By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Around the time that I started to really understand how carbohydrates raised blood sugar, I thought I had finally come to understand how to eat to stay healthy. It made prefect sense. Carbohydrates, refined ones at least, cause insulin to rise which increases your risk for diabetes, spikes your appetite and leads to overeating. The alternative to a carbohydrate-based diet was one that emphasized proteins.
If protein were a sermon, we Americans would be true believers. We love our meat. We eat about 128 pounds of each each year, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Almost everyone had a favorite protein shake.
Then one day I came across a study that has changed almost everything I used to believe about protein. First of all, we know that our bodies need protein. Protein gives us amino acids, which keep us alive. We humans don't have the ability to make our own amino acids so we have to get them from food. Our bodies use these proteins to build new cells, repair our hearts and other muscles, grow our hair, keep our skin healthy. There's no other choice to eating protein. Either we eat protein or we die.
But there is one thing that no one has told us about protein. It also helps cancer cells grow.
Protein Is Essential to Starting and Growing Cancer
Cancer begins when carcinogens are introduced into our bodies. That happens fairy often in the contaminated world we live in. But not all of us get cancer. It turns out that one of the essential elements missing that cancer needs to really take hold and grow is good protein. This is the finding of many studies conducted over a 40 year period by Dr. Tolin Campbell and his team at Cornell University (actually Dr. Campbell has worked on this subject while at other universities as well).
Dr. Campbell's masterpiece was a study carried out in China beginning in 1981 to discover how diet changed one's risk for getting various cancers. Earlier studies by Dr. Campbell's team on rats have discovered that rats fed a cancer-triggering toxin called afflatoxin developed liver cancer lesions only if their diets also contained 20% protein. Diets with less than 10% protein seem to be ideal for cancer cells to flourish.
This discovery was confirmed on the human studies Campbell carried out in China. People who lived in rural counties where the local cultures ate very low amounts of protein experienced very little to no cancer.
The type of protein which triggered the growth of cancer was animal protein --- cow's milk protein, all forms of meat, chicken, fish, and eggs. In fact, milk protein --- casein --- is so good at starting cancer that scientists feed lab animals casein, milk protein, when they want to intentionally induce cancer.
Plant-based protein did not increase cancer rates. That's good news because there are very good sources of plant protein. You can get protein from spinach, green peas, carrots and most other light-colored vegetables, as well as beans and other legumes. Grains or pseudo grains such as quinoa also are rich in proteins.
Americans Eat Way More Than 10% Protein and That's a Problem
We eat between 14% and 16% of our diets from protein, with almost all of that being animal protein. We eat relatively little plant protein, mainly because we don't eat enough vegetables as a general matter.
Part of the reason we eat protein is that meat used to be more scarce. During hard times, during the Depression and during the Great Recession, meat sales fell. When boom times return; one of the first things to reappear on our tables are thick steaks, the best cuts of beef, pork, sausages, veal, lamb and of course, loads and loads of chicken. Eating meat is a sign of prosperity.
As our meat consumption has increased, so have rates of cancer. In 1921, Dr. Wendell M. Strong published a study in the Journal for the American Association of Cancer Research examining what was thought of back then as a alarming spike in cancer rates. His observations on the prevailing cancer rate at the time are eye-opening.
He wrote "In the registration of 1900, the cancer death rate per 100,000 population, which will hereafter be spoken of as the cancer death rate or cancer mortality, increased from 63 in 1900 to 79 in 1913, an increase of over 25 per cent."
Fast forward to 2016. Now, the cancer rates in the US is 300 per 100,000. Compared to the rate in 1900, that is 500% higher, 5 greater.
And almost all of the Western meat-eating world shares this alarming rise, with 9 other countries also experiencing cancer incidences over 300 per 100,000 people, according to the World Cancer Research Fund. The "300 Club" countries, by the way include Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Norway, US, Ireland, South Korea and the Netherlands.
Why Haven't We All Heard That Protein Promotes Cancer?
Of course, there's the issue of money. In the US and around the world, meat is big business. The key reason that no one is pointing a finger at meat as a cause and facilitator of cancer is that for decades, meat protein has been heralded as a sign of success and essential to health. It is what separates the wealthy nations from those poor, starving grain-eating souls elsewhere.
It will be extremely hard to separate Americans from their meat. Who will be brave enough to pull a plate of barbecue ribs, hamburger or bacon away from an American or a roast from a Brit or a plate of sausage away from a German? After all, there is a good reason that, during the Second World War, the French nickname for the British was "rosbif", the French attempt to pronounce "roast beef".
No, convincing any of us to give up eating so much meat is just not a job politicians or other leaders are eager to take on.
Meanwhile, cancer rates keep on climbing.