Slowly the truth is emerging that diet is decisive to health. Out of a fog of deliberate confusion and fierce resistance put up by the food and pharmaceutical industries and their allies in government, academia and big medicine, the idea is winning support in the public mind, and a fundamentally new picture is becoming clear. That picture is that a diet centered on animal products — meat, dairy and eggs — is actually toxic and promotes all the main chronic diseases — cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes, obesity and autoimmune — that cause death in the United States and other industrialized countries.
The scientific evidence is overwhelming and has been assembled in “The China Study,” a marvelous, popular account by T. Colin Campbell, one of the world’s leading experts on nutrition and epidemiology, and his son, Thomas Campbell II. The book draws on Colin Campbell’s own lifelong research at Cornell University as well as his role as director of what has become known as The China Study — the most comprehensive nutritional study ever conducted, carried out in mainland China in the 1980s in conjunction with Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine.
Profits over health
In addition, the book surveys and summarizes the vast literature connecting diet with what the authors call “diseases of affluence.” It gives a prescription for a healthy, whole foods, plant-based diet and provides a devastating critique of the role of those with vested interests in the status quo who “are intentionally misleading the public.”
After years of testifying as an expert witness in Congress and serving on numerous official nutrition panels, Colin Campbell sadly concludes: “The entire system — government, science, medicine, industry and media — promotes profits over health, technology over food and confusion over clarity.”
A scientific look at diet
The China Study, which the New York Times called “The Grand Prix of Epidemiology,” was one of the first U.S.-Chinese collaborative efforts after diplomatic relations were established. It followed up on a massive Chinese survey of cancer death rates and other diseases in 2,400 Chinese counties. The survey found two very striking results — cancer was far less prevalent in China than in the U.S. and within China there were enormous geographic differences in its occurrence.
Given the genetic homogeneity of the Chinese population, these results cried out for a study of the environmental factors. An international team of experts was assembled with U.S., British and Chinese funding which studied 6,500 adults in 65 rural counties by conducting blood and urine tests and measuring dietary intake.
The experts found massive dietary differences between the U.S. and rural China. The Chinese diet has more calories, less fat, less protein, more fiber and much less animal foods.
All the chronic diseases afflicting Americans are far less prevalent in China. The death rate from cardiovascular disease, which kills 40 percent of Americans, for example, is seventeen times less in rural China and is virtually nonexistent in some counties. Blood cholesterol levels, one of the strongest predictors of heart disease as well as cancer, diabetes and other “Western diseases,” is far less than in the U.S. and far below the “safe levels” officially sanctioned in our country. It was further found that animal protein raises blood cholesterol even more than dietary fat and cholesterol, while plant-based foods and nutrients lower blood cholesterol.
More meat, more disease
While the “diseases of affluence” are far less prevalent in rural China, there were significant variations in different counties and higher incidence was closely connected with higher consumption of animal foods. That is, even a small amount of animal food consumption increased heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Otherwise, mortality in China is connected with “diseases of poverty,” such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, parasitic diseases and diseases of pregnancy, which are often associated with poor sanitary conditions and public health standards.
Initially published in 1990, the data in the China Study is the basis of ongoing research, but the overall implications are stunning: plant-based food is healthy; animal-based food is harmful. This becomes even more striking from the book’s survey of diet-related studies of all the “diseases of affluence.” The authors show that the same pattern can be found in all these diseases — cardiovascular; obesity; Type 2 (adult) diabetes; breast, colorectal and prostate cancer; autoimmune diseases, especially Type 1 (juvenile) diabetes and multiple sclerosis; osteoporosis; kidney stones; macular degeneration and cataracts; and Alzheimer’s and cognitive impairment disease. In every case the incidence and severity of the disease is linked to animal-based food, while plant-based diets prevent and in many cases reverse the disease.
“What has become so convincing about the effect of diet on health,” the authors write, “is the breadth of the evidence. While a single study might be found to support almost any idea under the sun, what are the chances that hundreds, even thousands, of different studies show a protective benefit of plant-based foods and/or harmful effects of animal-based foods for so many different diseases? We can’t say it’s due to coincidence, bad data, biased research, misinterpreted statistics or ‘playing with numbers.’ This has got to be the real deal.”
It’s about the human body
It seems to me that the human body, with its anatomy and physiology derived from plant-eating primates, is not equipped to process animal-based food. The book cites both experimental and epidemiological studies that give reasons why animal-based food, especially animal protein, is harmful. For example, animal protein is necessary for some carcinogens to be incorporated in human DNA, thus initiating various forms of cancer. Plant protein does not have this capability. If they eat a plant-based diet, people as well as laboratory animals exposed to even high levels of some potent carcinogens do not develop cancer.
Because it is similar to human protein, animal protein has the capability to set off autoimmune processes. This is the reason, the authors say, that Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis have been linked to consumption of cow’s milk.
Surprisingly, dairy products are also linked to osteoporosis. While milk is promoted as necessary for strong bones and teeth, in fact, the incidence of bone fractures is highest in precisely those countries, like the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia, where milk consumption is high. The reason seems to be that milk protein increases blood acidity causing the body to deplete bone calcium to neutralize the acid. Plant protein does not have this effect.
Alzheimer’s, cataracts and macular degeneration are linked to another harmful property of animal protein — the formation of highly reactive free radicals, while plants, which are often loaded with anti-oxidants, protect against this damage.
The conclusion is clear and simple. People should avoid eating animal products, while a whole foods plant-based diet prevents and in many cases reverses all the main chronic diseases.
Whole foods diet
The authors stress whole foods because as information linking plant foods to health has gained acceptance, a whole new industry of vitamin and other dietary supplements has sprung up with the message: continue eating the same diet, just add our supplements.
But, the authors stress, nutrition is inherently very complex and cannot be reduced to a few individual molecules. With the possible exception of vitamin B12, which is needed in extremely low amounts, every needed nutrient is present in ample amounts in ordinary plant-based nutrition. There are no nutrients in animal-based food, including protein, that are not better provided by plants. And while animal-centered diets are linked to many diseases, except for allergies, there are no known harmful effects of plant-based nutrition.
There is also a common belief that genetics is a big factor in chronic diseases, but the evidence from many sources shows that this can account for no more than a few percent of the cases. For example, Chinese and other Asians who immigrate to the U.S. continue their traditional diets and disease patterns. Their grandchildren with the same genetics, however, develop the same chronic diseases as other Americans as they adopt an animal-centered diet. The prominence of these diseases and their continued rapid growth in industrialized countries has occurred in far too short a time period to be explained by genetic changes in the population.
The food-drug industrial complex
The final section of the book lays out the politics of nutrition and exposes the shameless efforts of the food industry and its lackeys in government and academia to promote the toxic American diet as well as the efforts of the pharmaceutical and medical establishments to protect the dangerous but highly profitable reliance on drugs, devices and extremely expensive surgery to treat chronic disease.
Because of his professional connections and insider status, Colin Campbell is able to expose corrupt practices of some highly respected institutions including the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program, the Cleveland Clinic and the Federal Food and Nutrition Board.
Industry groups, such as Dairy Management, Inc., play a particularly harmful role. Like their counterparts in the tobacco industry, Dairy Management has a huge advertising and “educational” budget, much directed at schoolchildren, to create general acceptance of the idea that milk is wholesome, healthy and necessary for proper nutrition. “Obviously,” the authors write, “neither kids nor their parents are learning about how milk has been linked to Type 1 diabetes, prostate cancer, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis or other autoimmune diseases, and how casein, the main protein in dairy foods, has been shown to experimentally promote cancer and increase blood cholesterol and atherosclerotic plaque.” The current issue of Scientific American reports that milk is linked to yet another disease — autism.
Wielding political influence
The dairy as well as the candy industry have gained control over the federal Food and Nutrition Board, a group of supposedly objective academics, who set recommended daily allowances (RDAs) found on food labeling. After George W. Bush came to office, this board issued a new and radically different set of nutritional guidelines removing any reality from the upper limits to the amount of protein and added sugar that should be in the American diet. The new guideline issued in 2002 set an upper safe limit for protein intake at 35 percent and added sugar of 25 per cent of total calories. Even people on the high protein Atkins diet consume no more than 21 per cent of their calories as protein. Within the context of the U.S. diet, protein means animal food. You could eat a pound of steak every day and be within the federal safe upper limit.
Since there is no scientific evidence to support such high guidelines, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine got a court order exposing that the majority of the board’s members were on the payrolls of the dairy, candy and pharmaceutical industries.
The guidelines, however, stand and determine the food provided in federally funded nutrition programs, including the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Feeding Program, Child Nutrition Programs, such as the school lunch program, and Medicare-reimbursed meals in hospitals and nursing homes. Thus a toxic animal- and sugar-centered diet is being unloaded on tens of millions of school children and other poor and politically weak people in our country.
Campbell calls the report “an irresponsible and callous disregard for American citizens” and “the most sweeping, regressive nutrition policy I have ever seen [that] will indirectly or directly promote sickness among Americans for many years to come.”
The RDA guidelines are the basis for food nutrition labels as well as public and professional education programs. The authors note that there is very little nutrition education in U.S. medical schools and virtually no government funded research. Medical students are inundated with educational materials as well as trips, meals and other perks provided by the food and pharmaceutical industries.
Scandal at the Cleveland Clinic?
The book tells the story of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, one of the most respected physicians at the Cleveland Clinic, who in 1985 was the first to give a group of patients with advanced heart disease a strictly plant-based diet and was subsequently able to provide dramatic proof of arrest and reversal of the disease in every patient. Senior staff physicians and trustees have gone to Esselstyn for treatment, but the clinic has blocked his efforts to expand the program to the general public.
The clinic is world-renowned for intricate angioplasties and by-pass surgeries which usually cost $50,000-$100,000. Cardiologists readily acknowledge that these risky procedures provide only temporary relief of symptoms and in no way address the underlying disease of atherosclerotic plaque. The procedures, however, account for two-thirds of the clinic’s income.
Based on his 10-year cardiovascular health study, Lewis Kuller, professor of Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, states, “All males 65 years of age or older who have been exposed to the traditional Western diet have cardiovascular disease and should be treated as such.” But it is not just elderly males. Studies of U.S. soldiers killed in Korea and Vietnam, as well as of young civilians killed through accidents and homocide, found that heart disease was clearly evident in most American youth. Arterial plaque is ubiquitous.
So here we have a disease — clogging of the arteries — affecting nearly everyone in the United States, which is the leading cause of death, and a cure has been discovered at the Cleveland Clinic, which is being used by some of its top officials, but the clinic is trying to keep the news under wraps.
The book quotes one of the clinic’s trustees as saying, “I think, if the word gets out that Esselstyn has this treatment that arrests and reverses this disease at the Cleveland Clinic, and it’s been used by senior staff and he’s treated senior trustees, but he’s not permitted to treat the common herd, we could be open for a lawsuit.”
Esselstyn has recently published a book, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” and his discoveries have been confirmed and extended by others, including Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. John MacDougal.
Americans should have a choice
Many cardiologists are well aware that a plant-based diet can cure the disease and make the costly and dangerous angioplasty and bypass procedures unnecessary, but their argument is Americans will not change their diet.
This is highly questionable and at the very least untested as people who see doctors about heart problems are not given this alternative. If they were told they could avoid heart surgery by switching to a plant-based diet, it seems unlikely many would choose to have their chests cracked open, go through a six-month recovery, risk cardiac arrest and loss of cognitive abilities and still face the same risk of future problems since the underlying disease has not been addressed.
As health care costs skyrocket, driven by expensive drugs and procedures and inflated salaries of physicians, hospital administrators and insurance executives, a mass movement is growing among labor and the general public for national health care. As it turns out, another major form of relief may be something as simple and cheap as a plant-based diet.
Rick Nagin is the district organizer of the Communist Party of Ohio and has a Ph.D. in biology.