Dr. T. Colin Campbell was raised on a dairy farm and so consumed animal products virtually every day believing they were essential to health. He was told in school that cow’s milk made strong, healthy bones and teeth. It was a perfect food from Nature.

He studied pre-veterinary medicine at Penn State and then attended veterinary school at the University of Georgia for a year when Cornell University beckoned him with scholarship money to do graduate research in “animal nutrition.” The fact that he would be paid to go to school rather than paying them was a factor that made him transfer. He did his master’s degree there.  His Ph.D. research was devoted to finding better ways to make cows and sheep grow faster. He was attempting to improve on man’s ability to produce animal protein, the basis of what he was told was “good nutrition.”  And so Dr. Campbell went on his way to promote better health by advocating the consumption of more meat and eggs. Remember he was once a “farm boy” so he believed that his American diet was a world-wide best. Eating the right foods involved eating plenty of high-quality animal protein. He found that as a recurring theme as he was growing up.

Early in his career, he spent time working on two of the most toxic chemicals ever discovered, dioxin and aflatoxin. Dioxins belong to a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). They are of concern because they are a highly toxic chemical compounds. Dioxins are mainly by-products of industrial processes but can also result from natural processes such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires. Aflatoxins are a family of toxins produced by certain fungi on agricultural crops such as maize and peanuts. One can be exposed to aflatoxins by eating contaminated plant products such as peanuts or by consuming meat or dairy products from animals that ate contaminated feed. Exposure to aflatoxins is associated with an increased risk of liver cancer.

When Dr. Campbell took a faculty position at Virginia Tech, he began coordinating technical assistance for a nationwide project in the Philippines working with malnourished children. Part of the project became an investigation of the unusually high prevalence of liver cancer, usually an adult disease, in Filipino children. It was widely thought that much of the childhood malnutrition in the world was caused by a lack of protein, especially from animal-based foods. So their efforts in the Philippines were to make sure that children were getting as much protein as possible. In this project however, Dr. Campbell discovered something: children who ate the highest protein diets were the ones most likely to get liver cancer. These were children of the wealthiest families.

Then Dr. Campbell came across a research report from India that had some relevant findings even though they were provocative. Indian researchers had studied two groups of rats. In one group, they administered the cancer-causing aflatoxin, then fed a diet that had 20% protein which was a level near what was being consumed in the West. In the other group, they administered the same amount of aflatoxin but then fed a diet that was 5% protein. Here is the result: every single animal that consumed 20% protein diet had evidence of liver cancer and every single animal that consumed 5% protein diet avoided liver cancer. This result is an incredible 100 to 0 which leaves no doubt that nutrition trumped chemical cancer-causing substances or agents (carcinogens) in controlling cancer. This information was against everything Dr. Campbell had been taught. How can he who has promoted protein consumption all his life turn to say protein was not healthy and even worse, protein advanced cancer? This was a difficult question facing him so he decided to start an in-depth laboratory program involving experimental animals that would examine the role of nutrition, especially protein, in the development of cancer. For Dr. Campbell, it was important to understand not only whether protein might cancer but also how protein might promote cancer. For twenty-seven years, the research was funded by mostly the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research. The result of the study was shocking. Low-protein diets inhibited the initiation of cancer by aflatoxin, regardless of how much of this carcinogen was administered to the animals. After cancer initiation was completed, low-protein diets also dramatically blocked subsequent cancer growth. In other words, the cancer-producing effects of this highly carcinogenic chemical were rendered insignificant by a low-protein diet. Indeed they could turn on and off cancer growth by changing the level of dietary protein consumed. That was how powerful dietary protein proved to be in its effect.

That was not all they found. They found that not all proteins had this effect. So what protein strongly and consistently promoted cancer? Casein. What is casein? It is the chief protein in milk making up 87% of cow’s milk protein. Casein promoted all stages of the cancer process. What type of protein did not promote cancer even at high levels of intake? The proteins from plants including soy and wheat. These proteins are safe proteins. The clearer the picture became, the more the most cherished assumptions of Dr. Campbell were shattered. He did not end the study with the experimental animals. He went on to direct the most comprehensive study of diet, lifestyle and disease ever done with humans in the history of biomedical research – The China Project.

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