“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”
Variously attributed to economists John Maynard Keynes or Paul Samuelson
Changing our minds
Have you ever changed your mind about something that for years you were in favour of? I think I have had a bit of a major, ah ha moment, changing and clarifying my thoughts about animal food and health over these last few months.
I have only ever eaten meat under duress; mainly, it has to be said, because I just never could like the stuff. However despite my knowlege to the contrary in areas like pain management, I too was strongly influenced by the prevailing views that animal food was healthy and good for us and the reductionist model that still dominates science, that only surgery or either a drug, or possibly, a nutritional supplement, is seen as the major answer to most diseases. As a clinician I have been following the whole diet story for years, the mad, bad and dangerous to know, as well as the more sane approaches to weight loss and healthy eating. I was also influenced by the prevailing dominant views of our culture that thought it was hard to survive without some animal produce even if, in my case, it was mainly eggs, cheese, yoghurt and butter.
Since its publication in 2005 I have wanted to read the work of the grand old man of American nutritional science, T. Colin Campbell PhD.
Recently I finally got on with it and read his findings.
Along with scientists from China, Cornell and Oxford universities, Campbell was the project director involved in what can reasonably claim to be the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted.
The China Study
After the team produced Diet, Lifestyle and Mortality in China their 895 page magnum opus, in 1990, frustrated with the way in which this treasure trove of brilliant research evidence was regularly ignored or silenced, Campbell and his son Thomas M. Campbell MD, wrote the book The China Study, published in 2005, with a revised and expanded edition in 2016, described by The New York Times as “the Grand Prix of epidemiology.”
This is the summary of both the findings of that huge study as well as an account of the many ways in which Big Science, Government and Food have tried to side-line and deny the findings, keeping them from the people who funded the study, the taxpayers. Thankfully that has not stopped the book going on to sell over two million copies over the last decade.
The story starts in the 1970’s when Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was dying of cancer. He initiated a monumental nationwide survey into 96% of the population spread over 2400 counties resulting in The Cancer Atlas of China. This made it clear that, far from the luck of the genetic draw, cancer rates varied by up to 100 times from counties with the highest rates to those with the lowest. In the west variations in cancer rates are rarely more than two or three times from one part of the country to another.
Despite these huge variations in cancer rates Campbell noticed that this relatively homogeneous genetic country had in the aggregate, less cancer than the United States.
Growing up on a small dairy farm, Campbell’s early scientific work had been the standard reductionist science looking at how to provide more protein, often through milk, for the hungry masses. After a distinguished science career as Cornell professor of biochemisty and nutrition and service at the highest level on many leading goverment advisory panels on nutrition, the opportunity transpired to build on the original cancer atlas in China with a massive study into lifestyle and health in China just at the right time before millions of rural chinese started to change their diet towards our own industrial, animal based diet with their migration to the cities and new found wealth.
Whole food, Plant Based diet. (WFPB)
Over his long and distinguished career, enhanced by the mountains of empirical research from the China Study and others, Campbell followed the evidence from the avalanche of data from China and changed his mind over a number of, almost unquestioned, shibboleths of western nutritional thinking. The science lead him away from the received wisdom that produced the SAD (Standard American Diet) diet, heavy on animal products, sugar and refined carbohydrates, to espousing the optimal choice, of a whole food, plant based diet. (WFPB)
We don’t know everything about nutrition and probably never will, so complex is nature, but what we have learnt in the last century has often, sometimes mistakenly, taken us down reductionist quests for single nutrient solutions to complex health issues.
Still today, thanks to our own ignorance and heavy commercial and political lobbying we often remain confused and therefore docile shoppers.
Lets take just one example; osteoporosis. ”Ironically,” Dr. Campbell noted, ”osteoporosis tends to occur in countries where calcium intake is highest and most of it comes from protein-rich dairy products. The Chinese data indicate that people need less calcium than we think and can get adequate amounts from vegetables.”
Why then do the countries, where lots of animal protein is consumed such as milk, rich in calcium, have the highest rates of hip fracture? Or conversly why did rural Chinese whose calcium intake was half that of Americans experience only one fifth of the bone fractures?
It seems that animal protein, unlike plant protein, increases the acid load in the body. An increased acid load means that our blood and tissues become more acidic. The body does not like this acidic environment and begins to fight it. In order to neutralise the acid, the body uses calcium, which acts as a very effective base. This calcium, however, has to come from somewhere. It ends up being pulled from the bones, and the calcium loss weakens them, putting them at greater risk for fracture.
I have had an interest in nutrition for over fifty years. In that time all sorts of confusing trends have come and gone. Butter verses margarine, high fat, low fat, high/low carbs, this diet versus that, vitamin supplementation for and against, etc. But one constant in all of the ups and downs has been the expanding waistlines of most British people and in many respects our degenerating health. This is not to deny huge improvements in science and medicine that have saved lives and reduced our misery, nor the greater variety and internationalism of the previously rather bland British diet. But it has not lead to the long lasting health and vigour, especially in the second half of life, we might have hoped would be the result. Now the National Health Service is in perpetual existential crisis.
The Sick Nation of Europe
Nearly half of adults in England are taking at least one prescription medicine. NHS England dispensed 1.1 billion prescriptions in 2016, an increase of around 47% in a decade. One in seven adults are on statins, and/or hypertension drugs and one in ten are on anti-depressants rising at a rate of 6% a year. In areas described as most deprived, 54% of adults were taking at least one medicine compared with 45% in the least deprived areas. More than half those aged 65-74, and more than 70% of those aged 75 and over, are taking at least three prescribed medicines.
What research has shown us over the last few decades is that our fascination with tinkering with the minutiae of the fancy nutritional content of foods, which we thought perhaps we could bottle and consume as pills, still does not make us well. Food is infinitely complex in its signalling to us, our genes and our microbiome, that we cannot extract small parts from the whole and hope to gain the same benefit. In his book The China Study Solution Dr. Thomas Campbell has tried to provide readers with a clear map to segway into a whole food, plant based diet answering many of the questions and problems we might encounter along the way.
We now know that poor diet is a factor in one in, five deaths around the world.
Animal foods & Climate disaster .
According to the most comprehensive study ever carried out on the subject, greatly reducing meat and dairy consumption could be the single biggest way individuals can lessen their impact on the planet. Hard for confirmed carnivores, but the good news is that making changes in food production and consumption can help stop climate disaster and radically improve the health of us all across the world.
And this is what Campbell and his multi national team found. While nature is infinitely complex, things have just got a whole lot simpler, if we want to hear the good news. We can potentially both heal ourselves from many of the common ailments that kill us, like heart disease, cancer, stroke and dementia and help heal our planet at the same time!
Of course there are all sorts of caveats to that and there is no magic panacea. However such is the weight of detailed, comprehensive well done research studies all pointing in the same direction you wonder why we dont hear more about it and are not all changing course. But of course we are complex socially conditioned creatures. We, along with Big Food, Big Science and big Agriculture, are heavily invested in the status quo.
That is before we consider all those media inputs into our brains influencing our lifestyle, not to mention the food poverty that many find themselves in that make healthy eating even more challenging.
Reversing heart disease
Dr Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California has long promoted a plant-based diet combined with yoga, meditation, stress management and exercise to reverse heart disease, something that was thought to be impossible before Ornish’s ground breaking scientific work. He has been giving medical advice to amongst others, former president Bill Clinton who long struggled with heart disease and is now a high profile convert to the Whole food, plant based diet.
As Professor Ornish says;
“We tend to think of advances in medicine as being a new drug, new laser or something so hi-tech that we can have a hard time believing that simple changes we make in our lives each day can have the powerful effect that they do.”
The Campbell clan
The Campbell clan seem to be a veritable one family force for good in their efforts to spread the word about the powerful evidence in favour of a whole food plant based diet.
One son Thomas Campbell MD has written the China Study Solution in an effort to help people transition away from the damaging SAD diet, (hardly better in the UK with our Standard UK Diet, SUKD). While another son, Nelson Campbell, has been working to change food and health amongst the poorest in Kentucky. You can see his film Plant Pure Nation on YouTube.
While daughter LeeAnne Campbell PhD has written helpful cookbooks to aid us make the move away from eating harmful animal foods.
“My 50 years of following the food story has finally become much simpler”.
So in conclusion, my 50 years of following the food story has finally become much simpler, more straight-forward and inline with the urgent needs of both our own health and that of the planet.
If you are not convinced try watching Nelson Campbell’s excellent film on YouTube, or the documentary Forks Over Knives available on Netflix.
It might just save your life.
 See, for example T. Colin Campbell Ph.D. Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition. 2014
 The Week: 6/1/18, reporting on an NHS survey.