Tuesday, May 19, 2009

the china study

It's been a week since I finished reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas.  I think I am ready to write about this book now and how it has impacted me. This post is really long, but I hope you'll take the time to read it either now or soon. Forgive the dramatics, but I really do think it's important. Or if you don't want to read my thoughts, go buy the book!

First, I should give you some background on Dr. Campbell. He grew up on a dairy farm in northern Virginia and believed milk was "Nature's most perfect food". He was the first person in his family to go to college and went on to earn a master's and PhD from Cornell where his research focused on how to make cows and sheep grow faster. He then went on to study carcinogens and diet's effects on cancer. And of course, he lead the China Study. (I'll get to that in a bit.) He also sat on various government committees dealing with nutrition.  He is Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemsitry at Cornell University. He has received more than 70 grant years of research funding and has authored more than 300 research papers. Pretty impressive stuff. 

The title of "The China Study" is actually a little misleading (Campbell agrees--the publisher chooses titles) because the study is only one part of the book. Campbell also covers other research he did and the research of other scientists. 

After 40 years of scientific research, education and policy making as part of government committees, Dr. Campbell's conclusion basically comes down to this: if you want to be healthy and reduce your chances of chronic disease, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, just to name a few, you should eat a whole foods, plant-based diet. 

What does whole foods, plant-based diet mean? Eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes. Avoid processed food and sugar as much as possible and refrain from any animal products including meat, milk, and eggs. Sounds pretty simple, right? The first half of that is pretty much common sense these days. But the second part is also pretty radical for most of us who grew up eating the all American diet of meat and potatoes with a glass of milk. 

One of my favorite parts about Dr. Campbell's book is that he doesn't sensationalize his findings. This is NOT a diet book. He's not out to make a load of money. His motivations really seem to be quite pure. He just wants to share with the world how he feels we can be the most healthy after all his years of study and research. In fact he says he hopes this book can help to repay the tax-paying public who helped fund his research over the years of his long career. I love this quote from an article Dr. Campbell wrote in response to some criticism  of his book: "In effect, our research was conducted with an eye toward breadth, consistency, plausibility and, eventually, human health. It was not emphasizing the results of one experiment or one bit of data."

Although I wish I could summarize the whole book for you, I can't. This post would be entirely too long and no one would read it anyway. Really you should just go read the book. It is very well-written and extremely interesting, even if you have no desire whatsoever to give up your steak. The entire last section of the book is all about the "dark side" of science and how government, science, and industry all get blurred when it comes to diet and nutrition. Very interesting. I'm not going to get into that section here though. I'm just going to briefly summarize a few of his most convincing pieces of research. I hope you will go on to read the book in its entirety. 

One of Dr. Campbell's big research projects studied the effect of protein (specifically casein, the protein found in milk) on the growth of liver cancer in rats. First they gave the rats aflatoxin, a carcinogen that causes liver cancer. Then they fed the rats either a high protein (20%) or a low protein (5%) diet. The rats that received the high protein diet ALL got liver cancer, whereas the rats that had the low protein diet ALL did NOT. These results are pretty darn amazing. The researchers did several variations of the experiment, including feeding the rats soy protein. In that case the rats also did NOT get cancer. They would even adjust the levels of milk protein at different stages and found they could actually turn the cancer growth on and off based on the amount of milk protein they fed the rats! Other researchers found similar results when studying breast cancer in rats. Dr. Campbell concluded that there is something in milk protein that actually promotes cancer growth. Pretty startling conclusion if you ask me.

Next up-the China Study: Done in the 1980s the study has been called the "Grand Prix of epidemiology" by the New York Times. It was a massive survey of thousands of chinese citizens that effectively gave scientists a "snap shot" in time of diet, disease, habits, etc. Scientists were able to find more than 8000 statistically signifiant associations between lifestyle, diet and disease.

Obviously, Dr. Campbell didn't go into all of these associations and I can't cover even all the ones he did explain. But taking into account all the research and looking at the big picture, he reached the same conclusion: we can minimize our risk of contracting deadly diseases just by eating the right food. 

Dr. Campbell was so convinced that he stopped eating most meat and eventually gave up almost all animal-based foods. He says he is considerably more fit at age 70 than he was at age 25. He said: "This has all been done for health reasons, the result of my research findings telling me to wake up. From a boyhood of drinking at least two quarts of milk a day to an early professional career of scoffing at vegetarians, I have taken an unusual turn in life." 

I love how humble he is about it all. He didn't set out to prove that animal-based foods are bad. In fact it was quite the opposite--if anything he had a bias in favor of animal products. But he always remained open to the evidence and the science led him to conclude that the best way to eat is a whole foods, plant-based diet. 

The second section of the book covers various diseases that afflict us: heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and then he touches on few more. He spends time explaining the research on each of these diseases and how diet can prevent and even reverse them. It is very convincing. I have no doubt that we all have someone in our families who has suffered and/or died from heart disease or cancer. Obesity becomes a greater problem every year and diabetes rates are rising too. Isn't it amazing that just by changing the way we eat we could drastically reduce the number of people who are afflicted by these diseases? 

So what do we do? As I said, this is not a diet book. Dr. Campbell says he can state his philosophy in one sentence: "eat a whole foods, plant-based diet, while minimizing the consumption of refined foods, added salt and added fats." He also gives 8 principles of healthy eating.
  1. Nutrition represents the combined activities of countless food substances. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  2. Vitamin supplements are not a panacea for good health.
  3. There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants.
  4. 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. 
  5. Nutrition can substantially control the adverse effects of noxious chemicals.
  6. The same nutrition that prevents disease in its early stages (before diagnosis) can also halt or reverse disease in its later stages (after diagnosis). 
  7. Nutrition that is truly beneficial for one chronic disease will support health across the board.
  8. Good nutrition creates health in all areas of our existence. All parts are interconnected. 
One of my new favorite quotes is found on page 238: "The process of eating is perhaps the most intimate encounter we have with our world; it is a process in which what we eat becomes part of our body." 

Isn't that a beautiful thought? We truly are connected to our world. 

This book has profoundly affected me and how I view the food I eat. We already ate a mostly vegetarian diet, but now we are going to take that extra step and stop buying dairy as well. This doesn't mean that I will never eat ice cream again (no way!) but it does mean that we aren't going to always have it in the freezer. When at a friends house or a restaurant I'm not going to freak out about eating a little dairy or meat or what have you, but in our home we are no longer going to have those items. I have been eating A LOT of dairy and it was a big wake up call to learn that its not actually so good for me. 

An important point to make is that it is very possible to be a "junk food vegetarian/vegan".  This is NOT a good thing! You must eat whole foods as much as possible and eat a wide variety of foods to ensure you are getting proper nutrition. I'm currently reading the book Becoming Vegan which has a lot of very useful information (including chapters about pregnancy/lactation and kids) although it does get a bit overly complicated at times. If you have kids, I think it is even more important to do some reading about how to make sure your family is getting a varied enough diet. 

These are two cookbooks we purchased to help us branch out: Vegan Planet and How It All Vegan!

For more info on milk, I found this very interesting little article/quiz from RealAge.com: "Does Milk Really do a Body Good?" Definitely worth checking out.

And for fun...here is a recipe for coconut milk ice cream that I really want to try! yum!

And Jared just came home with some Coconut Bliss ice cream he bought at Whole Foods. One word: HEAVEN! 

I'd love to talk to anyone out there more about this, if you'd like. Feel free to leave comments and/or email me. 


  1. Great post angel! I so admire you for your courage and willingness to make such a fundamental change as switching to this diet. Changing your life in light of new knowledge--conversion, if you will--is one of the most courageous, noble, and admirable actions we can make. I believe that a change in diet is almost as fundamental as a change in religion. Your readers don't know how much you LOVE your cheese and milk. :) I was surprised and impressed that you initiated this, and am excited to see the differences this major change is going to make in our lives! I love you more.

  2. Fascinating post--when I got your Goodreads updates this morning, I added the book, so I was excited to see your review of it here.

    I think my major barrier to going vegan is feeling like cooking will be more of a chore rather than a joy, if that makes sense. I.e. I'm worried that it will become much harder to find recipes that everyone likes, recipes that are fun and interesting and challenging to cook, etc. I've been really disappointed in the vegan cookbooks I've tried so far, so I'll be interested to hear what you think about the ones you've just purchased.

    So are you working to replace dairy at all in terms of soy milk, etc.? Or just cutting it out entirely and not worrying about replacements? I think what would be hardest for me would be cheese. I really, really, really love cheese.

    But anyway, I'm planning to read this, and if you haven't yet, check out Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food: The Eater's Manifesto," which is along very similar lines. I seriously love that book.

  3. Well you absolutely convinced me to read the book. I've been waffling back and forth because I watched that documentary about pesticides and agriculture in America and it scared the living daylights out of me. I was worried this book would be more of the same, but I'm going to pick it up and read it. Thanks for the heads up!

  4. I LOVED reading this post and I am going to get that book. Thanks for taking the time to write this Katrina. For a long time I have felt torn on this issue. I feel really strongly that I would like to cut dairy and meat out of our diets as well. (And of course sugary, processed, junk.) But, I have a husband who has severe allergies to wheat, nuts, eggs and melons. (He also had allergies to dairy but grew out of it...lucky for us he already does not like cheese, milk, etc.) So, of course he has survived off of meat and potatoes his whole life. Meat is a huge part of his diet. And when we talk about cutting out meat he gets really upset. We compromised and cut out all meat except for lean, ground turkey.

    Anyways, all of that aside... I would really like to transition into this (with reason) but it is so hard to know where to start! You know what I mean? Especially in restaurants. How/what do you usually order when you go out to eat? How have you made this a part of your life?

    I think one of the biggest real-life eye-openers for me was reading Nie Nie Dialogues. I was always so inspiried by the way they ate as a family. And of course, after her plain crash, we all saw the enormous impact that her healthy diet had on saving her life.

    So, I know this is what I want to do. I know it's the right thing for me. But getting starting and making it a regular part of our lives...yikes!

    Thanks again.

  5. Sounds like a very interesting read! I'm curious if you've replaced dairy with soy products. If so, how do you feel about the recent literature that says the natural hormones in soy products are really not good for us, especially for boys? I often feel like we just can't win!

  6. that is really interesting research!! I don't know if I'm strong enough to give up meat and milk!! i just love them too much. I don't eat a ton of it (I think), but i don't know if I could give it up almost completely like he has. He's a brave soul!! ha ha :) Thanks for the summary on this book. It sounds like he has done a lot of good with his research!

  7. I think this book may be one of the recommended readings from the nutritionist at the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential (where I went to learn more about the Doman method). The Institutes recommend totally removing dairy from the diet. I'll have to double check to see if this is the book, but Campbell sounds familiar. I'd like to read it.

  8. I'm interested in reading this only because I have NEVER understood why someone would go vegan. I have a vegetarian cousin and his brother is vegan and I just don't get it. No honey??? That one just doesn't make sense. The whole thing sounds crazy to me, but since there seem to be more and more people getting on board with this, I should learn more about it. Josh's uncle that we live close to now has always shunned dairy. He loves the site: notmilk.com. We were just over at their place on mother's day and their daughter made dinner and bought "real" ice cream (he didn't eat it, but his wife did, she's not sold on it:). It sounds like a very very tough life, esp cooking, like Rach said, so I know you really must believe in it to change so much. I'm interested in learning more, but I'm just so un-motivated to! I'll think about it though step-by-step:). Keep us posted!

  9. PS--I'm very proud of you for making such a huge change because of something you believe in though, that's very commendable.