" Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Don't eat anything that your great-grandmother would not recognize as food. That, more of less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy."
-Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food-
"People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease...People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease. These results could not be ignored."
-T. Colin Campbell, The China Study-
Dr. T. Colin Campbell spoke last Wednesday at the Wellness Grand Rounds at the medical center where I work and as much as I want to ignore or minimize his message, I just can't. This slight 74 year old articulate dynamo has a rock solid research background and he's comes to the conclusion that a plant-based diet will prevent and reverse chronic disease even though he started his career believing a diet high in animal protein was the healthiest in the world. He's got 50 years of careful original research experience behind him and at age 74 his motivation is just to share his life's work. Believe me, the last thing I want to do is eat a vegetarian diet, let alone become a vegan, but Dr. Campbell's evidence is hard to refute.
The topic was provocatively called, "Can Medical Practice Tolerate Nutritional Intervention?" Its purpose was to address the doubts of physicians. "Although dietary intervention in medical cases is acknowledged as a desired approach, most primary practitioners seriously doubt either the efficacy of such intervention or the ability of patients to comply."
Imagine, a well-respected PhD in nutrition, biochemistry and toxicology speaking at a top US medical center advocating for a plant-based diet to not only prevent, and in some cases reverse, cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, type-2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer's, kidney stones, cataracts, macular degeneration, erectile dysfunction and depression. I know, it's the kind of stuff that makes you roll your eyes and head for the door. It sounds like a snake-oil salesman. That's how I felt. But, Dr. Campbell has me convinced of the value of vegetables! I'll try give you some of the key points.
- A plant-based diet that enhances health & prevents disease includes whole unprocessed vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and nuts. If your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize it, it's not whole unprocessed food.
- A plant-based diet trumps genetics and environmental carcinogens every time when it comes to disease prevention!
- Back in the 1950's when Campbell started out, good health meant getting enough animal protein into your diet. His first assignment was working with malnourished children in the Philippines, and to figure out the reason for the high rates of liver cancer in Filipino children. It was assumed that aflatoxin, (a deadly mold toxin found in peanuts and corn) was the cause of the cancer, but only the children of the wealthiest families, those who had the "advantage" of a high protein diet of milk & meat, were getting the liver cancer. The researchers thought it should have been the other way around. They expected the malnourished children to have developed the cancer.
- The breakthrough came when Campbell noticed research from India that shed light on the Philippine cancer. Indian researchers also thought high protein would protect against cancer & set up a study to prove it. Working with two groups of rats, they administered carcinogenic aflatoxin to both of them. One group was fed a diet of 20% animal protein, which is typical of a Western diet. The other group was fed a diet of 5% animal protein. The researchers expected the higher protein diet would prevent cancer. Shockingly, 100% of the rats fed the high protein diet developed cancer. None of the rats fed the low protein diet got cancer. It was a perfect 100 to 0 score. Campbell and others were able to replicate the exact same results in their own labs. And not only that, the cancer lesions were reversed when the rat diets were decreased to 5% protein.
- Protein is an essential nutrient but Americans are getting too much. It only promotes cancer when it exceeds the amount needed by the body. Only animal protein is bound to these limits. His research puts a deadly spin on our obsession with "getting enough protein".
- Plant protein found in wheat, soy or legumes does not promote cancer, even in diets where it's 20% of the total protein intake.
- Campbell went on to spend 27 years conducting animal research funded by the NIH, the American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research investigating the role of nutrition, especially protein, in the development of cancer. The results continued to support what he learned in the Philippines and what the Indian researchers originally discovered: Low-protein diets inhibit the initiation of cancer. When cancer is initiated, a low-protein diet can "turn-off" cancer growth. Casein, which makes up 87% of cow's milk promoted all stages of the cancer process.
- Campbell also directed the most comprehensive study of diet, lifestyle and disease ever done with humans in the history of biomedical research. The "China Study" was conducted in cooperation with Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine. At the time of the study, China was a perfect living laboratory to study how nutrition affects disease, because the people in one area of China ate a certain diet and the people just a few hundred miles away ate a completely different diet. The genetics were similar, and people stayed in the same community, rarely migrating. There were significant regional dietary differences and dramatic differences in the disease prevalence from region to region. With 2,400 counties each with distinct common diets, Campbell's group was able to come up with over 8,000 correlations of diet to disease. This would be an impossible task to undertake in the U.S. where the population is mobile, diverse and multi-cultural.
- The China Study's conclusion #1: "People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. Even relatively small intakes of animal-based food were associated with adverse effects."
- The China Study's conclusion #2: "People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease."
- Findings of other researchers and clinicians have come to the same conclusions and Campbell cites over 750 studies in his book, The China Study.
- Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., a retired Cleveland Clinic surgeon, replicated similar success in heart disease patients who were put on a 100% plant-based no-added fat diet. Followed for 22 years, patients who adhered to the diet had zero coronary events, and plaque regressed in their arteries.
- Higher intake of animal protein (dairy/milk) = higher rate of bone fractures. I know this seems counter-intuitive, but Campbell explains why.
- An animal protein diet creates an acidosis state in the body that diminishes vitamin D, which is needed to build strong bones. In addition, when acidosis exists, the body pulls out calcium from the bones in an attempt to neutralize the acid state.
- Research makes the mistake of studying one nutrient at a time, treating nutrition like pharmacology. It doesn't work that way, which is why most studies don't support vitamin supplement use. Whole foods provide integrated synergistic effects on our bodies that are difficult to measure as single nutrients.
- Minimize soy milk, or any other "processed" food that Campbell describes as "fractionated foods". Removing parts of a whole food to make it into something else, like soy protein bars, soy "chicken", or soy protein powder is "fractionating" food.
- Stay away from whey protein, which is a milk product. Campbell calls it deadly and it's the "health food of the day", widely recommended at fitness centers.
- Only eat nuts if you can keep your LDL under 100. When your LDL gets over 100 you're laying down plaque in your blood vessels, and nuts should be avoided.
Campbell's conclusion: Good nutrition supported by exercise, water, and sunshine is greater than the sum of its parts. It's a biological symphony.
I'm still digesting all of this. Although I've just naturally moved toward a diet that's probably 80% plant-based I don't do well with super-strict diet rules and restrictions. I need flexibility! Food is so wrapped up in friendship, family and fun and I don't want to miss out on any of that. I can see trying to make even better choices during the week-more salads, hearty soups and incorporating "green smoothies". I definitely eat too many "fractionated" soy products, and probably too many foods my great-grandmother wouldn't recognize. I'm leaning towards my oldest son's dietary approach. He's a "non-militant" flexible vegetarian during the week, but on weekends, especially when socializing, he'll eat everything! I kind of like that!
Stayed tuned to the juicier part of the story in an upcoming post. NFL star Tony Gonzalez embarked on a vegan diet after reading Dr. Campbell's book. He had his best season ever!
Check out Michael Pollan's web site here. Better yet, read his books, Omnivore's Dilemma & In Defense of Food.
Check out Dr. T. Colin Campbells' website here . There's an excerpt at this site.
You can also listen to a lecture by Dr. Campbell here.