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The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health

February 6, 2010 Health, Reviews 2 Comments

Book Authors: T. Colin Campbell, PhD and Thomas M. Campbell II

Reviewed by Allison Wilson (The Bioscience Resource Project)

What will it take for veggie stir-fry on rice to replace a beef burger on a bun as the all-American meal? A switch to a more plant-based diet has been standard dietary advice for years and the new Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report is no exception. In The China Study, however, the Campbells go much further, arguing that “a good diet is the most powerful weapon we have against disease and sickness” and that the healthiest diet is an entirely plant-based whole-food diet (no meat, dairy or eggs and little, if any, fish). A simple switch to such a diet, claim the Campbells, will dramatically decrease your risk of getting the diseases common in Western societies, including auto-immune diseases, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. As large-scale genetic screens to identify genes for these same diseases continue to fail, and as this failure looks to be permanent (see The Great DNA Data Deficit: Are Genes for Disease a Mirage?), this advice appears more and more prescient.

The China Study

Sold to the public as having ‘startling implications for diet, weight loss and long-term health’, The China Study explains how the Campbells came to believe that science supports the health-promoting benefits of a wholly plant-based diet. Their conclusions are based on laboratory, epidemiological and clinical studies, carried out by themselves and others. These include the results of the original China study, a survey of disease rates, diet and lifestyle in both rural and ‘westernized’ Chinese citizens. Part II of The China Study describes dietary effects on individual diseases and an appendix includes a brief summary of how dietary animal protein can interact with various biochemical networks (such as those regulating vitamin D and insulin-like growth factor) to promote human disease generally. The Campbells also cite clinical studies that show plant-based diets can successfully treat many of these same illnesses. The China Study excels at clear explanations and data-based reasoning that together inform but also challenge scientists and non-scientists to rethink current scientific and dietary assumptions.

That is the good news. The bad news is that accurate nutritional information is not reaching the public due to the influence of politics on nutritional science. Whether it is dietary advice or research, conflicts of interest are legion as many of the scientists on expert panels and government bodies, as well as those in departments of nutritional science, are closely linked to the meat and dairy industries. Another challenge to accurate dietary advice is the prevalence of reductionism, the focus on individual nutrients or anti-nutrients, rather than on whole foods or diets. And finally there is the ever-present problem of ‘industry science’ and the biases it introduces into the scientific literature (also see: Conflicts of interest: in agriculture too?). In Part IV, the Campbells describe from personal experience how all of these factors conspire to support and even promote the unhealthy animal-based American diet, while hindering the accumulation and dissemination of accurate dietary information.

A final important message is that current scientific methodologies are likely to mask the full spectrum of dietary impacts on health. Most nutritional studies of Americans compare diets that are all high in protein, most of it animal-derived. This is true for studies of high and low fat diets and even those including vegetarians (who usually replace meat with high levels of dairy products). The result, according to the authors, is to obscure the most important diet-related disease factor – animal protein [1].
A switch to using whole-food plant-based diets as the baseline comparison for dietary health studies could therefore provide a wealth of new insights into human disease.

The China Study makes it clear that scientists and the public will need to fight hard to free nutrition studies and nutrition advice from the bias and control of vested interests but that the benefits of doing so would be enormous. Given the promise that a wholly, or almost wholly, plant-based diet holds for improved human health, not to mention the promise that a plant-based food system appears to have for improving the environment (e.g. Baroni et al., 2007), it is to be hoped that scientists and policy makers will find The China Study as compelling a read as individuals who wish to take responsibility for their own health.

1) Although not mentioned by the Campbells, such studies might also obscure links between dietary meat consumption and infectious disease. Byres et al (2008) have shown that a dietary sugar (Neu5Gc) incorporated into the surface of human cells is the binding target for Subtilase cytotoxin, a potent toxin produced by certain E. coli. Not only are animal products (particularly red meat and dairy) the dietary origin of the Neu5Gc found in human cells but animal products are also the main source of the disease organism.

Baroni et al. (2007) Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 61:279-286.

Byres et al. (2008) Incorporation of a non-human glycan mediates human susceptibility to a bacterial toxin. Nature 456:648-652.

ISBN: 1932100660, 978-1932100662 Publisher: Benbella Books (2004)

Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. Scott says:

    The biggest problem with the book is the confounding factors. The biggest confounding factor is the way those animals are now being raised. I do believe there is a significant lesson to be learned by this study, however I believe Campbell in his zeal to promote Vegetarianism overlooked a far more likely causality. Specifically he looked at changes in China based on increased animal product consumption but completely ignore the trend in China to “modernize” their agriculture to the western CAFO model at the same time.

    Many other confounding factors have been found by Denise Minger, but that statistical analysis by her is still limited by what the study tested! Everyone seems to want to dance around the real issue in my opinion.

    It is less an issue of eating plants or animals as it is a condemnation of the failure of modern agricultural models to provide a quality food product!

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