The China Study

picture of the book The China Study

The China Study was the largest, most comprehensive human nutrition study in history. The China Study was the culmination of a 20 year partnership between Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy Of Preventative Medicine. It is the legacy of Dr. T. Colin Campbell.

Dr. T Colin Campbell ( 1934 – ) grew up on a dairy farm in Northern Virginia. For about 50 years Dr. Campbell has been at the forefront of nutrition research. Dr. Campbell is a Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University. Dr. Campbell has received more than 70 grant years of peer reviewed research funding. He has authored more than 300 research papers and received the Research Achievement Award in 1998 from the American Institute of Cancer Research.

Dr. Campbell opens, his book, “The China Study” by telling us that the top killers of Americans are ( in descending order, page 16 ):

  1. Cardiovascular disease
  2. Cancer
  3. Medical Care
  4. Cerebrovascular Diseases (strokes)
  5. Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases
  6. Accidents
  7. Diabetes Mellitus
  8. Influenza and Pneumonia
  9. Alzheimer’s Disease

The population of the United States is about 300 million people. Out of those 300 million Americans 82% have at least 1 risk factor for heart disease. Over 280,000 Americans died from strokes, diabetes or Altzeimer’s Disease in the year 2000. During any given week 50% – 80% of Americans take at least one medication or one prescription drug. 65% of Americans are overweight and 31% of Americans are obese ( page 346 ).

People can’t be kept in a cages, so nutrition studies on human beings are both rare and valuable. They are incredibly valuable because animals are not people. What works/doesn’t work for common lab animals ( rats, rabbits, mice, etc..) often doesn’t/does work for human beings.

The China Study had the huge advantage of being done in China, where for the most part, even in the present day, people don’t move around much. They will live in the same area and eat the same diet for most of their lives. Composed of distinct cultures with different economic advantages, regional diets in China will vary greatly.

Dr. Campbell found that Chinese people who live in regions that eat diets similar to Americans die in much the same ways and numbers that Americans do.

Dr. Campbell also found that Chinese people who lived in regions where animal products are scarce ( i.e. 4 ounces of meat a day, 3 – 4 thin slices of cold cuts ) did not experience the terminal diseases that Americans do in anywhere near the same numbers. Even when attempting to adjust for physical activity.

The message of Dr. Campbell’s book, “The China Study”, is that if you want to avoid dying and more importantly suffering from, the list of diseases above eat a plant based diet of whole plant foods.

I like to read about nutrition, so the nuts and bolts of the book that other people might find interesting I did not and vice-versa.

The first thing I found interesting in this book, is the list of the top killers of Americans. I have seen that list many times over many years. Never with item number 3 on it. According to Dr. Campbell physician error, medication error, hospital borne infections and adverse events from drugs or surgery kill 225,400 Americans a year( page 15 ). Reads like a good argument for getting serious about preventative self health care doesn’t it? Exactly Dr. Campbell’s point

The other points I found interesting were in regards low carbohydrate diets. Many of the proponents of low carbohydrate diets have the near-conspiracy theory idea that low fat diets recommended by the scientific establishment only served to make American’s fatter. In Dr. Campbell’s own words ( page 95 ):

One of the fundamental arguments at the beginning of most low carbohydrate, high-protein diet books is that America has been wallowing in low-fat mania at the advice of experts for the past twenty years, but there is one inconvenient fact that is consistently ignored: according to a report summarizing government food statistics, “Americans consumed thirteen pounds more fats and oils per person in 1997 than in 1970, up from 52.6 to 65.6 pounds.” It is true that we have had a trend toward consuming fewer of our total calories as fat, when considered as a percentage, but that’s only because we have outpaced our gorging on fat by gorging on sugary junk food. Simply by looking at the numbers, anybody can see that America has not adopted the “low-fat” experiment– not by an stretch of the imagination.

In other words, Americans as a whole, were never on a low fat diet. Americans are fatter now because Americans have been eating more calories overall. Again, nothing new. You can read the same information in more detail in the August 2004 edition of The National Geographic (pages 46 – 61), “Why are Americans so fat” by Cathy Newman ( not quoted in this book ).

My primary complaint with this book is the title. A more accurate title would have been “What I have learned during my 50 year career of nutrition research”. The actual “China Study” takes up a chunk of the book, but only a chunk.

I would have enjoyed reading more about the actual “China Study”.

The bulk of the book is taken up by Dr. Campbell trying to demonstrate that the idea that animal products bring disease and that whole food plant based diets bring health is not a new scientific discovery. In fact, he claims it goes back at least 30 – 40 years.

Why haven’t you heard of this before? Well, that is the title of Part IV of his book, the last 92 pages or so.

Do not expect a typical hippie health food conspiracy theory rant about payoffs and evil plots. Dr. Campbell has been one of the top researchers in the U.S. for about half a century. Many of the scientists and officials he has criticism for he knows on a first name basis. Dr. Campbell gives the reader, instead, a very sophisticated account of how health information does not make it out to the average person and more importantly, how seemingly conflicting medical information ends up in the popular media. Reading this section of the book will give you a valuable perspective on how to view reports on any given study you might find in the news.

Since I waited so long to read this book, I have read many popular criticisms of it.

As a popular reader, I haven’t come across any critics with Dr. Campbell’s credentials, who have addressed a fraction of the over 730 references of this book, who have read all of his research or who are involved in the same research as he was. I’m not saying that such scholarly papers aren’t there, but that is not where I have seen the bulk of criticism coming from.

Some of the popular criticisms of this book are flat out ridiculous. For example, that Dr. Campbell wrote this book because he is a vegetarian and in league with animal rights activists. These “critics” have never read this book or they would have seen this quote (page 107 )

The results of this study, in addition to a mountain of supporting research, some of it my own and some of it from other scientists, convinced me to turn my dietary lifestyle around.

I stopped eating meat fifteen years ago, and I stopped eating almost all animal-based foods, including dairy, within the past six to eight years, except on very rare occasions. My cholesterol has dropped, even as I’ve aged; I am more physically fit now than when I was twenty-five; and I am forty-five pounds lighter now than I was when I was thirty years old. I am now at a ideal weight for my height.

Furthermore, Dr. Campbell describes animal experiments he conducted and defends those experiments. That is something of an anathema to almost every kind of animal rights ideology.

None of what Dr. Campbell has to say is all that new. A number of well credentialed experts over the years have been saying pretty much similar things. The entire book could be successfully condemned by the critics ( far from happening ) but the main message would still stand.

Eating a plant based diet of whole plant foods promotes health, eating a diet high in animal products brings disease.

I do think the book takes on too much and doesn’t walk the reader through enough tight conclusions. I think some parts of it could have been shorter without losing any information. I also think some parts were much too dense.

I do think from the perspective of the full content of this book, that this book is one of the most valuable books any American can read.

Putting the message into practice in your life can save your life and make you a happier person while you are living it.

This book is old enough to be in many library systems, as well as used book venues. The only thing to lose, besides early diminishing health, is a few afternoons of your time to read this book.

It is worth it.

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