01/14/2011 11:20 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Daily Diet and Past Choices Stir Fear of Long-Term Health Implications

I'll admit, I'm scared. I'm scared that a childhood of obesity will catch up with me. I'm scared that the anorexia that lasted six months and ended that obesity while stunting my growth will prove to have left lingering consequences that will one day surface. And I'm a little worried that every measure I've taken and/or plan to take will be too little, too late.

These concerns have magnified in recent months by the revelation that my dad has colon cancer. Because it appeared at a relatively early age, I now need to get checked out as early as two-and-a-half years from now when I'm 25. So now I wonder, what have I done to myself and what can I still undo or prevent?

At present, my back creaks and cracks and aches all day. My left meniscus tendon is partially torn from an injury nearly 10 years old. I've never had great eyesight. And now I've been experiencing pain in my left foot. A doctor's visit is overdue. This is not written in self pity but rather self reflection.

Since the beginning of high school I've maintained a healthy weight after my brush with death. The only fluctuations occurred when I gained a little weight while working out and playing lacrosse and rugby. And though my daily diet is mostly healthy by some accounts, late-night indulgences -- both drink and food -- while in college inhibits my confidence in my health and nutrition. I'll still go out with friends on occasion, eat a slice of pizza and wake up wondering if that would be one of the nails in my coffin.

I'll also admit there's a lot I don't yet know about genetics and nutrition. "The China Study," the successful 2004 book, sits on our coffee table at home. My fiance and I have each read the first two chapters but have procrastinated in continuing the book. Written by T. Colin Campbell, a professor emeritus at Cornell University, and his son, T. Colin Campbell II, the book advocates a plant-based diet while drawing links between animal protein and a range of life-threatening diseases. Rather than fads like The Atkins Diet, The China Study relies on empirical, scientific findings derived from 20 years of research.

And though the diet advocated in the book fits the description of a vegan diet, Campbell refused to label it as such in an interesting New York Times interview earlier this month:

I don't use the word "vegan" or "vegetarian." I don't like those words. People who chose to eat that way chose to because of ideological reasons. I don't want to denigrate their reasons for doing so, but I want people to talk about plant-based nutrition and to think about these ideas in a very empirical scientific sense, and not with an ideological bent to it.

I would add a mention of the necessity in appropriately interpreting the term "diet." Too often in this country, a "diet" is not what sustains us daily but instead a quick fix with unrealistic outcomes in mind. And too often these diets are discarded for a return to the unhealthy living that had once gotten us in trouble.

When Annie and I made a push to eat a plant-based diet we were met by (in no set order) skepticism, (mostly good-natured) ribbing and weariness. Either family members thought we were starving ourselves or others thought we were politically motivated. And when we'd indulge in a dish with meat in it, we frustrated others by not conforming to the perception they had of vegans (though we never sought to be labeled anything).

This indulgence also would validate Campbell's warning in The Times interview that occasional treats often lead to long-term deviations. It has with us, though we intend to return to our collective saddles.
Another point is proven, though, in the reactions we received. Though they were free from malice, the reactions drip with frustration at being unable to easily categorize others. When we announced our change of diet, its differences with antiquated expectations of a healthy diet rich in protein and milk drew red flags and suspicion. Despite the measured, reasonable presentation of facts in The China Study and in interviews with its authors, the public and media alike are slow to embrace this change in belief. And when we were finally pigeonholed as vegan by some, our deviation ironically drew the same ire our initial decision had earned.

Maybe I have deviated from my earlier thought: my concerns about the quality of my nutrition and the price I'll pay. When rationality conquers fear, I know that there is still much time to right the ship. There's much to learn about genetics and nutrition and what it all means. I can, however, confidently say eating healthy and being active is better than doing the opposite. Statistics show I'm young, too.

I guess I'm just more aware of my mortality. My dad fights disease hours away. I prepare (with hope, anxiety and restlessness) for the start of my career out of college. I find myself readying for marriage. Clearly these challenges and milestones cannot be faced with an empty stomach.