Eat food, mostly plants, not too much. – Michael Pollan
I just spent the last several days reading the critique of T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, written by Denise Minger.
Earlier this week, I decided to revisit The China Study book for its references–in search of the “holy grail” of significant argument in science: peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals. As I am more fond of works of journalism (due in large part to the inaccessibility of prohibitively expensive scientific journals), I have amassed many books on a variety of nutritional subjects–written by people who have aggregated available data, on all sides of the nutritional debate. I did this in an effort to get a broad “macro” understanding of good nutrition.
But when faced with an extremely arrogant unhealthy fellow quite opposed to organic-pushing-yuppies, and refusing to read anything but peer-reviewed journals, I had no choice but to re-open The China Study and start looking through its references.
That’s when I wondered if anyone had finally criticized the book, as it had been years since I’d last wondered.
Many have suggested that I become a registered dietitian. Every time this is suggested, I think how that might be nice, but ultimately balk at the notion of studying the effects of isolated nutrients. Frankly, I don’t have the science background and wouldn’t want to go back to school just to go back to school.
And besides… I’m a fitness trainer–plain and simple. And while I could devote my attention to a PhD in kinesiology or something of the sort, it wouldn’t contribute very much to the job that I love, which has only a part to do with hard science, and the rest to do with lifestyle modification, motivation, behavioral psychology, nutrition, and goal-setting.
Thus, with a complete and utter lack of any scientific qualifications, I brave the field of nutrition, which is just about the most hotly debated subject ever. More than politics, more than religion. Criticizing what and how people eat is bold, because it tends to put to make people very defensive. After all, you are what you eat. Criticize how someone eats–you criticize what they are and what works for them (or at least what they think works for them).
That being said, my safest approach is broad in scope. First, eat. And read. And eat. And read some more. And eat. And read and read and read and eat and eat and eat. And after all of this, I still can’t be sure what an optimal diet will be.
Like any amateur blogger on nutrition, I’ve done it all: vegetarian, vegan, raw food, paleo, macrobiotic, Atkins, high protein, and more. Most fitness trainers experiment with diet as obsessively as diet-zealots. I’ll spare the back story. Suffice it to say, I’m like the rest of them.
I’ve read a lot of books. I’ve done a lot of research. My leg-work pales in comparison to Denise Minger (despite my own enthusiasm for the subject, and handful of years over her) and most definitely to T. Colin Campbell. But allow me to speak about them both.
Enter Denise Minger – A twenty-something, passionate, zealous independent researcher with no formal education in nutrition, statistics, and other relevant sciences. But I will be the last person to disregard her on such grounds, because I do not believe that knowledge and understanding is limited to formal credentials. She is clearly a bright and diligent person, and I know I will very much enjoy the rest of her blog’s content.
My first impressions of her were awe and curiosity, as she was making some compelling claims that I could not superficially dismiss with the knowledge I had. As I continued to read her blog, her About page, and finally, her bashing of The China Study, I was more turned off by her tone, her arrogance, and frenetic writing style. But that didn’t mean what she was saying was worthless. I was compelled by her arguments, like her many readers and fans. Like the majority of them (I can only assume), I lack the raw data of the China Study, as well as the tools to interpret it correctly. But even so, something felt wrong with her hard-line criticism.
My favorite books in nutrition happen to be Weston A. Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, and Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, by Paul Pritchford. It’s an eclectic mix of kind-of science, conventional science, and non-science. I’m a huge fan of the concept of not messing up food by hyper-processing it. All these books are in agreement there.
The discord in recent debate around nutrition comes from animal vs. plant-sourced food, and each of my favorite books has something different to say. Price is all for animal foods so long as they are nutrient-dense and indigenous. Campbell is highly suspect of animal foods, especially as a large percentage of diet, and prefers to abstain, but does not tell his readers to be vegan. And Pritchford has a strong preference towards plant-foods, with quite minimal levels of animal foods.
Having done it all, and always modifying my diet due to my very erratic lifestyle of travel and re-location and volunteering, I eat what I can get, and I’m a stickler for quality. I don’t tell my clients to be vegan. But I make gosh-darn sure to emphasize that animal foods should be kept at a minimum. It feels right. The conglomerate opinion of the material I’ve covered states the same thing. The common denominators are pretty consistent.
And this, I think, is the crux of T. Colin Campbell’s book, and was stated with great diplomacy in his response to her China Study bashing. He has many decades in the field and has read untold studies in nutrition, conferred with untold scientists, nutritionists, doctors, and more. Honestly, if I had to bank on anyone’s wealth of knowledge (irrespective of academic credentials), I’d bank on him. Frankly, if 23-year old Denise spent the next couple of years working 40 hours a week on the subject of nutrition, she still would only have scratched the surface of Campbell’s experience. Nothing teaches better than experience, with credentials or without.
The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, and you can read T. Colin Campbell’s admission that The China Study is the most comprehensive in its design, but its data alone do not provide all the answers.
I argue that causality in nutrition, as it relates to disease, will be impossible to prove except in the rarest of cases, which I cannot even imagine. Why?
Well… from a training standpoint, we don’t merely eat. We move, we live, we inundate ourselves in chemicals, we pollute our environments, we meditate, we do things. We do so many things–eat so many things–and do so many things to the things that we eat…
I know that some people respond to exercise differently than others. There are hard-gainers and easy-gainers. Stubborn fat, and elusive muscle. In my case, muscle that comes too readily, and fat that just stays put–vegan, raw, or not. It is amazing.
If people don’t respond uniformly to exercise, why should I expect them to respond uniformly to a diet? Some people take more, and some people take less.
Same with diet.
So I ask, what is the point, Ms. Minger, of your relentless efforts against T. Colin Campbell, when your diet closely resembles his “plant-based” recommendation? Campbell is a spokesperson for veganism, but neither his foundation nor his book go beyond “whole-food plant-based,” I think in order to differentiate from out-of-proportion (often poorly implemented) vegan dogma and idealism.
Ms. Minger can reference studies that demonstrate effects contrary to what Campbell is conveying. I can show you examples of fat people who don’t get skinny with lots of energy expenditure. That doesn’t mean cardio should be chucked out of the approach. It merely demonstrates the complexity of the subjects at hand.
The comments one her blog speak volumes. She’s created a community of semi-raw/paleo/Weston A. Pricers vehemently opposed to veganism, with scores of anecdotes stating how veganism made them sick, this and that and this.
Any diet can be applied poorly.
What I’ve learned in my time as a “tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist” is that a smart enough person can draw enough arrows to make a compelling case for anything. And Ms. Minger is a very smart chick. It’s clear. Campbell is also pretty smart.
If you look hard enough, you will find what you’re looking for.
Now, if you consider the sheer number of arrows pointing in favor of Campbell’s conclusions which are, namely, that even moderate consumption of animal-sourced foods and refined foods promote poor health in our time, there are a lot. I mean, a lot of them. He has quite a bit of science to back up his claims (although, considering the amount of data out there, much of it inevitably conflicts with itself), but more importantly, he has modern human populations and controlled clinic trials to reference as well.
Minger also has done her due diligence (again, not on the order of magnitude of Campbell and his associates–she’ll be nipping at their heels for years to come), especially with the raw data of the China Study itself. She, too, has been able to draw some compelling arrows in favor of her own conclusion which is… umm… that’s the thing. After spending days reading her blog and the comments and the counter arguments, and so forth, I wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to accomplish.
Was it that milk doesn’t kill people? That refined carbohydrates are equally guilty for poor health? That people who consume more animal-based foods also consume more refined foods, and it’s unfair to hyper-focus on animal protein? That Campbell should have controlled for other factors in his years-long analysis of the China Study data performed by himself and his assistants? She modifies her original post by stating that she wants to “highlight potential weaknesses” in the China Study.
She takes a list of statements made by Campbell and attempts to dissect them with the raw China Study data and supporting studies. In doing so, she draws a bunch of new arrows that point in an opposite direction.
But did she accomplish anything beyond giving animal-food-obsessed fans some reassurance that their foods won’t necessarily kill them? I don’t think so.
Let’s say that Minger got it right–that Campbell’s evidence is self-contradictory. The conclusions may not follow, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. After all, Minger herself eats the diet recommended by Campbell in The China Study.
Show me the clinical evidence of group of people following his dietary recommendations and dying from diseases of affluence. Show me. Do that, and I’ll be impressed.
T. Colin Campbell is a scientist. He is a lot of other things now, too. He’s a vegan spokesperson. He’s a marketer. He’s a teacher. He’s an author. His behavior in each of these roles must be taken in stride. But by no means should Ms. Minger smear his work to such an extent that she’s led many of her readers into thinking that he should be kicked out of the scientific community and that his recommendations are garbage. Some of the comments left on her blog were startling, to say the least.
The release of The China Study book was business and marketing. Authors are beholden to publishers. Publishers need to market books. Films need spokespeople. Messages get conveyed, re-conveyed, re-worded, and so on until the public can digest it in sound bytes.
The paleo movement so defensive of animal foods is currently what’s hot. I remember when raw was the headlining diet. I can’t help but feel like Ms. Minger’s aggressive criticism is more a product of her zealous defense of her own diet (inclusive of animal foods in limited amounts) than anything else. We can interpret data over and over again, control for that, omit this, include too much. But the bottom line is that a whole-foods plant-based (who said vegan?) diet, applied intelligently, works for a lot of people. This does not mean that paleo doesn’t work.
I will concede that Campbell pays a great deal of attention to the effects of animal-sourced food, and too little to the effects of refined carbohydrates and oils. Again, it does not make his recommendations wrong. We’re not talking about cause. We’re talking about association. If the ingestion of animal-sourced foods leads to the displacement of plant foods–if the chemical high we get from animal foods leads to an extra-chemical high from combining them with refined foods–his recommendations still hold.
And what do I think of Ms. Minger’s “raw food, plant-based, paleo-ish, Weston-A-Price style fusion?” I think it’s great. I mean, I don’t think it gets much better than that, especially if you are young and healthy and don’t have contraindications. But you cannot remove anything from its context. Would I eat that diet if I had cancer or kidney disease? Probably not.
T. Colin Campbell and company are addressing a nation of sick people in a polluted environment with a plant-based strategy demonstrated in risk–not causality. I believe their recommendations are safe and effective when applied intelligently. I believe, furthermore, that their recommendations are excellent in the context of industrial agriculture, environmental constraints, and negative externalities–as well as in the context of changing farm policy, swiftly reversing an obesity epidemic, and empowering consumers.
Don’t miss the forest for the trees, trying too hard to be right.