years ago a small Texas publisher released an obscure book written by a
father-son research team. The work, based on a series of studies conducted in
rural China and Taiwan, challenged the conventional wisdom about health and
nutrition by espousing the benefits of a plant-based diet.
surprise, the book, called The China Study, has since sold 500,000 copies,
making it one of the countrys best-selling nutrition titles. The book focuses
on the knowledge gained from the China Study, a 20-year partnership of Cornell
University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine
that showed high consumption of animal-based foods is associated with more
chronic disease, while those who ate primarily a plant-based diet were the
Last fall, former President Bill Clinton even cited the book
in explaining how he lost 24 pounds by converting to a plant-based diet in hopes
of improving his heart health. The president gave up dairy, switching to almond
milk, and says he lives primarily on beans and other legumes, vegetables and
fruit, although he will, on rare occasions, eat fish.
Recently, I spoke
with T. Colin Campbell, a co-author of the book and professor emeritus at
Cornell University, about the success of the book, the research behind it, and
why he thinks the nations health woes can be solved by plant-based eating.
Heres our conversation.
Q. How did you end up writing this
A. I have been in the field for a long time and had a major
research program at Cornell. We published a lot of research over the years. My
program had a good reputation. Id finally gotten to a point where wed
discovered a lot of things that were very exciting, things that were
provocative. Finally I sat down to write the book, to tell my
Q. What was so unusual about your story?
A. In the
beginning of my career I was teaching nutrition in a very classical sense.
Nutrient by nutrient. Thats the way we did research, thats the way I taught
it. I came to believe, after doing the work we did in the Philippines and China,
that there was a very different world of understanding nutrition. I ended up
with a view now that is almost diametrically opposed to what I had when I
started my career.
Q. How have your views changed?
A. I was
raised on a dairy farm. I milked cows. I went away to graduate school at Cornell
University, and I thought the good old American diet is the best there is. The
more dairy, meat and eggs we consumed, the better. The early part of my career
was focused on protein, protein, protein. It was supposed to solve the worlds
ills. But when we started doing our research, we found that when we start
consuming protein in excess of the amount we need, it elevates blood cholesterol
and atherosclerosis and creates other problems.
The problem is that we
study one nutrient out of context. Thats the way we did research one vitamin
at a time, one mineral, one fat. It was always in a reductionist, narrowly
focused way. But I learned that protein is not quite what we thought it was.
Weve distorted our diet seriously through the ages, and we have all the
problems we have because of that distortion.
What loomed large for me was
that we shouldnt be thinking in a linear way that A causes B. We should be
thinking about how things work together. Its a very complex biological system.
The body is always trying to restore health every microsecond of our lives. How
do we furnish the resources for the body to use? In order to try to understand
that, we shouldnt be giving ourselves individual nutrient supplements. We
shouldnt be trying to discover which gene causes what. But those two areas have
become the major focus of research over the years.
Q. So how should we
A. I dont use the word vegan or vegetarian. I dont
like those words. People who chose to eat that way chose to because of
ideological reasons. I dont 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
The idea is that we should be consuming whole foods. We should not be
relying on the idea that genes are determinants of our health. We should not be
relying on the idea that nutrient supplementation is the way to get nutrition,
because its not. Im talking about whole, plant-based foods. The effect it
produces is broad for treatment and prevention of a wide variety of ailments,
from cancer to heart disease to diabetes.
Q. Do you advocate a 100
percent plant-based diet?
A. We eat that way, meaning my family, our
five grown children and five grandchildren. We all eat this way now. I say the
closer we get to a plant-based diet the healthier we are going to
Its not because we have data to show that 100 percent plant-based
eating is better than 95 percent. But if someone has been diagnosed with cancer
or heart disease, its smart to go ahead and do the whole thing. If I start
saying you can have a little of this, a little of that, it allows them to
deviate off course. Our taste preferences change. We tend to choose the foods we
become accustomed to, and in part because we become addicted to them, dietary
fat in particular.
If we go to a plant-based diet, at first it might be
difficult, but it turns out after a month or two our taste preferences change
and we discover new tastes and feel a lot better, and we dont want to go back.
Its not a religion with me, its just that the closer we get to a 100 percent
plant-based diet, the better off were going to be.
Q. Have you been
surprised by the success of your book?
A. I have been a little
surprised. When I finished writing the book with my son, who had just finished
medical school, I didnt know how well it was going to do. We had an agent who
shopped the manuscript around, and the publishers all wanted 60 to 70 percent of
the pages to be recipes. I said, Thats not my shtick. They wanted me to dumb
I went to a small publisher in Texas who let us do what we
wanted to do. I didnt want to proselytize and preach. I didnt want to write a
book that says, This is the way it has to be. Its a chronology. Heres how I
learned it, and let the reader decide. I say, If you dont believe me, just try
it. They do, and they get results. And then they tell everybody
Live Simply So That Others May Simply
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