I originally wrote this book review for the Los Angeles Times in January, 2005, but since it has yet to run, I’ve decided to post it here.
The China Study
Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health
T. Colin Campbell
If you were offered a single pill that would prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and a host of other diseases, would you take it? What if you were told that instead of a pill, you could get the same results as a strict vegetarian?
That’s the premise of “The China Study” by Cornell University Prof. T. Colin Campbell, who spent 40 years studying why some humans develop so-called “diseases of affluence” while others don’t.
Now before all you beef-eaters run away, this is not a diet book but a hard look at why Americans have been growing fatter and more sickly when compared to the Chinese. The only eating tips that Campbell offers is to give up not just all meat and fish, but milk products as well and replace them with whole foods: grains, fruit and vegetables.
Despite the book’s name, Campbell incorporates dozens of other studies, not just the two China Studies he oversaw, to make his case. The research reveals that meat and milk proteins are the real carcinogen while animal products of all sorts are the source of high cholesterol, which in turn leads to heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Those in China who eat the most meat products have the greatest health problems, Campbell says. Those in China who eat the least amount of processed vegetables, fruit and grains, have the fewest affluence-related health problems.
Campbell takes particular aim at the low carbohydrate diet pushed by the late Dr. Robert C. Atkins. The Chinese eat several times the carbohydrate load of Americans and yet they remain thin, while meat slowly kills those who eat it.
What is particularly surprising is that diseases such as obesity, cancer and diabetes are not caused by genetics, but rather a change in the environment, according to Campbell. Chinese who start eating the American diet quickly develop the same health problems faced by Americans.
The science in “The China Study” is relatively easy to follow despite the book’s technical nature. Although there are virtually no anecdotes about individuals who partook in the studies, those about Campbell’s life – he grew up the son of a dairy farmer – help humanize his message.
And though in later chapter’s Campbell message flirts with becoming something of a rant, maybe his frustration is justified with drug companies that fund research, doctors who acknowledge the studies’ results but fail to act and food manufacturers that encourage children to eat an unhealthful diet.
Campbell reveals that attempts to get the lessons learned from “The China Study” out to the public were stymied by politics, corporate interests, cultural limitation, greed and ego. Later chapters, though, more deeply describe how corrupt the medical establishment has become from Campbell’s viewpoint.
“In the world of nutrition and health, scientists are not free to pursue their research wherever it leads,” he writes. “Coming to the ‘wrong’ conclusions, even through first-rate science, can damage your career. Trying to disseminate these ‘wrong’ conclusions to the public, for the sake of public health, can destroy your career.”
But Campbell keeps coming back to the same message that on virtually every level of health, a plant-based whole food diet is far superior than one with meat.