CounterPunch is popular because it addresses topics that are either largely ignored by the mainstream media or incorrectly written about. Herewith I present a topic even more avoided than CounterPunch’s choices: the strong correlation between animal protein and disease, discussed by nutrition researcher Colin Campbell in his new book, “Whole”. The subject may even make some of my fellow Counterpunch readers uncomfortable.
Colin Campbell’s research career in the field of Nutrition culminated in his China Study, the largest study of diet and nutrition ever made, which he (and son Tom) described in their 2005 book of the same name. His research identified animal protein–which includes all milk products–as being correlated with all the major diseases, and recommends a whole foods plant based (WFPB) diet as the best for human health. The China Study results were as conclusive as such research can provide.
Although it should follow that such findings are of the utmost importance, they have been basically ignored by the mainstream media, the medical and health communities, and even by scientists. Despite this, “The China Study” has been consistently popular with the general public and is one of Amazon’s 10 best sellers in the last 10 years. Nevertheless, the daily talk we hear about diet, nutrition, weight loss, etc. is pretty much a waste of time, and the phrase “good diet” has come to be meaningless.
Colin Campbell has now published a follow-up to “The China Study” entitled “Whole”, subtitled “Rethinking the Science of Nutrition”. Where “The China Study” told of his research results, “Whole” addresses the reasons why they have been ignored, and discusses this in the context of a number of areas, including the way doctoring and medical research are now being conducted. One can easily guess some of those reasons for his work being ignored: imagine the damage to the meat, dairy, medical, hospital, and pharmaceutical industries if the WFPB diet that he recommends were widely followed and there were, say, half as many cancer deaths each year. This is not a fanciful surmise; his research findings makes it easy to believe that a widespread following of his WFPB diet could lead to such results. Campbell’s and others research indicates that diet not only can prevent cancer and other major diseases but that it can reverse it. Such findings are not considered at all in the our medical treatments for health.
Another reason for the avoidance of serious discussion about his research can be summarized very simply by the story he tells of a talk he gave at an international scientific meeting in Korea on animal protein and cancer. After the talk, a colleague got up and said, “Colin, you’re taking away my favorite foods”. This explains in a nutshell perhaps the major reason for the resistance he faces.
There is far more discussed in “Whole” than the obvious, American marketplace reasons for his being ignored. Campbell goes into an in-depth discussion of the paradigms that prevail and direct not only how research is done, which shows how our thinking in all areas is controlled by the current paradigms of any given area. The two that he encountered early in his research (and that are still prevalent) are that protein is the key factor in our nutrition and that animals are the best source for it. His initial tasks thus involved countering those two entrenched beliefs; an uphill battle right from the start. Accepting paradigms is always an easy way out.
An even more important fact to be addressed in nutrition research is that it must necessarily be about the whole body, i.e. must be “wholistic”, whereas the basic approach to scientific research is reductionist. He explains reductionism best with the example of an elephant being examined by a group of scientists. Each one examines a specific part:, trunk,, tail, leg, etc. Large amounts of data are collected and a great many specific details are known about the elephant, but none of the scientists knows about the whole elephant. Although reductionism is a proper approach for some research undertakings, it is not the way to study nutrition. The question to be answered is: how does a recommended diet affect the whole body’s health? An example of the reductionist approach in our daily lives is the way our health problems are handled by our doctor. Doctoring today involves responding to specific symptoms with a drug that alleviates those symptoms. If that first drug causes unpleasant side effects or does not work a second one may be prescribed. At no time is the whole body’s health considered.
The drug industries’ dominant position in treating health problems gives them power to influence the way health research is conducted. It is mostly reductionist research–what drug will counteract a specific symptom of a specific disease–and it’s main goal is, of course, making a profit. Thoughts of disease prevention do not fit in. Cancer research today is basically involved with (money-making) cancer treatments; new chemotherapy drugs, radiation treatments, and surgical methods, and much of that research has its beginnings at the government’s largest place of research, the National Institutes of Health, which is funded by our tax dollars. There is intense competition for research dollars and the overwhelming portion, because of drug industry influence, is granted to reductionist endeavors. Nutrition’s portion of the NIH budget is around 2%.
A major competitor to adoption of the WFPB diet is the recently emerged supplement industry. It came into being around 30 years ago when the government came out with its recommended daily allowances (RDA) of vitamins. Immediately companies began extracting these vitamins from whole foods and publicizing their containing the needed RDAs. The negative effects of poor eating habits supposedly could be overcome with the proper vitamin pills.
Over two-thirds of American adults take vitamin supplements, which are a perfect example of reductionism. Specific “active” ingredients are identified, then extracted and provided for in pills. Rather than eating an apple, one can supposedly get its main components in a pill. There are lots of problems with that, the main one being that an apple contains far more–probably hundreds more–ingredients than those few that have been identified, and that multitude of items act together, holistically, to give us all the nutrition contained in an apple. Taking vitamins C and A as separate entities and assuming that this gives anything close to the nutrition from an apple is pretty absurd. But the supplement industry is firmly established and, despite the many scientific studies showing their products lack of worth, it continues unabated, with its heavy advertising and heavy profits. (Someone who might be bit suspicious of its claims might also think that, well, vitamins couldn’t hurt. That turns out not to be true, with many examples of illnesses from vitamin overdoses.)
Campbell’s basic recommendation of a WFPB diet is not only best for our health, leading to an enormous saving in the medical costs associated with the major diseases, but it presents the major way of addressing the protection of the environment. All the ills connected with raising livestock–its enormous requirements for fossil fuel, grain, and water and the resulting deforestation–make it a bigger danger to the environment than even driving cars. Al Gore’s documentary about saving the environment, “An Inconvenient Truth”, which featured such recommendations as using more efficient light bulbs, etc., conveniently left eliminating animal protein from the diet out of the suggested listing of solutions .
Campbell mentions a seemingly very positive meeting of environmentalists that he attended; everyone supposedly had the right outlook on how to protect the environment; biodegradable plates were used at the meal, etc. However, when it came to the eating part of the event, practically everyone was consuming a meat and dairy-laden meal. Somehow no one there had connected the problems of protecting the environment with cattle-raising, or if they did, their desire for meat overrode, at the time, their feelings for the environment. Things cannot get better that way.
Back to the real world after finishing the book. On a recently televised baseball game, a big sign behind home plate reads: “Support the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.” A fan wearing a tee-shirt with big writing: “Support Childhood Diabetes Research”. Who could not support that?
It’s a tough world, if you know too much.
Marvin Shapiro can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org