When I saw that T. Colin Campbell had written the book, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, I couldn’t wait to order it. From the excerpts I read, I saw that he addressed many issues that I wondered about for years. I hoped that the rest of the book would be as interesting and informative as the blurbs. It was. In fact, the book is packed with facts that support the idea that a plant-based diet is the healthiest eating plan in the world. Campbell’s facts are not based on pseudo- or bro-science, but on evidence obtained during the study which spawned the book, The China Study, and throughout his career. Unfortunately, the facts go down like stale bread to many who have been fed from the never-ending parade of so-called “nutritional best practices” that appear in the media daily. T. Colin Campbell acknowledges that this will be the case with his book, and he also states that he isn’t writing it because he needs to make a profit. He just wants to inform the public (and possibly change the world.)
The China Study is a book based loosely on the results of China-Cornell-Oxford Project, of which T. Colin Campbell was one of the directors. It is also part of the basis for the best-selling documentary and cookbook, Forks Over Knives. In this study, the investigators looked at China because it’s residents have a genetically similar makeup across the provinces, and they tended to live and eat the same way across generations. They found that people who eat a diet free of meat and animal products (vegan) are less likely to succumb to “Western diseases” such as heart disease (which includes stroke,) certain cancers and diabetes. They found that in the areas where more meat was consumed, the population had a higher likelihood of developing those “Western diseases.” There is an underlying belief that the consumption of any cholesterol is too high a level for the human body.
One thing that I wonder about in the China-Cornell-Oxford Project is how economic differences across the population were controlled for. It is often the case that the wealthier people are the ones who can afford more meat, and they are also the ones who can pay for other luxuries and may tend to live a more sedentary lifestyle. Another consideration that begs to be mentioned about this study is that China’s most heavily consumed grain is rice while Western cultures fill up on wheat and corn. In Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, rice is never mentioned.
I think that one of the most important points Campbell makes in Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition is that the tendency to isolate nutrients and study their effects on the body is unsound, as these nutrients are not consumed in isolation and if they are, they were not meant to be. Any plant-based food you eat has many minerals and nutrients that work together to create chemical reactions in the body. By themselves, these nutritional components will not behave the same as when they are eaten in a natural and whole source of food.
Another unrelated study, The Nurses’ Health Study, which began in 1976, examined the effects of individual nutrients on human health. The idea of isolating nutrients, or what they call “a reductionist approach to nutrition,” has lead to the development of many fad diets, unsound science, and food scares that, once in the public’s psyche, are hard to erase, even if they were based on flawed information. Campbell sites The Nurses’ Health Study as being an example of what not to do as a scientist or medical professional.
Clearly, much of what we know or believe about nutrition comes from the government, the media and people who use their credentials to try to attain fame and profit. Corporate interests spend millions of dollars each year promoting their products, sending lobbyists to Washington and designing packages and advertising that extoll the “healthful virtues” of their products. This information gets dumped on a trusting public, and once someone has heard something from an expert, they often choose to believe it over contradictory reports that may hold more truth. Campbell devotes pages to how special interests influence our nutritional knowledge, and to me, this is one of the most valuable parts of his book. Anyone who reads about nutrition should always ask themselves, “Who is writing this? Who is funding this? Who is profiting from this information?”
Another question he poses is, “Who will be put out of work if disease is cured?” Cancer is a killer and it is also an industry. So is heart disease, diabetes and a host of other autoimmune disorders that have associations working to provide the public with information and assistance. It may be difficult to fathom how many people are profiting off of our poor eating habits which have the potential to lead to disease, but we must open our eyes to the fact that there are disease and obesity profiteers everywhere.
As a person who developed a weight problem in my 30s, I had been told by more than one MD or health care professional that weight loss is simple, “Calories in, calories out.” According to this theory, all that matters is the calorie as a unit of energy to be stored or burn. It doesn’t matter what nutrients the calorie consisted of. In this view, five french fries fried in rancid oil at a fast food restaurant are nutritionally equal to the same caloric intake of apple. It seems that anyone could see through such an oversimplified approach to nutrition. Dr. Campbell takes this theory on in his book, and offers some charts that illustrate the bodily reactions as calories are being processed that are mind-blowing in their complexity. Yet, some doctors will still insist, “calories in, calories out.” If that sounds like your MD, it’s time to find a new doctor.
On pages 223 -240 of The China Study, the authors describe eight principles of food and health, which are upheld in Whole:
- Nutrition represents the combined activities of countless food substances. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
- Vitamins and supplements are not a panacea for good health.
- There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not provided more efficiently by plants.
- Genes do not determine disease on their own. Genes function only by being activated, or expressed, and nutrition plays a critical role in determining which genes, good and bad, are expressed.
- Nutrition can substantially control the adverse effects of noxious chemicals.
- The same nutrition that prevents disease in its early stages can also halt or reverse it in its later stages.
- Nutrition that is truly beneficial for one chronic disease will support health across the board.
- Good nutrition creates health in all areas of our existence. Everything is interconnected.
Campbell also considers the impact of our continued over-consumption of animal protein on the planet. The statistics he quotes show that grazing cattle and raising farm animals has a much heftier impact on the earth than does raising plants. Deforestation and poor soil quality due to raising and grazing animals are also mentioned. For those of us who believe that our environment is at great risk, these are some sobering statistics.
I want to love this book and agree with everything that is written in its pages, but where it fell short for me was that it made virtually no mention of the population’s growing intolerance to wheat and gluten. I know that for my entire life, I had terrible digestive problems until I stopped taking in wheat gluten and cut my consumption of other grains to a minimum. My problems disappeared when grain was banished from my diet. As a person who has trouble consuming many grain-based foods, I am not sure that I am left with enough to eat to provide complete nutrition as compared to someone who has no issues with grains by following a completely vegetable, fruit and legume diet. I wish he had delved deeper into this issue. As printed, grains get barely a mention, and those mentions are in passing. I need serious knowledgeable help to construct a plant-based gluten-free diet that works for me. I was disappointed that this segment of the population and their needs were ignored in Whole. I wish the author would go back and add a chapter or write an article on this subject. For me to buy into strictly eating a plant-based diet, the issue of grains needs much further explanation.
T. Colin Campbell, PhD, in his closing thoughts, acknowledges how ingrained our ideas of milk and meat being healthy foods are, and how changing our minds is more than just making a decision. It’s a paradigm shift. I think this book is full of useful information presented in an easy to understand manner. What it doesn’t offer is a selection of recipes or a meal plan to follow. While there may be some unanswered questions, it is definitely worth adding to your collection of books about nutrition. It doesn’t offer any recipes or try to sell you any magical products. It delivers what Campbell believes is the cold, hard truth, and that truth isn’t so enjoyable to swallow. However, many of us may read this, and while we don’t decide to conform entirely, we may be willing to move several steps closer to eating an optimal diet.
Andrea Garcia Mauk, November 2013