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Book Review: The China Study

Sandy Laurie | 05/15/06

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Reviewed by Sandy Laurie

One of the most eagerly anticipated books of recent years has been released and The China Study does not disappoint. Packed full of data from the most comprehensive study ever conducted of the relationships between nutrition and disease, this book is a must-read for anyone who is concerned about the downward spiral of health care quality and the upward spiral of health care costs.

But this is no barebones list of statistics. Dr. T. Colin Campbell offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of scientific investigation. The machinations of special interest groups both in government and the food industry are revealed and it soon becomes clear that real discovery depends not only on learning the facts, but being willing to see them.

In the 1960's, the established wisdom held that protein was the key to good health. Nutritionists nearly universally believed the American diet, which revolved around large servings of protein, was the best in the world. Dr. Campbell was no exception. He had grown up on a dairy farm and was convinced, as we all were, that milk was a perfect food. He was "on a trail to promote better health by advocating the consumption of more meat, milk, and eggs."

Then he went to the Philippines.

Philippine children were suffering from malnutrition at an alarming rate. Many died and many of those who had survived were undersized, blind or chronically ill. Researchers from Virginia Tech, including Dr. Campbell, were there to teach mothers how to feed their children a balanced diet using locally available foods. The centerpiece of this project was to develop a reliable source of protein and the most likely candidate seemed to be peanuts, which are easily grown nearly anywhere.

There was a nasty problem with peanuts, though. A considerable body of research had emerged showing peanuts were often contaminated with aflatoxin (AF), one of the most potent chemical carcinogens ever discovered. AF had been shown to cause liver cancer in rats, so before they could alleviate the heart-wrenching childhood malnutrition problem in the Philippines, they had to first resolve the problem of aflatoxin contamination.

They began simply enough by gathering the basic information. Who in the Philippines was consuming AF? And who was developing liver cancer? Since the best quality peanuts were commonly used for products eaten by the wealthy, a reasonable assumption was that the poorer quality, more mold-ridden peanuts eaten by the poor would mean a direct correlation between poverty and aflatoxin-caused liver cancer. But when they asked who was developing liver cancer, the answers revealed something unexpected and confounding: The expected correlation between poverty and aflatoxin-caused liver cancer did not seem to exist. In fact, those who were most likely to contract liver cancer were those eating diets richest in protein, the diets most nearly like "the best in the world." Children from the wealthiest, best-fed families were dying.

Around the same time, Dr. Campbell became aware of similar unexpected results in another study. In an experiment in India in which rats were fed AF and varying quantities of protein, 100% of the rats on the high protein diet developed liver cancer. None of the rats on the low protein diet did. Though his colleagues dismissed these results, certain they must be in error - perhaps even a simple reversal of the numbers - Dr. Campbell realized he was faced with an important decision. Should he take seriously the observations, both in his own research and in the Indian study, that protein increased cancer rates and run the risk of being thought a buffoon? Or should he turn his back on this disturbing development?

T. Colin Campbell was no fool. He was an established and well-respected member of the scientific community. He knew how entrenched the supposed superiority of protein as food was and the reception he was likely to get upon announcing it may be killing us rather than saving us. He'd worked hard to achieve his status in the community and wasn't eager to sacrifice it.

But it wasn't in him to turn his back on the story. Just as growing up on a farm had once prepared him to readily agree with the then-current dogma on protein, it had also instilled in him a great respect for independent thought and self-determination. This former dairy farmer wasn't much of one for following the lead bull just for the sake of being one of the herd. He initiated a program to conduct an in-depth investigation of the role of nutrition, particularly protein, in the development of cancer.

Dr. Campbell and his colleagues began cautiously, framing the research at the most basic level - the biochemical details of cancer formation. They were rigorous in their methodology and conservative in their interpretations. And the evidence began to pile up. By very carefully observing the best rules of scientific research, they were able to not only keep their reputations intact, but to be granted some of the most sought-after funding available. Their findings were clear: Protein encourages cancer growth. But not all proteins - it was specifically animal proteins that did the deed. The connection was so strong, they were able to turn cancer growth on and off by giving or withholding animal proteins. They did more studies, using more nutrients, animal and plant proteins, and the evidence continued to mount. Nutrition was a more influential factor in the growth of cancer than the carcinogens themselves were. Nutrients from animal-based foods increased tumor development while nutrients from plant-based foods decreased tumor development.

As consistently damning as the evidence was, there was still reason for caution. All these studies had been done on animals. Impressive though the data was for animals, there was no way to know for certain how much it would hold true for humans. Would the animal studies serve merely to explain a minor blip on the human health radar screen? Or would the same dramatic associations occur? There was only one way to find out. Dr. Campbell assembled a world-class scientific team from Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine. They were off to conduct what the New York Times would call "The Grand Prix of Epidemiology," The China Study.

China was the perfect laboratory for a massive and comprehensive study of the relationship between diet and health. In the early 1970's, the premier, Chou En Lai learned he was dying of cancer. He initiated a nationwide survey collecting data on death rates from twelve different types of cancer. The survey was monumental in scope. 880 million people, 2,400 counties, 650,000 workers. The end result was a color-coded atlas showing in detail where each type of cancer occurred in high numbers and where it was nearly nonexistent. The data showed something startling - although the vast majority of the people, 87%, were from the same ethnic group, the Han people, the variations in cancer incidence from one area to another were stark. The high incidence areas had more than 100 times as much cancer as the low incidence areas. Clearly there were very powerful environmental forces at work

Armed with this atlas, Dr. Campbell and his team built a detailed snapshot of the current state of affairs. They gathered data on 367 variables, comparing each variable with every other variable. They went to 65 different counties and did blood tests on 6,500 adults. They took urine samples and directly measured everything the families ate over a three-day period and analyzed food samples from markets around the country. By the time they were done, they had more than 8,000 statistically significant associations between lifestyle, diet, and disease variables.

As Dr. Campbell and his team began to report on the mountain of data they had accumulated, a buzz began to grow in the scientific community at large. The findings were clear, consistent, conclusive, and could not be ignored. People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease.

In the United States, we spend more money per capita on health care than any other nation on earth, yet we are failing miserably at staying healthy. Two thirds of us are overweight, half of us are taking drugs every week for one or more chronic health problems, 15 million of us have diabetes and despite new drugs and new treatments every other Wednesday, we are getting nowhere in the fight to prevent cancer and heart disease. Why is that so? Dr. Campbell says it comes down to three things: breakfast, lunch and dinner. The data from The China Study make that conclusion inarguable.

The recently updated guidelines set forth by the government for healthy diets come as close to saying "Go vegetarian" as an institution that intricately involved with the meat and dairy industries is likely to come. This is the perfect time to get the real information, untainted by ties to those special interest groups. Read The China Study yourself today. Then make a list of loved ones who need to take control of their health and give them a copy.



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