meat, dairy, eggs, and cheese. Basically this is what vegans have been doing all along.
So am I going vegan? Honestly, I am thinking about it! But why did I have to see this documentary on the eve before I departed for Italy???? This
diet lifestyle will be more difficult in Italy, but I will have better access to fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables and whole grain pasta is not off limits (#yaasss). I am going to experiment and take it slow, cutting animal protein wherever and whenever I can. I think the research here is too provocative to ignore and it’s not like cutting animal proteins from my diet will harm me, it can only help!