When I first perused this book I thought it might be boring, as he named each chapter with another version of reductionism. But I ended up reading it twice and taking notes.
T Colin Campbell is well known in the Whole Foods Plant Based eating community; in fact he invented the phrase in 1978 while he was on a cancer research grant review panel. He spent his life in nutrition research publishing 350 papers, most of which were peer reviewed and printed in prestigious scientific journals. He had 20 years of being on expert committees that evaluated and formulated national and international policies on food and health and determined which research should be funded.
I came away with a huge respect not only for the miraculous human body, but for a man who stepped outside the prevailing paradigm and stayed there. It wasn’t easy for someone from a dairy farm who went as a wide eyed scientist with the noble goal of ending childhood malnutrition in the Philippines to face the shocking fact that animal protein was the culprit in turning on cancer and that in this case it was the casein from milk. “I chose to follow this discovery everywhere it led me.”
When he submitted a paper saying that animal protein intake determined cancer development far more than the dose of chemical carcinogen, he had difficulty getting it published in Cancer Research. The reaction: “Colin, you’re talking about good food. Don’t take it away from us.” He had hit a sensitive nerve. He said, “Even rational, data-driven scientists could be sent into prolonged state of hysteria when presented with evidence that their favourite foods might be killing them.”
He is glad, and so should we be, that he doesn’t live in an era where heretics are burnt at the stake.
It was his research on an enzyme called MFO which converted him to wholism, because the scientific method itself had to be questioned. He says the battle between wholism and reductionism is unnecessary because there is no inherent conflict. “Wholism doesn’t oppose reductionism; rather it encompasses it.” He realised the enzyme doesn’t stand alone, it is an integral element of a larger system. When one part is altered, all the other parts are forced to adapt to try to keep the system running. “To reductionists nutrition is just the arithmetical sum of the individual parts”. An apple does a lot more inside out bodies than all the known apple nutrients ingested in pill form.
The various dogmas of our society include “calcium grows strong bones” and “Vitamin A is necessary for good eyesight.” It’s simply wrong to talk about a nutrient on its own as if it acted alone in a mechanical fashion. Nutrition is not a mathematical equation.
Campbell of course has huge respect for Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn, John McDougall, Neal Barnard and Alan Goldhamer who have done experiments comparing the effects of a diet high in animal protein with the effects of a WFPB diet. He describes Esselstyn’s results as “jaw-dropping, nothing comes close.”
Why doesn’t he say eat x gm of this nutrient and y gm of that?
That is reductionist. Firstly, the body knows how much to absorb of any mineral. Eat a carrot and the body can convert the beta-carotene in it to its most common metabolite, Vitamin A or into eight times as much Vitamin A. The body decides, according to what it needs. Our digestive processes are complex and unpredictable.
Secondly, foods vary. One peach may contain forty times more beta-carotene than another depending on the season and many other things. So we can have variation in foods as well as in nutrient absorption and utilisation.
Thirdly nutrients modify each other’s activities. Magnesium influences the effects of iron, manganese etc through the activities of hundreds of enzymes.
This explains how silly it is to megadose on nutrients isolated from whole foods.
The body has to keep every mineral and iron within a certain range, quite a narrow range in fact. Sodium has to be between 135-145 mol/L, magnesium 0.6 to 0.8 mol/L, chloride 340-370mg/dL etc And it does it without any thinking or directing from us!
So we don’t know the effects of a single agent on health because that’s not the way the body works.
His study of one enzyme was what converted him to wholism. He found that an enzyme called MFO could act either as a cancer fighting machine or as something that produced carcinogenic by-products. When we eat the right foods, MFO moves towards homeostasis. When we don’t it contributes to disease. And MFO is just one of the 100,000 or more enzymes that contribute to the function of the human body. “Nutrients don’t follow a single predictable pathway; rather after they enter the trillions of cells in our bodies.” They can branch out into multiple pathways of metabolites.
He is stunned by the brilliant ways our enzymes work using minimal energy and describes the system as “a symphony extraordinaire”.
So as a nutritional scientist he teaches us how complex and intelligent the body is.
When it comes to genetics and foods he says the foods we eat and the nutrition they provide is far more important in determining cancer than our genetic backgrounds. “When people migrate from one country to another they acquire the cancer rate of the country to which they move, despite the facts their genes remain the same.”
Then comes his astonishing statement. “At least 80-90 percent and probably closer to 97-98% of all cancers are related to diet and lifestyle, not to genes.” Digest that one if you will. The current common figure is about 30 percent.
No wonder he said he was not a popular figure in the cancer research community, one which is focussed on discovering the chemical carcinogens that cause cancer. He threatened jobs, careers and structure.
There are three sentences I learnt by heart. “We live in a world where carcinogenic mutations abound, many of them from natural sources like the sun, viruses and moulds. You can’t avoid these carcinogens or the mutations they produce. The more effective method of prevention is to address what determines whether or not these mutations progress into cancer: nutrition.”
This all fits perfectly with the first page of Dr William Li’s book Eat to Beat Disease.
Li is the co-founder of the Angiogenesis Foundation. Angiogenesis is the process our bodies use to grow and maintain blood vessels. He explains that in autopsy studies on individuals who had never been diagnosed with cancer, almost 40 percent of women between forty and fifty had microscopic tumours in their breasts and almost 100 percent of people over the age of seventy had microscopic cancers in the thyroid gland. “Up to ten thousand mistakes occur in the DNA of dividing cells in your body every day, making the formation of cancers not only common but inevitable. And yet these microscopic cancers are completely harmless.” He then goes on to say the body starves them of the blood and nutrients they need to grow and you can optimise this defence system through the foods you eat.
When it comes to supplementation the same logic applies – you can’t expect chemicals ripped from their natural context are as good or better than whole foods. But the natural health community has fallen prey to this ideology.
Dr Rui Hai Liu, a Chinese researcher found that 100 gm of fresh apple had an anti-oxidant Vitamin C-like activity equivalent to 1500 mg of Vitamin C. Yet that 100 gm when analysed had only 5.7mg of Vitamin C. The Vitamin C-like activity was 263 times as potent as the same amount of isolated Vitamin C. “Take a Vitamin C pill and we miss out on the cast of supporting characters that may give Vitamin C its potency – Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, copper, niacin, magnesium, potassium, dietary fibre, quercetin, catechin, phlorizin and cholorogenic acid. There are hundreds if not thousands of chemicals in apples each of which in turn may affect thousands of reactions and metabolic systems.”
He cites studies showing supplementation with Vitamin E being useless because it acts in conjunction with selenium, some amino acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. On omega 3 he says 89 studies were summarised and concluded that omega 3 fats do not have a clear effect on total mortality. And a 15 year study with 200,000 people found it increased the risk of type 2 diabetes with a dose related response. A study on beta-carotene supplement had to be terminated early due to increased risk of death. But nutrients are great in food.
He claims we have reductionist social policy too. “We know that polluting rivers and streams is bad but polluting our own bodies is OK, as if what we eat has no impact on the rest of the environment…Our high consumption of animal based foods contributes to environmental problems like soil loss, groundwater contamination, deforestation, fossil fuel use and depletion of deep aquifers.”
- The last section deals with understanding the system. As there is no money to be made for drug companies, the medical industry or the supplement industry by funding research on the benefits of eating plant based foods, the system is rigged to fund reductionist research for drugs. “You can’t patent a recommendation to eat lots of fruit, veggies, nuts and whole grains.” There’s a lot of money to be made in cancer treatment. “Most researchers in the field not only fail to acknowledge nutrition as a means to create and restore health but also refuse to even become curious about its possibilities.”
The majority of total health research, basic and applied, is funded by the pharmaceutical industries or by agencies beholden to it. The author is horrified that there is no institute or centre of the NIH devoted to nutrition. Even the word epigenetic implies that genetics is primary and nutrition is a subdiscipline of it or even irrelevant. His personal stories make sad reading e.g. JAMA didn’t ever publish a single letter that was written to the editor criticising a published study on the effect of four different diets on obesity in women, despite the fact that Dean Ornish’s diet had been misrepresented. He says the Atkins Foundation is the propaganda arm of a billion dollar business.
Reading of his series of disappointments with medical journals, print media and television, I can only applaud the current policy of the WFPB community to record their seminars on video and put them up on YouTube and Facebook. Thanks heavens for the internet.
He talks of industry lobbyists writing and editing legislation and regulations for grateful understaffed legislators and agency head. He has had bitter experiences with high ranking government decision makers who privately say his views on nutrition and health should be public policy, yet who will be punished by the political system if they do. The message to eat more veggies, drink fewer sodas and choose leaner cuts of meat is woefully inadequate and has no impact.
On RDIs (Recommended Daily Intake) they have long been biased on the high side to the point where they encourage the consumption of animal based foods. The calcium recommendation for US (1200 to 1300 mg/day) considerably exceeds the intake in countries that consume no dairy and less calcium (400-600mg/day) but experience a lower rate of osteoporosis. The RDI for Vit B2 or riboflavin is also high.
But the protein story is worse. “The RDI for protein has for decades been 10-11 percent of calories, which is already more than enough (the average amount consumed on a WFPB diet).” In 2002, the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences (FNB) concluded, based on no credible evidence, that we can consume protein up to an astounding 35 percent of calories without health risk – a number three times the longstanding RDI! At the time of the report, the director of the FNB was a major dairy consultant, and six out of eleven members of a companion policy committee also had well-hidden dairy industry ties. Dairy groups even helped to fund the report itself.”
Regarding daily fat recommendations, he was on a National Academy of Health panel himself in 1982. Although they wanted to reduce the fat recommendations to 20% of calories, the panel worried about the political palatability of an honest dietary fat recommendation that would have doomed their report to oblivion. So they chose 30 percent, a figure that remained part of the public narrative for many years –and the Atkins enthusiasts loved it.
Discussing organisations and their influence, he focusses on the American Cancer Society, the MS Society and AND (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) and paints a grim picture when it comes to their recommendations or their funding of nutrition research. He says the junk food industry contributes to the ACS and it is cosy with cattle barons. AND serves dieticians, schools, hospitals, day-care centres, government agencies and the public, but donors include Coca Cola, the National Dairy Council, Kelloggs, Mars, Pepsi cola and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. AND controls the course content for dietitians.
In his final chapter he says our society believes so passionately in the health value of milk and meat that it is hard for us to conceive we might be wrong. His study of four specific nutrients led him to understand that any one of them could substantially change the activities of the other three and hence his awe of the complexity of nutrition. “The way our bodies create and maintain health is the result of millions of years of evolution – not just of the functional systems, or even the entire body, you of the body as a part of the food web and all of nature.” He concludes that enacting change from the top down doesn’t work. “Eat whole, plant based foods, with little or no added pit, salt or refined carbohydrates. The crucial shift will happen one person at a time.”