Although I’ve been vegetarian for many years, I’ve never stopped eating dairy products and had no expectation of being persuaded to become vegan. When Monika Hendry lent me The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas M. Campbell, I was determined not to give up another damned thing – first it was cigarettes, then meat, then alcohol: you’ve got to draw a line in the sand somewhere. But, oh dear, the further you get into the book, the more the evidence piles up that a whole foods, plant-based diet is extraordinarily effective in preventing, and even reversing, some major illnesses. Although none of the research carried out dealt with 100% vegan diets – they were usually diets with less than 10% of animal foods in them – the author himself believes that a full vegan diet would produce even more remarkable results.
The book title is a bit of a misnomer really, because the study referred to only takes up a relatively small part of the book, but the results of it were very impressive. A vast number of people in rural areas throughout China, ranging from the frozen north to the Gobi Desert to semi-tropical areas in the south, were studied over many years to see how diet and nutrition affects seven common cancers. There was overwhelming evidence that people who ate a whole foods, plant-based diet were much less likely to get cancer than those eating a large amount of animal protein. I’m not going into the details, but throughout the rest of the book he looks at how the same diet is associated with greatly reduced risk of heart disease, obesity, auto-immune diseases such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, common cancers, and a range of diseases affecting the brain, kidney, eye and bones. Reducing the risk is only half of the story, because the diet substantially reversed the effects of these diseases, even including some cancers. The diet is not a diet in the sense of The Atkins Diet, which he lambasts along with The South Beach Diet and, indeed, any of these diets which tinker with individual nutrients. He simply means eating whole foods with as great a variety of fruit and vegetables as possible, and as little processed food and animal products as possible. In other words, as close as you can get to a vegan diet, and you can eat as much as you want of it.
I found the evidence absolutely compelling, so why does this not get publicised more (the book was published in 2006)? Once again his reasoning was very persuasive, and actually seemed to parallel the kind of denial which we are witnessing with regard to climate change and the impossibility of continuing with economic growth on a finite planet. Too many people have got vested interests in the status quo: the whole medical establishment is geared towards drugs and surgery so there is an extensive network of financial rewards and career paths for those who enter the medical world. A highly trained surgeon who performs intricate bypass operations is not going to take kindly to someone showing evidence that it is much more efficacious to forget the bypass operation and put the patient on a diet of sprouts and broccoli. It’s also not a message that the drug companies want to hear, nor the meat and dairy industries.
There is also the problem of scientific reductionism. The majority of research that is done tries to isolate the effects of individual nutrients, (or genes), and this often has less convincing results because it doesn’t take the whole diet into account. It is rarely, if ever, a single nutrient that makes all the difference, but a combination of them. The holistic effect is what counts. This again is contrary to what science has been doing for some hundreds of years now.
Another major obstacle is the extent to which government and industry lie in bed together. As is so often the case, there are many examples of government officials leaving office to take up lucrative jobs and sinecures in industries that they were previously supposed to have been monitoring. Likewise, industry has a pernicious influence over government nutritional advice with Campbell citing outrageous guidelines laid down by the Food and Nutrition Board which might as well have been written by the sugar industry. Maybe it was! His conclusion is ‘that when it comes to health, government is not for the people; it is for the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of the people.’ This seems to me the way government works in all of its spheres of influence.
The litany of facts revealing the extent to which government and industry put profits way above any consideration of what is best for people’s health is deeply depressing, but an ever more familiar story. Nevertheless, the fact that there are people like Campbell who are brave enough to shine a light on what is really happening is both encouraging and motivational. I’ve already started to cut out some dairy products from my diet, especially cheese, which was more or less a daily necessity. I won’t be expecting others to cook vegan food for me if I am invited out for meals (not much chance of that), nor will I go out of my way to seek out vegan restaurants, but I will be cutting right back on my intake of dairy foods at home. There are other powerful reasons for doing this apart from considerations of health, but they are not the concern of this book. For me, reading this has been something of a revelation. I strongly recommend it to everyone.